Thursday, 13 June 2013

Borzage directs Boardman… The Circle (1925)

This film, stylishly directed by Frank Borzage, finds Eleanor Boardman’s character trying to avoid repeating the mistakes of previous generations, just as she was in the previous year’s Wine of Youth. Kenneth B. Clarke’s script was based on W. Somerset Maugham’s successful stage play from 1921 so, it was very much a comedy of contemporary concerns.

Post war(s), with the century still young, generational politics were arguably broader and more entrenched than at any previous time… after all, there was so much freedom wasn’t there  and, for some, the means to take advantage of it.

Young Joan Crawford
The film starts thirty years in the past as the young wife of Lord Clive Cheney (Derek Glynne) decides to run away with his best friend – the “best man” at their wedding - Hugh Porteous (Frank Braidwood). Young Lady Catherine is played by a very young Joan Crawford in one of her very first film appearances… fresh faced and wide-eyed, Joan looks a million miles away from Johnny Guitar and Baby Jane

She takes the fateful step and abandons her husband and their son Arnold to follow her heart… Hard not to feel heartbroken those she leaves behind especially as Clive seems a decent – if distracted - sort.

The family seat
Fast forward three decades and we see her son’s wife, Elizabeth (the eruditely elegant Eleanor Boardman…), contemplating the same escape. Young Arnold has somehow grown up into Creighton Hale (who always reminds me of an effete Ernie Wise… sorry Little Ern and sorry Mr Hale…) who seems entirely detached from his own marriage, squinting cluelessly behind his monocle.

Creighton Hale and Alec B. Francis
The object of Elizabeth’s affection is the altogether more dashing Edward 'Teddy' Luton (Malcolm McGregor) who has won her heart with his readiness to act and masculine wiles.

But, aware of the family history, Elizabeth has arranged for Lady Catherine to visit in order to see what thirty years have done to her relationship: has true love endured or fermented into middle-aged bitterness?

Arnold is all a jitter having not seen his mother for so long and Elizabeth is anxious to know how her potential choices might pan out… neither has told Lord Clive…

On their way...
Borzage’s delicate touch enlivens the tension as he cuts with increasing frequency to shots of the back of the older couple’s car as they speed towards the meeting… a bit like the shark in Jaws.

Then, stone me, Lord Clive has returned from hunting, deciding that he can get better shooting done at home. There’s a lovely confusion as the family try to rest his loaded shotgun from his hands… a foretaste of the anger that surely  must about to be unleashed.

Eleanor Boardman and Alec B. Francis
But, as Lord Clive (Alec B. Francis) gradually learns the truth about his impending house guests, his mood remains cheery… perhaps his experience of the last thirty years hasn’t been the bitter one we expected. Certainly he views this as an opportunity to set his daughter-in-law on the right track… even though we can’t really believe bumbling Arnold has any chance.

Lady Catherine "Kitty" Cheney (Eugenie Besserer) and Lord Hugh "Hughie" Porteous (George Fawcett) duly arrive and before long start to pick holes… and argue… is this what has become of their pure passion?

Lord Clive takes it all in his stride as a game of bridge descends into bickering, Elizabeth is distraught and starts to worry that this is how she’ll end up. Teddy gets frustrated whilst Arnold grins on the side lines… but we’re sure young love will win out in the end… or will it?

It’s hard not to view Maugham’s tale as smart-Alec with its twists and deliberate turns and maybe things would have been more believable had it been Glynne playing Arnold instead of Hale. He has his moments but it’s difficult to credit his later change in character and, frankly, Elizabeth would have been unlikely to succumb to his new-found macho charms.

Eleanor Boardman
But… go with the flow. Boardman is excellent as always, blowing everyone else of screen with her intelligence and control. But credit must also go to Eugenie Besserer who is very moving when forced to gaze upon the photographs of her younger self… George Fawcett grumps along splendidly for most of the movie but he excels in this moment: confronted with the cause of their love and reminded of its enduring truth.

George Fawcett and Eugenie Besserer
I watched the Warner Archives DVD which comes from a very clear print and is accompanied by a new orchestral score from Garth Neustadter which is very effective overall and rather spritely, sometimes too much so, when it threatens to leave the story behind as it hurries to whip us along with the narrative.

Essential viewing for fans of Borzage and Boardman and for those who have to see more of the young woman who came to be the biggest star… After all, unlike the audiences of the time we all know exactly what Joan Crawford looked like thirty years later…
Yes, well... it's not exactly post-feminist...


  1. Hi Paul, the film somehow ponders some matrimonial questions such as Is it worth leaving one husband or wife? ;-) I enjoyed this funny film, besides I'm an unconditional Borzage's fan! Have a nice week end, Caroline

    1. Thanks Caroline - I'm up in the Lake District staying in a Hall not unlike the one in the film - spooky!

      Agree about Borzage and for me Boardman can do no wrong as well!

      Best wishes.