Saturday, January 25, 2014

Film Review: The Divine Lady

"The Divine Lady"  *** (out of ****)

"The Divine Lady" (1929) is a silent movie starring Corinne Griffith and Victor Varconi, which was directed by Frank Lloyd and nominated for three Academy Awards.

I remember "The Divine Lady" as being a somber, border-line boring, heavy drama. As I watched it again however, I was immediately struck by the first half of the movie which had a wonderful comedic tone, almost a Pygmalion quality to it. The star of the movie, Corinne Griffith, displayed a capability for comedy and drama. It reminded me of Marion Davies. Griffith had such an expressive face. By merely rolling her eyes she conveys several emotions. The act could inspire comedy and make us laugh, it could express frustration, longing..ect.

But then came the moment when the movie shifts tone and does it fact become what I remember it as. A melo-dramatic Victorian love story. How disappointing. The change in tone is unfortunate. The movie, for the first 46 minutes or so (the film is roughly 90 minutes) moves along so carefree, so effortlessly and has such good cheer. I was thoroughly enjoying the movie, wondering how could my mind play such tricks on me. It was nothing like I had remembered.

Corinne Griffith plays Emma Hart, a poor, working class girl, who along with her mother (Marie Dressler) arrive at the home of Charles Greville (Ian Keith) for employment. Initially Greville is put off by Emma's actions and demeanor, which he finds vulgar. He dismisses them both. But, Emma pleads with Greville to please allow her and her mother to stay. She persuades him by telling him, by being in his presence she may become a refine (not divine) lady. Greville agrees.

Though Greville has his motives. First of all he finds Emma to be very attractive. She seems to have fallen in love with him. Of course, given the difference in social rank between them, this does make things difficult. However, Greville believes he can teach this young lady some manners and make her respectable, a lady (hence Pygmalion).

Greville views Emma has a prize trophy and wants to show her off to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton (H.B. Warner). Hamilton is taken in by her beauty as well and so an agreement is made. Greville will let Hamilton "have her" to teach her manners. Hamilton though lives in Naples, as an Ambassador. It is then agreed to lie to Emma and tell her, Greville will soon follow them, though he has no intention of doing so, as he doesn't love Emma.

With Hamilton Emma leads a good life. They are not in love with each other, but, there is a mutal affection. They eventually marry. Until the day Admiral Horatio Nelson (Victor Varconi) comes along. The two fall in love, putting shame on Hamilton, and on Nelson's wife. We now have the story of a love that cannot be. And here the tone shifts.

"The Divine Lady" is a staunchly pro-English film, and engages in the usual class-warfare British society often engages in. The treatment of women is interesting to look at in a modern context with the idea of "trading" women, and viewing them as prizes. The affair is treated in a more conservative manner. These scenes are not direct, though we do see the two kiss and the viewer knows full well they are married. This kind of thing would not be allowed once the production code came into effect.

The movie was based on a novel by Elizabeth Moresby, who is credited as "E. Moresby", keeping her gender a secret. She was the daughter of a Royal Navy captain. The film is supposed to be based on historical fact. These characters really did exist. How much is "Hollywood" and how much is fact, I don't know and honestly, I don't care. Movies are not suppose to be history lessons. The are suppose to be entertainment.

Frank Lloyd, the director of the film, won an Academy Award for his work here. He would go on to direct "Cavalcade" (1933, which I have reviewed), which won best picture and again Lloyd won a best director Oscar. In 1935 he would direct "Mutiny on the Bounty" with Clark Gable, which would win the best picture Oscar as well. And once again Lloyd was nominated for directing, making him one of the most celebrated directors in the early history of the Academy Awards. Today he is forgotten.

"Cavalcade" though has something in common with this film. Both are "British" pictures. We are seeing history through the eyes of England. It has always amazed me how much admiration Americans have for the British.

What truly makes "The Divine Lady" worth watching is Corinne Griffith, she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. She gives the most lively performance. And again, that face, the expressions that she conveys through her eyes. She was beautiful. A shame she didn't become a biggest star. By the time this movie was made she had been acting for quite a while, since 1916, but this is the movie she is best remembered for.

Despite a wonderful first half, the movie gets bogged down in its love story, which I am sure could have been told with more energy and passion. We don't feel anything between these two characters. Their story is told in such a dull way, which leads me to take some points off.

This material was the basis for another movie, "That Hamilton Woman" (1941), directed by the great Hungarian producer, Sandor Korda (Alexander Korda) starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. It is was also nominated for Oscars and is considered the better adaptation.