I wish I’d recorded Julien Duvivier’s LYDIA on a previous occasion when I had the chance — it played on the late-lamented Carlton Cinema cable channel quite a bit, I think. Instead I downloaded it and got a pretty good copy, good enough to show what a handsome, plush film it is, but with a curiously distorted soundtrack.
Basically, all the music and sound effects were way too loud. Miklos Rosza’s beautiful score, which there is a lot of (I love Miklos but he could overdo it slightly) swamped the dialogue. The FX track wasn’t able to completely smother speech, but it did become very strange when every footstep or rustle of clothing popped out at high volume, announcing how artificial it was. I couldn’t work out HOW such a version of the film had come to exist — it seems like somebody must have access to the original unmixed tracks and put them together in this peculiar way on purpose.
There was another problem — the ending. A weird jump dissolve in the middle of a shot, and then a VERY abrupt transition to the end credits a few seconds later, in which the background score gets chopped off before it can fade. Apart from it’s technical sloppiness, the conclusion seemed dramatically wrong too — we were clearly very close to an ending, but it hadn’t quite come along. “That CAN’T be the ending!” protested Fiona. But it was all the ending we were going to get. It reminded me of the stories about the truncated version of KISS ME DEADLY, which I’ve never seen, where a damaged print resulted in an ending where the house blew up prematurely and we never even knew if the supposed hero escaped with his life. And for years that was the only version in circulation, resulting in critics heaping praise upon Robert Aldrich’s courage in ending the film so harshly.
I’d love to know how this version of LYDIA came to exist, but not as much as I’d love to see an intact one. Duvivier certainly suffered from studio-imposed truncations in Hollywood — episodes of TALES OF MANHATTAN and FLESH AND FANTASY were lopped out. The W.C. Fields section of TOM has since been restored, and while it’s easy to see why Fields’ desperate physical condition appalled the studio suits, it’s a bit harder to see why his only-slightly-less-desperate p.c. in previous films apparently didn’t bother anyone. The deleted chunk of FAF got padded out to make a whole new feature, DESTINY, with such weird results that I really must write about it. But back to LYDIA.
The film is billed as a remake of Duvivier’s French classic CARNET DU BAL, in which a widow, Francoise Rosay, rediscovers the old dance card from her first ball, and goes in search of the men she danced with, to see how differently her life might have turned out. It’s a lovely idea, leading to an episodic structure in which the cream of 30s French acting strut their stuff in a series of brief scenarios — the weakness of which rather let the film down.
LYDIA borrows only one idea from its predecessor — the first ball is seen in flashback through Lydia’s eyes, as a glorious production number, and then revisited as it really was, a much smaller, almost tawdry affair. But while CARNET brackets the film with the two versions of the ball, LYDIA boldly disposes of the idea a couple of scenes in. When Joseph Cotten, fresh from CITIZEN KANE and in old age makeup again, invites his former competitors for Lydia’s hand to meet her once again, after she’s been honoured for her charity work (blind and crippled orphans), Lydia (Merle Oberon under an inch of Westmore latex) reminisces about the wonderful ball, filmed in slow motion —
— and Cotten gently corrects her. All these transitions, by the way, are done by direct cutting, about twenty years before the nouvelle vague popularised it. Since apparently Cotten was cast because Orson Welles, a Duvivier fan, recommended him, possibly the unusual straight cuts across decades are influenced by similar moments in CITIZEN KANE. Duvivier does occasionally shoot from floor level, too.
By getting the misremembered ball out of the way, treating it almost as an incidental gag, Duvivier is now able to use the idea of faulty perception as a motif. Lydia’s first beau is a sportsman who impresses her with his eloquence — except he’s a big dope and his poetic soul is all her own projection. When he gets drunk and tries to be over-friendly, she misinterprets his clumsy affection for a rape attempt. Lydia’s blind pianist suitor composes a piece based around her face, as it was described to him by a child — but the description was faulty, so he has the hair and eye colour wrong. With a dashing sailor, Lydia sees undying love where there’s only the whim of the moment.
As if all this incident weren’t enough, there’s historical incident (the invasion of Cuba), music hall entertainment, imaginary landscapes —
— and Edna May Oliver, in her final role, as Lydia’s domineering but sweet grandmother. With her booming voice and rangy form, EMO is an impressive presence, and that face! A sort of elongated hippopotamus seems to have been worked into it somewhere.
Hard to assess how good or great the film is with this flawed copy, but the visuals are superb. Lee Garmes photographed it, and Vincent Korda designed it, and it’s frequently breathtaking. Big studio gloss, but executed with intelligence and taste. Merle Oberon has never been so good, and so animated — she seems to feed off EMO’s considerable energy, and they make a brilliant and unlikely screen pairing. One shot where EMO lopes across her lobby and the much smaller Oberon trots along behind her had a beautiful comic choreography to it. Oberon also manages the transition from stroppy teen to elderly lady, with several stages in between. Then there’s Cotten, as likeable as ever, who’s given one of the film’s most quietly devastating moments, when Oberon pays him what she thinks is a complement:
To his father, the butler, Cotten observes, “I’ve just been told I’m a gentleman.”
Dad: “So you are, my son.”
Cotten looks grim. “A gentleman is never told he’s a gentleman.”
Also — if you can get a copy right away, do so: it’s very Christmassy.