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Tag Archives: Richard Fraser

The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (April 25, 1947)

The Private Affairs of Bel Ami
The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947)
Directed by Albert Lewin
United Artists

I love George Sanders. I don’t know what it is. I could give you a laundry list of attributes — his effortless charm, his ironic detachment, his pitch-perfect performances as cads and bounders — but that would only scratch the surface.

I like him so much that I found it impossible to root against him as the villain opposite Tyrone Power in John Cromwell’s minor swashbuckling classic Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942) and I even enjoyed his role in Douglas Sirk’s lightweight A Scandal in Paris (1946).

His insouciance and Herculean detachment from the concerns of everyday life weren’t just an onscreen pose. In the suicide note he left in 1972 before taking his own life at the age of 65, Sanders wrote, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool — good luck. Love, George.”

In life as in art, there is always the sense with Sanders that you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Certainly boredom was not the real reason Sanders took his own life. His brother, actor Tom Conway, had died of cirrhosis of the liver — a complication of his alcoholism — five years earlier. Sanders had four failed marriages under his belt, was himself a heavy drinker, and suffered from extremely poor health in his later years, as well as related bouts of depression. But who really knows? No one really kills themselves because they’re bored, but with Sanders, that’s all we’re left with.

Albert Lewin’s The Private Affairs of Bel Ami is based on Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel Bel Ami. Dubbed “the history of a scoundrel,” the film has a lot in common with Lewin’s 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray, which also featured Sanders and Angela Lansbury in starring roles. Both films are black and white adaptations of 19th-century novels that feature a single oil painting shown in stunning Technicolor. In the case of The Picture of Dorian Gray, it’s Dorian Gray’s famous portrait, hidden away in an attic, revealing his corruption. In The Private Affairs of Bel Ami it’s the totally crazy and anachronistic “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” by surrealist painter Max Ernst.

Max Ernst

Ernst’s painting isn’t the only anachronistic thing about Lewin’s film. While the film ostensibly takes place in Paris in 1880, there are no attempts at verisimilitude. Frank Paul Sylos’s art direction in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami is careful and loving, but it looks more like a picture postcard than real life.

Sanders’s character, Georges Duroy, is a bored habitué of Parisian café society who seduces women and uses them for social and professional gain, then discards them as soon as a lovely new opportunity sashays across his path. The women who love him call him “Bel Ami.” The name is ironic, since Duroy is a friend only to himself. When the film begins, he is already ignoring a hurt-looking former conquest while he seduces the pale beauty Clotilde de Marelle (Angela Lansbury). He’ll soon throw Clotilde over for his business partner’s wife, Madeleine Forestier (Ann Dvorak), to whom he proposes marriage in a businesslike fashion literally as her consumptive husband, Charles Forestier (John Carradine), is drawing his last breath.

Angela Lansbury and George Sanders

Clotilde remains a presence in the film throughout. (Perhaps in an attempt to make Duroy more sympathetic, he dies with her name on his lips.)

She loves him madly, and while Duroy’s treatment of Clotilde is never less than ungentlemanly, the film never gets as sexually brutal as the poster above promises with its implication of desperate, “please-don’t-leave-me” fellatio.

With the help of his wife Madeleine, who does most of the actual writing, Duroy becomes a Victorian-era Walter Winchell with a gossip column called “Echoes.” With it, he influences politics and high society, and becomes a high-level player, but he always wants more. He attempts to buy a title from a family named “De Cantel” whose last descendant is missing, presumed dead. With the promise of his incipient nobility, Duroy courts the young heiress Suzanne Walter (Susan Douglas).

In his role as Duroy, Sanders is always doing things that telegraph his utter boredom with the here-and-now, such as playing with a ball and cup or flipping playing cards into a hat on the floor. He has a voracious appetite for fame, wealth, and women, but he almost never seems to be enjoying himself.

It’s a role tailor-made for the deadpan Sanders. In one of the last scenes of the film, in which he is preparing to fight a duel in the rain with an overheated young opponent, he casually asks for an umbrella and says, “I should not like to quit the field of honor with a bad case of the sniffles.”

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Bedlam (May 10, 1946)

Bedlam,jpg
Bedlam (1946)
Directed by Mark Robson
RKO Radio Pictures

Mark Robson’s Bedlam, produced by the legendary Val Lewton, takes place in London in 1761. It was Lewton’s ninth and final horror film.

A novelist, screenwriter, and producer, Lewton was a master of suggestion and eerie ambience. His films were the antithesis of Universal’s horror offerings, which offered iconic monsters and more overt shocks. Lewton had phenomenal success with his first horror picture for RKO, Cat People (1942, directed by Jacques Tourneur), and his reputation continued to grow with a string of classic and near-classic horror pictures; I Walked With a Zombie (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Leopard Man (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Seventh Victim (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Ghost Ship (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir. Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise), The Body Snatcher (1945, dir. Robert Wise), Isle of the Dead (1945, dir. Mark Robson), and Bedlam (1946, dir. Mark Robson).

The screenplay for Bedlam, which was written by Robson and Lewton (under the name “Carlos Keith”), was inspired by the William Hogarth engraving of Bethlehem Hospital (a.k.a. Bedlam); the final plate in his 1735 series “The Rake’s Progress,” which depicts in detail the journey of its hero, William Rakewell, from an inheritor of his father’s wealth and happy cad to a broken man locked up in an insane asylum.

Neither Rakewell nor anyone like him appears as a character in the film Bedlam. Rather, Lewton and Robson took the nightmarish images Hogarth created with such elaborate care in his depiction of Bedlam and shaped them into the window dressing of a film that, like The Ghost Ship and Isle of the Dead, is a meditation on the abuse of power. Hogarth’s vision was of a morally bankrupt society, from the monarchy and the church all the way down to the commoners on the street. Lewton and Robson took this idea and shaped it to their own ends. The inmates of Bedlam may be strange and threatening, but it is the men who control them who are the real monsters.

This idea is exemplified in the first scene of the picture. A lunatic is attempting to escape St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum by scaling the wall. He is forced to jump to his death when a guard carrying a lantern grinds his boot down on the man’s hand.

The man who fell turns out to be an acquaintance of the grotesque Lord Mortimer (Billy House), who arrives at Bedlam that night for a spot of entertainment gawking at the loonies. “Everyone who goes to Bedlam expires from laughter,” he tells his companion, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee). When he discovers that his acquaintance has fallen to his death, however, Lord Mortimer is upset. He had paid the man for poetry to be delivered at a later date, and he feels he is now owed a night of entertainment. Enter George Sims (Boris Karloff), the apothecary general of Bedlam. Master Sims promises Lord Mortimer a play performed by his lunatics.

Sims is a combination of the worst qualities of the characters Karloff played in his previous two collaborations with Lewton; the pure malevolence of cabman John Gray in The Body Snatcher and the twisted abuser of power General Nikolas Pherides in Isle of the Dead.

Disturbed by what she sees at Bedlam, but not fully able to admit it, Lord Mortimer’s companion Nell returns to Bedlam alone and is taken on a tour by Sims. Leering, he tells her, “Ours is a human world, theirs is a bestial world, without reason, without soul. They’re animals. Some are dogs; these, I beat. Some are pigs; those, I let wallow in their own filth. Some are tigers; these, I cage. Some, like this one, are doves.” (Students of script machinations, however, will want to keep an eye on that “dove,” a woman in white who stands immobile, not speaking or blinking.) Also, it should go without saying that Sims’s ability to have anyone he wants committed to Bedlam, regardless of their sanity, will put Nell in grave danger when she breaks with Lord Mortimer and publicly ridicules him.

The rhythm of speech and the language of the script is excellent, and evokes 18th century Britain in a way few of the hackneyed period pieces of the ’40s did. Even if it’s not a perfect replication of the time, it does a pretty good job, and all of the little details are a joy to pick out, such as the words “I love sweet Betty Careless” scrawled on the wall in Bedlam, a detail inspired by the man in the Hogarth plate who has scrawled the initials of his beloved, “Charming Betty Careless” — a famous prostitute of the day — on a banister.

Viewers looking for a straight horror picture might be disappointed by Bedlam, although its scenes within the insane asylum walls deliver plenty of chills. Like many of Lewton’s later horror pictures, it’s an ambitious film that uses the trappings of horror to deliver a deeper message about a sick society.

White Pongo (Oct. 10, 1945)

WhitePongo

White Pongo (1945)
Directed by Sam Newfield
Sigmund Neufeld Productions / Producers Releasing Corporation (P.R.C.)

If you needed a giant primate in Hollywood in the ’40s, Ray “Crash” Corrigan was your go-to guy. Corrigan would put on any ape costume for a paycheck. And if you didn’t have a particular vision of what your giant primate should look like, Corrigan was happy to wear his own fitted ape suit that was covered with “fur” made of human hair. He even did children’s parties and reportedly terrified some kids.

Nicknamed “Crash” for the way he tackled other football players and for his fighting skills, Corrigan got his start in Hollywood as a physical trainer to the stars, as well as performing stuntwork and acting in bit parts, such as his appearances in an ape costume in Tarzan and His Mate (1934) and as an “Orangopoid” in the Flash Gordon serial (1936). He got his big break playing a human when he was picked to star in the Republic serial Undersea Kingdom in 1936, after which he was signed as a term player for Republic Pictures. He eventually left over a pay dispute and went to Monogram Pictures.

He appeared in more than 50 movies in the late ’30s and early ’40s (including 24 outings as “Tucson Smith” in Republic’s “Three Mesquiteers” series and 20 appearances as “Crash Corrigan” in Monogram’s “Range Busters” series), but even during this fertile period of his career playing humans, he frequently found himself in monkey suits. And no, that’s not a euphemism for tuxedos.

He appeared as a gorilla or ape in Round-Up Time in Texas (1937), the Three Stooges short “Three Missing Links” (1938), the Boris Karloff horror film The Ape (1940), Law of the Jungle (1942), The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942), Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942), Captive Wild Woman (1943), She’s for Me (1943), Nabonga (1944), The Monster Maker (1944), and The Monster and the Ape (1945). He even did double duty in some films. In the Three Mesquiteers film Three Texas Steers (1939), he appeared not only as his recurring character Tucson Smith, but also as “Willie the Gorilla.” And in The White Gorilla (1945), he played not only the hero, but also “Konga,” the white gorilla whom the hero fights.

He also appeared as the eponymous White Pongo in this P.R.C. cheapie directed by Sam Newfield. It premiered in Los Angeles on Wednesday, October 10, 1945, and was released nationwide a month later, on Friday, November 2nd. The film is one of the poorer examples of a jungle adventure I’ve seen. After the credits finish rolling over an image of Africa, a pointer stick appears, insouciantly circling an enormous section of the southwestern coast of the continent as the narrator says, “Stretching north and south of the equator in west Africa are vast areas of dense forests and swamplands as yet unexplored by white men. A virgin territory penetrated only by the great Congo river and its tributaries. Here in this wild, steaming portion of the Dark Continent is the home of the ‘ponga,’ native name for the gorilla. It was here on the fringe of gorilla territory, in a nameless native village inhabited by a tribe of fierce Negritos, an incident occurred which was destined to startle the civilized world.”

There’s so much to work with already I don’t know where to start. The combination of the verb “penetrate” with the noun “virgin territory,” the fact that “Negritos” are ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, the idea that any village inhabited by humans would be “nameless.” The only thing the film sort of gets right is the general location where gorillas live. Once the wielder of the pointer calms down and focuses on the area where the Atlantic Ocean feeds into the Congo, that is.

The plot of the film, such as it is, involves a crew of scientists and hunters who are hot to find the white ponga because if he turns out not to be a hoax, he could be the “missing link that will prove Darwin’s theory.” Why they believe this despite having no direct contact with the creature is not explained. Because he has white fur? The mind reels. The leader of the expedition, Sir Harry Bragdon (Gordon Richards), of course brings along his beautiful blond daughter, Pamela (Maris Wrixon). The most watchable scenes in White Pongo are the ones she shares with the great white hunter of the expedition, Geoffrey Bishop (Richard Fraser), who’s believable in his role as a tall, lean, Rhodesian rifleman (even though he’s a Scot with an accent that sounds British). Unfortunately, there’s also an unnecessary triangle involving a twit named Clive Carswell (Michael Dyne) who fancies himself in love with Pamela, even though she has no interest in him.

At just under 72 minutes, the film still drags. There seems to be more stock footage, travelling scenes, and establishing shots than there are scenes that advance the story. Things don’t really pick up until the last 15 minutes, which are fairly brisk, though still not what I would call “action-packed.” For a guy who made wearing an ape costume a vocation, Corrigan doesn’t really move or act like a primate, making his large role in the climax more laughable than anything else. And the frequently interspersed stock footage of actual monkeys doesn’t help. Unless you have a fetish for humans in gorilla suits, you can pass this one up with a clear conscience.