Thursday, May 15, 2008

Two Versions of "Enchanted April": 1935 and 1991

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran my partner Charles a couple of movies in one of our old veins that we hadn’t had a chance to do in quite a while: show the original version of a story and then its remake. The story I picked for this was Enchanted April, for which I had the 1935 RKO version in an old tape I’d made from Turner Classic Movies and the 1991 BBC remake in one of the last tapes a friend recorded before his death (when I inherited virtually all his tape stash after his family threw it out when they came to close his apartment). The Enchanted April — the original book used a definite article both film versions eschewed — began life as a novel by German author Elizabeth von Arnim, who (perhaps to keep the British novel-buying public interested in her despite any lingering animosities they might have had from World War I) signed her books with only her first name, sometimes going so far as to put it in quotes: “Elizabeth.” (The 1935 film credits her first name only but without quotation marks.)

Two British housewives, Lotty Wilkins (Ann Harding) and Rose Arbuthnot (Katharine Alexander) meet on a dreary, rainy day at the Hampstead Housewives’ Club; Lotty mentions having seen a want ad in the London Times advertising a month’s rental that April on a castle in Italy, servants included, and the two decide that by pooling their resources they can rent the place for the month and get away from their unhappy marriages. Lotty’s husband Mellersh (Frank Morgan) is a former researcher at the British Public Library who, at his wife’s suggestion, wrote a racy best-seller of the life of Madame Du Barry, signed it with the pseudonym “Ferdinand Arundel,” and is now the toast of literary London — especially the toast of female literary London. He’s taken a second apartment, persuading his wife that he needs a totally private space to write, but we’re already suspicions of what he really needs that private space for.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Arbuthnot has her own set of bones to pick about her husband, solicitor Henry Arbuthnot (Reginald Owen), who’s not only a bore but a social-climbing bore as well who continually button-holes any Homo sapiens with a title attached in hope he can get it to give him some legal business. The two set off for Italy but realize that, even between them, they don’t have the money to take the villa and pay the servants (and the food bills and other miscellaneous expenses as well), so they advertise for two other women — who show up, sight unseen, a day earlier and grab the nicer rooms for themselves. One of them is Mrs. Phoebe Fisher (Jessie Ralph), an impossible dowager who claims to have known Robert Browning and most of the literati of his generation personally; the other, Lady Caroline Dester (Jane Baxter), turns out at the end of the film to be the very woman Lotty’s husband is having an affair with — and director Harry Beaumont keeps us in legitimate suspense as to when the two will confront each other, how Lotty will figure it out and what will happen next.

What’s most interesting about this film is that, up until that dramatic climax, Beaumont and the writers, Samuel Hoffenstein and Ray Harris (working not from von Arnim’s original novel but an intervening dramatization by Kane Campbell) really emphasize the comedy aspects of the story and keep something that could have been dramatically sticky and soap-operaish light and fun in a drawing-room sort of way. Especially delightful is the scene in which Henry Arbuthnot ignores the warnings that the castle’s ancient hot-water heater has to be monitored continually while he takes his bath, lest it blow up; he shoos everybody on the staff who knows how the thing works out of the bathroom, and sure enough the contraption does blow up — and even funnier is how, even though he’s got soot all over him and he’s stark naked except for the towel he’s hurriedly wrapped around himself, he’s still approaching Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline obsequiously to impress him with his dedication, intelligence, commitment and sagacity as a solicitor.

The 1991 Enchanted April (listed as 1992 on the database because that’s when it was released theatrically in the U.S., but the copyright date on the film itself is 1991 and that’s when it was shown by the BBC, which produced it) is actually quite close to the 1935 version at least in basic plot line. There’s one major difference: in this one it’s Lottie (that’s the spelling of her first name used here) Wilkins (Josie Lawrence) who’s the wife of the boring, social-climbing solicitor Mellersh Wilkins (Alfred Molina), while her friend Rose Arbuthnot (Miranda Richardson, top-billed) is the wife of the pseudonymous author Gerard Arundel (t/n Frederick Arbuthnot), whose racy best-sellers about famous “bad” women of history have made him a babe magnet back in London even though the actor playing him, Jim Broadbent, is, in Anna Russell’s words, “excessively unattractive” and seems to have been cast to make Frank “Wizard of Oz” Morgan look genuinely hot and sexy by comparison.

Other than that major change (which may have come from the fact that the screenwriters of the 1935 version, Samuel Hoffenstein and Ray Harris, worked from an intervening stage adaptation by Kane Campbell, while the writer of the 1991 version, Peter Barnes, based his directly on the Elizabeth von Arnim novel), the action moves pretty much the same in both versions (including the delightful bath scene, staged pretty much the same way by director Mike Newell as Harry Beaumont did in 1935). One definite improvement of the 1991 Enchanted April over the 1935 is the casting of Lady Caroline Dester; whereas Jane Baxter in the 1935 version looked to be about the same in age and physical attractiveness as Ann Harding, Polly Walker in the 1991 is younger and considerably hotter than Richardson, aided by a Louise Brooks-style bobbed haircut and flashier outfits that give her the proper iconography for the “other woman.”

The newer version also benefits from more literate writing, especially for the dowager Mrs. Fisher — played here by the Widow Olivier, Joan Plowright — who, though proud that she hung with Browning and Darwin (“despite all the nonsense that he taught”) indignantly denies that she ever met Keats, and in a just-how-old-did-you-think-I-was? tone goes on to say, “And I never met Shakespeare or Chaucer, either.” It also helps that Barnes doesn’t go for that corny suspense effect when Lottie and Caroline both realize that the men in their lives are the same person — and he actually brings the story to an ending (both couples leave the castle with their commitments to each other renewed; and in this version Caroline ends up with Briggs, the owner of the villa where they’ve been staying, even though in 1991 Briggs is played by the excessively nerdy Michael Kitchen and Ralph Forbes, who had the role in the 1935 version, could have played a romantic scene far better) instead of the film just seeming to stop the way the 1935 version did.

Most obviously benefiting the 1991 film are the authentic Italian locations — they didn’t just go out to the Malibu cliffs (or their nearest British equivalent) and try to pass them off as the Italian coastline, but actually sent a crew to Portofino — and there’s also a beautiful score by Rodney Russell Bennett that creates a mood far more effectively than the patchwork of existing RKO music tracks Roy Webb stuck on the 1935 version. But with all the benefits come some all too predictable liabilities as well, including a relentless application of the past-is-brown cliché to all the interior shots; it’s a visceral relief when we get outside in the Italian sunshine and plants are actually green, flowers are actually their natural colors and the sky is genuinely blue, and even the people’s flesh tones take on a warmth and richness they don’t have in those excessively filtered interiors (the cinematographer is Rex Maidment).

What’s worse is that, though this movie may have been released theatrically in the U.S., it’s still a BBC production and it has the familiar Masterpiece Theatre ponderousness, the sense that this is something of IMPORTANCE with a capital “I.” Elizabeth von Arnim’s light entertainment, which in the 1935 version was probably turned into more of a comedy than she intended, in 1991 acquired the patina of Significance, of Making An Important Statement About Life, and at the same time the story remains strangely reticent sexually — the tale is simply too delicate to take advantage of the greater sexual frankness available to moviemakers in 1991, and the tag line, “It’s April in Italy, and anything can happen … even love,” probably led some filmgoers to expect a Now, Voyager or Summertime-ish story in which frustrated spinster (or, in this case, frustrated married woman whose sex life with her husband has dwindled to nil) finds love and at least temporary happiness in an adulterous relationship with an Italian local, returning to her normal life at the end but a bit better off for the experience — instead of the actual story here, which is a thoroughgoing reaffirmation of the marital vows in which the men (one man, anyway) are the only cheaters.