“FLAME OVER INDIA” (1959) Review

“FLAME OVER INDIA” (1959) Review

I have seen my share of movie and television productions set during the heyday of the British Empire over the years. They have featured narratives that range from being rabidly pro-Imperial to being highly critical of British Imperial policies and society. Recently, I re-discovered an old movie that seemed to straddle between the two styles of this genre, the 1959 adventure film, “FLAME OVER INDIA aka NORTH WEST FRONTIER”.

Directed by J. Lee Thompson, “FLAME OVER INDIA” began in the North West Frontier of 1905 British India, when a Hindu Maharajah asks British Army Captain William Scott to take his young son and heir, Prince Kishan, to the safety of the British Governor’s residence in Haserabad, due to a Muslim uprising in his province. Accompanying them is the prince’s nanny/governess, an American widow named Mrs. Catherine Wyatt. They leave shortly before the rebels storm the palace and kill the Maharajah. Upon their arrival in Haserabad, Captain Scott and Mrs. Wyatt learn that Muslim rebels threaten to overrun the Residency, due to knowledge of the young prince’s arrival. The Residency’s Governor, Sir John Wyndham, informs Captain Scott that he must take Prince Kishan to the safety of Kalapur. Scott discovers an old train, the Empress of India, and decides to use it to get Kishan and Mrs. Wyatt to safety. Because of the danger of developing siege in Haserabad, other passengers join Scott, Mrs. Wyatt and Kishan on the journey:

*Gupta – the Empress of India’s driver
*Lady Wyndham – Sir John’s wife
*Peter van Leyden – a Dutch biracial anti-Imperialist journalist
*Mr. Bridie – one of Sir John’s government aides
*Mr. Peters – an arms dealer who does business with all sides
*Two Indian sergeants acting as Captain Scott’s aides

There are some aspects of “FLAME OVER INDIA” that did not particularly impress me. Actually, I can only think of two. In one scene, the Empress of India’s passengers had come across a train that had departed Haserabad earlier in the film. Apparently, the rebels had massacred all of the train’s passengers, leaving behind one infant still alive. Now, I realize that this scene is supposed to be some kind of allegory of the religious strife that marred Britain’s partition from India in 1947 and its role in that strife. The problem is that this scene would have been more suited for a story set during that period, instead of a movie set in 1905. I also had a problem with the film’s final action sequence. It is not terrible, but it struck me as a bit anti-climatic. Especially since it ended with the Empress of India’s passengers evading capture by the train’s entrance into a two-mile long hillside tunnel that led to the safety of Kalapur.

Overall, I thought “FLAME OVER INDIA” was a first-rate movie that seamlessly combined the elements of two genres – action and drama. At first glance, it seemed Captain Scott using a train to convey young Kishan to the safety of Kalapur offered no real challenges – especially against pursuers on horseback. Scott and Gupta had initially planned to sneak the passengers out of Haserabad by freewheeling the Empress of India down a gradient and out of the rail yard, but the train’s whistle unexpectedly blows, alerting the rebels to their departure. The screenwriters ensure that the Empress and its passengers encounter other obstacles to make it difficult to evade their pursuers – including torn up tracks, the train’s nearly empty water tank, the train full of massacred passengers, a bomb-damaged viaduct/bridge and a spy in their midst. If I had a choice for my favorite action sequence, it would be the one in which the Empress of India passengers attempt to fix the sabotaged tracks in the middle of a gun battle. It is a pity that this incident occurred midway in the film.

More importantly, “FLAME OVER INDIA” is an excellent drama in which the political situation – the rebellion within Kishan’s province – served as a reflection of the divisions in British India around the turn of the 20th century and the Britons’ role in its origin. In fact, this topic manifested in a tense scene featuring an argument between Captain Scott and Peter van Leyden following the passengers’ discovery of the train massacre. Earlier, I had commented that “FLAME OVER INDIA” seemed to straddle between those rabidly pro-Imperial movies to those highly critical of British Empire. The quarrel between Captain Scott and van Leyden over the train massacre and British Imperial policy seemed to personify this “no Man’s Land” between the genre’s two styles. But the movie also featured other characters who seemed to represent not only these two positions on Imperial policies, but also that middle ground. Even Captain Scott’s characters seemed to be on the verge of that middle ground by the film’s end.

I have seen “FLAME OVER INDIA” on many occasions, but it finally occurred to me that it reminded me of another film. I noticed that one of the screenwriters was Frank Nugent, who had written the screenplays for several of John Ford’s movies between 1948 and 1963. Although Nugent never worked on one of Ford’s best films, “STAGECOACH”, I realized that “FLAME OVER INDIA” bore a strong resemblance to the Oscar winning 1939 film. Like “STAGECOACH”, this film is about a group of people who undertake a long-distance journey through dangerous territory. And like the 1939 movie, it is also a strong character study of people from different backgrounds, personalities and philosophies. Whereas “STAGECOACH” seemed more like an exploration of class (and regional) differences between late 19th century Americans, “FLAME OVER INDIA” is more of an exploration of the impact of the British Empire upon the movie’s main characters – the Europeans, one American, one Eurasian and two Asians. The ironic aspect of the film’s theme is that even young Kishan, who served mainly as the movie’s catalyst, had the last word about the British presence in India, near the end.

“FLAME OVER INDIA” struck me as a colorful looking film, thanks to its technical crew. The movie was shot at Pinewood Studios, and also on location in India and Spain. And I must say that cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth did a beautiful job with his photography for both locations. And I must admit that I really admired how he balanced his close-up, far-shots and zooming . . . especially during the film’s opening sequence that depicted the Muslim rebels overrunning the palace of Kishan’s father. I was also impressed by Frederick Wilson’s editing of J. Lee Thompson’s direction of the action sequences – especially the opening sequence and that featuring the repair of the damaged tracks. Between Thompson and Wilson, they managed to fill the movie with a great deal of action, suspense and drama. I also enjoyed Yvonne Caffin’s Edwardian costumes for the film. But like her work for the 1958 movie, “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER”, they did not strike me as particularly mind-blowing, but they certainly did not look cheap or straight out of a costume warehouse.

The 1959 movie did not exactly have a large cast . . . unless one would consider the number of extras. But I have to say that I did not have anything negative to say about the performances in “FLAME OVER INDIA”. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Ian Hunter, Jack Gwillim, and Basil Hoskins. Both S.M. Asgaralli and Sam Chowdhary, who portrayed the two sepoys under Scott’s command, had spoken at least two or three lines between them and still managed to effectively convey the idea of competent soldiers. And Govind Raja Ross gave a very charming performance as the young Prince Kishan. He was not the best child actor I have ever seen, but I found him charming.

However, the film’s best performances came the major supporting cast members and the two leads. I cannot say that Ursula Jeans gave a complex performance. After all, I could never regard her character, Lady Windham, as flexible. But Jeans did an excellent job in conveying the conservative, yet ladylike “memsahib” of the British Empire. Eugene Deckers gave a very entertaining performance as the witty and cynical arms dealer, Mr. Peters. In fact, I would say that Deckers gave the most entertaining performance in the film. Wilfrid Hyde-White gave a charming, yet poignant performance as the mild-mannered, yet very open-minded government aide, Mr. Bridie. Hyde-White did such a good job in conveying his character’s likability that even a hostile character like Peter van Leyden recognized him for the tolerant person he was. While checking I.S. Johar’s filmography on the IMDB site, I noticed that he made very few English-speaking films, one of them being the 1978 Agatha Christie movie, “DEATH ON THE NILE”. Personally, I believe his role as the effervescent, yet skilled train engineer/driver, Gupta, to be a breath of fresh air, in compare to his role in the 1978 murder mystery. Johar not only gave a first-rate performance, he managed to create a crackling screen chemistry with leading man Kenneth More.

If I had my choice for the best performance in “FLAME OVER INDIA”, I would choose Herbert Lom’s portrayal of the biracial journalist, Peter van Leyden. Lom did an excellent job in conveying his character’s intelligence, penchant for confrontations and complex anger toward the British presence in India and European colonialism in general. Lom’s Peter van Leyden may have been an unpleasant character, but what he had to say about colonialism and the British attitude toward the subcontinent’s natives resonated with a great deal of truth. The producers of “FLAME OVER INDIA” had originally considered Olivia de Havilland for the role of Prince Kishan’s widowed governess, Mrs. Catherine Wyatt. However, the former was unavailable and they turned to American actress Lauren Bacall to portray the role. One would not expect an American character in a film set in British India. And yet . . . Bacall gave such a first-rate performance as the forthright, yet slightly cynical Mrs. Wyatt that I never gave it another thought. More importantly, she also managed to create a strong, yet natural screen chemistry with More, which took me by surprise. Speaking of Kenneth More, he gave a strong and intelligent performance as the movie’s leading character, Captain William Scott. In a way, More’s portrayal of Scott struck me as rather odd. Superficially, his Scott seemed like the typical British Army officer who believed in the righteousness of the British Empire and regarded its Indian subjects as children. And yet, Scott seemed to be a bit more complicated. He preached like a typically bigoted colonial and behaved like a more tolerant man who had a tight friendship with the likes of Gupta and treated the two sepoys (soldiers) under him as competent fighting men, instead of children who needed to be constantly supervised. Like I had said, More’s Scott proved to be something different from the usual military character in a British Imperial film. Then again, the movie had been made over a decade after India’s independence.

I may have a few quibbles about “FLAME OVER INDIA”, but overall I really enjoyed the film. It might be one of the few British Empire movies that I truly enjoyed before the more ambiguous Imperial films of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The film’s screenwriters also created a first-rate adventure film that also proved to be a complex drama and character study. “FLAME OVER INDIA” also benefited from first-rate cinematography from the legendary Geoffrey Unsworth, excellent acting from a cast led by Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall, and superb direction from J. Lee Thompson. I believe there is nothing further for me to say.

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Favorite Movies Set in OLD HOLLYWOOD

Below is a list of my favorite movies set in Hollywood’s past, before 1960: 

FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN OLD HOLLYWOOD

1. “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) – Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds starred in this musical classic about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies. Kelly co-directed with Stanley Donen.

2. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988) – Robert Zemeckis directed this adaptation of Gary Wolfe’s 1981 novel, “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?”, in which a 1940s private detective who must exonerate a cartoon star “Toon” for the murder of a wealthy businessman. Bob Hoskins, Charles Fleischer and Christopher Lloyd starred.

3. “Moviola: The Scarlett O’Hara War” (1980) – Tony Curtis starred as producer David O. Selznick in the second episode of the miniseries, “Moviola”. The television movie featured Selznick’s search for the right actress to portray the leading character in his movie adaptation of “Gone With the Wind”.

4. “The Aviator” (2004) – Martin Scorsese produced and directed this biopic about mogul Howard Hughes’ experiences as a filmmaker and aviator between 1927 and 1947. Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio starred.

5. “Hitchcock” (2012) – Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren starred in this comedy-drama about the tumultuous marriage between director-producer Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Alma Reville during the former’s making of his 1960 hit, “Psycho”. Sacha Gervasi directed.

6. “Trumbo” (2015) – Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston starred in this biopic about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and his troubles after being jailed and blacklisted for being a member of the Communist Party. Directed by Jay Roach, Diane Lane and Helen Mirren co-starred.

7. “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) – Vincente Minelli directed this melodrama about the impact of a Hollywood producer on the lives of three people he had worked with and betrayed. Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Barry Sullivan and Dick Powell starred.

8. “Hollywoodland” (2006) – Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck starred in this intriguing tale about a private detective’s investigation into the life and death of actor George Reeves. Allen Coulter directed.

9. “Hail, Caesar!” (2016) – Ethan and Joel Coen produced and directed this fictional account in the life of studio executive/fixer, Eddie Mannix. The movie starred Josh Brolin.

10. “The Artist” (2011) – Michel Hazanavicius wrote and directed this Academy Award winning movie about a silent screen star and the disruption of his life and career by the emergence of talking pictures. Oscar winner Jean Dujardin and Oscar nominee Bérénice Bejo starred.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1930s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1930s: 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” (1989-2013) – David Suchet starred as Agatha Chrsitie’s most famous sleuth, Hercule Poirot, in this long-running series that adapted her Poirot novels and short stories.

2. “Moviola: The Scarlett O’Hara War” (1980) – Tony Curtis starred as David O. Selznick in the second episode of the miniseries, “Moviola”. The television movie featured Selznick’s search for the right actress to portray the leading character in his movie adaptation of “Gone With the Wind”.

3. “Edward & Mrs. Simpson” (1978) – Edward Fox and Cynthia Harris starred the 1978 adaptation of the events leading to the 1936 abdication of King Edward VIII of Great Britain. The seven-part miniseries was based upon Frances Donaldson’s 1974 biography.

4. “Mildred Pierce” – Todd Haynes directed and co-wrote this television adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1940 novel about a middle-class divorcee, who struggles to maintain her family’s position during the Great Depression and earn her narcissist older daughter’s respect. Emmy winners Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce and Emmy nominee Evan Rachel Wood starred.

5. “Upstairs, Downstairs” (2010-2012) – Heidi Thomas created this continuation of the 1971-1975 series about the Hollands and their servants, the new inhabitants at old Bellamy residence at 105 Eaton Place. Jean Marsh, Keely Hawes, Ed Stoppard and Claire Foy starred.

6. “And Then There Were None” (2015) – Sarah Phelps produced and wrote this television adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel. Craig Viveiros directed.

7. “The Last Tycoon” (2016-2017) – Billy Ray created this television adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel about a Hollywood producer during the mid-1930s. Matt Bomer starred.

8. “Indian Summers” (2015-2016) – Paul Rutman created this series about the British community’s summer residence at Simla during the British Raj of the 1930s. The series starred Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Nikesh Patel, Jemima West and Julie Walters.

9. “Damnation” (2017-2018) Tony Tost created this series about the labor conflicts in the Midwest, during the Great Depression. Killian Scott and Logan Marshall-Green starred.

10. “The Lot” (1999-2001) – This series centered around a fictional movie studio called Sylver Screen Pictures during the late 1930s. The series was created by Rick Mitz.

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE” (2010) Review

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE” (2010) Review

The 2010 television movie, “THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE”, marked the third screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel of the same title. This particular adaptation from the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE”series starred Julia McKenzie as the leading character, Miss Jane Marple. 

Considering this is the third adaptation of Christie’s novel, I almost feel inclined to compare it to the 1980 and 1992 adaptations. Perhaps I might every now and then. Otherwise, I will try to focus on the 2010 movie itself. The story began with the arrival of Hollywood starlet Marina Gregg and her husband, director Jason Rudd to Jane Marple’s home village, St. Mary’s Mead, England. The pair is in England to film Marina’s latest film about the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Marina and Jason have purchased Gossington Hall, the former home of Jane Marple’s recently widowed friend, Mrs. Dolly Bantry. The cinematic pair eventually Marina host a fête and reception for St. Mary Mead’s citizens. But due to a minor accident that left her foot sprained, Miss Marple was unable to attend. Among those guests that appeared at Gossington Hall for the fête were:

*Marina’s former husband and gossip columnist Vincent Hogg, who has a personal grudge against her
*Lola Brewster, Vincent’s current wife and Marina’s younger screen rival and Jason’s former lover
*Jason’s personal secretary, Ella Blunt, who happens to be infatuated with him
*Mrs. Heather Babcock, an annoying and self-involved St. Mary’s Mead citizen, who had first met Marina during World War II
*Local photographer Margot Pence, who happens to share a past connection to Marina

While Heather Babcock bores Marina with an account of their previous meeting during the reception at Gossington Hall, she drinks a cocktail meant for Marina and dies. Miss Marple and Detective-Inspector Hewitt discover that the cocktail had been poisoned. Both race to learn the killer’s identity before he or she can reach the true target – Marina Gregg.

I have always been surprised that “The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side” is not that highly regarded by literary critics. Although some regarded as among the best of her later novels, it remains not as highly regarded as many of her earlier works. This is a pity, because I have always found the 1962 novel to be among Christie’s more interesting works.

There were aspects of “THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE” that . . . well, irked me. The production cast actor Nigel Harman as Marina Gregg’s director/husband Jason Rudd. Harman is over twenty years older than Lindsay Duncan, who portrayed Marina. May-December romances on screen are not as uncommon as one would think – regardless of whether the man or woman is older. If the two performers in question have the screen dynamics to overcome this age discrepancy, then fine. The problem is that Harman lacked the screen presence to keep up with the likes of Duncan. He was no Rock Hudson or Barry Newman. Come to think of it, I had the same problem with the Vincent Hogg-Lola Brewster pairing. Actress Hannah Waddingham is over thirty years older than Martin Jarvis. And yet, she seemed to lack the screen presence to keep up with the likes of Jarvis. At least in this television production.

I had another problem with the Vincent Hogg character . . . namely his profession as a gossip columnist. Hogg is supposed to be one of Marina Gregg’s former husbands. If the Vincent Hogg character had met and married Marina before he became a gossip columnist, I could understand this. But a Hollywood star marrying a columnist? I cannot see it. I also had a problem with the Heather Babcock character. I do not mean to be an ageist, but I feel that the actress who portrayed her, Caroline Quentin, was too old at the age of 49-50 to portray Mrs. Babcock. Then again, I could be using age to hide from the fact that I did not find Ms. Quentin’s performance convincing.

Did “THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE” live up to this interesting aspect of the novel. I honestly do not know. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Do not get me wrong. With the exceptions of a few changes regarding the story’s characters, the 2010 television adaptation is more than less faithful to Christie’s novel. Thanks to Lindsay Duncan’s superb performance and Tom Shankland’s direction, it did a great job in conveying Marina Gregg’s fragile, yet artistic and ruthless personality and how she managed to accumulate so many enemies. There were certain scenes in the movie that I enjoyed. They include Miss Marple and Mrs. Bantry’s initial meeting with Marina Gregg and Jason Rudd at Gossington Hall for tea; any scene with Victoria Smurfit, who gave a very sharp, yet entertaining performance as Jason’s secretary, Elsa Blunt; the rather hilarious social encounter between the citizens of St. Mary’s Mead and the Hollywood newcomers at fête, and the scene featuring Marina’s breakdown during her filming of a Cleopatra movie.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Sheena Napier, who worked on her fifth (out of eleven) “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” movie, did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions of mid-20th century Britain. I can also say the same about Jeff Tessler, who skillfully took television viewers back to the same time period. And I felt somewhat satisfied with Cinders Forshaw’s photography. I say . . . somewhat. Although I found his photography beautiful and colorful, I felt annoyed by the soft focus style that hinted the production’s time period. So unnecessary.

I have already commented on those performances featured in “THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE” – like Lindsay Duncan, Victoria Smurfit and Caroline Quentin. I might as well comment on the other performances that I had missed. Julia McKenzie gave a marvelous performance, as always, as the brilliant and observant amateur sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. I noticed, however, that her performance seemed a bit more subtle than usual. Was this due to working alongside the more ebullient Joanna Lumley? I do not know. But I did noticed that the latter’s portrayal of Dolly Bantry seemed even more extroverted than she did in 2004’s “THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY”. I enjoyed Ms. Lumley’s performance, but there were times when I found it a bit grating. I may not have been impressed by Nigel Harman’s chemistry with Lindsay Duncan, but I thought he gave a solid performance as Jason Rudd. On the other hand, I enjoyed Hugh Bonneville’s skillful portrayal of the cool and slightly sharp-tongued Detective-Inspector Hewitt. He also had a surprisingly good screen chemistry with Julia McKenzie. Martin Jarvis nearly dominated every scene he was in as Marina’s resentful, yet malicious ex-husband Vincent Hogg. I wish I could say the same for Hannah Waddingham, but I cannot. Even in those scenes in which she did not share with Jarvis, she made a very disappointing Lola Brewster. I certainly was not disappointed with Charlotte Riley’s excellent, yet cool portrayal of the enigmatic photographer, Margot Bence. I can also say the same about Brennan Brown, who gave a very entertaining performance as Marina’s highly nervous secretary, Hailey Preston. The television also featured solid performances from Olivia Darnley, Samuel Barnett and Neil Stuke and Michele Doctrice.

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE” is not the best Jane Marple movie I have ever seen . . . or even one of the best. Nor can I say that it is the best adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel. But despite its flaws, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy it, thanks to Tom Shankland’s direction, Kevin Elyot’s screenplay and a first-rate cast led by Julia McKenzie.

“DRAGONWYCK” (1946) Review




“DRAGONWYCK” (1946) Review

Being an aficionado of old Hollywood period dramas, I noticed that it was rare to find movies set in the antebellum North. Very rare. I have tried to think of how many of these films I have come across. And to be honest, I can only think of four or five so far, in compare to the numerous films set in the antebellum South. One of those Northern antebellum tales proved to be the 1946 movie, “DRAGONWYCK”

Based upon Anya Seton’s 1944 novel, adapted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and directed by him; “DRAGONWYCK” began in 1844 Greenwich, Connecticut; when Miranda Wells, the daughter of a religious farm couple, receives a letter from distant cousin Nicholas Van Ryn. Nicholas, the autocratic and charming owner (Patroon) of a Hudson River Valley estate called Dragonwyck, asks if one of Ephraim and Abigail’s daughters could act as governess for his eight year-old daughter, Katrine. Miranda, who daydreams about a more romantic and luxurious lifestyle, manages to convince her doubting parents to let her go.

Upon her arrival at Dragonwyck, Miranda meets the young Katrine and Nicholas’ wife, a gluttonous, yet slightly high-strong woman named Johanna. She also meets the handsome local doctor, Dr. Jeff Turner, at the “kermess” – a ceremony where landowner Nicholas receives the rents of his tenants. Not only does Miranda become aware of the strange atmosphere at Dragonwyck and the tense relationship between Nicholas and his tenants; she also finds herself falling in love with her cousin and employer . . . and he with her. This budding relationship between the pair proves to be quite disastrous for all concerned.

After my second viewing of “DRAGONWYCK”, I realized that I could never regard it as a personal favorite. The writing for some of the film’s supporting characters struck me as theatrical and one-dimensional. Unfortunately, I have to include the Ephraim Wells character, who came off as a clichéd version of the 19th century religious American male and Peggy, the young maid loyal to Miranda. During the film’s third act, the narrative revealed that Nicholas Van Ryn’s lack of religious belief. Was this supposed to cap his position as an immoral and villainous man? Because honestly . . . I realized that I could not care less about his lack of belief. And I found it ridiculous that his status as a non-believer was supposed to be a sign of his villainy. I understand. Perhaps the majority of moviegoers felt differently in 1946. Needless to say, this aspect of Nicholas’ character did not age well over the past 72 to 73 years. I was not that impressed by the film’s finale in which Nicholas had a showdown with his discontented tenants. Although it featured an excellent performance by Vincent Price, I found the actual sequence a bit anti-climatic. I noticed that the film’s ending was different from the one written by Anya Seton. However, I found Seton’s ending in the novel more dramatic, but somewhat ludicrous. I could see why Mankiewicz had changed the ending.

Although I could never regard “DRAGONWYCK” as a personal favorite of mine, I must admit that I found it to be a rather first-rate film. The movie – the story itself – struck me as a prime example of American Gothic literature. In fact, I would go as far to claim that the narrative almost reminds me of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”, but with a darker twist. Unlike Brontë’s tale, “DRAGONWYCK” included the specter of murder and class conflict. The latter included the historical conflict known as the Anti-Rent War, in which tenants in upstate New York revolted and declared their independence from the manor system operated by patroons, by resisting tax collectors and successfully demanding land reform between 1839 and 1845.

One would think that the Miranda Wells character would be the narrative’s center or force. A part of me feels sad that I cannot make that claim. For the most interesting aspect of “DRAGONWYCK” proved to be the Nicholas Van Ryn character. Was he supposed to be a mere villain? If a person viewed him from how he had ended his marriage to the voracious Johanna, he or she could regard him as such. On the other hand, I found it difficult to regard his refusal to embrace his wife’s new-founded religious fervor as monstrous. Which meant that in the end, Nicholas became something of a repellent, yet fascinating character to me. A true force of nature. I wish I could have said the same about Miranda. I found her charming and extroverted, but after her marriage to Nicholas turned sour, she became something of an annoyance. Being the offspring of religious parents, I was not surprised that she eventually turned to religion. But I found it annoying that religious fervor was the only literary device used to develop her character and nothing else. Nicholas, on the other hand, proved to be a lot more complex.

A part of me wishes that “DRAGONWYCK” had been filmed in Technicolor. It would have been interesting to view Twentieth Century-Fox’s version of antebellum New York State in color. Especially the Hudson River Valley. I am not begrudging Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography. His work for the film’s interior shots, especially those for the Dragonwyck manor had provided a great deal of atmosphere, adding to the film’s Gothic narrative. But I was not that impressed by the exterior shots. I must admit that I have no memories of the film’s score by Alfred Newman. I thought Lyle R. Wheeler and J. Russell Spencer’s art direction, along with Thomas Little’s set decorations were excellent . . . especially for the Dragonwyck manor and New York City hotel’s interiors. However, I truly enjoyed René Hubert’s beautiful costume designs for the movie. Were they accurate examples of mid-1840s fashion? I have my doubts. But as the images below reveal, they were gorgeous:

 

I might as well focus on the movie’s actual performances. Were there any bad performances? No. “DRAGONWYCK” can honestly boast some solid or excellent performances. The supporting cast featured some solid performances from the likes of Harry Morgan as one of Nicholas’ angry tenants, Connie Marshall as Nicholas’ daughter Katrine, and Trudy Marshall as neighbor Elizabeth Van Borden. Future Oscar winner Jessica Tandy’s portrayal of Miranda’s Irish-born maid Peggy O’Malley struck me as a bit theatrical. I could also say the same about another future Oscar winner Walter Huston, who portrayed Miranda’s religious father Ephraim Wells. Anne Revere’s portrayal of Miranda’s mother Abigail Wells seemed a lot more subtle . . . and skillful. Spring Byington portrayed the Van Ryns’ manipulative and slightly creepy maid Magda. A part of me wondered if it was Mankiewicz or Seton’s intention to create a more benign version of the Mrs. Danvers character from “REBECCA”. Vivienne Osborne, on the other hand, gave a very skillful performance as Nicholas’ first wife, the gluttonous and insecure Johanna Van Ryn. I did not know whether to share Nicholas’ disgust for her or feel any sympathy toward her for being married to a creep.

I was prepared to dismiss Glenn Langan’s performance as the handsome local physician, Dr. Jeff Turner, who befriends Miranda. I had assumed that he would be another one of those bland leading men that the Hollywood system tried to transform into a movie star. After my recent viewing of “DRAGONWYCK”, I realized that Langan gave an interesting performance by skillfully conveying Jeff’s barely concealed anger toward Nicholas’ arrogance. However, my vote for the best performance would go to Vincent Price’s portrayal of Nicholas Van Ryn. I thought he gave a brilliant and dynamic performance as the arrogant, yet charismatic Nicholas, whose villainy proved to be rather enigmatic. Gene Tierney did an excellent job in carrying the film as the lead Miranda Wells. I was very impressed by her portrayal of the more ebullient and naive Miranda during the first two-thirds of the film. But once Miranda’s marriage to Nicholas began to fail, Tierney’s portrayal of the character fell flat. I do not blame her. I blame the manner in which the character had become one-dimensional, thanks to Anya Seton’s novel and Joseph Mankiewicz’s screenplay.

Overall, I rather enjoyed “DRAGONWYCK”. It was not perfect. No film is. But I was a little put off by some theatrical acting in the film, the decline of the Miranda Wells character and the writing overall during the movie’s final fifteen to twenty minutes. But I must admit I enjoyed most of the film’s narrative. Many would dismiss it as costume melodrama. Personally, I see no reason to dismiss melodrama. It can be appreciated, if written well like other forms of fiction. Thanks to Joseph Mankiewicz’s screenplay and direction, along with a competent cast led by Gene Tierney and Vincent Price; “DRAGONWYCK” proved to be more entertaining than I had previously surmised.

“JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” (1989) Review

“JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” (1989) Review

One of the most popular romance novelists to emerge during the 1970s and 1980s was Judith Krantz, whose series of novels seemed to be part romance/part family saga. At least six (or seven) of her novels were adapted as television miniseries. One of them was the 1988 novel, “Till We Meet Again”, which became the 1989 CBS miniseries, “JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN”

Set between 1913 and 1952, the early 1950s, “JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” (aka “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”) focused on the lives of Eve, the daughter of a French provincial middle-class doctor and her two daughters, Delphine and Marie-Frederique ‘Freddy’ de Lancel. The story began in 1913 when Eve met a traveling music hall performer named Alain Marais. When she learned that her parents planned to agree to an arranged marriage for her, Eve joined Alain on a train to Paris and the pair became lovers and roommates. Within a year, Alain became seriously ill and Eve was forced to find work to maintain their finances. With the help of a neighbor and new friend, Vivianne de Biron, Eve became a music hall performer herself and Paris’ newest sensation. Out of jealousy, anger and embarrassment, Alain ended their romance.

During World War I, Eve met Paul de Lancel, the heir to an upper-class family that produces champagne who had been recently widowed by a suicidal wife. Following Eve’s marriage to Paul, the couple conceived Delphine and Freddy and Paul became a diplomat. The latter also became estranged from his son Bruno, who was eventually raised by his maternal aristocratic grandparents, who blamed Paul for their daughter’s suicide. By 1930, Eve and Paul found themselves in Los Angeles, where he served as that city’s French consul. And over the next two decades, the de Lancel family dealt with new careers, love, the rise of fascism, the movie industries, World War II, post-war economics, romantic betrayals and Bruno’s villainous and malicious antics.

“JUDITH KRANZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” is not what I would call a television masterpiece. Or even among the best television productions I have ever seen. Considering its source, a period piece romance novel – something most literary critics would dismiss as melodramatic trash – it is not surprising that I would regard the 1989 this way. Then again, the 1972 Academy Award Best Picture winner, “THE GODFATHER”, was based on what many (including myself) believe was pulp fiction trash. However, “TILL WE MEET AGAIN” did not have Francis Ford Coppola to transform trash into Hollywood gold. I am not dismissing the 1989 miniseries as trash. But I would never regard it as a fine work of art.

And I did have a few problems with the production. I found the pacing, thanks to director Charles Jarrott, along with screenwriters Andrew Peter Marin and (yes) Judith Krantz; rather uneven. I think the use of montages could have helped because there were times when the miniseries rushed through some of its sequences . . . to the point that I found myself wondering what had earlier occurred in the story. This seemed to be the case with Eve’s backstory. Her rise from the daughter of a provincial doctor to Parisian music hall sensation to a diplomat’s wife struck as a bit too fast. It seemed as if Jarrott, Marin and Krantz were in a hurry to commence on Freddy and Delphine’s story arcs. Another problem I had was the heavy emphasis on Freddy’s post war story arc. Both Delphine and Eve were nearly pushed to the background, following the end of World War II. It is fortunate that the miniseries’ focus on the post-war years played out in its last 20 to 30 minutes.

I also had a problem with how Marin and Krantz ended Delphine’s relationship with her older half-brother Bruno. In the novel, Delphine ended her friendship with Bruno after his attempt to pimp her out to some German Army official during the Nazi’s occupation of France. This also happened in the miniseries, but Marin and Krantz took it too far by taking a page from Krantz’s 1980 novel, “Princess Daisy” . . . by having Bruno rape Delphine after her refusal to sleep with the German officer. I found this unnecessary, considering that the two screenwriters never really followed up on the consequences of the rape. If this was an attempt to portray Bruno a monster, it was unnecessary. His collaboration of the Nazis, his attempt to pimp out Delphine, his sale of the de Lancels’ precious stock of champagne and his participation in the murders of three locals who knew about the sale struck me as enough to regard him as a monster.

My remaining problems with “TILL WE MEET AGAIN” proved to minor. Many of Krantz’s novels tend to begin as period dramas and end in the present time. I cannot say the same about her 1988 novel. The entire story is set entirely in the past – a forty-year period between pre-World War I and the early 1950s. Yet, I managed to spot several anachronisms in the production. Minor ones, perhaps, but anachronisms nevertheless. One of the most obvious anachronisms proved to be the hairstyles for many of the female characters – especially the de Lancel sisters, Delphine and Freddy. This anachronism was especially apparent in the hairstyles they wore in the 1930s sequences – long and straight. Most young girls and women wore soft shoulder bobs that were slightly above the shoulders during that decade. Speaking of anachronism, the actor who portrayed Armand Sadowski, a Polish-born director in the French film industry, wore a mullet. A 1980s-style mullet during those same 1930s sequences. Sigh! The make-up worn by many of the female characters struck me as oddly modern. Another anachronistic popped up in the production’s music. I am not claiming that late 1980s songs were featured in the miniseries. The songs selected were appropriate to the period. However, I noticed that those songs were performed and arranged in a more modern style. It was like watching television characters performing old songs at a retro music show. It simply felt . . . no, it sound wrong to me.

Despite my complaints, I did enjoy “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”. In fact, I believe that its virtues were strong enough to overshadow its flaws. One, Judith Krantz had created a first-rate family saga . . . one that both she and screenwriter Andrew Peter Marin did justice to in this adaptation. Two, this is the only Krantz family saga that I can remember that is set completely in the past. Most of her family sagas start in the past and spend at least two-thirds of the narrative in the present. Not “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”. More importantly, this family saga is more or less told through the eyes of three women. I have noticed how rare it is for family sagas in which the narratives are dominated by women, unless it only featured one woman as the main protagonist. And neither Eve, Delphine or Freddy are portrayed as instantaneous ideal women. Yes, they are beautiful and talented in different ways. But all three women were forced to grow or develop in the story.

Being the oldest and the mother of the other two, Eve was forced to grow up during the first third of the saga. However, she spent a great deal of emotional angst over her daughters’ lives and the fear that her past as a music hall entertainer may have had a negative impact on her husband’s diplomatic career. Eve and Freddy had to deal with a disappointing love (or two) before finding the right man in their lives. Delphine managed to find the right man at a young age after becoming an actress with the film industry in France. But World War II, and the Nazi regime’s anti-Semitic policies managed to endanger and interrupt her romance. Freddy’s love life involved a bittersweet romance with an older man – the very man who taught her to become a pilot; a quick romance and failed marriage to a British aristocrat; and the latter’s closest friend, an American pilot who had harbored years of unrequited love for Freddy until she finally managed to to notice him.

Despite the saga being dominated by Eve, Delphine and Freddy; the two male members of the de Lancel family also had strong roles in this saga. I thought both Krantz and Marin did an excellent job in their portrayal of the complex relationship between Paul de Lancel and his only son and oldest child, Bruno de Lancel, who also happened to be Delphine and Freddy’s half-brother. I also found it interesting how Bruno’s unforgiving maternal grand-parents’ over-privileged upbringing of him and their snobbish regard for Eve had tainted and in the end, torn apart the relationship between father and son. Mind you, Bruno’s own ugly personality did not help. But he was, after all, a creation of the Marquis and Marquise de Saint-Fraycourt. Ironically, Paul also had his troubles with both Delphine and Freddy – especially during their late adolescence. Between Delphine’s forays into Hollywood’s nighttime society behind her parents’ backs and Freddy’s decision to skip college and become a stunt pilot, Paul’s relationships with his daughters endured troubled waters. And I thought the screenwriters did an excellent job in conveying the diplomat’s complex relationships with both of them.

And despite my low opinion of the hairstyles featured in “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”, I cannot deny that the production values featured in the miniseries struck me as quite impressive. Roger Hall did an excellent job in his production designs that more or less re-created various locations on two continents between the years of 1913 and 1952. His work was ably supported by Rhiley Fuller and Mike Long’s art direction, Donald Elmblad and Peter Walpole’s set decorations, and Alan Hume’s cinematography, which did such an exceptional job of capturing the beauty and color of its various locations. However, I must admit that I really enjoyed Jerry R. Allen and Robin Fraser-Paye’s costume designs. I thought they did an excellent job of recapturing the fashions of the early-to-mid 20th century.

If I must be honest, I cannot think of any performance that blew my mind. I am not claiming that the acting featured in “TILL WE MEET AGAIN” were terrible, let alone mediocre. Frankly, I believe that all of the major actors and actresses did a great job. Courtney Cox gave a very energetic performance as the ambitious and aggressive Freddy de Lancel. Bruce Boxleitner also gave an energetic performance as Jock Hampton, the best friend of Freddy’s husband . . . but with a touch of pathos, as he conveyed his character’s decade long unrequited love for the red-headed Mademoiselle de Lancel. Mia Sara gave a spot-on portrayal of Delphine de Lancel from an ambitious, yet insecure adolescent to a sophisticated and more mature woman. And again, I can the same about Lucy Gutteridge’s portrayal of Eve de Lancel, who developed the character from an impulsive adolescent to a mature woman who proved to be her family’s backbone. Hugh Grant was sufficiently sophisticated and hissable as the villainous Bruno de Lancel without turning his performance into a cliche. Charles Shaughnessy skillfully managed to convey to portray the worthy man behind director Armand Sadowski’s womanizing charm. John Vickery gave a interested and complex portrayal of Freddy’s British aristocrat husband, Anthony “Tony” Longbridge. And Maxwell Caufield was excellent as the charming, yet ego-driven singer Alain Marais. I believe one of the best performances came from Michael York, who was excellent as the emotionally besieged Paul de Lancel, struggling to deal with a stalled diplomatic career, two strong-willed daughters and a treacherous son. I believe the other best performance came from Barry Bostwick, who was excellent as Freddy’s first love Terrence ‘Mac’ McGuire. I thought he did a great job of portraying a man torn between his love for Freddy and his guilt over being in love with someone who was young enough to be his daughter.

Look, I realize that “JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” is basically a glorified period piece melodrama disguised as a family saga. I realize that. And I realize that it is not perfect. Nor would I regard it as an example of the best American television can offer. But at its heart, I thought it was basically a well written family saga that centered around three remarkable women. Thanks to Judith Krantz and Andrew Peter Marin’s screenplay; Charles Jarrott’s direction and a first-rate cast, the 1989 miniseries proved to be first-rate piece of television drama.

 

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1940s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1940s: 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1940s

1. “Homefront” (1991-1993) – Lynn Marie Latham and Bernard Lechowick created this award-winning series about the residents of a small Ohio town in post-World War II.

2. “Mob City” (2013) – Jon Bernthal starred in this six-part limited series that was inspired by John Buntin’s book, “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City”. Co-starring Alexa Davalos and Milo Ventimiglia, the series was created by Frank Darabont.

3. “Agent Carter” (2015-2016) – Hayley Atwell starred as Margaret “Peggy” Carter, an agent with the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) in the post-World War II Manhattan. Created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the MCU series co-starred James D’Arcy and Enver Gjokaj.

4a. “Band of Brothers” (2001) – Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced this outstanding television miniseries about the history of a U.S. Army paratrooper company – “Easy Company” – during the war. Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston starred. (tie)

4b. “The Pacific” (2010) – Spielberg and Hanks struck gold again in this equally superb television miniseries about the experiences of three U.S. Marines – John Basilone, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge – in the war’s Pacific Theater. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda starred. (tie)

5. “Manhattan” (2014-2015) – Sam Shaw created this series about the creation of the first two atomic bombs at Los Alamitos, New Mexico. The series starred John Benjamin Hickey.

6. “The Winds of War” (1983) – Dan Curtis produced and directed this television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel. The seven-part miniseries starred Robert Mitchum, Ali McGraw and Jan-Michael Vincent.

7. “Pearl” (1978) – Stirling Silliphant wrote this three-part miniseries about a group of men and women who experienced the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Angie Dickinson, Robert Wagner, Lesley-Ann Warren and Dennis Weaver starred.

8. “The Jewel in the Crown” (1984) – The ITV aired this award winning television adaptation of Paul Scott’s “Raj Quartet”novels (1965–75) about the end of the British Raj in India. The fourteen-part miniseries starred Art Malik, Geraldine James, Charles Dance and Tim Pigott-Smith.

9. “Foyle’s War” (2002-2015) – Anthony Horowitz created this television crime drama about a British police detective during World War II. The series starred Michael Kitchen, Honeysuckle Weeks and Anthony Howell.

10. “RKO 281” (1999) – Liev Schreiber starred as Orson Welles in this 1999 television adaptation of 1996 documentary called “The Battle Over Citizen Kane”. The television movie also starred John Malkovich, Roy Schneider, James Cromwell and Melanie Griffith.