Friday, May 24, 2013

His Double Life (Eddie Dowling/Paramount/Atlantic, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a really peculiar recent download from called His Double Life, a fascinating film that was shot in 1933, produced by Eddie Dowling for his namesake production company, originally distributed by Paramount and with far more illustrious talent both behind and in front of the cameras than usually found in a 1930’s indie. The real brainchild of this film was Arthur Hopkins, best known as a stage writer and producer — his most famous play as a writer was Burlesque, a Broadway musical originally filmed as The Dance of Life in 1929 and then remade twice (Swing High, Swing Low, 1937; When My Baby Smiles at Me, 1948) — who directed it and co-wrote the script with silent-era veteran Clara Beranger (best known for her script for the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore) based on a novel called Buried Alive by Arnold Bennett and a play called The Great Adventure which Bennett adapted from his own book. The lead actor is Roland Young, playing England’s most famous and best-paid painter, Priam Farrel — only Farrel is such a neurotic recluse that no one actually knows him except his valet, Henry Leek (Roland Hogue). In addition to the customary duties of a servant, Leek’s job includes facilitating Farrel’s escape from wherever he happens to be living once Farrel thinks someone has come too close to discovering his whereabouts or, worse, entangling him in a committed relationship. At the start of the movie we see a Farrel show in a gallery whose owner, Oxford (Lumsden Hare), has been his exclusive representative for 15 years but has never seen him — and neither has anyone else at the show, including people who’ve been following him for his entire career. Then we cut to a seaside village in Spain, where one of the local women has set her trap for Farrel and expects him to marry her. Farrel says to Leek that this time they’re going to flee to the one place in the world no one will think of looking for him: his native but long-abandoned country, England, and particularly an apartment he owns there that hasn’t been lived in for years.

Once Farrel and Leek get there, Leek ends up sprawled out on the couch, feeling surprisingly weak; at first I thought he was just having an allergic reaction to the dust and musk in the room, but it turns out he’s contracted double pneumonia. Farrel calls a doctor, who mistakes Leek — the man in the big bed — for Farrel; then, when Leek expires from his disease, it’s Farrel the doctor pronounces dead. Farrel’s officious cousin Duncan (Montagu Love) takes charge of the estate and implements a will Farrel drafted as a joke, leaving virtually all his fortune to found an academy for modern art (ironic since every example of Farrel’s art we see is kitschy landscapes in the pre-Impressionist French Academy style!), though Leek was set to inherit an income of 100 pounds a year. When Farrel tries to explain to his cousin that he is really Farrel and it is Leek who has died, Duncan thinks he’s just another pushy servant trying to grab off properties of his dead master — Duncan won’t let Farrel have his own robe and paints (“Oh, so you think you’re an artist, too?” Duncan snidely replies) — instead Duncan palms him off with an eight-pound severance and Farrel is forced to re-enter the world, a place he ran from even when he had money, under the more difficult circumstances of not having money. When he attends his own funeral at Westminster Abbey, he breaks down, cries, gets himself thrown out and plaintively tries to convince two policemen that he’s really Farrel, and of course they think he’s crazy. Ultimately he ends up in a country house, living with Mrs. Alice Chalice (Lillian Gish, delivering a surprisingly mousy, ZaSu Pitts-ish performance which works for the character but still seems a comedown for someone who was as big a silent-era star as she was), a widow who had met Leek through lonelyhearts ads (the pre-Internet equivalent of Internet dating) and had received a photo of Leek and Farrel together but had got confused as to which was which. Farrel — or Leek — protests that he can’t marry her because he has no money, but she says that between Leek’s income from Farrel’s estate and her own dividends from her stock in a brewery they’ll have enough to live on.

Only the brewery goes out of business (this was a Depression-era movie, after all!) and in order to make ends meet Farrel has to start painting again. He carefully leaves his new canvases unsigned but they make their way to Oxford (the gallery owner, not the university!), who sells them as previously unknown, newly discovered Priam Farrels. All goes well until one of the buyers notices that the back of the painting contains a stamp from the company that made the canvas — and the stamp was dated 1932, two years after Farrel’s (supposed) death. Farrel also gets a visit from a middle-aged woman (Lucy Beaumont) who claims to have been Leek’s wife, who shows up with two men (Oliver Smith and Philip Tonge) who say they’re the sons of Leek and this woman, and the trio threaten to have Leek (really Farrel) prosecuted for bigamy. We never find out whether these people were in fact the real Leek’s wife and sons, but since Farrel isn’t the real Leek and has never been married before it really doesn’t matter. Oxford pleads with Farrel to testify at his trial to prove that he is Farrel and therefore the “Farrel” paintings he’s been selling are the real deal, and with Leek’s alleged family breathing down his neck and giving him a reason to re-establish his identity as Farrel, he agrees to do so. The film, which has been relatively naturalistic up until the trial scene, suddenly turns into a bizarre, almost operetta-ish scene, as jurors and spectators alike chant in unison with the art experts who proclaim the pre-1930 Farrel paintings as authentic and the later ones as fakes. It turns out that the only way Farrel can prove he is indeed Farrel is by showing the two moles on his neck Duncan recalled seeing on the real Farrel when they were both kids — before they had a lifelong falling-out over a plum pie (“I think,” Duncan equivocates on the stand). Not surprisingly, Farrel balks at this but eventually yields and is found to be the real Farrel, thereby establishing that his new paintings are authentic and he’s not a bigamist, but with their identities blown he and the missus beat a hasty retreat to New York so he can maintain his incognito and his isolation from the world.

Though we were watching it in a ghastly print quality — the first reel in particular was so badly scratched and splicy it looked like it had been edited with Ginsu knives — His Double Life still came through as a quite wonderful film, told with wit and insouciance and beautifully acted by Roland Young (he’s not one of my favorite performers but he’s just right here), Lillian Gish, Montagu Love (marvelous as the creepy villain), Roland Hogue (like Jerome Cowan in The Maltese Falcon, he makes such a good impression it’s a pity the plot requires him to get killed so soon) and the creeps who play Leek’s (supposed) “family.” His Double Life was a surprise, a genuinely entertaining movie that was shot in Paramount’s Astoria studios in New York and originally released by Paramount, though the print we were watching was from “Atlantic Pictures” and made me wonder if this was a British movie that had been picked up by an independent distributor for its U.S. release instead of a major studio. (The fact that virtually everyone in the cast except Lillian Gish was British lent credibility to that.) It’s a charming movie that manages to get laughs without going whole hog into screwball, and achieves poignancy without tear-jerking. It makes me wish Arthur Hopkins had directed more movies — it’s his only sound film and the only other directorial credit lists for him is a 1919 silent from Goldwyn called The Eternal Magdalenenot a Mary Magdalene biopic but a modern story based on a novel and play by Robert McLaughlin (so both Hopkins’ directorial efforts were based on novels later adapted for the stage by their original authors) — for he’s a quite accomplished filmmaker who seemed to be aware, as some other stage directors who tried their hands at moviemaking weren’t, of the differences between stage and film, and in particular that film is a more intimate medium that requires a more understated approach (and the fact that he picked a cast that, except for Montagu Love, didn’t contain any blatant hams helped in that department). It’s a lovely movie and quite a surprise in that one doesn’t expect an independent film, especially an American one, from 1933 to be this good!