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Tag Archives: Dudley Nichols

Mourning Becomes Electra (Nov. 19, 1947)

Dudley Nichols’s Mourning Becomes Electra has its staunch defenders, but so does every other awful movie.

Mourning Becomes Electra is unquestionably the worst movie I have seen so far this year, and it’s unlikely that I will see another one that’s as bad in the short time remaining. If I did “worst of the year” lists, it would almost certainly be at the very top.

Rosalind Russell was nominated for the Academy Award for best actress for her role in Mourning Becomes Electra and famously lost out to Loretta Young, who played a young Swedish-American woman in the lightweight comedy The Farmer’s Daughter, despite the fact that Russell lobbied hard for herself. (Russell did win the Golden Globe for best actress for Mourning Becomes Electra.)

I’ve got nothing personal against Rosalind Russell, but if I’d been a member of the Academy 64 years ago, she could have given me a brand new Lincoln Continental, a sable coat for my wife, and one hundred thousand dollars in cash, and I still wouldn’t have voted for her.

It’s not just that her performance is so one-note and hysterically pitched, but also that the entire film is so ineptly directed that each actor in the film seems to be directing him- or herself.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a film version of Eugene O’Neill’s play cycle of the same name, which was a reimagining of the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus.

Instead of Agamemnon returning from the Trojan War to his wife Clytemnestra, his son Orestes, and his daughter Electra, a Union general named Ezra Mannon returns to Massachusetts from the Civil War to his wife Christine, his son Orin, and his daughter Lavinia.

Just as in the Greek myth of Orestes, Ezra Mannon is murdered by his wife, and her children plot to avenge their father’s death.

Just like O’Neill’s original play cycle, the film is divided into three parts, Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted.

Of course, the play is more than just a retread of classical Greek tragedy. O’Neill was also strongly influenced by the Freudian psychosexual theories that were in vogue in the ’30s.

However, for a movie with kissin’ cousins and freaky Oedipus complexes, Mourning Becomes Electra sure is boring.

The problems begin at the beginning. The first scene of Homecoming involves Seth Beckwith (Henry Hull), the Mannons’ groundskeeper, leading a small group of townspeople around the Mannon estate and explaining all the characthers’ names and relationships. It’s obvious that Seth and the townspeople are meant to function as a Greek chorus, but it’s too much information too soon, and without any context, it’s mind-numbingly boring.

In Homecoming, Christine Mannon (Katina Paxinou) and her daughter Lavinia (Russell) howl at each other for awhile over the affections of officer Adam Brant (Leo Genn), who it turns out is the product of an illicit coupling between a Mannon male and a lowly housekeeper, both of whom were expelled from the house. Brigadier General Ezra Mannon (Raymond Massey) returns home, and his wife conspires with her lover, Adam, to poison him. Ezra accuses her with his dying breath.

In The Hunted, Orin Mannon (Michael Redgrave) returns home and spends a lot of misty-eyed time with his head in his mother’s lap. Eventually his sister Lavinia convinces him that Adam Brant and their mother were responsible for their father’s death, so they sneak aboard the ship The Flying Trades and kill Adam after they observe Christine’s rendezvous with him. Following Adam’s murder, Christine shoots herself out of grief.

In The Haunted, Orin and Lavinia return home after a romantic year-long getaway to the South Seas. When they return to Massachusetts, their friends — a slightly less dysfunctional pair of siblings, Peter Niles (Kirk Douglas) and Hazel Niles (Nancy Coleman) — are disturbed by the changes Orin and Lavinia have gone through. Lavinia plans to marry Peter, but Orin threatens to reveal all of their crimes to Peter if she goes through with her plan. Orin tries to molest his sister, and kills himself when she rejects him. Then, instead of marrying Peter, Lavinia shuts herself up in the house forever. The end.

Mourning Becomes Electra flopped terribly at the box office, and was hastily recut from its original 173-minute version down to a 105-minute version (which I believe was achieved by chopping off the entire final third section, The Haunted). It has since been restored, mostly, and exists on DVD in a 159-minute version. (The full 173-minute version has been shown on TCM.)

The main problem with Mourning Becomes Electra is how uninteresting and stagy the direction is. (Dudley Nichols did much more work as a writer than as a director, and Mourning Becomes Electra was the last film he ever directed.) This does not mean, however, that it is a faithful adaption. The demands of cinema are very different from the demands of the stage. Simply running through the lines of a stage play in front of a camera is a very different proposition than performing a play night after night in front of an audience. As a film, Mourning Becomes Electra is a “faithful” adaptation of O’Neill’s play in the same way a film of an elderly British man reading Great Expectations aloud for 19 hours could be called a “faithful” adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel.

It also doesn’t help that nearly everyone in the cast has a wildly different accent from everyone else, and that nearly everyone is the wrong age for the character they’re playing. The “young and handsome” Adam Brant is played by Leo Genn, a square-headed, fat-lipped 41-year-old British actor. Lavinia is supposed to be a young woman, but Rosalind Russell was 40 (or nearly 40) when she appeared in Mourning Becomes Electra, while Katina Paxinou, who plays her mother Christine, was only 46. This closeness in age could perhaps be overlooked if the two actresses were on the stage together, but on film, it’s distracting. Also, Paxinou’s thick Greek accent could perhaps be explained by her marrying into the Mannon family, but how to explain Michael Redgrave’s British accent?

The psychosexual and incestuous drama of Mourning Becomes Electra is obvious and ham-fisted. This is a film that is likely to be praised as “Freudian” only by people who have never read Freud. It’s also a film that is likely to be praised only by pretentious dilettantes who think that merely by forcing themselves to sit through something long and crushingly boring they are engaging in a high-minded activity.

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Scarlet Street (Dec. 28, 1945)

Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street immediately draws comparisons to Lang’s 1944 film The Woman in the Window. Released just a year apart, both films star Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea. Both films feature Bennett as a femme fatale, Robinson as a milquetoast man approaching old age who is desperate for some kind of excitement, and Duryea as a hustler and a punk who’s only out for himself. The two films share motifs; murder with sharp objects, city streets at night, painted portraits, and foolish old men ensnared by mysterious young women.

In terms of tone and plot, however, the two films are quite different. The Woman in the Window is a well-crafted tale of mystery and suspense in which a murder occurs early on, and the protagonist spends the rest of the film dealing with the consequences. It’s a good picture, but its impact is undercut by a cop-out ending (possibly necessitated by the Hays Code) that castrates the grim dénouement and breaks the most basic rule of maintaining audience engagement with a narrative. Scarlet Street, on the other hand, is grim and fatalistic, and its single, horrific murder doesn’t occur until near the end of the picture. Robinson’s character in Scarlet Street isn’t drawn into a suspenseful adventure in which he has to hide evidence and protect a woman’s honor, he’s drawn into a doomed romance with a heartless and conniving young woman, and he only realizes the trap he’s walked into until long after its jaws have clamped shut around him.

Scarlet Street opens on a scene of a party. It’s the kind of party we don’t see very often in the movies anymore. There are no women, and all of the men are dressed in tuxedos. Christopher Cross (Robinson) is receiving a gold pocket watch for his 25 years of service as a cashier in a bank. When Cross’s employer, J.J. Hogarth (Russell Hicks), stands up, he is clearly the man in charge; tall, commanding, and about to leave the party for a date with a blonde. Cross sits on the opposite side of the table and appears diminutive and meek. When Cross reads the engraved message on the watch, “To my friend, Christopher Cross, in token of twenty-five years of faithful service, from J.J. Hogarth, 1909-1934,” he seems genuinely touched by the line, “To my friend,” and pauses briefly after reading the words to smile. He is clearly a man with few friends.

He is also a man locked in a loveless marriage. We later learn that he married his landlady just a few years earlier, after her police detective husband died while trying to save a woman from drowning. Her late husband’s ridiculously large portrait hangs above the mantle in their living room, and Adele Cross (Rosalind Ivan) never misses an opportunity to unfavorably compare Chris with her “heroic” first husband.

On his way home from the party, Cross meanders through the rain-slicked streets of Greenwich Village. He sees a young man beating up a young woman under elevated train tracks, and he impetuously runs to her aid. His rescue attempt can barely be called heroic (he covers his eyes as he jabs her assailant with his umbrella), but it is still an act of courage, which makes what comes next so tragic.

Scarlet Street is based on the novel La Chienne (The Bitch), by Georges de La Fouchardière, which was adapted as a play by André Mouëzy-Éon, and as a film in 1931 by Jean Renoir. The French title pretty much sums up Kitty March (Bennett). She and her “boyfriend” Johnny Prince (Duryea) only care about money and the objects money can buy. As soon as Chris tells Kitty that he paints, she gets the idea in her head that he’s famous and rich, and that she’ll be able to squeeze him for all he’s worth. Of course, he only paints on Sundays as a hobby, but he initially lets her believe that he’s a painter, just as he lets himself believe her claim that she works as an actress.

This being a film from the ’40s, the words “pimp” and “prostitute” are never spoken, but if the viewer infers that Kitty is a prostitute and Johnny is her pimp, absolutely nothing in the film contradicts the idea. (And this was indeed their relationship in La Chienne.) It is clear that Kitty has no regular job, but she regularly ponies up money to give to Johnny. Johnny also has no visible means of support except the money she gives him. He hustles a little here and there, but it seems as if his main source of income is Kitty. At one point in the film she even states that she’s given him a total of $900 over a course of time, and that she’s still waiting for him to buy her a ring with that money. That’s an incredible amount of money for a woman with no job or inheritance to produce in 1945, unless she was tricking. Also, the fact that she’s giving him money that she then asks him to possibly spend on her implies a pimp-prostitute relationship.

The one-way exchanges of money and Johnny’s casual mention of various men from whom Kitty could get $50 for the night isn’t the only thing that marks Johnny as a pimp and Kitty as his whore. The casual way he slaps her around several times over the course of the film implies this, as well as the fact that he constantly refers to her as “Lazylegs.” Later in the film we even learn that Johnny was beating her up in the street at the beginning of the film because she showed up at the end of the night with less money than he expected.

The callousness of Johnny and Kitty and their pimp-prostitute relationship isn’t the only taboo this film breaks. Scarlet Street may very well be the first film made after Hollywood began enforcing the Hays Code that shows a character committing a murder that goes unpunished. Scarlet Street was distributed by Universal Pictures, but it was independently produced by Fritz Lang Productions, which may have given Lang more leeway in the way he presented his conclusion. On the other hand, the end of the film isn’t really about “getting away with murder,” since the hell the murderer is trapped in is worse than any earthly prison. It’s a bleak, existential ending, and one of the most tragic I have ever seen.

The Bells of St. Mary’s (Dec. 6, 1945)

The Bells of St. Mary’s, Leo McCarey’s follow-up to his smash hit Going My Way (which won the Academy Award for best picture of 1944), premiered in New York City on December 6, 1945. It was one of the first really “respectable” sequels, and, like Going My Way, was nominated for Oscars in all the big categories; best picture, director, actor, and actress. (Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend ended up taking home the awards for best picture, director, and actor, and Joan Crawford won the best actress award for Mildred Pierce.)

In The Bells of St. Mary’s, Bing Crosby reprises the role of Father O’Malley, for which he won an Academy Award for best actor of 1944, and he is joined by Ingrid Bergman, the best actress winner of 1944 (for Gaslight). The talent pool might be heavy, but the film itself is pretty light. There’s a disease, but it’s not fatal; there’s a bunch of needy kids running around, but the word “orphan” is never heard; and the sisters are in danger of losing St. Mary’s, but keep your fingers crossed for a Christmas miracle.

Like a lot of sequels, The Bells of St. Mary’s sticks with the formula of its predecessor. Father O’Malley is still the new guy in town, he’s still freewheeling and freethinking, and he butts heads with the other members of the clergy. His foil in Going My Way was Barry Fitzgerald as a crotchety old Irish priest, and in The Bells of St. Mary’s it’s the luminous Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict, a nun who was born in Sweden and raised in Minnesota. Bergman projects equal parts wisdom and naivete, and her performance is beatific enough, at least on the surface, to make up for what the role lacks in substance. The scene in which she masters the techniques of boxing by reading a book and then teaches the sweet science to a young boy who is being bullied is both funny and touching.

Crosby builds on his characterization of Father O’Malley. He’s a little older and wiser than he was in Going My Way, but not much else has changed. He’s still a “modern” thinker. He’s still a magnet for young girls in trouble, and if someone has a problem that can be solved with a song, he’s still happy to sit down at a piano and lend his golden pipes to the situation. Crosby will never be mistaken for Laurence Olivier, but he’s believable and charismatic in this picture. Enough so that he can deliver lines like, “If you’re ever in trouble, just dial ‘O’ … for O’Malley,” and not automatically trigger the viewer’s gag reflex.

The world of The Bells of St. Mary’s is much like our own, but the problems in it are solved with broad strokes and last-minute changes of heart instead of time and hard work. All it takes to mend a broken family is simply locating the wayward father, and getting a new parish is no harder than praying for it (and cajoling an old millionaire to donate his latest high-rise condominium).

Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s are both holiday classics, even though neither focuses too much on Christmas. There’s a cute scene in The Bells of St. Mary’s in which some very small children stumble and improvise their way through a rehearsal of a Christmas pageant, but that’s about it. Oh, and a year later, astute viewers will be able to spot The Bells of St. Mary’s on the marquee of the local movie house in Bedford Falls when Jimmy Stewart runs through downtown wishing everyone and everything a Merry Christmas at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.

And Then There Were None (Oct. 31, 1945)

Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None, originally published in England in 1939 under the unfortunate title Ten Little Niggers, is tied with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as the second best-selling novel of all time (only J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has sold more copies). This makes it the most widely read mystery novel of all time, so hopefully nothing I say here will be giving much away. (But don’t worry … I’m not going to reveal “whodunnit.”)

In And Then There Were None, eight people are invited to an island off the coast of Devon by a Mr. and Mrs. “U.N. Owen.” (Get it?) When the guests arrive, they are informed that Mr. Owen is away, and that the guests will be attended to by servants Thomas and Ethel Rogers, bringing the cast of characters up to ten.

Even 70 years ago, the N-word was a more sensitive topic in America than it was in England. Presumably because of this, the novel was published in the U.S. as And Then There Were None in 1940, the name of the island was changed from “Nigger Island” to “Indian Island,” and the song that provides the structure of the story was changed from the original, which had been a standard of blackface minstrel shows since 1869, to “Ten Little Indians”:

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in half and then there were six.
Six little Indian boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Indian boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Indian boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Indian boys walking in the zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two Little Indian boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Indian boy left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

Each guest finds a framed copy of this gruesome little poem in his or her room, and is informed over dinner, via a phonograph record, that everyone on the island has gotten away with murder in one way or other, and that all are going to pay. Then the fun begins, as the characters are dispatched in the manner of the rhyme. The first guest drinks cyanide at dinner (choking), the second has an overdose of sleeping pills (oversleeping), the third declares that no one will leave the island and soon after is bludgeoned (one said he’d stay there), and so on.

The novel is a case of truth in advertising. At the end, all the characters are dead. The film is somewhat lighter, and allows a couple of them to escape unharmed. It follows Christie’s own 1943 stage adaptation of her novel, which softened the grim denouement. Given what’s come before, however, the happy ending feels like a bit of a cheat, and modern viewers might find themselves rolling their eyes at the finale.

And Then There Were None is still a great little mystery picture, though, and its cast of veteran character actors play their parts to the hilt. The film occasionally borders on farce, but never in a bad way. I especially enjoyed Walter Huston’s performance as the quietly maniacal Dr. Armstrong, but Louis Hayward as the cat-like Lombard and Barry Fitzgerald as the phlegmatic Judge Quinncannon are both memorable, as well.