RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Jean Simmons

Hamlet (May 4, 1948)

Hamlet
Hamlet (1948)
Directed by Laurence Olivier
Two Cities Films / Universal Pictures

Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet dominated the 21st Academy Awards with seven nominations and four wins. (Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda was nominated in 12 categories — more than any other picture — but only won a single Oscar.)

It was the first time a non-Hollywood production won an Oscar for best picture, and it was the first time an Oscar for best actor was given to an actor who had directed himself. (Besides best picture and best actor, Hamlet also won Oscars for best costume design in a black and white picture and best art direction in a black and white picture.)

These accolades represented something of a vindication for Olivier, whose previous film, Henry V (1944), was nominated for best picture and best actor Oscars (among others), but only received a special Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen,” which Olivier considered “a fob-off.”

Well, sometimes great works require big egos, and Hamlet is proof. It’s a dark, expressionistic psychodrama and a deeply satisfying cinematic achievement, which is no small feat for a film based on a play by William Shakespeare. While Shakespeare is an unassailable and towering figure in English literature, I don’t find most films based on his plays very satisfying. They either treat his texts with stodgy reverence or go off the deep end with ridiculous costumes and set pieces that seem designed to draw in viewers who find Shakespeare “boring.”

Olivier’s Technicolor production of Henry V played around with artifice, beginning by showing the inner workings of a stage play complete with shots of the actors backstage waiting for their cues and slowly became more realistic, culminating in the battle of Agincourt, which was filmed outdoors.

Hamlet, on the other hand, establishes its moody, black and white world with the opening shots and stays the course. Olivier’s camera moves in a lissome fashion around his fog-shrouded castle set, which is a hulking, brooding character unto itself, towering over a dark, roiling sea. The dialogue and the movement of the actors are treated as realistically as possible. Monologues are not delivered in a theatrical fashion toward the audience, but in voiceover as the actor silently broods.

Hamlet was mostly a success with the critics, but Shakespeare purists took umbrage at Olivier’s tinkering with the text, since he cut out roughly half the play, losing whole characters in the process.

There were numerous minor cuts, too, as the very first moments of the film demonstrate. Olivier’s Hamlet begins with the lines from Act 1, Scene 4, that precede the appearance of the ghost. They appear onscreen and are spoken by the narrator. Olivier excised certain lines, which I’ve shown below as crossed-out text:

So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them—
As in their birth (wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin),

By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that [grown] too much o’erleavens
The form of plausive manners—
that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star,
Their virtues else (be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo)
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.

The demands of cinema are different from the demands of the stage, and I find these edits sensible and pleasing. However … and this is a big “however” … Oliver ends his prologue with the following line of spoken dialogue, which does not appear in text on screen, but is spoken by the same narrator, and could easily be mistaken for more of Shakespeare’s writing by the unschooled: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

To me this seems like pandering, but I suppose it helps to have a “mission statement” for the more thick-headed among us in the audience.

And this is indeed the story of a young man crippled by indecision. By removing all of the political aspects of Hamlet (the character Fortinbras, for instance, is excised completely and is never mentioned), it becomes a character study. For 20th century audiences I think this was the enduring view of Hamlet, and the aspect people found most interesting. Modern audiences probably miss most of the political undertones of the play, which was written at the tail end of the 16th century, when the age of chivalry was dying and the age of global empire was beginning with the creation of the East India Company. Surely Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw aspects of their own time in the tale of a slain king, a usurper on the throne, and a young prince dealing poorly with political realities.

Even in its edited form, Olivier’s Hamlet runs for a little more than two and a half hours. There simply would have been no way to film the entire play and end up with a commercially successful film. (When Kenneth Branagh filmed a complete version of Hamlet in 1996 it clocked in at 242 minutes and was not widely released theatrically. The cut version was 150 minutes.)

If you can stomach an edited Bard, Olivier’s Hamlet stands as one of the best cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare. The cast are all good, including Jean Simmons as Ophelia, Basil Sydney as Claudia, Eileen Herlie as Gertrude, Norman Wooland as Horatio, Felix Aylmer as Polonius, and Terence Morgan as Laertes. But the real star is Olivier, both in front of and behind the camera.

Black Narcissus (May 26, 1947)

A lot of people make a big deal of the fact that Black Narcissus was released the same year that India became an independent nation. The film, which was written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is a sensuous, beautifully lensed Technicolor production. (Black Narcissus won two Academy Awards. Alfred Junge took home the award for best art direction and set direction in the color category and Jack Cardiff won the Oscar for best color cinematography.)

The reason a lot of people make a big deal of its 1947 release is because a major theme of Black Narcissus is the inability of the British heart and mind to penetrate the mysteries of the Indian subcontinent. Deborah Kerr plays a young Anglican nun, Sister Clodagh, who is appointed Sister Superior of the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary, Calcutta. Not only does the convent occupy an abandoned harem high in the Himalaya mountains, but Sister Clodagh will be the youngest Sister Superior in the history of her order.

The plot of Black Narcissus isn’t as important as the mood the film creates, its scenery, or its overwhelming sense of lush sensuality.

Michael Powell wrote of Black Narcissus that it was the most erotic film he ever made. “It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image, from the beginning to the end.”

None of this is to say that the eroticism of Black Narcissus is the only thing that makes it worth watching. It’s a fine character study and a well-acted story of the clash between fantasy and reality. But its visual textures, breathtaking scenery, and exquisite attention to detail are overwhelming.

Remarkably, Powell and Pressburger — who produced films together under the name “The Archers” — created all of their majestic Himalaya settings on the soundstages of Pinewood Studios. Usually matte paintings call attention to themselves and fool no one. In Black Narcissus they are seamlessly integrated into the rest of the film and are good enough to create a sense of vertigo in the scenes in which Sister Clodagh rings the enormous bell that hangs near the precipice on one side of the convent.

Black Narcissus is not a perfect film. While the performances are generally good, especially from Kerr as Sister Clodagh, David Farrar as the insouciant and charming British agent Mr. Dean, and Kathleen Byron as the unhinged Sister Ruth, the native characters are mostly played by British actors, which doesn’t always work. The 18-year-old English actress Jean Simmons is beautiful and beguiling as the dancing girl, Kanchi, but her light-colored eyes clash with her brown face makeup. Much less effective is May Hallatt as the deranged Angu Ayah, a servant inherited by the convent. Her screeching Cockney line delivery was so confusing that for most of the picture I wasn’t sure where her character was supposed to be from. (The only Indian actor in the film, Sabu, who plays the Young General, is from southern India, not northern India, where the film takes place.)

But these are minor quibbles. Black Narcissus is a stunningly beautiful film that I look forward to seeing again some day. Despite its sometimes outlandish story and its melodramatic elements, it’s a meticulously crafted piece of art from the greatest British directors of all time.

Hungry Hill (Jan. 7, 1947)

Daphne Du Maurier’s 1943 historical novel Hungry Hill covers a period of 100 years (1820 to 1920) in the lives of five generations of two feuding Irish families. Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1947 film adaptation narrows the scope of the story to three generations and a roughly 50-year timespan, but it’s still a lot to take in over the course of just 100 minutes. If you’re a fan of romantic yet gloomy historical melodramas, Hungry Hill is a filling dish. And if you’re not, Hungry Hill might leave you feeling stuffed and queasy.

Margaret Lockwood gets top billing (and the most time onscreen) as Fanny Rosa, a beautiful and headstrong young woman who marries into the wealthy Brodrick family, who live in a castle called “Clonmere” in County Cork. The patriarch of the clan, John Brodrick (Cecil Parker), has several children, John (Dennis Price), Henry (Michael Denison), and Jane (Jean Simmons). (Honestly, there are a lot of characters in Hungry Hill, and he might have had more children than those three, but they’re the only ones I was able to get a handle on.)

The patriarch of the Donovan clan, old Morty Donovan (Arthur Sinclair), violently objects to John Brodrick’s plans to mine for copper in Hungry Hill, and curses Brodrick and his entire family. (Hungry Hill is located in the beautiful Caha Mountains, which I’ve hiked, so I was disappointed that there wasn’t more location footage — most of the film takes place in drafty old rooms and the bowels of the Brodrick copper mine.)

While the copper mine ends up providing plenty of employment for the Donovan clan and other roustabouts, tensions are always simmering. A labor riot leads to the death of one young man, and a visit of reconciliation leads to a deadly typhoid infection.

Hungry Hill follows a familiar three-generation rise-and-fall story arc. By the time Margaret Lockwood’s hair is brushed through with gray and her face is lined with age makeup, it should come as no surprise to anyone that her handsome son, Johnnie Brodrick (Dermot Walsh), is drinking a bottle of whiskey a day, loving and leaving the ladies, and frittering away his family’s fortune. The scenes between Johnnie and his mother are well-played and affecting, but by that point in the movie I was starting to lose interest in the dismal goings-on.

One thing I can recommend unequivocally is the casting, which is excellent. Not only does Hungry Hill feature the cream of the crop of up-and-coming British actors, but the Brodrick men really do all look like members of the same family, and the Donovans resemble one another, too. Of course, this is a double-edged sword, since it’s sometimes difficult to keep them all straight.

Hurst himself clearly didn’t hold this film in the highest regard. In a letter to John Ford dated April 9, 1951, in which he sang the praises of Siobhan McKenna, who played Kate Donovan in Hungry Hill (Ford was interested in casting her in his film The Quiet Man), Hurst wrote, “There must be a copy of a rather indifferent film I made of Daphne du Maurier’s even more indifferent story ‘Hungry Hill.’ You could get hold of this through Eagle-Lion, but don’t inflict the whole of the picture on yourself. Just see about the last four reels, because she doesn’t come in till then.”

Great Expectations (Dec. 26, 1946)

I’ve never held Charles Dickens in the high esteem that many others do. Granted, I’ve only read one of his novels in its entirety — Hard Times (1854). Based solely on that book and the story “A Christmas Carol,” which I’m pretty sure I’ve read in its original form at least once, Dickens was a splendid caricaturist. I could picture every facet of the grotesque antagonists and tenacious protagonists of Hard Times. They looked and acted like real people. But it was all on the surface. None of them felt like real people, and I was never convinced that they had internal lives or realistic motivations. I’m a big fan of psychological realism and believable characters, so if I’m going to read a Victorian novel, I’d much rather it be by George Eliot or Thomas Hardy than by Dickens.

The only other Dickens novel I’ve ever taken a crack at was Great Expectations (1861), which was assigned reading in my 9th-grade English class. I never finished it. (Sorry, Ms. Lee-Tino.)

But based on the roughly 25% of the novel that I did read, David Lean’s Great Expectations seems like a pretty solid adaptation. Orphaned boy Phillip “Pip” Pirrip (Anthony Wager) lives with his ill-tempered older sister (Freda Jackson) and her husband, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles), a kind-hearted blacksmith. One night, out on the moors, Pip is accosted by an escaped convict, Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie), who makes him promise to return with food and a file with which to saw through his chains. The terrified Pip keeps his promise, but the authorities arrive on the scene, Magwitch attacks another escapee, and they’re both taken back to prison.

Soon, we meet one of Dickens’s great grotesque characters, Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), a mentally twisted shut-in who is gleefully brainwashing her beautiful young charge Estella (Jean Simmons) to be the ultimate heartbreaker, and punish men who are foolish enough to fall in love with her. Pip is sent to Miss Havisham’s on a regular basis to improve his manners, but it should go without saying that he ends up receiving a very different kind of education.

All of this is very well done, and beautifully filmed — especially the scenes at night on the moors. The problem for me came after about 40 minutes, when several years pass and Anthony Wager is replaced by John Mills — as the adult version of Pip — for the rest of the picture. Although Pip has only supposed to have aged a few years (from boyhood to manhood), Mills was 38 years old, and the effect is jarring. He’s perfectly handsome, but he just doesn’t look like a young man starting out in the world. The other major actor to change is Estella, which is even more jarring. The gorgeous 17 year-old Jean Simmons is replaced by the 29 year-old Valerie Hobson, who is far less charming than Simmons and looks nothing like her.

Great Expectations premiered in the United Kingdom on December 26, 1946, and opened in the United States during the spring of 1947. At the 20th Academy Awards, it was nominated for best picture, David Lean was nominated for best director, and the film was nominated for best adapted screenplay. It won two awards, one for best black and white cinematography and one for best black and white art direction.

I enjoyed it, but the change of actors in midstream and the general Dickensian nonsense of the plot kept me at arm’s length. Great Expectations is beloved by a great many people, however, so if it sounds as if it’s up your alley, by all means check it out.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 353 other followers