Friday, May 16, 2014

Screen Directors’ Playhouse: The Bitter Waters (Hal Roach, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched an intriguing episode of the short-lived (one season) TV series Screen Directors’ Playhouse, an adaptation of a radio show that had featured potted versions of famous films (a competitor to the Lux Radio Theatre), though the TV version, produced by Hal Roach, featured famous movie directors doing original stories. This one was called The Bitter Waters and was supposedly set around the turn of the last century (though the “period” was unstressed and only the oddly unfashionable clothes the characters were wearing gave it away), based on a story by Henry James called “Louisa Pallant.” It takes place at a seaside resort featuring a casino (it was pretty obviously supposed to be Monte Carlo but that too was unstressed), where Louisa Pallant (Constance Cummings) and her former flame Charles Ferris (George Sanders, older and heavier-set than he was in his prime but with his world-weary detachment gloriously intact) run into each other after 20 years apart. Louisa, an American who relocated to Europe to “hook” a rich man, dated the then-impecunious Charles but then abandoned him to marry Pallant, a British industrialist, for his money — and then got screwed when Pallant suddenly died two years later and his biological family got what was left of his fortune. Since then Louisa has lived on a small income from the States and raised her daughter Linda (Cynthia Foster), who has attracted the interest of Ferris’ own traveling companion, his nephew Archibald Parker (a young and rather callow-looking Robert Vaughn). For mysterious reasons, Louisa doesn’t want Archibald to marry her daughter, though if anything that just makes Linda more alluring to the young man on the Romeo-and-Juliet principle that if her mom is standing in their way, then she must be worth marrying. Midway through the show — right after what was originally the commercial break — the big surprise (though it’s not that much of a surprise) occurs: Louisa tells Charles the reason she doesn’t want his nice young nephew to marry her daughter is that the daughter has become a totally spoiled bitch, heartless and avaricious — in some ways this story comes off as a sort of prequel to Rebecca (whose film adaptation also featured George Sanders), though it ends with Charles spiriting off his lovesick nephew to some other European resort city to break off the unwelcome engagement.

The Bitter Waters is a quite literate tale that gives some fine actors plenty to chew over, and the director is John Brahm, while the writer who adapted James’ tale is Zoë Akins. In case that’s not a name you remember, she wrote the scripts for two of Katharine Hepburn’s earliest films, the underrated Christopher Strong and the overrated Morning Glory (which started the tradition of Hepburn winning Academy Awards for the wrong movies: the Academy gave her the Oscar for Morning Glory when the two films she made on either side of it, Christopher Strong and Little Women, were both far richer and more complex, and gave her roles of greater depth and multidimensionality). Brahm had worked with George Sanders before on two major credits from the 1940’s, the remake of The Lodger and Hangover Square (probably Brahm’s best-known films as director) and, being able to work on film and with a multiplicity of locations, he turned in a superb job, ably staging James’ dark tale and getting it told in the 26 minutes he had available even though there’s one flaw in Akins’ script: we’re told that Linda is a bitch well before we get to see her doing one. Perhaps if the show had been longer — either an hour-long TV show or a short feature — the point could have been made more subtly by dropping little hints of Linda behaving meanly so the big reveal didn’t have the kind of left-field desperation it does in the version we have, but even with the limited running time director Brahm and screenwriter Akins do an excellent job with a nice little drama of manners, good and bad.