2017-03-26

sovay: (Claude Rains)
It's been a long week. Have some seventy-three-year-old escapism. It worked for me.

I watched On Approval (1944) because it was on TCM and I had Clive Brook on the brain after rewatching Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927) last week; I am recommending it because it turned out to be one of the funniest and oddest movies I have seen of its era, Busby Berkeley and the Archers included. I can make it sound relatively normal if I describe it as an acrid comedy of misalliance in the tradition of Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde, all good lines and bad behavior—when a rich, exacting widow engages her titled but impoverished suitor for a month of platonic trial marriage in a remote cottage in the Highlands, the cross-purpose arrivals of their respective best friends throw the experiment hopelessly awry and everybody gets, if not what they wanted when they arrived, then at least what they deserve by the time they leave. You will get a much more accurate idea of the experience of actually watching this thing if I mention up front the parodic use of stock footage, the fallible, interactive narrator, the surrealist dream sequences, and the rampant fourth-wall-breaking. The film opens with a deafening montage of ripped-from-the-newsreels warfare—dogfights, depth charges, incendiaries, anti-aircraft guns, all of which the doughty newsreader's tones of Gaumont's own E.V.H. Emmett survey more in sorrow than in anger. Nostalgically, he attempts to encourage the narrative back to the halcyon tranquility of the pre-war years, only to discover a riot of jitterbugging teenagers zooming around on motorcycles, mashing in the back seats of motorcars, and littering in the parks; in order to get away from this "age of speed and noise so much like war you hardly notice the difference," he's forced to hopscotch back over World War I and the Edwardians before relaxing at last into fulsome praise of the late Victorian era, its gentility, its restraint, and especially its gender roles. "Women were women and they didn't forget it!" However much the narrator may blather on about the virtues of the shy, modest Victorian maiden as opposed to that deadly assertive creature the modern girl, however, the camera is slyly on the side of the women, showing them smiling stiffly at the fatuous attentions of their menfolk and gritting their teeth through afternoons of needlepoint and piano. The film's very premise puts the lie to the submissive myth of the angel in the house, as the narrator will discover when he follows some of the ladies to a night out at the theater. They are going to see the "terribly daring" new play On Approval; in the pages of the program a sharp-eyed viewer may discern photographs of the film's principals in character. The narrator perks up: "Perhaps we're going to find out just why they were called the Naughty Nineties." If he has a hat, you hope he's hanging on to it. He has no idea what he's in for.

On Approval was Brook's last major work in film—he would appear in a handful of TV parts in the '50's and an all-star-cast cameo in 1963—and it is a hell of a swan song as such. He not only directed but co-produced the film with Sydney Box, co-wrote the screenplay with Terence Young, and co-starred with Roland Culver, Googie Withers, and Beatrice Lillie.1 The cast are uniformly excellent and look like they are having a blast, performing their archetypes at just the right pitches of satire or relatability. Lillie's Maria Wislack is a diamond-cut distillation of imperious, icy snippiness who can give as good as she gets with acid-tongued roués like Brook's George, ninth tenth Duke of Bristol, but has perhaps a little more difficulty judging the effect on her tender-hearted intended; that's Culver's Richard Halton, who has the weak-chinned good-sportingness of a Freddy Eynsford-Hill and trims his moustache to the strains of "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay" and has trouble telling whisky from soda, though he can distinguish the color of a woman's eyes. Withers doesn't bother pretending to an American accent as Helen Hale, the pickle magnate's daughter who's renting Bristol House for the duration of the London season; she starts out luminously attentive to her rakish, penniless host, who seems to her the height of British sophistication, but there's steel under her sweetness and those dewy eyes can conceal amused resolve as well as suppressed tears. Brook himself as George reminded me unexpectedly of Alan Rickman, with whom he shares a saturnine deadpan and the ability to say flamboyantly cynical things while barely opening his mouth, as if the object of his insults were hardly worth the enunciation. He could go toe-to-toe with Lord Henry Wotton for world-weary epigrams and has a habit of interesting himself unstoppably in the affairs of his friends, especially when they don't want him to. He does not get all the best lines. It is only partly his fault that everyone ends up at Maria's cottage near Kyle of Lochalsh with no servants willing to wait on them and only a dinghy to get them on or off the island, after which the Highland weather promptly goes down the drain in solidarity with the help and the quartet's interactions take on the ominous chemistry of vinegar and baking soda. I was prepared for the movie to go all sorts of places after the prologue and generally it did, but I did not expect it to give me flashforwards to Bruce Robinson's Withnail & I (1987)—as the rain plinks merrily through the fifteen different leaks in the roof and they only have fourteen pots and bowls to catch it in, George buttoned to the chin in an extraordinary plaid overcoat slumps against the kitchen wall and moans, "My stomach is cold, my head is hot, my arteries are hardening—only alcohol will get me on the train." I had just time to think "I must have some booze. I demand to have some booze!" before Richard replied briskly and unsympathetically, "Nonsense. Never again will I raise a finger. Besides, you shouldn't have drunk all the cooking sherry," and then we had to pause the film so that I could explain to [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel that I was laughing because George was just lucky they didn't have Ronsonol lying around in the 1890's. I also admit that while I watched this movie for Brook, I didn't expect to see quite as much of him as I did thanks to one scene which finds him indolently knees-up in a too-small bathtub with only some suds and a well-placed sponge to preserve the innocence of the British Board of Film Censors. God knows how this picture was even released in the U.S. Nine-tenths of the itchy, twangy tension in this film would dissolve at once if anyone just had sex, but the platonic terms of the trial—and the laws of comedy—preclude it, so everyone sublimates furiously into dialogue as fast and sharp and innuendo-riding as screwball. Or, in Helen's case, just murmurs sweetly into Richard's ear: "Tell her to go to Hell."

As with Charles Laughton and The Night of the Hunter (1955), I can't believe Brook never directed anything else. He has an incredible sense of what works on film and how far he can push the theatricality of both the action and the camerawork. I named Wilde and Coward as influences, but more than anything else On Approval made me think of movies from the 1960's when Richard Lester was throwing every cinematographic absurdity at the screen that would stick. It's not enough to reflect the increasing claustrophobia and dissatisfaction of the passing weeks in the characters' dialogue or manner; we get a hectic montage of creaking oarlocks, clattering dishes, and Maria striking over and over the opening chords of a song that goes "I'm just seventeen and I've never been—" until we're afraid to find out just what she's never. All two-person conversations are cross-cut with their opposite numbers, breaking down apparent lines of alliance or showing up supposed matches to devastating contrast. A pair of intercut nightmares include a talking moose head and a balletic passage in hilariously pretentious slo-mo which then undercranks itself à la Benny Hill to catch up. The narrator is behind the eight-ball to the last, mixing up the details of his characters' lives and receiving from them the amusement he deserves:

"Tell me, Duke, how did you lose your money?"
"Women."
"Yes, I know; I mean your big money."
"Big women!"
2

Brook and Young adapted the screenplay from Frederick Lonsdale's 1926 stage hit of the same name; TCM tells me it was Brook's idea to translate the action from the Roaring Twenties to the Victorian era, on the theory that the racy premise would be even funnier in a more famously repressed age. I think not only was he right in terms of immediate payoff, the spoofing effect of a lavish period setting—costumes by Cecil Beaton—with a satirically modern sensibility is one of the reasons On Approval hasn't dated at all, because not many people were pulling that kind of stunt in 1944. You could double-feature it with Bryan Forbes' The Wrong Box (1966), is what I think I'm saying. I applauded the ending gag at home, in my own office, because I had never seen anything like it outside of the photography of Angus McBean. Plus the story remains both funny and clever about its battle-of-the-sexes tropes in ways that hold up in the era of third- and fourth-wave feminism, which I suspect is even more unusual than being visually ahead of one's time. I regret that I cannot point everyone toward instant gratification on YouTube, but it looks as though the film may be available on Blu-Ray and has streamed on Amazon in the past. Grab it if you see it in a library sale. This social experiment brought to you by my not at all straitlaced backers at Patreon.

1. Despite a five-decade career on stage, Lillie made only seven feature films, of which the best are considered the silent Exit Smiling (1926) and On Approval. One of the others is Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), which is where I turned out to have seen her and about which I feel very awkward.

2. I've seen this kind of imploding narrator in one other movie from the '40's, Leslie Howard's The Gentle Sex (1943). If anyone knows of other examples, I'd love to hear about them.
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