Friday, 21 August 2015

Devon can wait… Lorna Doone (1922)

Richard Doddridge Blackmore’s novel Lorna Doone has fascinated me since I saw a lurid hardback cover for it in our local library as a child - something about the moors, surging waterfalls and high passion.  Yet, I never got round to reading it – too many dinosaur and sci-fi books to get through first - but I’m told it’s a hearty romance among the best of mid-Victorian romantic “historical” fiction.

Director Maurice Tourneur’s 1922 film version is reputed by those who may know to be perhaps the best of the many film adaptations of the book and I can see why. You not only get the usual Tourneur visual flair, soft-edged pastoral accompanied by his totally-controlled sets – and he even appears to craft the land itself at times – but also quick-moving narrative and action which covers a lot of ground with economy and energy.

Action and scale
Adapting Blackmore’s sprawl into a tight 87 minutes was no easy task but the stripped down story  in the film still has balance… although the florid opening titles are not encouraging, raving about a story that “outlives modern literature… never old, never new… a literary heritage of Civilization.”

Set in the late seventeenth century it tells the tale of various families in the Exmoor across the borders of Devon and Somerset and Tourneur sets his locations better than most in Hollywood at this time although we do have the odd incongruous mountain. It begins in the White Horse Inn – famous among the taverns of old England - I’m sure you probably know it.

John meets Lorna
Two youngsters meet, John Ridd (Charles Hatton), son of a farmer and Lorna (Mae Giraci), daughter of the Countess of Lorne… it’s love at first sight and the young lad, on hearing his new friend is to travel through the dangerous lands of the Doone bandits, gives her his pen knife. In spite of warnings from others, the Countesses troop head off and duly get ambushed by the rogues on the coast – rather brutally, the head of the clan, disgraced former nobleman (wrongly so in the book) Sir Ensor Doone (Frank Keenan) decides to steal the child and – seemingly – kill her mother.

Death on the beach
This scene is very atmospheric and the camera pulls away showing the travelers wrecked coach half submerged in the surf – almost surreal and reminiscent of gothic postcards of the period.

John has followed and watches on helpless vowing to revenge himself on every one of the Doones.

Madge Bellamy and Frank Keenan
Flip forward and we find Lorna all grown up as Madge Bellamy and living an uncertain existence amongst the Doones. She has caught the eye of Carver Doone (Donald McDonald) the most unhinged of the clan but can rely on the fatherly support of the suddenly decent Ensor: maybe she has allowed the man to remember the best of himself? It’s an uneasy existence though as Sir Ensor bats down Carver’s marriage request…pronouncing that Lorna can chose who she marries, so long as he lives.

Meanwhile John has grown up into John Bowers – the strongest man in Devon! He is out juggling logs in a stream when he is swept down river into the waters of the Doone Valley. He wakes to find a beautiful brunette leaning over him and they quickly realise who each other is: Lorna pulling out John’s long-cherished penknife. They have not forgotten.

Lorna and John get re-acquainted
But, it is not safe in the valley and Lorna helps John escape back to his world: there can be no reconciliation for fear of Doone reprisals apparently.

John returns to his farm, his heart a perfect L, for Lorna, for love… His cousin Ruth (Norris Johnson) looks on, lost in her own longing… an incomplete triangle that will break before the film is done.

Carver is inappropriate
Sir Ensor lives longer and weaker and soon crackpot Carver is counting down the days to when he can take charge of both the clan and Lorna. He seizes his moment when the old man looks to have expired and, as he hastily gathers a priest for a wedding, Lorna’s maid summons John.

John rips his way through the roof and scatters the wedding party against impossible odds and then all is saved by the resuscitated Ensor appears at the door buying the lovers enough time to escape before he falls dead at the feat of his unhinged successor.

John and Lorna are in pink-tinted idyll back at the farm and all might end there were it not for the appearance of the Countess of Brandir (one Gertrude Astor) who, summoned by a letter from Ensor revealing Lorna’s true past and inheritance, arrives just in time to put off Carver’s crew from a revenge attack.

Lorna and John agree that it’s important she goes off to London to resume being posh and it seems our lovers are to be split for the noblest of reasons… But don’t right off John who journeys to the capital in time to prevent the assassination of the King’s baby. But even in the euphoria of his deed he shows himself out of step with the sophisticates of court: the couple are stuck between their worlds and someone has to step over the line of demarcation.

Fortune favours at the Abbey
Even if that line is crossed, there are plenty of inconveniences back in Devon; remember Ruth, her steadfast heart now twisted by jealousy and then there’s the mad dog Carver, he’s never going to lie down until he’s put down…

OK, the plot’s of its age and genre but it is so well handled by Tourneur and Lorna Doone flies by at an irresistibly-entertaining pace. The cinematography from Henry Sharp is also superbly advanced and delivers the richness and range you’d expect from his director.

Some may knock Madge B’s acting but I think she does very well and even verges on the understated when compared to Frank Keenan’s Ensor and Donald McDonald’s Dangerous Carver Doone! John Bowers may well be the strongest man in Devon but he still looks like David Walliams.

I watched the Kino DVD which is the 2001 restoration complete with a score from Mari Iijima that under-pins the action with several emphatically-catchy themes. It occasionally threatens to over—power the film but mostly serves it very well – light-hearted, adventurous and lovely (beach slaughter apart).

John battles the mad dog
The DVD is available direct from Kino Lorber or from the long and tax-avoiding river people. The book is still someway down my list as but daughter says I’ve got to read Bronte's Charlotte and Anne first along with a shelf or two of more worthy literature... bet they won't all be as much fun though. 

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