Friday, October 12, 2012

The Divorce of Lady X (London Films/United Artists, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Divorce of Lady X, a 1938 production by Alexander Korda for which he kicked out the jams in both budget and talent, spending lavishly to make the film in three-strip Technicolor (and though Natalie Kalmus and William V. Skall were there as color directors, cinematographer Harry Stradling and art directors Lazare Meerson, Paul Sherriff and Alec Waugh were able to create a delightful pastel look for the film quite different from the garish, overripe colors American filmmakers using three-strip produced!) and hiring some killer talent: the stars were Merle Oberon (Mrs. Alexander Korda) and Laurence Olivier, the supporting cast included Ralph Richardson and Binnie Barnes, and the writers were Lajos Biró, Ian Dalrymple, Arthur Wimperis and an uncredited Robert Sherwood. The problem was the story, a plot by playwright Gilbert Wakefield which Korda had already produced in 1933 under Wakefield’s original title, Counsel’s Opinion: Everard Logan (Laurence Olivier) is a top-notch divorce lawyer in 1938 London with a singularly low view of women (in a courtroom scene almost unbearable in its blatant sexism, he thunders, “Modern woman has disowned womanhood but refuses man’s obligations. She demands freedom but won’t accept responsibility. She insists upon time to develop her personality, and she spends it in cogitating on which part of her body to paint next. Modern woman has no loyalty, decency, or justice; no endurance, reticence, or self-control; no affection, fine feelings, or mercy. In short, she is unprincipled, relentless, and exacting; idle, unproductive, and tedious; unimaginative, humorless, and vain; vindictive, undignified, and weak. And the sooner man takes out his whip again, the better for sanity and progress”) who’s just come over after what he describes as “a rough crossing” when an intense London fog means that his cabdriver bails on taking him home because there’s utterly no visibility on the road. Instead he drops Logan at a hotel where there’s a charity ball in progress — the ball has a Queen Victoria theme, which means that everyone there (or at least the women) is dressed in Victorian finery, including those ridiculously impractical hoop skirts (remember that for the film Suez, set in France during the reign of Victoria’s contemporary Louis Napoleon, the set designers actually had to widen the doorways so the costumes designed for the film could fit through them!).

During the event, the bandleader is told by the hotel manager to make an announcement that everyone at the ball should stay there for the night and give up on any thought of going home because the fog is making all the streets impassable — and the next half-hour of the film takes place in the suite Logan rented just before the hotel totally ran out of rooms and was reduced to asking their unwelcome guests to sleep on couches in the lobby. Logan is asked by the manager if he can give up his suite to accommodate four women; he refuses, but Leslie Steele (Merle Oberon), the granddaughter of a judge before whom Logan frequently appears, crashes Logan’s room and by sheer effrontery and gall manages to do him not only out of his room but out of his bed (she gets to sleep in one of the room’s twin beds while he has to sleep on the other bed’s mattress, laid out on the floor of the sitting room). The first half-hour of the film basically stays in the hotel suite and, as Charles pointed out, makes both Logan and Leslie seem such unpleasant characters we wonder why we’re watching a film about them and certainly aren’t rooting for them to get together, even though (all too predictably, given the conventions of English-speaking cinema on both sides of the Atlantic) Logan’s initial hatred for this woman turns into love, or at least a crazed infatuation. The film then mopes on to its main intrigue: Logan is visited in his office by Lord Mere (Ralph Richardson), whose wife Lady Mere (Binnie Barnes) has had five previous husbands in the space of as many years. Lord Mere wants a divorce because supposedly a servant named Saunders (Gertrude Musgrove) caught her in a potentially compromising position with four men in a suite at the same hotel where Logan and Leslie had spent their night from heck — and Logan immediately believes that Leslie is Lady Mere and he’s the mystery man she was caught in the hotel room with, even though nothing really happened (at least nothing sexual). The movie keeps Logan in the dark as to Leslie’s true identity for the remainder of its 91-minute running time, using some of the same subterfuges as Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott pulled in their script for the Astaire-Rogers musical Top Hat, and when we finally meet the real Lady Mere (Binnie Barnes) the expected fireworks from the confrontations between her and Leslie, and between her and Logan, turn out to be wet squibs. Charles summed up the movie when the scene cut to a man playing the cimbalom at a Hungarian restaurant/nightclub (Alexander Korda often filled his movies with reminders that though he achieved fame and success in Britain, his native country was Hungary, and at times his credit lists look like he was running a full-employment program for Hungarians in the U.K.) and he said, “With all the talent in this movie, it’s amazing that the cimbalom player is the most entertaining thing we’ve seen so far.”

It occurred to me that The Divorce of Lady X was the sort of film that could have been better with a more appropriate cast; the part of Logan in particular cried out for Cary Grant (a native Brit who achieved his greatest fame in the U.S.) and got Laurence Olivier, whose disgust with the whole idea of movie acting in general and this movie in particular seemed to hang over his head like a pall in every frame. It’s well known that he couldn’t stand Merle Oberon, both on this movie and the far better one they made together the following year (Wuthering Heights, filmed in Hollywood with Sam Goldwyn producing and William Wyler directing; Olivier later conceded that it wasn’t until he worked with Wyler that he realized that in movie acting less often was more and that he should tone down his gestures and intonations instead of booming every line and throwing every move “big” the way he was used to doing on stage, but he was also bitter that he wasn’t co-starring with his fiancée, Vivien Leigh, and denounced Oberon to one of his friends as “a cheap pick-up by Korda”). Ironically, Korda had produced a film of the same play in 1933, Counsel’s Opinion, with another expatriate American director — Allan Dwan on the earlier version and Tim Whelan here — and with Binnie Barnes starring as Leslie, whereas this time around she was demoted to the supporting role. Her Logan was Harry Kendall, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s marvelous 1931 film Rich and Strange (and Olivier, as the star of Rebecca, also had a Hitchcock connection!), and that might be a film worth seeing if only for Dwan’s direction: Whelan directed The Divorce of Lady X as if his characters were swimming under water, and the deadly, stately pace at which this moves completely undermines his attempts at French farce — or any other sort of humor, for that matter. The part of Leslie needed either someone more charming (like Claudette Colbert) or someone more overwhelming (like Katharine Hepburn; with her and Grant in the leads and Howard Hawks directing, one could readily imagine this movie as a comedy classic at the level of Bringing Up Baby); Oberon isn’t convincing as either a nice girl or a bitch, and while that’s not the biggest problem with The Divorce of Lady X that’s certainly one of them!