Bickel Victory

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Captures the mood chez mois round about now.

As these things do at Shadowplay, John Cromwell Week is running on into a fortnight or so…

I’m indebted to Nicky Smith for the information that it was John Cromwell who advised a young actor named Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel that he might do better under the name Fredric March. The name, and the actor, were subsequently so successful that they appeared together in two Cromwell films, VICTORY and SO ENDS OUR NIGHT. I admired both.

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VICTORY adapts Joseph Conrad’s novel, previously filmed by Maurice Tourneur and later a dream project for Richard Lester (scripted by Pinter).

In The Hollywood Professionals Volume 5, Cromwell is quoted by author Kingsley Canham as expressing dissatisfaction with VICTORY, since he couldn’t get the performance he wanted out of chief villain Sir Cedric Hardwicke and he couldn’t find a cockney actor to play his “secretary,” thus was forced to resort to Jerome Cowan, a good all-rounder but no Londoner. In fact, to my eyes, Hardwicke appears excellent — a modern, minimalist take on malignancy. His sinister sunglasses, a touch borrowed from Ben Deeley in the silent version (Conrad makes no mention of them) make his face (even) more skull-like than usual.

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If Cromwell was dissatisfied with his baddies, he surely must have been pleased with March and particularly Betty Field, who produces a remarkably credible English accent which really wasn’t called for, but which sounds very sweet. You may know her from OF MICE AND MEN, but this is an unrecognizably different characterisation. It’s essential that we care about this couple despite their age difference and the brevity of their acquaintance. March is so gentle and Field so vulnerable… Cromwell assists with the same direct-address camera angles he used in OF HUMAN BONDAGE, letting the audience inhabit each character in turn.

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Also: Sig Rumann as the oily Schomberg, perfect if unimaginative type-casting as a sneaky blowhard. He doesn’t have a beard to point in this one, but his chin threatens to go off all on its own.

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SO ENDS OUR NIGHT is a tale of stateless refugees in pre-war Europe, from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It suffers from a structural feature easier to make work in a book: a divided protagonist. A very young Glenn Ford gets most of the screen time, pursuing Margaret Sullavan (practically compulsory casting in Remarque adaptations, it seems), but March keeps popping up and taking the narrative away with him. He’s a more compelling actor and he gets Erich Von Stroheim and Frances Dee to interact with, but it has the effect of deforming the narrative.

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Although my copies of both movies are pretty rotten, it’s just possible to appreciate the contribution of William Cameron Menzies to the latter film — as production designer, he did far more than plan sets, he sketched every composition, somewhat usurping Cromwell’s role with the director’s grateful cooperation. The film was a low-budget one — too depressing a story to excite Hollywood enthusiasm, even at the start of the war — and Menzies’ careful planning allowed miracles to be achieved.

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Another Menzies-designed Cromwell flick, MADE FOR EACH OTHER (1939), is available in pristine form. Despite starring James Stewart and Carole Lombard, it’s pretty bad — two-thirds painfully predictable sitcom schtick (admittedly, they hadn’t had decades of domestic television comedy to wear out this kind of thing yet) followed by a mind-bogglingly inappropriate action climax. As a slight recompense, it does offer Louise Beavers (Mae West’s grape-peeler-in-chief, Beulah) playing an intelligent and capable woman, which she rarely got to do. Beavers would turn up very briefly in Cromwell’s late production, THE GODDESS, demonstrating his long memory.

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After an hour devoted to Stewart’s struggle to raise a family and get on in his law firm (as boss, Charles Coburn plays an intransigent patriarch just as he did in the superior IN NAME ONLY), the movie abruptly swerves into lunatic melodrama, as the Stewart-Lombard baby gets sick and an experimental vaccine must be flown at once, overnight in a torrential storm, from Salt Lake City. Selznick, the presiding lunatic in this whole affair, throws resources at this totally left-field ending, and Menzies provides dazzling visual accompaniment. It’s like I Love Lucy suddenly decided to climax with the third act of DIE HARD. Madness.

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9 Responses to “Bickel Victory”

  1. I’m glad to hear that Victory is marvellous. Would you be interested in doing a week of Conrad adaptations? The number of good or at least interesting ones is surprisingly high.

    Of all the Menzies-designed films, So Ends Our Night is the one I’d most like to see restored. As you say, it’s impressive even in the bad copies which appear to be the only ones currently available. I concur with your views on the cast.

  2. Hmm, having covered the good Victories (there’s a pre-code with Richard Arlen which Cromwell heaped scorn upon) and Hitchcock’s Sabotage, I’m not sure. Quite liked Lord Jim but in no hurry to revisit.

    What else is out there?

  3. I’m sure you know Reed’s Outcast of the Islands and Ridley Scott’s Duellists. Wajda directed The Shadow Line, with a very young Tom Wilkinson. Terence Young directed The Rover, with Anthony Quinn, Rita Hayworth, and Richard Johnson. The omnibus Face to Face includes an adaptation of The Secret Sharer, directed by John Brahm, with James Mason and Michael Pate. There’s a French adaptation of Under Western Eyes, directed by Marc Allégret, with Fresnay, Barrault, and Michel Simon, and a German one of Victory called The Devil’s Paradise, with Jürgen Prochnow, Sam Waterston, Mario Adorf, and Dominique Pinon. There are many more Conrad films, but these are among the most promising possibilities.

  4. John Warthen Says:

    Add on Akerman’s ALMAYER’S FOLLY, and the remarkable GABRIELLE with Huppert (atypical Conrad– no ships, just the very small island of a toxic marriage).
    In my mid-teens, I visited relatives in Massachusetts, where TV carried old movies late at night; coming from Georgia, where TV went dead at 12, I didn’t get much sleep. The first film to keep me up was MADE FOR EACH OTHER– hokum. But this was my first look at Carole Lombard so I watched to the end.

  5. I’ve been meaning to watch the Brahm. And Gabrielle sounds like a treat. I should read a little more Conrad before attempting such a project, though…

  6. …and Apocalypse Now, of course.

  7. chris schneider Says:

    I was going to mention the Richard Arlen VICTORY, which has William Wellman as a director. Nancy Carroll as the female lead, too. I’ve always wanted to see the Terence Young ROVER, even though I don’t have much optimism concerning it.

    … and then there’s LAUGHING ANNE, with Herbert Wilcox directing Margaret Lockwood. It would seem to be the nadir of something-or-other. At least if one believes makers of snarky remarks.

  8. chris schneider Says:

    Also there’s AMY FOSTER, with Beeban Kidron directing Rachel Weisz and Vincent Perez and Ian McKellan. Not that I’ve seen it, of course.

  9. Cromwell was scornful of the Arlen version. It’s likely to be the only adaptation of Victory by a director who hasn’t read the book.

    Lester’s would have been the first to retain the book’s ending, a hard sell but a necessary one, I think. The Tourneur film is great but its happy ending makes it suddenly seem a trivial story. It’s been suggested that Cormwell’s was positioned as a wartime allegory of preparedness… it has a well-written ending, but it’s undersold, as if Cromwell and March didn’t believe in it and were kind of apologising for it.

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