Monday, June 28, 2010

Chasing Yesterday (RKO, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning, from 3 to 4:20 a.m., I watched the first in an all-day (14 hours’ worth) Turner Classic Movies tribute to actress Anne Shirley — odd since it’s neither her birthday (she was born April 17, 1918) nor the anniversary of her death (the Fourth of July, 1993). Alas, they’re not showing either of her two best-known films, A Man to Remember (1938) or Murder, My Sweet (1944, and her last big-screen appearance even though she lived another 49 years!), nor are they running The Powers Girl, a movie I’ve been interested in seeing since I watched the RCA Centennial Collection DVD on Benny Goodman and saw two clips from it featuring Goodman’s band.

The tribute led off with a 1935 release called Chasing Yesterday, a story based on an 1881 novel called The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard by Anatole France (a more prestigious writer than Hollywood usually drew on in the 1930’s for vehicles for teenagers!) which cast Shirley as Jeanne Alexandre but doesn’t introduce her until this 77-minute film is already 15 minutes old. Instead the focus at the start is on retired professor Sylvestre Bonnard (O. P. Heggie), who lives alone except for an irascible maid, Therese (Helen Westley). He’s visited by a traveling bookseller, Aristide Coccoz (John Qualen), on a dark and stormy night (which can’t help but put us in mind of Heggie’s most famous credit, as the blind hermit who takes in the monster in The Bride of Frankenstein); Therese wants to turn the man away but Sylvestre insists on inviting him in, giving him a chance to dry out by Sylvestre’s fire, and ultimately buying all his books.

Sylvestre is supposedly working under university auspices on the definitive history of early Christianity, and he’s amassed an enormous book collection of his own, many of them priceless medieval manuscript copies. He’s also never married because he cherishes the memory of his lost love Clementine; she left him, married someone else and eventually died, and his only memento of her is a love note she wrote him on a torn corner of a page from an ultra-rare tome called The Golden Legend, a book he needs for his research and of which only one copy is known to exist. (By this time I was already relating to this tale of a fanatic book collector!) With the love note having the same effect on him that that madeleine had on Proust, Sylvestre decides to travel to Lausanne, where he grew up and where Clementine lived — and he finds that not only is she dead, so is her husband, but they had a daughter, Jeanne, who’s grown up to teenagerhood in wretched conditions combining the worst of Charles Dickens and the Brothers Grimm.

Her legal guardian is a nasty, scheming attorney named Mouche (Étienne Girardot) — the script takes pains to inform us that the name means “fly,” as in the insect, in French — and he’s put her in a boarding school run by a fanatical disciplinarian, Mademoiselle Prefere (Elizabeth Patterson), who takes away the candy Sylvestre gives Jeanne when they finally meet because it’s bad for her health. Sylvestre tricks Mouche into giving him written permission to have Jeanne visit him in Paris — with Mlle. Prefere going along as her chaperone and ultimately falling in love, more or less, with the professor. Well, at least she wants to marry him because she wants the prestige of being the wife of a member of the … well, it’s supposed to be the official government body honoring intellectuals but screenwriter Francis Edward Faragoh can’t make up his mind whether it’s called “the Academy” or “the Institute.”

Jeanne and Mlle. Prefere visit the professor regularly until one day Jeanne feels impelled to confess that the professor didn’t really say all those kind things about Mlle. Prefere’s looks — she just made all that up so she’d be allowed to see the kindly old man who was in love with her late mother — whereupon Mlle. Prefere goes into a furious rage at being deceived and punishes Jeanne by making her scrub the floors of the school, while forbidding the professor from ever seeing Jeanne again. Undaunted, the professor asks Jeanne to leave with him, and she does — and Mouche accuses Sylvestre of kidnapping her. Sylvestre asks him for an authorization to adopt Jeanne, and Mouche at first says no way, then offers to do it but only for a bribe so huge Sylvestre has to sell off his rare-book collection to raise the money. When the auction fails, Mouche threatens to have Sylvestre sent to jail for having extracted the permission under false pretenses — until Sylvestre is saved by a deus ex machina in the form of Coccoz (ya remember Coccoz?), who brings the professor the copy of The Golden Legend — which he’s acquired from, of all people, Mouche, who sold it to him from a cache of books Mouche had stolen from a library years before and stored in his attic.

Now that they’re both technically criminals, Mouche realizes that he can’t swear out a complaint against Sylvestre without going to prison himself, so he agrees to let Sylvestre adopt Jeanne and she returns to the nice old professor (Heggie in this film is made up to look strikingly like President Franklin Roosevelt, which may have made him more credible as a good guy to a lot of the 1935 audience) and the nice young boyfriend, Henri (Trent Durkin), whom she’d started dating on her earlier trips to Paris. At times almost unbearably soapy, Chasing Yesterday is a weird combination of Cinderella and a G-rated version of Lolita saved from oblivion by the real charm with which it’s told and the felicitous direction by the usually hacky George Nicholls, Jr.; this isn’t a great movie (and probably no one thought it was in 1935 either!) but it’s a genuinely appealing one in its quirky little way.