WINGS OF THE MORNING (1937) — shown to a select few as part of Filmhouse’s beloved “Projecting the Archive” programme — was Britain’s first Technicolor film. The great Jack Cardiff, trained in the ways of three-strip at MGM, was camera operator, but Ray Rennahan (an old hand from the two-strip days of DR X) was cinematographer. Harold D Schuster directed, but we don’t care! What concerns us is the gorgeous, soft, muted hues and the bizarro plot turns and genre shifts.
Technicolor is very much under the supervision of Natalie Kalmus, estranged wife of the bloke who invented it — she was drummed out of Hollywood after her dictatorial demands about how colo(u)r should be deployed ran up against the expertise of photographers and designers who could get great results by ignoring her. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) seems to have been the test case: Kalmus demanded restraint, they cut loose for one scene, found they liked the more vivid look, and booted her off the set. Thereafter Nat K would find herself working exclusively in Britain, getting kicked off sets by Michael Powell. But that hasn’t happened yet in 1937, where it’s forever gentle earth tones, and Natalie Kalmus and her law of restraint holds illimitable dominion over all.
But hey! There’s something to be said for it. The warm pastels compliment the actors’ skin tones, and when a few scenes pop out louder due to unavoidable red London buses and the like, you really feel the vibrancy. This film isn’t good in any recognized sense of the word, but it coasts along on prettiness and peculiarity.
Although this is a 2oth Century Fox production, it’s uniquely British owing to its inadequacies in casting and plotting, but these are so off-the-wall as to instil it with fascination. Only in Britain do we regularly seem to find major top-of-the-line product put together by people who manifestly don’t know the first thing about movies and stories. This one commits an elementary beginner’s mistake by opening twenty years before its main characters are born. For no reason. Never do this: it’s frowned upon in the industry. This protracted prologue presents an unlikely romance between portly landowner Lord Clontaf (pronounced variously by the cast) and a young gypsy “princess” (they like giving themselves extravagant titles, we’re told). He’s Leslie Banks, disastrously — this is one of those films which doesn’t know what to do about his dramatic facial scarring, so as in Powell’s quota quickie THE FIRE STARTERS, they always show him in profile, Like Dick Tracy. But his mouth is distorted by the wound, and so this is much worse than just letting us see him properly: we find ourselves edging round in our seats, leaning across our neighbours, trying to get a better look. What’s wrong with his face? In HOUNDS OF ZAROFF and THE SMALL BACK ROOM and even THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH the face is more or less displayed to full effect, and we don’t mind the scar at all.
The girl is played by Annabella, just before she married Tyrone Power. her accent is thick, charming and unexplained by narrative contrivance. Once the prologue us disposed of her character ages into Dame Irene Vanbrugh, who has a richly English accent, and now we meet a second Annabella, playing the great-granddaughter of the first, having been raised in Spain with the same French accent as before. The Civil War is raging so Annabella escapes the country disguised as a boy — Duchess Maria of Leyva becomes Duke Mario, and then, having wound up back in Ireland where the action started, she carries on in drag for no reason. The insanity of this is questioned by none of her gypsy friends, but it’s basically the source of all the entertainment for the next half hour. For two reasons –
1) Annabella makes a stunning boy. She’s obviously having the time of her life, also. Given that she did marry Tyrone Power, she’s been the subject of rumours, and I’m just going to declare them all true based on this performance alone. And it’s sort of a sweet thought: this wasn’t a lavender marriage where the affection was false. Instead we have two randy bisexuals assuming respectability via holy matrimony, shagging each other senseless and also shagging everything else in sight. If that’s how you roll, it seems a productive arrangement.
I like Annabella well enough as a girl, but she exerts even more attraction in a suit and beret, puffing on a cigar. I’m at a loss to explain it. At this point I would begin to question myself, except I can’t think of anybody else I fancy who wears a suit and smokes cigars, so I don’t really know where to begin.
2) Annabella meets Henry Fonda, playing a Canadian horse trainer. (British films are often coy about shoehorning American stars into the action, so we call them Canadians.) Like Leslie Banks in Part 1, he’s initially far more interested in her horse, but soon he’s sparring aggressively with Duke Mario, spanking him/her, kicking him/her up the arse, and calling him “shrimp.” Hank F probably has less homoerotic fervor about him than any leading man who ever lived, so this sequence doesn’t sparkle with forbidden allure quite as it might with Ty Power in the role (the celluloid would combust!) but that adds to the surreality and giant overhanging question mark about what will happen next. In fact, Fonda learns the truth the hard way by physically tearing Annabella’s shirt off in a bush (long story) — we watch from without as the branches wave and a shrill scream sounds forth. Fonda emerges, visibly shaken, clutching the torn chemise, and stammers “I’m sorry!” Which puts me in mind of this –
Drag artiste Jessie Matthews is revealed in all her girlhood in FIRST A GIRL.
Thereafter, all it takes is for Henry to see Annabella in a beautiful evening gown and he forgets his dislike of the “spoiled brat” and falls madly in love. At which point the movie “introduces” the “world famous tenor” John McCormack (“How can you introduce someone who’s world famous?” asked David Wingrove, on my left) and the movie grinds to a deadly halt as he sings three — THREE!!! — “old favourites.”
Seconds out, round five– having tried its hand at period romance across the class barriers, Spanish Civil War drama (briefly), transvestite romp, and deadly musical, the movie now turns into a racing picture, with Annabella’s great-gran (remember her? She used to be Annabella! DO keep up, will you?) and Hank both entering horses in the Epsom Derby. Cue stunning colour shots of London and humorous Derby Day characters (I’m particularly intrigued by King Honolulu, King of the Derby, a black guy with gold teeth — “I got a HOOORSE!!!”) and a frantically edited finish. If Annabella wins, she’ll be forced to marry snooty Don Diego, but if she loses, her family will be ruined but on the other hand she can marry Hank? How can this be resolved satisfactorily? I know, but I’m not telling.
Fonda also has a very funny dog, called Scruffy, which was my first boyhood dog’s name.
Most images swiped from this excellent article by Murray Pomerance.