Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bleak House (1920)

Ideal, GB 1920. D: Maurice Elvey; SC: William J. Elliott; C: Constance Collier (Lady Dedlock), Bertha Gellardi (Esther Summerson), E. Vivian Reynolds (Lawyer Tulkinghorne), Norman Page (Guppy), Clifford Heatherley (Inspector Bucket), Ion Swinley (Captain Hawdon), A. Harding Steerman (Sir Leicester Dedlock), Anthony St. John (Jo), Helen Haye (Honoria Barbary), Teddy Arundell (trooper George), Beatrix Templeton (Rachel); orig. l: 6400 ft; 35 mm, 6082 ft, 90' (18 fps); print source: BFI National Archive, London. English intertitles. Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone (Charles Dickens), with e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Günter A. Buchwald, 10 Oct 2012.

Michael Eaton: "As the title might suggest, Bleak House is far from the jolliest or most sentimental of the collected works. Written during 1852-53, this “state of England” novel is one of Dickens’s most mature, critical, and elaborately constructed works, in which he confronted his readers with unwelcome themes: however rigid class distinctions might seem, all society’s strata, from the loftiest mansion to lowliest lodging house, are fundamentally connected, if only by contagion, and that the most open of hearts can be broken and ground down by the implacable, unfeeling machinery of the Law. The complexity of the plot, the seriousness of the subject matter, the wide focus of the social scope, and the vast number of characters and locations all militate against Bleak House as a fitting property for feature-film exploitation. This never prevented the book being staged throughout the 19th century, though many of the plays were confined to the story of poor Jo, with Miss Jennie Lee as the most celebrated interpreter of this pathetic part. A British film titled Jo the Crossing Sweeper was released in 1918."

"Elvey’s first stab at Dickens in 1917 had been mired in controversy and received a critical mauling. Eliot Stannard had updated his script of Dombey and Son to the present day, and this had outraged the Keepers of the Flame, who poured vitriol upon the project, particularly in the pages of The Dickensian. So when the director took on Bleak House three years later he played it somewhat safer, sticking with the period setting and working with an adaptation by William J. Elliott, who would go on to write Elvey’s popular Sherlock Holmes shorts starring Eille Norwood. This was not an entirely conventional version, however. The opening title sets out the approach: “Bleak House, crowded with characters and incident, has provided material for a number of dramas. For this picture we have chosen the most dramatic of all the tales embedded in the book – the story of the hunting down of Lady Dedlock, and the discovery of her secret.” So this is a chronological account in which back-story events are placed at the head of the tale rather than as later revelations."

"The reviewer of The Bioscope succinctly summarized the plot: “The story of the film begins at a period eighteen years before the beginning of the novel and shows the elopement of Honoria Barbary with Captain Hawdon, his arrest for debt, his escape and his pretended suicide. Honoria, brokenhearted, is prevailed upon by her sister to accept Sir Leicester Dedlock’s offer of marriage, having been informed that the child to which she has given birth has not lived…” The consequence of this decision means that the spectator is placed in a completely different relationship to the filmic narrative from that of the reader of the book. From the outset we know (spoiler alert!) that Esther Summerson is Lady Dedlock’s child."

"Obviously, for such an approach to be successful much is riding on the central character, and it is hard to imagine a more moving and convincing performance than that of Constance Collier (1878-1955). She had made her name as part of Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s company at His Majesty’s Theatre on London’s Haymarket, finding fame as Nancy to his Fagin in J. Comyns Carr’s long-running adaptation of Oliver Twist. Neither of them had a chance to reprise these roles for the screen, as in the 1912 U.S. film version Nancy was played by Beatrice Moreland and Fagin by Nat Goodwin. Contemporary notices praised her performance. The Bioscope wrote, “Miss Constance Collier plays Lady Dedlock with a haughty dignity which does not conceal the humanity and pathos of her love for Hawdon and her child. Remarkably beautiful, graceful and picturesque, Miss Collier looks queenly…”, while the Kinematograph’s assessment praised her “consummate… restrained emotional acting”."

"No one could claim that this film comes anywhere close to doing justice to the magnificence of the original, and those purists seeking characters which display the satirical brilliance of Dickens, such as Mrs. Jellyby, Chadband, Skimpole, or Smallweed, will be severely disappointed. This is a family melodrama, with no mention of the Court of Chancery or the case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce. But within these self-appointed limitations the judgement of The Bioscope was correct: this is “a very notable work”." – MICHAEL EATON

AA: I checked the beginning of this movie, covering the sham suicide of Captain Hawdon, and Honoria's acceptance of Sir Declock's marriage offer, Honoria having been led to believe that her daughter (Esther) has been born dead. Bleak House looks like a well-made narrative movie with good performances. The main reason I went was Constance Collier, then still at the top of her career in England, before she moved to Hollywood. Her performance is refined and convincing; she knew how to act both in the theatre and in the cinema. The print is ok.

Marilyn Monroe met Truman Capote at Constance Collier's funeral in April 1955, and much later Capote wrote a fine piece on MM called "A Beautiful Child" based on their acquaintance. CC had been briefly MM's drama coach. There are a lot of fine photographs of Constance Collier online.

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