Home Service

Huge gratitude to Talking Pictures TV for screening ENCHANTMENT (1948), which I don’t think I’d ever heard of, directed by Irving Reis, who was merely a name to me. It’s been a while since I discovered a 40s Hollywood film that was a revelation to me.

It’s based on a Rumer Godden novel — one might think her an extraordinarily fortunate author in her adaptations, except I don’t think she liked any of them, certainly not BLACK NARCISSUS, which maybe affirms some part of the auteur theory by transmogrifying wholly into a Powell & Pressburger joint. Though it’s certainly possible to like both book and film. But Rumer didn’t, is my point.

It’s also a Goldwyn production, and stuffed full of his favourite talent — not Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo, you understand, but David Niven (DODSWORTH, WUTHERING HEIGHTS), Teresa Wright (THE LITTLE FOXES, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES) and Leo g. Carroll (WUTHERING HEIGHTS again), the whole being shot by Gregg Toland (most of the above). It’s basically a William Wyler movie without Wyler, which might be useful in assessing his contribution to the films he made for Goldwyn, except I’d rather just rave about this one.

Oh, and the cast also includes Evelyn Keyes, who is delightful, and Farley Granger, almost equally so only in a moustache. I’m not always anti-whiskers — David Niven doesn’t seem complete without his lip-caterpillar, for instance, but the more hair you put on Farley’s face, the less of Farley’s face you see, and that has to be counted as a loss.

For some reason the Blitz seems a time of romance, which is crazy — bombs falling from the sky onto human habitations are not romantic — but there it is. I’ve been reading Connie Willis, who suffers from the same inappropriate yearning for tumbling ordinance. This movie is framed by the war, but glides from thence into flashbacks going back to Victorian times.

Niven is barely recognizable (save for that lightbulb cranium) in the contemporary sections, wrapped in a rather convincing make-up and giving a thoroughly convincing performance of old age. His voice is completely unrecognizable, save for a few moments when his distinctive way with a line creeps through.

     

The leaping about in time is accomplished with a lot of adventuresome skill, some of which may be accredited to Toland, who after all had CITIZEN KANE to his credit. And so we get temporal shifts delivered with lighting changes (before Death of a Salesman) , and one extraordinary bit where the camera pans out of flashback into present tense in a single unbroken shot, the kind of thing very rarely seen in the forties — THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP is the best-known example. And a lovely moment where we a scene fades out except for a character’s hand, which lingers momentarily like the Cheshire Cat’s grin or the blind hermit’s cross in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, then dissolves to another image of a hand, and irises out in a new scene. That trick turns up in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, but practically nowhere else in screen history.

Evocative effects-work for the Blitz scenes.

Also, for fans of eccentric forties storytelling (David Bordwell), it’s narrated by a house. That would have been enough to make me love it, but there’s so much more.

What other Reis ought I to see? I’ll be all over THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBYSOXER, of course, but are there other gems?

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13 Responses to “Home Service”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    For the Willis, is that the BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR dyad that you’re reading? Lot of good material there. For a story that doesn’t go inside the heads of its characters, though, it do go on … and on …

  2. Not on those yet — I began with a short story, The Fire Watch, then To Say Nothing of the Dog, which takes in the firebombing of Coventry.

    To Each His Own is a favourite Hollywood England Blitz film, but I really MUST get around to Fires Were Started. Downright embarrassing I haven’t seen that.

  3. I enjoyed this one very much. I thought David did a great job as the younger and older versions of the same man. A sweet and touching tale. I was surprised when I came across it because I’d never heard of it before. Seems like one that should be a bit better known.

  4. David Wingrove Says:

    What is the title of the original Rumer Godden novel? I’m a huge fan of her writing…but I can’t identify this with any of the titles I know.

  5. Enchantment was made after the war, so may have been affected by nostalgia. All the same, the Blitz may not have inspired romance: “bombs falling from the sky onto human habitations are not romantic” but they do inspire baser instincts. There’s a recent book, The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel, which looks at the Blitz writing and sex-lives of Henry Green, Graham Greene and others, though their own Blitz novels are better.
    If you have really never seen Fires were Started, go away and immerse yourself in the complete works of Humphrey Jennings and don’t come back ’til you’ve done so! There’s also The Bells Go Down, directed by Basil Dearden – another film about the AFS which would be regarded as a masterpiece if people didn’t compare it with Fires Were Started.

  6. Matthew Davis Says:

    The tracking through the house at the beginning with an overture of past voices/dialog reminded me of the beginning of “Way to the Stars” (45) and the ending of Great Expectations (46).

    You may want to avoid Willis’s Black Out/All Clear. While Americans seem to have enjoyed them, they got a terrific pasting from English readers. When they first came out there was a small industry in pointing out historical howlers: somebody using the Jubilee line in WW2 as well as numerous other Underground errors, getting casual terms wrong, money wrong, local culture wrong, Londoners using American phrases instead of English ( ala “There’ll be buffalo roaming just outside of Godalming in good old London town” from the musical in Sir Norbert Smith), etc, etc.

  7. Hi David. This film is based on her novel Take Three Tenses: A Fugue In Time.

  8. Thanks, Maddy! I suspect the film maybe simplifies the timeline by playing the childhood flashbacks ahead of the adult ones, so we’re never dealing with more than two timeframes at any point in the story. But it’s stil inventively done.

    I noted the unlikely appearance of a mosquito in St Paul’s Cathedral in The Fire Watch, but things like that don’t bother me too much once I’m aware of them.

    I’ve seen Bells Go Down — was surprised to see which major character gets offed. That’s all I remember, though. Maybe a rewatch after Fires Were Started.

    A great Blitz novel not many know is Darkness Falls from the Air, by the author of The Small Back Room, Nigel Balchin. And also Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude.

  9. Irving Reis directed The Big Street — the greatest film Lucille Ball ever made. It’s finale is both visually and emotionally overwhelming

  10. War itself has always been used as a time of heightened emotion. I recently saw TO EACH HIS OWN (1946), a post-war epic melodrama expertly directed Mitchel Leisen. It covers two generations and the two world wars, and opens during the blackout. Especially notable is the toughness of its protagonist played by Olivia de Havilland.

  11. bensondonald Says:

    Not that conversant in British wartime films, my image of bombings comes from “Foyle’s War”, which focuses on the less savory conduct in a small town. The series is summed up by a scene of wardens searching a bombed house for bodies; they find one with a knife in the chest. Now it’s a death that matters to the police.

    There was a Hollywood film called “Gaby”, which I understand to be a sort of remake of “Waterloo Bridge”. Didn’t make it through the whole film, but the ending involved love and forgiveness during a soundstage air raid. On an hour-long TCM interview, the otherwise open Leslie Caron simply declined to discuss it.

  12. I thought I knew what Gaby was but it turns out I didn’t. With poor old John Kerr.

    I love To Each His Own. Leisen said what made the sentimentality tolerable was the middle section where Olivia becomes “a bitch.”

    Recently got The Big Street and forgot it was Reis! Must watch.

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