Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Divine Lady (First National, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

First of the two films I watched last night on Turner Classic Movies’ “Star of the Month” tribute to Marie Dressler was The Divine Lady, a 1929 (mostly) silent epic from First National Pictures just after they were acquired by Warner Bros. First National was a studio founded in 1917 by theatre owners worried about the acquisitions Paramount head Adolph Zukor was making; Paramount not only had two of the biggest stars in the business, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, under contract but they were buying so many prestigious theatres in plum locations that other theatre owners were worried that soon they’d have no major-star product available because it would all be monopolized by Paramount and their principal competitors, Fox and Metro (later MGM). So they banded together, formed a studio of their own, lured Pickford and Charlie Chaplin into their company — only to lose them again when Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin and D. W. Griffith decided to found their own company, United Artists — and operated as a semi-major studio until 1928. Flush with the profits from The Jazz Singer and the other early successes with the sound-on-disc Vitaphone system, Warner Bros. bought First National mainly to get access to their theatre chains (the logo of First National was a map of North America ringed by a chain), which in turn led to the famous Warners emphasis on working-class stories in the 1930’s: since First National’s theatres had been the ones in less desirable neighborhoods Paramount, Fox and Loew’s (MGM’s parent company) hadn’t wanted, they drew more working-class audiences and so Warners made the kinds of movies people who lived in areas serviced by First National theatres wanted to see. The Divine Lady was probably a project Warner Bros. inherited in the First National merger — by 1929 almost nobody was planning a big-budget silent film, so it had probably been greenlighted two years earlier and a lot of money had been spent on it, too much for Warners to cancel the project and eat their losses, and also too much for the studio to be willing to release the film without some sort of soundtrack.

So we get an opening theme song over the credits sung by an unseen Frank Munn; three traditional British songs (“A Laddie Loved a Lassie,” “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” and “Loch Lomond”) ostensibly sung by the film’s star, Corinne Griffith but almost certainly voice-doubled (though Griffith’s lip-synching gets noticeably better as the film progresses); and a few of the “wild” crowd noises often used during the silent-to-sound transition to get some approximation of human speech into scenes that had been shot silent. There’s also a running musical score throughout the film and such sound effects, novel then, as actually hearing drum rolls when the military drummers are playing them on screen. The Divine Lady is a tale at least loosely based on history: specifically on the notorious love affair between Lady Emma Hamilton (Corinne Griffith) and Admiral Horatio Nelson (Victor Varconi, whose best-known credit today is probably as Pontius Pilate in the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille King of Kings) during the late 18th and early 19th century while Nelson was leading the British navy as part of their nation’s war for existence against Napoleon’s France. They’re both married to other people — Emma to Sir William Hamilton (H. B. Warner, who played Jesus in King of Kings — so Corinne Griffith’s character is cheating on Jesus Christ with Pontius Pilate!), British ambassador to Naples (remember that it wasn’t until much later in the 19th century that Italy was united into one country); and Nelson to Lady Fanny (Helen Jerome Eddy, one of those aggressively homely actresses usually cast as the cuckolded wife in these productions at the time) — but being movie lovers, that doesn’t stop them even though the prohibitions of the Hays Office prevented director Frank Lloyd and writers Forrest Halsey (credited with “adaptation” of an historical novel by one E. Barrington), Agnes Christine Johnston (“continuity”) and Harry Carr and Edwin Justus Mayer (titles) from being too explicit about showing them as lovers. I’d known this story before only from the 1941 British remake, called Lady Hamilton in its country of origin but given the more openly sensationalistic title That Hamilton Woman in the U.S., the third and last film co-starring real-life couple Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh — Winston Churchill had shut down most of the British film industry as part of the war effort but he let producer/director Alexander Korda go ahead with this one because of the obvious morale-boosting potential of a story about one of Britain’s great war heroes — but the two films track pretty closely except that Korda and his writers, Walter Reisch and R. C. Sherriff, begin with a destitute and dissolute Lady Hamilton, living as a homeless person in Paris, get arrested for stealing a bottle of wine; she’s thrown in a cell with a British prostitute and narrates her history as an elaborate flashback.  

The Divine Lady doesn’t depict this depressing coda to the story but gives us a bit more of the backstory: Emma Hart (to use her maiden name) is a commoner, the daughter of a cook (Marie Dressler, who even though TCM was showing this as part of a “Star of the Month” tribute to her doesn’t have much of a role). Mom got a job with the Greville family, but Emma almost lost it when one of the Grevilles saw her flirting and decided she was a shameless hussy who shouldn’t be in their home. No problem; Emma simply shows off her leg to Charles Greville (Ian Keith, who also has a Cecil B. DeMille connection; he played Saladin in The Crusades) and he’s instantly smitten. He arranges for her to be educated in music, dance and the other arts considered appropriate for women to learn then in order to please men, and tells his uncle Sir William Hamilton that she’s already “perfect,” but four months in Italy with him, living in the British ambassador’s residence and picking up Italian culture, will make her “divine” (the explanation for the movie’s title). Emma is disappointed that Greville, whom she’s in love with, isn’t coming with them, but he protests he has business in England that will keep him for four months. She impatiently awaits the arrival of the British packet boat on October 1, which is supposed to bring Greville, but when it comes instead of Greville it contains a letter from him saying that his debts are keeping him in England and he’s planning on getting married. (The obvious implication is he needs to marry a woman with money so she can pay off his debts. The rotter!) Sir William proposes marriage to Emma; she protests, “I will never love you … ” but goes through with it anyway. Meanwhile, the Napoleonic wars flare up and affect not only Europe but North Africa, and Naples is trying as hard as possible to maintain its neutrality, friendly to England but not wishing to bring down the wrath of Napoleon by doing anything to help its war against France. (Napoleon eventually occupied Italy and some partisan fighters in Sicily organized a resistance movement they called the Mafia — the name comes from the Italian initials for “Anti-French Society” — and after Napoleon’s defeat the members of the Mafia decided to stay together and support themselves by crime.) Admiral Nelson anchors his fleet off Naples and pleads with the Neapolitan monarch, King Ferdinand (Michael Vavitch, looking very much like the beta version of Robert Morley), for food and water so he can rescue his struggling sailors and go on to Cairo to meet the French fleet at the mouth of the Nile. Ferdinand is reluctant but Lady Hamilton, who’s befriended Neapolitan Queen Maria Carolina (Dorothy Cumming), gets her to countermand her husband’s order and allow the English fleet to provision itself in Naples. Emma pulls this off by reminding Maria Carolina that as the sister of Marie Antoinette she’s hardly likely to be treated sympathetically if the French conquer Italy! Nelson gets his supplies, he goes on to win the Battle of the Nile but during that struggle he also loses his right arm and one eye, and he becomes a hero in England.

He’s recalled to court to accept honors from the King and Queen (at the time that would have been crazy George III of the House of Hanover and his wife, Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz — the Hanoverian monarchs were recruited from Germany to keep Britain safely Protestant after the attempts of the Stuarts to restore Roman Catholicism, and George III was the first Hanover king who actually could speak English) but Lady Hamilton is blackballed — and Nelson angrily walks out on the celebration because he won’t tolerate the disgrace to a woman whose political maneuverings were crucial in winning the battle he’s being honored for. Nelson and Emma retire to a country village to live out their lives safe from moral censure — until Nelson’s country needs his services again because the French fleet is threatening to blockade the English Channel, and if that happens Britain will be cut off from the supplies it needs to survive. The geography gets a bit confused here because the script makes it seem like Britain is in imminent danger from being blockaded by the French fleet, but Nelson’s final battle with the French in 1805 takes place at Trafalgar off the coast of Cádiz in southern Spain (and the Brits were up against not only the French fleet but the Spanish as well, since Spain had allied itself with Napoleon). As anyone with a passing familiarity with the history knows, the British won at Trafalgar but Nelson was killed (though his death scene here — he’s picked off by an enemy sharpshooter just as the overall battle has been won — is singularly unconvincing), and the final shot is of him and Lady Hamilton embracing and then a shot of waves to indicate that they will remain together forever in the memory of the sea. The Divine Lady is actually an excellent movie, proof that by the end of the silent era the movies were a fully mature art form and much of the early trauma of the sound conversion came from directors, writers and actors who had to re-learn the basic grammar of film that had been established in the silent days. At first Corinne Griffith comes off like someone at First National noticed how much money Gloria Swanson was making for Paramount and wanted someone as much like her as possible, and there are portions of her performance that lapse into the flibbertigibbety coyness that was the default setting for all too many silent movie heroines, but mostly her acting is strong, understated and fully credible — as is Varconi’s: though he usually played either villains or second leads (like his part in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Roberta) he’s quite exciting and charismatic as a naval hero (even though for someone used to seeing Varconi with dark hair it’s odd to see him as a blond); any thoughts I might have had that Victor Varconi and Corinne Griffith might not measure up to the inevitable comparisons with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were quickly disproven!

The Divine Lady scores in virtually all departments; like director Frank Lloyd’s two best-known credits — the 1924 silent version of The Sea Hawk (for which Lloyd borrowed Buster Keaton’s special-effects genius, Fred Gabourie, who created scenes of model sailing ships so realistic they got used over and over again as stock footage, including in Errol Flynn’s 1935 star-making vehicle Captain Blood; and in which Milton Sills made a dashing hero, equal in attractiveness and charisma to Flynn, who did a quasi-remake in 1940 that used only the title and one scene) and the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, it takes place largely at sea, and though Lloyd seemed a bit more interested in the seafaring drama than the romantic intrigue, he handles both brilliantly. The cinematography by John F. Seitz (whose last name is misspelled “Sietz” on the credits) is suitably spectacular and there are some incredible moving-camera effects of the type that virtually disappeared from movies in the early years of sound. (One rather testy critic in the transition days wondered why a silent camera could encompass mountains, rivers and valleys while a sound camera was helpless in the face of twelve chorus girls; it was because the sound cameras were locked inside soundproofing booths and therefore couldn’t be moved.) The acting in The Divine Lady is for the most part understated and naturalistic — there are the very few lapses into the exaggerated windmill-style gestures many people who’ve never seen a silent film start-to-finish think they were all acted like — the settings are handsome and believable, the crowd scenes effective and credible, and the whole thing is an example of silent film as a fully mature artistic medium that in a few years was going to disappear forever. The bits of sound that appear seem more like after-the-fact spackling than anything integral to the movie — though the reprise of “Loch Lomond” as Emma says goodbye to Nelson for the last time is not only credibly lip-synched but emotional in a way most all-talkies wouldn’t be until about 1933 or so, once the creative personnel got the bugs out of the system and the cameras could move again, while the writers and directors learned when to let the actors talk and when to have them shut up.