Wednesday, July 21, 2010

If I Were Free

Irene as Sarah Cazenove

Release date 12.01.1933

“Who would care to be found dead in a ditch with you!?”
Tono (Nils Asther) to Sarah (Irene)

Sarah Cazanove (Irene) has the nerve to deny her husband Tono (Nils Asther) to play the chaperon for him and his mistress. Tono Cazanove - what a meaningful second name - then threatens to shoot her, but before he comes around to that, some guests arrive for cocktails. Instead of murdering her Tono simply leaves his wife letting her to her guests and this utterly embarrassing situation. Sarah tries to commit suicide but is stopped by one of the guests - a lawyer named Gordon Evers (Clive Brook) who has his own share of unhappy marriage. He encourages Sarah to come to London with him and to start a new life.

Sarah and Tono (Nils Asther)

We are heading in the direction of the first happy interlude, which shows us Sarah at the opening day of her interior decorating shop and business. Being a happy divorcee Sarah answers to Gordon’s “If I were free …” question with a very romantic “I considered marriage for quite some time now…” End of first happy interlude.

first happy interlude - "If I were free..."

Often film wives are not really interested in their husbands, but they don’t want to divorce them either. Katherine Evers (Lorraine McLean) is not an exception to the rule, and refuses Gordon a divorce, especially because under Sarah’s loving influence Gordon started earnestly working on his career again. Though marriage is out of reach at the moment the couple decides to go on with their relationship anyway - we are still in the pre-code era, so that’s allowed.

second happy interlude

The second happy interlude is a trip to a romantic country spot, which gives Irene the chance to sing, but more problems are already arising at the horizon. One pops up in the person of Gordon’s friend Hector (Henry Stephenson) claiming that Gordon’s liaison with Sarah interferes with Gordon’s career. As we know, true love is sacrificial and thus Sarah decides to leave Gordon writing him a farewell letter. As if this wouldn’t be enough Gordon has to face a severe surgery because of an old injury he got in WW1 -  with a chance of surviving from a hundred to one…and where is Sarah?!

Henry Stephenson as problem and capable sidekick

After “The Silver Cord” and “Ann Vickers” this film is quite a decline, and looking at my plot summary it seems I just don’t manage to be serious about it. “If I Were Free” just doesn’t work - it’s not a real romance, it’s not a real weepie, it offers no real challenge of any kind for Miss Dunne - maybe with the exception to have to act a romantic entanglement with such a wooden actor as Clive Brooks who creates his role with facial expressions from A to B. Consequently, his most convincing scene is the one showing him still half anesthetized after the surgery. At least at that moment Irene starts to sing again - she sings two times the lullaby "Schlafe, mein Prinzchen"  in German, which is after all a nice tidbit.

Sarah singing for Gordon  - because of therapeutical reasons

The fact that director Elliot Nugent offers no interesting angles and that the “if I were free…” love scene is badly out of continuity edited, isn’t helpful either. It’s a mediocre filler of a film and a waste of Irene’s talent. If there is something worthwhile watching it’s the beginning. The few scenes Irene has with Nils Asther, because she makes the humiliation of a woman - whose husband adds insult to injury - touchingly perceptible. Leaves the problem that Tono’s thesis that Sarah isn’t attractive at all - even dead you wouldn’t want to be found with her - looking at Miss Dunne isn’t really convincing. What a pity that we don’t get to see his mistress!

Sarah and Gordon´s mother (Laura Hope Crews)

To end this on a positive note - there are some old, capable acquaintances around like Laura Hope Crews as Gordon’s mother and Henry Stephenson contributing as Gordon’s sidekick.

Well, if I ever would have to pack my “Irene bag for the island” with a limited amount of luggage I’d leave “If I Were Free” behind on the mainland…

However, have a look for yourselves:

Here is part one!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ann Vickers

Ann after she lost her daughter
Release date 10.06.1933

"...I named her too...None of those meaningless names they use today...but I found a modern virtue to name my daughter - pride! The pride of life, the pride of love, the pride of work, the pride of being a woman. Those would be her virtues - Pride Vickers!"

Dedicated social worker Ann Vickers (Irene), though claiming that she isn’t ready for love yet, falls for Captain Lafe Resnick (Bruce Cabot) who she meets at a settlement’s house dance. It’s the time of WW1 and Lafe is at the brink of leaving for France, which gives the couple about two weeks. Lafe proposes to Ann who rejects him for the time being but promises to marry him as soon as he´ll come back.

meeting Lafe (Bruce Cabot)...

This whirlwind of two weeks is ended by Lafe’s departure and soon the incoming letters are less often and distant in tone. Ann is pregnant and when she confronts Lafe with this fact it’s obvious that marrying her only would be a duty for him, which Ann firmly spurns. Like a bubble, her last emotions for Lafe burst and destroy her being in love with an idea of a man and not with the man himself. From now on it’s going to be her career and her child - she is sure it will be a daughter - for Ann Vickers.

at Copperhead Gap Prison...

Ann loses this child - her dreamed of and about daughter - which only leaves her the career. She decides to do it the hard way and to work for some time at the Copperhead Gap Prison. This place is hell on earth, with brutal inhuman treatment of the prisoners.
When Ann tries to fight those conditions, she is blackmailed into a resignation by the director and the main ward of the prison. This doesn’t stop Ann from writing a book about her experiences that becomes a bestseller.

at the Stuyvesant Home For Women

At last, Ann gets the chance to try out her own reforming ideas as director of the Stuyvesant home, a reformatory home for women. Ann is successful but lonely - until she meets Judge Barney Dolphin (Walter Huston) at a party, a man with whom she dealt professionally several times but hadn’t met yet. From the very start, their relationship is something special - the fitting physical and mental match. Barney is married to a woman, who prefers Europe to her husband’s company, and thus Ann and he have to keep their tie a secret.

meeting Barney (Walter Huston)...

Nevertheless, Ann’s pregnancy is highly welcomed by the couple and the birth of their son Matthew makes the bond between them even deeper. But there is not much time to enjoy their togetherness - Barney is accused of being bribed by taking stock tips from criminals and sentenced to a six-year penalty. Suddenly Ann founds herself not only in love with a man exactly being the kind of dishonest official she fought all her life but being placed on the other side of the bars. After losing her work because of her private life Ann manages to make a living with writing articles on prison reform and she waits for Barney…

Barney as prisoner...

This time the plot summary was a rather difficult task because it’s an interesting and rather complex storyline and I tried not to go into too many details because that’s a movie I decidedly want you to watch.
It’s a film about a woman on a search, someone who wants to better the world - “even if it takes the whole winter” as Ann is described by her friend Marvinia Wormser (Edna May Oliver) -  a film about humanity, about principles and about how our principles affect our humanity and vice versa. Ann is surrounded by three men of importance : Lafe who makes the impression of a sensitive, honest man but is a scoundrel at heart, Lindsey (Conrad Nagel) a lawyer-judge friend of Ann who stands for bloodless harping on about principles, and Barney who is the convicted rascal but the most honest and complete person of this triangle. Even the rather conventional, conservative end which finishes Ann’s search with the turning to her man and son - fitting not only for a women’s film of this era but also according to the novel by Sinclair Lewis - is an act of personal integrity and as such just the consequent end of this film.

visiting Barney in jail...

These very human topics are embedded in a very well made film, with an at times almost naturalistic quality. Especially impressing is director Cromwell’s use of close-ups, which he utilizes to add intensity to dialogue by calmly switching from face to face - thus not only adding emphasis to a scene but bringing the story to a significant moment of rest. Once again we are moving on a quick path and there is a lot to tell in only 72 minutes but by using clever perspectives like the cross-fade of Irene´s face for the scenery in the prison, director Cromwell avoids any feeling of breathlessness.

hell on earth...

This time Irene has in the person of Walter Huston a real leading man to play with, and together they make a wonderfully adult couple, falling head over heels for each other but still with wide-open eyes for the consequences. Indeed in their naturalness together and how Irene and Walter Huston pull that off, we forget about the fact that this is an adulterous affair with an illegitimate kid - certainly not the normal social standard - and of course pre-codish as can be. Pre-martial sex, pregnancy out of wedlock - not only once but twice - illegitimacy and corrupt law that’s a nice “ pre-code medley“.
“Ann Vickers” is centered on Irene and she gets the chance to embody a full-fledged personality with very different aspects and sides - and as we know by now if there was a chance to take, Irene took it. None of her peers has a real extensive part, even Walter Huston merely turns up in the last third of the film.

publicity for "Ann Vickers"

This film has a special place in my own personal Dunne history -  as so many, I started with one of Irene’s comedies liking it enough to check out other Dunne films. One of those following films was “Ann Vickers” and after that one, I knew that I had to watch all of Miss Dunne´s available movies - which I did. Moreover, another thing began after watching this film: I started to pay attention to how Irene uses her hands and she does the most impressive, meaningful things with them…

Don’t miss that film if you get the chance to watch it, because it’s an utterly interesting story, because it’s a prime example of a pre-code and of old Hollywood craftsmanship and - last not least - because it’s such a wonderful Irene Dunne movie!

That´s director John Cromwell, and he deserves to be shown!

Here is still a nice tidbit for you: the soldier longingly staring at Irene at the settlement’s house dance is director John Cromwell…it seems not only Hitchcock did show up in his own films!