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Friday, 26 February 2016

The Duvivier Dossier (45) - Barrie Pattison reports on the director's wartime years in Hollywood

In four previous entries critic and historian Barrie Pattison has reported on Julien Duvivier's films from the silents to the end of the thirties. You can find the earlier pieces if you click these links. The Thirties Part ThreeThe Thirties Part TwoThe Thirties Part One and The Silents.

Now read on....

Lydia 1941
It was logical that Duvivier would hook up with fellow cosmopolitan ex-pat Alexander Korda in War Time Hollywood and their collaboration became a lushly romantic homage to Merle Oberon, the then current Mrs. Korda.  Submerged in all this was a reworking of Un Carnet de bal.

Lydia gets through the old plot in the opening flashback. Famous Boston charity worker, make-up-aged Oberon, recalls her youthful first ball as mirrors, formal outfits and serried white harps, while old flame Joseph Cotten (the film’s surest performance) recalls “an ordinary ball room”, the visualization of which is still much more lush than the French film. Cotten organizes a re-union of  Merle’s one time beaus, which takes us into more flashbacks delineating her romantic history and giving the piece the form of a sketch film.

We see her fail to make it with college boy football star George (TV Superman) Reeves when he wants to anticipate the rights and flowers. Dr. Cotten sails for Cuba and, turning to good works, Merle transforms the life of  blind boy Billy Roy (Passage to Marseille sic.) taking him from studio slum to the elaborate room after room institute, where musician Hans Jaray/ Yaray (Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney) plays pop for the kids but breaks out in Beethoven when left alone. Her other suitors are obliterated when sea man Allan Marshall shows up in the water lapped cabin. “I’m not going to kiss you. I’m going to read you a poem.” Turns out that Merle didn’t make the same impression on Allan who arrives at the crepe hair re-union.

This none too convincing structure is broken up by appearances of matriarch Edna Mae Oliver (“Your modern ways are wrong ways and you’ll pay for them!” We can all but see the censor beaming at that one) and by stylish set pieces like the football match in the rain, the dance in the empty room and the horse race with moving camera in snow. Great images - particularly the glamour two shots favoring Merle - and she gets the ripe presumably Ben Hecht narration (“the sea and the wind are in you but they’re warm”), one of the film's most effective features.

Korda has gathered quality elements. Several of the personnel are recruited from Gone With the Wind and are added to old collaborators including Miklos Rosza scoring, William Hornbeck in the cutting room and design by brother Vincent. Andre de Toth is along uncredited. It would be interesting to know if Duvivier felt encouraged by the presence of all this class talent - or outnumbered.

The viewer leaves Lydia in awe of its craft skills and disappointed that they were not harnessed to something less of a frothy vanity project.

Tales of Manhattan 1942
The pick of the US Duviviers is another sketch film, a great display of virtuosity. A tail coat passes from hand to hand working its way down the social ladder in a series of episodes each different to the others in a spectrum from sophisticated menace to full on musical.

Actor Charles Boyer is romancing the glamorous Rita Hayworth despite her husband Thomas Mitchell - telling moment when the flick of a light switch reveals the setting  as Mitchell’s antlers and dome trophy room. Boyer’s new tails collect a bullet hole and pass via gentlemen’s gentlemen Eugene Palette and Roland Young to hung over Cesar Romero. A mash note from Cesar’s floozie falls into the hands of fiancée Ginger Rogers, meaning best friend Henry Fonda has to alibi. Sent to the hock shop, the coat has Elsa Lanchester getting up destitute musician Charles Laughton in it for the concert where it splits at the back causing embarrassment until conductor Victor Francen (Marcel Dalio is in there too) removes his own jacket to lead the all shirt sleeves performance. Then disbarred lawyer Edward G. Robinson tries to regain some status at a reception with snide George Sanders. Keen movie goers will recognize this as a variation of the story that turns up as Autant-lara’s  “L’orgueil” section of Les Sept péchés capiteaux. Is this the Ferenc Molnar contribution? The coat passes (via a B movie gangster segment with J. Carroll Naish replacing a deleted W.C. Fields story which Duvivier did not direct)  to Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters and the Hall Johnson Choir as studio setting singing share croppers.

The effortless shifts along the spectrum of mood are a wonder to behold and the film is flawlessly entertaining without significantly exploiting any fraction of the great talent that has been amassed.

Flesh and Fantasy 1943
Another Duvivier US episode film, three (remaining) stories with a hint of the macabre, linked by redundant discussion with Robert Benchley and David Hoffman and by characters from one part walking past the start of the in-coming narrative.

During New Orleans Mardi Gras, Betty Field in a beauty mask encounters Bob
Cummings. Palm reader Thomas Mitchell predicts that Edward G. Robinson will commit murder and high wire walker Charles Boyer has dreams of falling that become involved with Barbara Stanwyck.

While the film gives the impression of feet off the pedals, all the episodes are OK and each has striking moments - the costumed crowd in the Betty Field ep where the skeleton man lifts his death’s head hood to show the face of a bank clerk, Robinson’s interior monologue and Boyer’s dreams. This doesn’t mean that the film is free of bathos like Field’s unmasking.

The ingredients are superior - camera by Paul Ivano and Stanley Cortez, score by
Alexander Tansman (of  the 1932 Poil de carotte) and editor Athur Hilton’s striking use of wipes and part wipes included.

Destiny 1944 (credited to Reginald le Borg)
An episode deleted from Flesh and Fantasy risibly extended to short feature, with Le Borg’s new shooting instantly recognisable as inferior to the Duvivier material.

Felons Alan Curtis and Frank Fenton fleeing cycle cops, drop a bag from the bank we discover Fenton knocked over.

Escaping police fire, introduces a just about plausible flashback set in the world we
recognise from noir efforts like Detour, where Alan picks up the torchy club cutie singer. She sets him up with Fenton, whom he discovers has involved him in a factory robbery.

Alan’s arrested, does his time, without fingering Fenton, and gets the speech from Warden Selmer Jackson. “I’m afraid you’ve learned too many things, Cliff.” However after Alan takes a factory job, Fenton meets him at the end of the shift and gets a lift into town with him, stopping off to go into the bank and cash a cheque - shots and hasty drive off with police pursuit.

Back in the present, the car radio announces a thousand dollar reward for Curtis, so he moves on to Marie’s Cocktails and Roadhouse where Raddled Minna Gombell is packing up for the night. ”I’m no cop lover.” “I think you’re regular Marie.” Bad guess.

Alan has to swipe a coat (which matches the pre-existing footage) and take off again. There is a abrupt change in the lighting, Curtis’ performance and particularly the music and our noir hero shows up at the farm where all the little animals perch on singing blind girl Gloria Jean’s shoulder. She gives a nice performance and Frank Craven’s turn as her folksy father works quite well. Curtis learns how much they make out of honey and sheep and wants to hang around. There’s a sinister dream.

Next morning, they wind things up fast with Craven needing to be taken to hospital by Alan who knows the cops will spot him in town. However Fenton confesses all, dismissing our hero as “that chump.”  Happy end.

The conventional hard boiled stuff carries the piece for a while but the scissors and paste structure becomes too obvious. Duvivier’s footage has some authority and might have improved Flesh and Fantasy. Gloria Jean could have developed in a sustained career.

The Impostor / Strange Confession  1944
Another Duvivier Hollywood do over, this time it’s  La Bandera.  The comparison doesn’t flatter the American film. One of Gabin’s two Hollywood movies this is very much uniform in the edition of WW2 product and not a major work but the skill of the participants does manage to sell a lot of its dodgier elements.

The map identifies the French town of Tours and the smallish group where priest Fritz Leiber wakes condemned man Gabin with the news that they are about to give him the guillotine. However enemy bombers hit the jail and Jean escapes - disturbingly like Errol Flynn in Uncertain Glory.  

Cars jam the road, mix to our hero hitching near the sign indicating that Grenoble is down the way. He’s picked up by a truck of retreating soldiers “I can still see the big parade go down the Champs Elysees.” (spot Milburn Stone).  This is hit in another bombing raid and Gabin takes the papers and uniform of dead soldier Dennis Moore.

At the port, troops are embarking for North Africa still in the hands of the Free French. Gabin has a smoke with poilu Qualen, in one of his biggest parts, and, seeing that the soldiers are getting advance pay, lines up with young anti Axis Peter Van Eyk and Eddie Quillan, getting recruited as adjutant by Lt. Richard Whorf (“You know officers. They like to give orders.”)

At De Gaulleville (somewhere near Brazzaville!), Gabin is making a deal with shady John Philliber for civilian clothes. However constructing an air field in the convincing studio jungle (where no one sweats)  proves a bonding experience, complete with unit Xmas.

Jean distinguishes himself in off screen combat. He’s up for a decoration but it proves to be for the dead sergeant’s earlier heroics - guilty inner monologue voice over.

Ellen Drew, his false identity’s fiancée drives up to provide implausible female interest (she just about gets away with that) - another resemblance, this time to Michael Redgrave in The Captive Heart

Stone, who they won’t let into the officer’s club, appears and figures it out. Jean goes on trial, is condemned for stealing the dead man’s glory (passable plot element) paraded round the square formation of his one-time comrades, his insignia ripped off and, on Whorf’s recommendation, rather that shoot him they send him as a private 2nd class to the front where he staggers up to take out the German machine gun with a grenade (which appears to fall short), redeeming himself in battle.

Gabin’s performance is the major point of interest and he manages to be the center of a Hollywood production plausibly enough, though it looks like he re-voiced a lot of his dialogue. The simple minded script is distorted by WW2 propaganda but production values are excellent, with an intrusive, recognizable Tiomkin score a mixed blessing. It’s designer Lourié who covers himself with glory - the menacing guillotine in the courtyard, on the tread mill passing the burning car in front of the destroyed building BP plate, the cobbled (!) highway and the convincing jungle headquarters - the last of the director’s African subjects.

Gabin wasn’t about for the expert French dub so they used Robert Dalban.

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