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Tag Archives: Deborah Kerr

King Solomon’s Mines (Nov. 9, 1950)

King Solomon's Mines
King Solomon’s Mines (1950)
Directed by Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

King Solomon’s Mines was the first Hollywood production to be filmed in Africa since the disastrous Trader Horn in 1931.

Trader Horn made a tidy profit at the box office, but the actual shooting was fraught with danger, disease, and even death. The leading lady, Edwina Booth, contracted a serious illness that forced her to retire from acting, and she sued MGM, who settled with her out of court.

So MGM was naturally hesitant to mount another massive production shot on location in Africa, but King Solomon’s Mines was a gamble that paid off. Not only is it a beautifully shot, well-acted, and exciting film, it was a massive financial success, and was MGM’s most popular release of 1950.

Stewart Granger

It’s been awhile since I’ve read H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel, King Solomon’s Mines, but this film version felt very different to me from its source material, and mostly in ways that I liked.

The most obvious change from the novel is the gender switch of one of the main characters to allow for a female lead. In the novel, a safari leader named Allan Quatermain is hired by a British aristocrat, Sir Henry Curtis, who wishes to find his brother who went missing while searching for the mythical treasure of King Solomon in uncharted regions of southern Africa.

The film version instead features a character named Elizabeth Curtis, whose husband is missing. She’s played by the red-haired Scottish actress Deborah Kerr.

Allan Quatermain is played by the English actor Stewart Granger. The role was originally offered to Errol Flynn, but he balked at the rigorous location shooting and turned it down in favor of appearing in Kim (1950), an adaptation of the novel by Rudyard Kipling. That film was shot in India, but the actors didn’t have to rough it, and stayed in a resort, where presumably Flynn could continue drinking himself to death in comfortable surroundings.

Meeting Siriaque

The gender switch is an obvious change, but it’s the overall tone of the film that I thought was the biggest shift from Haggard’s novel. The novel is a rousing Victorian adventure story, while the film is much more of a travelogue. In fact, one of the most common complaints about King Solomon’s Mines from modern viewers is that it’s “boring,” and has very little of the type of action they expect from an adventure story.

Which version you prefer depends upon your personal taste, but I personally loved this film. After so many years of “Africa” in Hollywood films being depicted as a jungle set on a sound stage, seeing the actual landscapes of Uganda, Kenya, and the Congo was a revelation. This is a stunningly beautiful film, and Robert L. Surtees’s Oscar for best color cinematography was well-deserved.

King Solomon’s Mines premiered on November 9, 1950, in New York, and went into wide release on November 24.

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The Hucksters (Aug. 27, 1947)

It’s hard to watch Jack Conway’s The Hucksters today and not compare it with Mad Men.

While Mad Men is a TV series that began in 2007 and takes place in the early ’60s and The Hucksters takes place during the time it was filmed (the post-war ’40s), they share a number of similarities, and not just because they’re both about advertising agencies.

Both feature at their center a dashing leading man with rugged good looks as an advertising genius who must navigate the tricky waters of love, sex, and difficult clients. Jon Hamm was in his mid-30s when Mad Men began, while Clark Gable was in his mid-40s in 1947, but both of their characters are veterans of the most recent war and inveterate seducers of women.

The Hucksters is based on Frederic Wakeman’s 1946 novel of the same name, which spent a year at the top of the best-seller lists. Wakeman’s novel was based on a four-part exposé in The Saturday Evening Post, “The Star Spangled Octopus,” about talent and promotional agency MCA.

The novel’s racy subject matter was largely responsible for its success. Life magazine called it “Last year’s best-selling travesty on bigtime advertising.”

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer paid nearly $200,000 for the rights to Wakeman’s novel in a pre-publication deal. Most of the salacious details, however, never made it into the final shooting script. (Clark Gable’s take on the first draft of the script was, “It’s filthy and it isn’t entertainment.”) For instance, in the novel, Gable’s character, Victor Albee Norman, has an affair with a married woman, but she was changed into a war widow for the film.

Consequently, The Hucksters never quite achieves the satirical bite of Mad Men, but there are number of bits that are funny, particularly if you’re familiar with radio advertising circa 1947.

There are plenty of reasons to see The Hucksters. It was the American film debut of Deborah Kerr, who plays Gable’s widowed love interest, Kay Dorrance, and it also features the beautiful Ava Gardner as a torch singer named Jean Ogilvie. Adolphe Menjou is wonderful as Mr. Kimberly, the head of the advertising agency, and Keenan Wynn is appropriately irritating as a third-rate radio comedian named Buddy Hare.

The most memorable actor in the film, however, is Sydney Greenstreet, who plays Evan Llewellyn Evans, the grotesque and demanding head of Beautee Soap. After Gable’s character, Victor Norman, rejects the more scandalous layout favored by Evans, Evans sits down at the head of the boardroom table, tilts his head back, hawks, and spits on the table. “Mr. Norman, you’ve just seen me do a disgusting thing,” he says. “But you’ll always remember what I just did. You see, Mr. Norman, if nobody remembers your brand, you aren’t gonna sell any soap.”

The Hucksters could have used more moments like that. It’s nearly two hours long, and Gable’s romance with Kerr takes up much of the running time. It’s perfectly well-handled and shot, but it’s a storyline one could see in any number of pictures, while the advertising angle of the story is unique, and the film could have gotten more mileage out of it.

The Hucksters earned a respectable $4.4 million during its domestic release, but was a complete flop overseas, since in those days no one outside the United States was in any way familiar with American advertising or commercial broadcasting.

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.

I See a Dark Stranger (July 4, 1946)

Frank Launder’s I See a Dark Stranger, which premiered in the United Kingdom on July 4, 1946, is half a loaf of noir slathered with generous helpings of romance and comedy. It’s a very enjoyable picture that’s notable as a star vehicle for the lovely Deborah Kerr before she was well-known in Hollywood.

The opening of the film is pure noir. Shadows fall heavily on the quiet nighttime streets of a little town with signs all about in French. A panicked man rushes through the town, searching for something. Suddenly there’s a shot of something that doesn’t quite fit, and the narrator’s voice appears on the soundtrack. “An Isle of Man signpost outside a French town,” he says. “That’s odd. But we’ve started this tale at the wrong moment.”

He goes on to tell us that this is really the story of Bridie Quilty (Kerr), and we see the young woman in the pub where she works as she eavesdrops on her father’s boozy tales of the Irish Revolution, rapt, even mouthing the words of his story at one point. Bridie hates the English and the memory of Oliver Cromwell as much as the most hardened member of the I.R.A. does, and wants nothing more than to join the group when she reaches the age of majority, just like her father did. The film treats her fervor lightly, however, and right off the bat the viewer knows that this coming-of-age story will contain a fair measure of disillusionment for its protagonist. But not, of course, before she gets in over her head.

As soon as Bridie turns 21, she heads for Dublin to make contact with a former compatriot of her father, a man named Michael O’Callaghan (Brefni O’Rorke). Far from the fearsome soldier she expected, O’Callaghan is a mild-mannered curator of a museum who doesn’t seem to mind seeing a large painting of Cromwell every day and feels that the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 that partitioned the country were fair enough, which boggles Bridie’s mind. More significantly, he seems to have never heard of her father, which should raise a red flag, but doesn’t, since Bridie is as bull-headed as she is patriotic.

Undeterred by her experience in the museum, Bridie looks for resistance where she can find it, and falls in with a man named Miller (Raymond Huntley). He appears at first glance to be a rumpled Englishman, but Bridie learns that he’s a spy working against the English, so she goes to work for him without a second thought.

Bridie is blithely unaware of politics outside of Ireland and the U.K., and the film is clever enough to share her point of view for some time. Astute viewers, of course, will immediately be able to suss out exactly which nation Miller is spying for, but it’s not directly stated for awhile. As far as Bridie’s concerned, the enemy of her enemy is her friend. After hearing how much Bridie hates every last Englishman, Miller says to her, “For a subject of a neutral country, aren’t you being a little belligerent?” Bridie responds, “There’s nothing belligerent about it. It’s entirely a question of which side I’m neutral on.”

As I said, I See a Dark Stranger is a mixture of noir and comedy. It’s heavier on the comedy than it is on the thrills, especially toward the end, but for the first half, there are some sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in any other espionage potboiler, such as the scene in which Bridie has to dispose of a corpse, and comes up with the ingenious notion of putting the body in a wheelchair and pushing it through town as though she’s just taking an old man for a walk (she’s really heading for the cliffs overlooking the ocean). It’s never very serious, though, and the film is generally more interested in humorous situations and amusing characterizations than it is in plot points.

Kerr is fantastic, and carries the picture with ease. Trevor Howard is great, too. He plays Lt. David Baynes, a Brit who becomes infatuated with Bridie and realizes too late the amount of trouble she’s in. There are also two very funny caricatures of stiff upper-lipped British policemen, Capt. Goodhusband (Garry Marsh) and Lt. Spanswick (Tom Macaulay) who may very well have served as the inspiration for Hergé’s comic characters Dupont et Dupond (Thomson and Thompson in English translation), two detectives who are indistinguishable from each other. Spanswick and Goodhusband are both bald, have neat little black mustaches, and say things like “Cheerio, old boy.” By the end of the picture, however, they’re allowed to grow out of their stereotyped roles, are fairly easy to tell apart, and even get a few intentionally funny lines, such as when Spanswick says to a hotel manager who is afraid that German prisoners of war may have escaped from the nearby internment camp to hide out in her hotel, “If the food I’ve had here is anything to go by, they’re more likely to escape from the hotel and beat it for the internment camp.”