Friday, 10 April 2015

The three-year itch... Fascination (1931)


Madeleine Carroll is indeed fascinating... not only was she the highest paid actress in the world in 1938 she was also awarded the the American Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honour for her tireless efforts during and after the Second World War. Her sister was killed in the Blitz and she headed off into the war-zone working with the Red Cross in Italy whilst after the war she made films to promote human understanding abandoning her Hollywood career completely by 1949.

In this early British talkie, made when she was just 26, Carroll is re-united with her director and co-star from The First Born, Miles Mander. Watching this largely inferior film I marvel at the "commercial interests" that have, so far, prevented any release of the restored version that so impressed at the 2011 British Film Festival gala screening. But,so it goes...

Dorothy Bartlam and Carl Harbord
We should be thankful for small mercies and we are lucky to have this film which has survived in a much-viewed single 35mm nitrate print. Restored by Network and the BFI the images are clearer than the soundtrack with subtitles essential to follow sections of dialogue. Mander was a pioneer in sound and had considered adding a soundtrack to The First Born so what we hear now is nowhere near what was first produced.

Visually Fascination is more interesting than you might expect from an early talkie. Whilst not as fluid as its silent precursor the film does have some interesting touches the central couple are tracked chasing each other through their house to arrive on a couch, a cow looks on as they enjoy a chaste roll in the hay and the camera follows the man into the glamour as he encounters the actress Gwenda Farrell (Carroll).
   
Dorothy Bartlam takes the plunge
The film is based on Eliot Crawshay-Williams' play and Mander does his best to overcome the static restrictions of source material and sonics with these outdoor sequences and sparkling performances from his female leads.

The story starts with a toy train crash as three children play and the young Vera (Allison Van Dyke) and Larry (John Kove) fall out and make up to be unofficially married by the third (a young Freddie Bartholomew converting his chance with aplomb) using a telephone directory as a bible.

Marriage isn't child's play...
Skip forward a decade and a half and we find Vera (now Dorothy Bartlam) and Larry (Carl Harbord) in the haystack making plans for when he leaves Oxford to become an architect.They rush back to her home and start drawing up their Ten Commandments of Marriage to encode their love and respect for each other: a relationship built to last?

Switch forward three years and Vera is seen reading the list almost as a relic of a bygone age. Larry laughs at their youthful earnest but "remembers" their joint promises. They seem happy and his business is progressing as he chases down a potential client for his interior design.

Vera re-reads the commandments
He makes numerous phone calls but no one is picking up and the scene shifts to show just why as his client, Miss Farrell, is in the middle of being dumped by her caddish lover Ronnie (Roland Culver). Ronnie departs and dippy pal Kay (a super turn from Kay Hammond) arrives to cheer things up by slipping on The Wedding March 78 and then muting the sound by sitting on the record player.

Kay Hammond silences Mendelssohn's march
Eventually Larry goes to meet the actress after one of her shows and, as she emerges through the curtains of her dressing room it's trouble at first sight: Larry's jaw hits the floor and you know his work-love balance is about to be seriously disturbed.

The architect meets the actress
Larry starts seeing more of Gwenda and the lies become larger as Vera is left in the dark. There's little overt love-making (Britain was always "post-code"...) but Larry's betrayal is made a potent one by Vera's innocent trust and her simple reliance on his love: she doesn't need to re-read the commandments...

For her part, Gwenda develops her own passion for this bright-but-dull young man and grasps at her chance for happiness without thinking of the others' potential sadness. As for Larry... he's in mid-twenties crisis and the seven year itch has come four years early.

The choice is yours Larry. Or is it?
No spoilers... such stories can only resolves themselves with someone being sacrificed in the struggle but the way Mander deals with this is actually surprising and sophisticated.

Dorothy Bartlam gives a splendid performance as the loyal wife who remains resolute even when her dreams begin to crumble and out-powers Carl Harbord who is rather too callow to believably attract the experienced actress (in reality only two years his senior).

Dorothy Bartlam
Madeleine Carroll is a natural as the actress isolated by her own success: a nuanced mix of the world-weary and luminous. Larry may not be charismatic but his everyday charm is a welcome reality in her world. Carroll's greatest success and sacrifce were to follow and she clearly avoided the pitfalls of fame: you can take the girl out of West Bromwich but...

Fascination is available on Network DVD, either direct or from Movie Mail or Amazon: it is very reasonably priced! Now - please - can we have The First Born?

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