Posts Tagged ‘ronald colman’


Dear friends and readers,

When Izzy and I arrived at our local better cinema and saw to get into one of the movies we had to join onto a long line thick with people, I was startled to find this was for Saving Mr Banks! which in the trailers had been represented as about a crabby old maid schoolteacher type giving the warm and wonderful Walt Disney a hard time, rejecting his of course charming Disneyland. We had assumed it was for The Hobbit.

I figured and still think that the 4 full Mary Poppins books are not widely read, but liked by a sub-group of reading girls, Anglophilic, with an unusual penchant for implicit meanings and respect for the old-fashioned values of decorum, titillated by strictness. I liked the 1964 Mary Poppins musical, but know it is wildly disparate from Travers’s books. (See my blog on Pamela Lyndon Travers, woman writer of children’s books.)

As we stood there and saw the line grow past us and out the door into the cold, I reminded myself the new film, Saving Mr Banks, did have big-name stars with strong talent (Emma Thompson as PL, Tom Hanks as Walt); was a Disney film and thus guaranteed-to-be-wholesome film, and of course would be connected to the 1964 Mary Poppins film, which perhaps had made a very distorted view of the original character into a household icon.

I’m writing this blog because I’ve since discovered that in more popularly oriented movie-houses parents had brought children (not what the crowd at this art house does) and overtly removed these kiddies from the unexpectedly unsuitable material. That means the hum and buzz is giving a wrong impression of what this film is about and is largely responsible for the big audiences; the few thoughtful reviews concentrate on how the film misrepresents the final outcome of the strong conflicts between Travers and Disney over the nature, mood, characteristics and specifics of the 1964 Mary Poppins film: in the film she relents mostly and is deeply moved by the film insofar as it reflects the autobiograpical sources of her books; in reality; she hated the film.. But see Caitlin Flannagan’s Becoming Mary Poppins.

Promotional shot at the premier to which Travers had not been invited lest she convey her sharp disapproval: the photo shows she disguised her feelings that night

What’s been left out from accounts is more than 50% of Saving Mr Banks‘s matter: P.L. Travers’s childhood in Australia; few stills of Ruth Wilson as Mrs Hof, Colin Farrell as Mr Hof (the original we are told of Mr Banks in the books), and hardly any retelling of how Mr Hof is first responsible for moving his family from the comparative respectability and comfort of an upper middle class home in a citified area of Australia (New South Wales? Queensland?) into the hinterlands (called Allora in the film, perhaps central or western Australia) where he proceeded to become a thorough alcoholic and failure as a bank manager (someone who could not cope with the stress, repression, hard commercialism of any money-making occupation). We see him humiliate himself and family in a scene on a public stage, fall to the ground and slowly die of TB and delirium tremens. At one point Mrs Hof tries to kill herself by drowning. The child, Helen, called Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) by her father, who since renamed herself Pamela and then PL (Lyndon a middle name) is totally involved, worshipping and feeling for her father,


trying to save her mother. A sister turns up to help them, dressed in the film like Mary Poppins in the book with a little of her outward sternness.

This does explain to me for the first time the strange turn the 1964 Mary Poppins takes: Mr Banks risks losing his job by refusing to give all his time to his work when he is made to realize he is neglecting his family; he refuses to yield to pressure and insists on going to fly a kite at the film’s end, when of course he is forgiven and hired back by the bank’s aged boss: Dick Van Dyke played this role as well as Bert, the match man, made in the film a lover-suitor for Mary Poppins, while in the books this is only hinted at, slightly and sometimes denied. There is no such story in any of the four MP books written by 1964 (MP, MP Comes Back, MP in the Park, MP opens the door). It is a much bowdlerized version of Travers’s father’s behavior. In life he did not die of TB either, but influenza; the real Mrs Hof had connections with powerful whites in Australia (and her sister had money).

Saving Mr Banks then may be said to inject back into the books the self-reflexive deeper material compelling the writer’s creation of Mary Poppins as a kind of strange savior of the family: the strangeness is in the way she does this: in adventure after adventure the children find themselves suddenly in another realm of reality, often connected to the zodiac or stars in the sky, the sun, sometimes natural worlds in a green park. Sometimes the figures met there are bullies, mean, or downtrodden and wanting and in need of affection. Mary is called upon to fix a situation, she does and she is worshipped there as a good kind all powerful woman (not the stern cold governess-figure she seems to be to outsiders), and each time the children return to Cherry Tree Lane somehow rejuvenated.

None of the above gets into the 1964 Mary Poppins except the passage to another idyllic place (pastoral and filled with penguins and animated figures) through Bert’s chalk sidewalk pictures (something that does happen in one of the four books’ adventures). Some does get into this 2013 Saving Mr Banks: the outward stern, cold, fussy, dominatrix feel of Ms Travers or Pamela as played superbly well by Emma Thompson is modeled partly on the book’s Mary Poppins. Thompson also conveys non-caricatured hurt, quiet moments of self-doubt, disquiet, with gestures that at moments reminded me of her most magnificent performance in Wit.


The advertisements for the film emphasize the relationship of Travers and Disney (much idealized, and played more subtly than at first appears by Tom Hanks):


Some of the Saving Mr Banks‘s worst moments come out in this strand: Walt’s long preachy speech to Pamela (he insists on a first-name basis right away) about how everyone can have or do what they want if only they try or work hard enough (a popular rightist American myth — Disney was an arch-reactionary it is true). (See Slate article on this meeting where she agreed to go along with the film.) Thompson’s imitation of a wry whose guardedness isolates her and accounts for how unhappy she makes herself (message: socializing is the most important thing to do well in life).


The strand in Saving Mr Banks which tells the story of Travers’s strong reluctance to give over the rights to Disney, her fights with the creative song-writers, Richard and Robert Sherman (David Schwartzman and D. J. Novak) and script writer, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) are part of the finer threads in the film: we see them inventing and singing some of the better and still well-known numbers from the 1964 film — which as a song-and-dance musical is marvelous (especially where Van Dyke dances with a chorus of men and with Julie Andrews up a stairway into the sky).


I felt nostalgia for the film as these were sketched out by the creators, and Thompson-as-Travers’s disapproval added a piquant sauce to the mix. I remember how Izzy loved the film as a child. She has read at least a couple of the books.

The best companionable feeling in the Saving Mr Banks derives from Thompson as P.L. Travers’ relationship with Paul Giamatti as Ralph, her driver. He is the on-going person we see her with; at the first she bullies him and mocks his efforts at ingratiation and talk about the sunny weather, but eventually she comes to depend on him, especially when she has no invitation to the premier and he drives her there and provides her with support.

Driving Ms Travers

The most natural moment of friendship occurs when she is leaving L.A. after having rejected the script when she discovers it will have animated figures (she had been promised it would not) doing inanely silly gestures with clothes. She is seen sitting in the grass deeply distressed to think of what is happening to her story, and the driver comes over and they talk. Here she learns of his disabled daughter at home; I have read that disabled figures are figuring more in mainstream films, and Thompson as Travers is several times rebuked for her demands for formality by stories of the hardships others experienced in life as if precise manners must be an indication of obtuse snobbishness.

As she and her driver bid adieu, she addresses him as Ralph (his first name) and he addresses her as Pamela. Throughout the film her formal or more old-fashioned approach to life is seen in her discomfort in being required to start relationships on a first name basis immediately. I understand that as that is the way it was when I was a child. It’s not snobbishness; it’s a way of making some relationships more special and acknowledging intimacy that’s real. She is followed by Disney to England and he preaches his preachy-speech of his hardships in life, his father, and voila she is convinced — having liked “Let’s go fly a kite” and the depiction of Mr Banks in the film (by David Tomlinson).

Often the best parts of films don’t make it anywhere near the trailer, but this time they are also failing to get into the reviews — perhaps deliberately? Makers and critics of films like to see what is not discussably in the open brought out visually and through story but themselves in the case of expected popular audiences not risk going into tabooed matter.

Saving Mr Banks‘s script is by two women: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith. I wondered if they had loved the Mary Poppins books, and wrote this movie in tribute to P.L. with a view of doing some justice to her and revealing some of the deeper explicable sources of the books.

I am interested in Australian literature, which I now see the Mary Poppins books belong to, and am tempted to buy one of the biographies of P.L. Travers. Patricia Deemers’s Twayne book may be the sensible one, but Valerie Lawson’s look like the writing of someone deeply engaged by the author and her books. Out of the Sky She Came: The Life of P.L. Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins. The sky provides the highest moments in the books and the 1964 film; this more sceptical disillusioned film (when it’s at its best) makes the sky the place planes fly across, but from time to time a sky is filmed, blue, with lovely clouds, as symbols of the books’ visions.

Bert and Mary looking up into the sky (1964 Mary Poppins)


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Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, said to be his favorite role

Dear all,

Last week I managed to watch a digitally restored, almost complete (137 minutes) version of the once famous 1937 Lost Horizon, directed by Frank Capra, screenplay Robert Riskin from James Hilton’s 1933 utopian/dystopian novel of the same name, starring Ronald Colman as Robert Conway, supported by Thomas Mitchell, Gloria Stone, Jane Wyatt, Sam Jaffe, John Howard, and Edward Everett Horton, together with about an hour and one half of features on the film (history of the cuts, how it was put together, how it has been restored). This weekend I went onto the 1942 WW2 film, Random Harvest, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, screenplay Claudine West, George Froeschel and Arthur Wimperis, again from a James Hilton novel (1941) of the same name, starring (once again) Ronald Colman as Smithy/Charles Ranier, and supported basically by Greer Garson as Paula Ridgeway/Paula Hanson. I’d decided since rewatching Colman’s The Talk of the Town and recreating my blog-review of it, that I’d try to go on to watch more movies closely associated with Colman. I’m hoping to go on to re-see his The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), and watch for the first time The Light that Failed (1939), and A Double Life (1947).

Colman as John Arthur with Shelley Winter in A Double Life (for which he won an Oscar)

When I was about 13 I would tell anyone who asked me, “Who is your favorite actor?”, “Why, Ronald Colman, of course.” If the person was someone who watched old movies on Channel 9, there was a chance he or she might have heard of Colman, but since most people I talked to were not the types who watched such movies (they would be people around my age), they’d look at me as if I were mad. Once in a while I was asked politely who Ronald Colman was. Their favorite actor would be a teenage or 20+ year old rock star (Fabian?), or omeone they just saw in an action-adventure or Peyton Place kind of movie, or was famous that year on TV.

Why did I like Colman? My father said I was drawn to the dignified noble gentleman, that it was an aspect of my love of British novels, tendency to idealize; until I watched these two films with some thoughtfulness, and began reading two books I have had in the house for ever so long and only just now really gave myself a chance to read (R. Dixon Smith’s Ronald Colman, Gentleman of the Cinema: A biography and filmography; and Sam Frank’s Ronald Colman: A bio-bibliography), I thought my father was right, only that he left out my Anglophilia and love of Colman’s sort of melancholy wit, ironic stance towards life, and distinctive resonant voice.

Well I did and do like all that. Certainly that’s the central presence he enacts in the comic Talk of the Town, and (as I recall) the romantic action-adventure Prisoner of Zenda, with (in TofTT) some strong tolerant disillusion, and (PofZ), dashing debonair heroisms & chivalry in swordplay and jumping from one height to another (with Douglas Fairbanks Junior) thrown in.

Colman as Rudolf Rudolph Rassendyll in The Prisoner of Zenda

But now I know that’s not what draws me. What draws me is his repeated enactments of levels of melancholy, despair, enactment of mentally unstable personalities, who turn to alcohol and retreat, find refuge in private worlds we are given no access to. This does not provide the real explanation for why he never became a prevailing male icon in the way of James Cagney, Humphry Bogart, or Grant, Gable, Flynn (etcetera, etcetera), though certainly upbeatness, ceaseless competition to satisfy appetites, and the supposed admirable amoral cunning of the “ordinary guy” please crowds who turn from most things intellectual and psychologically subversive.

The real explanation it came to me as I watched these two films and remembered the others I have seen is that Colman himself refused to move further into the demonic, would not challenge himself yet further to reach troubling levels of angry brilliance. He limited the number of movies he’d do as well as kind: he would not play in pro-imperial films, not films which were pro-violence, nothing reinforcing injustice, and also chose roles where restraint, understatement, and a certain lightness and suavity combined with responsibility were parts of the role and enabled him to keep his guard up. He actually was offered (it’s said) the role of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind and refused (!). This means his movies are finally limited to show us a character who rises to a civilized response to others. Probably he saw he was not up to enacting the edgy-neurotic aspects of Rhett.

It does mean he determined to maintain a comforting presence, finally. Quiet. Honorable.

The stories of the two movies reveal how he was chosen for movies which could bring out of him this fuller non-social self which could critique our society by its very withdrawal. In Lost Horizon, Robert Conway is trying to save 90 white people from massacre during a wild period of mad violence by Chinese people by getting them on board planes. He is a journalist-statesman hero who manages all this until it’s time for him to get aboard. The plane he’s in is hijacked to a mysterious Utopian place in the farthest reaches of Tibet. He has been chosen as a replacement by a High Lama in a place immune to the ravages of time where all human kind’s bad impulses have been rendered unnecessary and have therefore disappeared. Shangri-La.

Robert and the High Lama

While there he falls in love with Sondra Bizet (Jane Wyatt), a young woman whose presence is never explained, but who he sees from afar bathing in the nude. She enacts a kind of utterly generous free-spirited nymph.

Jane Wyatt dressed in a boyish way

The action consists of showing us how after an initial desire to return home, the other people in the plane gradually fall in love with the place and its mood. They begin to spend their lives doing good to others: running schools, exploring truths about the physical universe, loving one another and being kind and courteous. This is not done in a preachy, but rather comic way. Only Robert’s brother, George (John Howard) continues to rage with boredom and demands to return to ordinary society in England. He insists on returning at the risk of his life, and Robert (ever self-sacrificing) agrees finally to return with him, half-agreeing that what they have been told about Shangri-La cannot be wholly true. They bring another young woman with them and in their trek with a group of hired companions, they see her age suddenly to a ancient woman. The brother becomes frantic as they climb in bewildering patterns through the treacherous snow, and falls to his death.

Robert then tries to make his way back. He fails and we are told what happened to him through newstories about him reported to upper class males in high places in the British government and clubs. At first he lost his memory, and then he told the story of Shangri-La after having agreed to return; one night though he escaped and began to try to return to this place against the will of others. We hear of his valiant treks and in the last minutes of the film watch his figure in the snow apparently lost and near death. Suddenly he looks up to see the fence to the place at its last outpost and his face lights up. There the film ends. It could be he has made his way back; it could be a mirage after which he dies.

The last close-up of the film

The film is badly dated in some ways: first, I for one cannot believe in this ideal place, and it is not made believable. We see only our friends at dinner and with one noble man. The DeSadean Lord-of-the-Flies point of view is the one that prevails nowadays, e.g, as seen in A. S. Byatt’s Babel Tower: people when they get together in such a community will end in a terrifying ugly dictatorship under powerful men who exploit and use the weak. We are shown women as secondary creatures in the place who exist to serve the men. Where the children come from, and who cares for them is a puzzle. The way Conway is depicted as a worshipped savior and hero won’t wash. The settings are just not persuasive (even if the film-makers went to great lengths to create them).

What keeps the film alive is the acting of Mitchell, Horton, Stone (a prostitute who somehow gets on the plane and has a moving speech referring to her previous life) and Colman. The ethical ideal presented which in the year leading up to WW2 was absolutely subversive. The film, admired by Roosevelt, was savagely cut so that its criticism of colonialism, and so too Conway’s disillusioned speech while drunk on the plane. We also watch on with great intensity out of our desire to see Conway stay there, so the suspense is, Will the brother get him to leave; once having left, Will he get back safely? We want him to end up safe somewhere. We care about him. Wyatt is a symbol of peace for him to return to.

Smith escaping from aslyum

Random Harvest is yet more bizarre in its break with realism. On the day WW1 ended a shell-shocked veteran (Colman) is taken to an asylum; he cannot remember who he is. He is called Smithy (John Smith). He escapes from the sanitorium with the help of a beautiful young woman, Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson whose face uncannily resembles that of Keira Knightley, showing that the ideal face for women is still centrally white Anglo).


With her help he begins to take care of himself and resume an independent non-clinging adult identity (he had been behaving like a child). They marry, have a son, as he has begun to recover his strength (if not his memory), he is to try to support them at last, he travels to Liverpool to try to get a job as a reporter. Alas, he gets into an accident, his head banged so hard, that he is jerked back into remembering his name, Charles Ranier, and forgets all his experience from the sanitarium to his marriage. He is the wealthy son of an upper class family and returns to the ancient estate to take his place with them.

Fast forward a number of years and Ranier has become a successful businessman. His younger cousin, Kitty who fell in love with him as a child has grown up and pressured him into marrying her. Nonetheless, he is apparently dependent on a secretary in the next room, who when she comes to take dictation and plan for the day turns out to be Paula. Unbeknownst to him she has followed him there, and utterly abject to him, not revealed her identity. Her heart is near breaking when she realizes he is going to marry Kitty. We see she meets regularly with a psychiatrist from the mental asylum who advises her the shock of telling Ranier the truth would be too much for him.
Apparently her son by Ranier died; this is presented as grief to her, but not so bad as what she’d feel if he married Kitty.

To make a long story short: Ranier realizes he doesn’t love Kitty, and he turns to marry Paula as his real support. However, he tells her he does not, cannot love her (he doesn’t know why) and so we are to understand they don’t have sex. As in other films of this era, everyone is overdressed luxuriously, go to upper class cultural events (theatre). As time passes, Ranier becomes alerted to his past, and returns to Liverpool and then the place where he and Paula first met and loved. She has retreated to this place too (distraught at his continuing not to love her, and implicitly at their not being lovers). He slowly retraces his way to the place they first met (a store), then a pub they went to, then an inn and finally their cottage which is still standing there. (This made me think of Maurice Sendak’s book where a child returns home at the end of a long day and the soup is still hot.)


A key he has carried all this while fits in the door, he opens it, turns round and there is Paula by the fence. He rushes over to her and they kiss at last. The camera’s last scene is not of his face, but of Paula’s joyous, upbeat. And the movie ends.

There is no explanation for the onset or return of the amnesia. As in Stella Dallas, the portrait of our hero as a businessman is not at all convincing. We cannot believe he succeeds and are given no sense of how he could sell and buy and trade; he is such a gentle upper class non-aggressive presence. I have read this is a flaw in all post-code pre-1960s movies. The men are unreal. We are never allowed to see into Smithy’s mind; there is no anger, only a surface sweetness. The use of voice-over would have helped enormously. The critique of war, and the values of the society that supports it is conveyed through occasional stills, such as this:

Smith/Ranier buffeted by an anonymous crowd

And yet this film also works. I was really moved when Colman rushed over to Garson to hug her and cling to her. I felt so relieved for him and her. Almost enough to get over my disappointment in being deprived of his face as I had been of his mind throughout the film. It is a remarkable film whose strength derives from Colman’s enactment, even ever so quietly, of a frightening state of mind.

Both films spoke to their generation and they speak to us today again, I believe mostly through Colman’s presence, even in the limited way he was willing to manifest the man within in public. Frank and Dixon agree about how he kept his private life out of the public gaze: from middle class British people where the father died before he could secure the family, he was driven to lower class occupations until he found himself as an actor and made his way slowly to Hollywood; he had one long-time close male friend with whom he travelled as a young man; he was first married to a woman whom (we are told) emotionally abused him and then to one who gave him a happy life; he famously sued Goldwyn for trying to get attention to his underlying persona by spreading rumors he was really alcoholic. Late in life he stopped acting. He had made enough money and understood the lack of value in the public world to keep on. Here is an excellent site for pictures and filmography.

Perhaps the key to his failure to become an icon influential in our society is that he didn’t aspire to. I suspect he thought it would be of no real use in changing anything. His psychological baggage was at heart, the tormented man, originally of high integrity. In fact he wasn’t tormented but accepted the world; how else could he have been so successful in his career? he took it at its real value, and that’s the key to his laugh.



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Dear Friends,

I discovered today that Jim and I neglected to include a movie review I wrote for “Ellen and Jim have a blog, too:” Columbia’s irreplaceable The Talk of the Town, 1942, directed & produced by George Stevens, screenplay Sidney Harmon; starring Ronald Colman, Cary Grant, Jean Arthur (supporting cast: Edgar Buchanan, Glenda Farrell, Rex Ingram). It has not been categorized (or tagged) into one of the groups we worked at retrieving (e.g., women’s art, Austen, Trollope). We had had no category for movies.

So tonight I recreate it.

The Talk of the Town belongs to a kind of movie that I (and all those who had access to Channel 9, NYC) once watched twice a day 5 days a week and 3 times on Saturday and then again on Sunday: just about all the films were made from the later 1920s, the 1930s and 40s and into the early 1950s; a lot are nowadays dubbed “classics.” The great still living ones (still cited & thus remembered in popular media) include Yankee Doody Dandy with James Cagney; An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr; Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant (again) and Katherine Hepburn; The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara; the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films; A Tale of Two Cities with Ronald Colman; older silent films, Orphans of the Storm with Lilian & Dorothy Gish; very English ones, Brief Encounter with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard; and the unforgettable, White Heat with James Cagney and Virginia Mayo. The list goes on and on. Oh what Saturday afternoons they were for me in front of the TV.

When I’ve tried to watch some old films from the 50s or 60s not thought so well of, but which I so admired at one time, I’ve found they seemed creaky, artificial, melodramatic, and the mise-en-scene absurdly unpersuasive; and instead of deep laughter or pain, I’ve been bored. The Servant, with Dirk Bogarde and James Fox once so astonishing, creaked, was melodramatic and obvious. Night Porter with Bogard and Charlotte Rampling has eclipsed it for me. Comedies and romances especially seem to date.

I’ve had this experience rereading beloved books from childhood. Five Little Peppers and How They Grew appalled me on the grounds of reeking pious didacticism. My father tried to read his beloved The Secret Garden aloud to me, and was ever after dismayed by its relentless snobbery. Why did I like to read of Heidi’s misery at the bullying of her Aunt Dette?

I’d loved The Talk of the Town so I didn’t want to be disillusioned.

There was Ronald Colman. When I was 13 had anyone asked me (hardly anyone did) who was my favorite actor, I’d have said Ronald Colman. I loved his nobility, yearning, sensitivity, and I admit upper class kind of gentlemanliness, hurt, disillusioned. and his swashbucklers too (he and John Barrymore Junior wittily mocked their swordplay in The Prisoner of Zenda). I have a still of him (with Greer Garson) from Random Harvest and Lost Horizon on my wall.

Ronald Colman, Lost Horizon, 1937

I enjoy Cary Grant, endlessly equivocal. I watched Bringing Up Baby countless times. Arsenic and Old Lace. And I like his more recent films too: Houseboat with Sophia Loren. Jeremy Northam is about the closest actor today to Cary (except for Clive Owen in Duplicity; the difference shows us how far we have moved today from a more conventional masculinity (intelligence with a kind blunt heart) to seething sexuality:

Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story, 1940

jeremy northamMrKnightley
Jeremy Northam as Mr Knightley, Emma, 1996

And when I first read Anne Halkett’s memoir (17th century), and tried to think of the actress with the right psychological baggage, I came up with the inimitably stubborn, tenderly human, gently doll-like yet stalwart Jean Arthur.

Jean Arthur

It cannot be denied that these three presences make The Talk of the Town come alive still. Colman projects a real person, thoughtful, changeable, hesitant; Grant is still there and not there, quiet aggression and subversion constrained, and Arthur is a comic delight, at one point emoting a la breath-y gush in the Katharine Hepburn way, curls held back in front of a mirror, self-deprecating but assertive, witty, and passionate too.

The movie as a story and art is still alive to us too. It has a cogent, persuasive, & relevant story that holds attention; it projects adult and sophisticated depth. The story is about Leopold Dilg (Grant), leftist working man (the man is meant to be funny) who is framed as an arsonist and murderer by the town big crook in order to do away with said crook’s own factory-business (it’s failing), get insurance money, and put this whistle-blower away in prison.

The movie opens with scenes of the factory on fire, and tells the tale told in the papers swiftly through headlines. The film still works partly because the pace is quick, and a lot is suggested through visual gesture and physical interaction between the characters. Into the town for a summer’s working holiday with the intention of writing a book comes a professor of law, Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman). He has rented a house from Miss Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur). He arrives early, and just before him Dilg has escaped prison and hidden in his attic.

On one level, it’s a “mistakes of the night” type film. Nora loves Dilg (though she doesn’t seem to realize it until near the end of the film) and wants to keep him hidden in an attic in the house from a possible lynch mob. Dilg cannot keep himself in said attic, and comes downstairs to be identified as Joseph, the gardener. The Professor is maneuvred into hiring Miss Shelley as his cook and stenographer (all the stereotypes of women’s work and much social behavior are held to), and she finds herself introducing Dilg, and slowly a friendship forms between the two men. The supposed dialogue between the “pragmatic” man (Dilg, emersed in the real politics of life) and the “philosopher” (Lightcap, the privileged academic living apart, making up dreams of law which do not operate in the real world) is simplistic and jejeune, but not their sitting across the way from one another, with an interplay of personalities who argue, insult one another and remain courteous, dignified:


and then grow to respect one another for real, and become friends under the aegis of Miss Shelley whose angle the camera works to make us identify with:


I misremembered or epitomized exaggeratedly a lot. On the rivalry by the men over Miss Shelley, I thought there was a scene where she promised to marry the Professor, but he gave her up to the man who is more in her social class, more her age and type. Indeed just the opposite: Dilg thinking Nora loves the Professor and what a beautiful life he can give her, continually seems to push her away from him—until the last moment when she runs out of the court after Dilg and he suddenly snatches her hand and they flee the camera. I also imagined Dilg had chained himself to a radiator (maybe Grant played a working man in another film and did this).

I must’ve liked this pair of men for their Englishness too. Both actors were born and brought up in England. I must’ve been happy to identify with Miss Shelley. I probably would’ve preferred her to end up with Ronald Colman.

We rejoice intensely with the figure at the center as he is promoted 🙂

I remembered some other things accurately though. How the house became a pastoral asylum. The three of them eating a lovely breakfast. Comic congenial moments. Squabbling. Colman jumping up into a tree to escape the police dogs meant to find and perhaps harm Dilg. The growing relationship of the Professor and Miss Shelley: they walk together; she takes him to football; they buy borsch with an egg for Leopold. The dignified African-American valet, Tilney (Rex Ingram) who has led this “cloistered” existence with his kindly employer for many years. The way the Professor hid behind his beard and cuts it off (the movie plays to popular dislike of beards as anti-social). The rough beauty parlor young woman who knows the man thought to be murdered is alive, Regina Bush (a sexy name for Glenda Farrell). Here I half-remembered the thug as beating her, but again my memory was exaggerating what is merely half-suggested, hinted. The honest lawyer type, Sam Yates (Edgar Buchanan) and Nora conferring in the car (she sloe-eyed in the early morning in Professor Lightcap’s pajamas).


Of course some of it is sentimental hogwash. The intense emotionalism and ease with which Lightcap gets a seat on the supreme court would fool no one today. The characters don’t exist in a thickly-peopled world. Sex is kept to the margins, and we get romantic kisses only. It’s amusing but silly the way first Grant punches Colman and then Colman Grant. Each proving his manliness this way somehow.

I did like the way Miss Shelley was treated so respectfully by all—though I know it was particularly improbable when she was taken down to the police station for harboring a criminal knowingly. The roles for all its outward conventionality (she sits and knits by the fire, serves the food, takes sten, is a high school English teacher) felt better than most films made by men today. She seemed to have a strong sense of self-worth and life apart, within, of her own, a subject in her own right, albeit dressed in such a doll-like bandbox fashion.

But much reality was here too. The corrupt way towns are ruled by collusive corrupt cliques. The dense officers who are willing to enforce and endorse brutal violence to keep them in power.

Colman has been knocked out while defending Grant from the police

One of the film’s serious themes is its imitation of real lynch mobs, US violence and disregard for law as part of its culture. At the close of the film when after the Professor has been the one to unearth evidence that exculpates Dilg, he faces the mob and in a scene appeals to them to abjure the violence that destroys community and makes a mockery of their professed ideals.

A not uncommon concluding scene in older movies

And there was a strain of asserted healthy socialism implied you never see in films today.

I rewatched the film again after I realized we had omitted to rescue the posting, and again I finished it with good feeling in my heart. The well-meaning intelligent and courteous, self-controlled and generous presences at its center cheered me.

A still of the English garden inflected American: the upper class judge, Colman, dictates his thoughts on law to Jean Arthur as Ordinary Girl-Secretary while the Sceptical and Irreverent-Working Labour Union Man, Grant, stands by listening



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