SPOTLIGHT: Cunning Pre-Code Bennett (III)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the unjustly neglected Constance Bennett (1904-1965), whose work we’d never covered before here on Film Friday! But before we continue, I have a special announcement to make…

HAPPY 500 POSTS! 

This post is our 500th official entry, marking 100 connective weeks of Musical Theatre Mondays, Situation Comedy Tuesdays, Wildcard Wednesdays, Xena Thursdays, and Film Fridays! It’s been a hectic, but throughly enjoyable adventure, and I look forward to many more weeks to come. Thank you to every reader and subscriber for your support and interest in my writing. It means a lot. Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

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So far in our Bennett series, we’ve covered The Easiest Way (1931) and What Price Hollywood? (1932). Today, it’s fitting that our 500th post be dedicated to the film adaptation of a play that I wrote about in an early Wildcard Wednesday entry. From August of 2013, here are my thoughts on the play Our Betters (1917). Now, my thoughts on the film…

 

Our Betters (1933)

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An American heiress marries into the British nobility. Starring Constance Bennett, Violet Kemble-Cooper, Phoebe Foster, Charles Starrett, Grant Mitchell, Anita Louise, Gilbert Roland, Minor Watson, and Hugh Sinclair. Screenplay by Jane Murfin and Harry Wagstaff Gribble. From the play by W. Somerset Maugham. Directed by George Cukor.

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“Soon after her wedding, American hardware heiress Pearl Saunders discovers that her groom, Lord George Grayston, has married her only for her money and intends to continue his relationship with his noble but poor girl friend. Although crushed, Pearl remains married and, after five years of determined, calculated socializing, gains acceptance by England’s most particular aristocrats. She is also adored by her own circle of rich ex-patriate Americans, who include Minnie, a divorced duchess, the gossip-loving Thornton Clay, Flora, a sincere philanthropic princess, and Arthur Fenwick, her doting, older lover and benefactor. Pearl introduces her younger sister Bessie to English society and encourages her to pursue a relationship with Lord Harry Bleane. Bessie, who is loved by the unassuming American Fleming Harvey, hesitates to accept Harry’s proposals but is overwhelmed by the excitement of British high society and happily joins her sister for a weekend party at the Grayston country estate.

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“There, Pearl is wooed by Minnie’s gigolo, the lazy, faithless Pepi D’Costa, and is seen by Minnie slipping away for a rendezvous with him. Outraged, Minnie plots to have Bessie catch Pearl with Pepi, and the still innocent Bessie, who has finally accepted Harry’s proposal at Pearl’s urging, is stunned by her discovery. Exposed in front of her guests, Pearl retreats to her room, while a furious Minnie plans her immediate departure for London. To avoid the gossip and ridicule of the society that she has so painstakingly cultivated, Pearl plots to keep Minnie in the country and, using her versatile charms, re-ingratiates herself with the rest of her company. When Bessie denounces her as a hypocritical manipulator, however, Pearl has a moment of self-doubt and, to save Bessie, begs Harry to break his engagement. After Bessie reunites with the devoted Fleming, Pearl returns to her social “throne” and, with the help of Ernest, a foppish dance instructor that she has brought in from London, convinces the dance-crazy Minnie to stay another night to learn the latest tango step.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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To its credit, George Cukor’s 1933 film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1917 play can be called a near perfect adaptation (the only real difference is the prologue, in which Pearl marries her husband and learns that he is after her finances and intends to keep his mistress). Additionally, the actors are acutely tailored to their various roles, illuminating all the same flaws and weaknesses that were inherent in the stage text. My feelings regarding the story have remained virtually unchanged since I shared my thoughts on the play back in August of 2013. (See the link above.) The A-story of a formerly wealthy American who married a philandering member of British nobility and has since acquired for herself both a sugar daddy and her friend’s boytoy is deliciously ripe for comedy. Unfortunately, the B-story about the woman’s naive younger sister and her old beau’s attempts to prevent her from becoming like her sister is terribly dull. And this is mostly because it reeks of a cultural critique, in which the American practicality easily triumphs over the phoniness of British high society. While that is a fine message to embody, the unabashed sentimentality and unfortunate lack of multi-dimensionalism in this theme renders the satire of the piece weaker. If one were to play Bessie, Fleming and Flora tongue-in-cheekly, perhaps it would come across as more sincere; for this is nothing more than a frothy comedy — and any emotional truths that the play needs in order to hold itself up could just as easily be found within the action of its outrageous cast of characters.

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As noted above, the film is perfectly cast — too perfectly cast. Every player, with some notable exceptions, give their role exactly what Maugham outlined in his text. Sure, they collectively play their parts with steadfast conviction and commitment, but most of the players, aside from a few notables to be mentioned below, fail to add things that readers couldn’t find on the page for themselves. The boring characters are ashamedly boring, like the lovers, Starrett and Louise, and the romantically homesick Foster. And the over-the-top characters (including the hilariously flaming dance teacher) give to precisely the amount of scenery chewing as one would expect. Most guilty of this is Kemble-Cooper, who plays Minnie with an appropriate self-awareness, but far too little complexity to make her remotely likable. Contemporary audience members with little patience for this kind of histrionic-filled performance will find this a major detriment to their enjoyment of the film, for Minnie carries a handful of important scenes. (And we mustn’t blame the material. Cukor’s direction freshens the play’s text, making it not quite as stodgy as it would be in comparison to other 1933 films; rather it’s entirely atmospheric and adds to the satire.) It isn’t until the very end of the film, that her portrayal shows any mastery. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late.

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But the film isn’t nearly as bleak as the above may intimate. The film is an ensemble piece; and while several members of the company are weaker, there are just as many who give commendable performances. Special mention must be made of Pearl’s two beaus, the older Arthur, Minor Watson, who is surprisingly believable, and the absolutely stellar Grant Mitchell as Thornton Clay, perhaps the strongest supporting player — an exaggerated character who nevertheless manages to ground the material and sets the wacky tone of this ridiculous story. Meanwhile, Gilbert Roland is effortlessly effective as the boytoy and he shares undeniable chemistry with Bennett, whom he would later marry. Their scenes are steamy, and that’s certainly an asset. However, it should come as no surprise that the most successful performance — and the most important — is the one given by Bennett herself.

Before seeing the picture, I wondered if she would be able to play the complexity of Pearl, who must be both affectedly loathsome and unaffectedly charming, with necessary truth. Well, my mind was put at ease; Bennett’s performance is remarkable. She enlivens all of her scenes and uses every opportunity that her character provides to be a deliciously perfect Pearl. It’s certainly Our Betters‘ richest role, as the extent of her machinations allow for many layers of thought and an entire array of exhibited emotion. Bennett embodies her with ease, and manages to create chemistry with all of the players, even those with weaker roles or unflattering performances. Thus, Bennett’s remarkable performance alone makes it worth the price of admission. If you’re interested and are familiar with the story, you’ll love the film. For those of you who meet this description, Cukor’s Our Betters is highly recommended.

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Come back next Friday for another Constance Bennett Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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2 thoughts on “SPOTLIGHT: Cunning Pre-Code Bennett (III)

  1. This was FINALLY on TCM this week and I watched it. What an utter delight and delicious film!!!! I had wondered thru the last part if Pearl had PLANNED to be caught with Pepi as a lark or challenge.

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