[28 April 2011]
Two recent entries from Warner Archives’ made-on-demand website are Hollywood not-quite-classics of the ‘40s, which means there’s a good bet they might have been made by refugees from Hitler’s Germany. This doesn’t necessarily explain their brooding nature, but it does remind us that Hollywood learned a lot from artists who’d been steeped in Expressionism. Although wildly different projects, they’re both about the tragedy of successful women, which must have been a hot topic in that Mildred Pierce era when the boys came home from war and the women weren’t wanted on the swing shift, anymore.
The Unfinished Dance (1947) is an absorbing curiosity: a strange, even crazy Technicolor dance film made one year before the British classic The Red Shoes. It’s a remake of a French melodrama called Ballerina (1937), from Paul Morand’s novel La Mort du Cygne (The Death of the Swan).
Child star Margaret O’Brien plays Meg, a girl “who loves too much”. She’s a ballet student who stares scarily at the company’s star dancer, played by Cyd Charisse. Today’s viewers won’t be able to avoid interpreting crypto-lesbian moments like the scene where Charisse says “Why, Meg, you’re trembling. Are you cold?” “No, mademoiselle,” Meg whispers with her one-note intensity, “it’s from you holding my hand.”
Because Meg lives with an absent aunt (a showgirl), it’s implied she lacks mother figures and fixates on the ballerinas. Her only visible guardian is a sentimental neighbor (Danny Thomas) who believes in telling all kinds of lies to spare kids’ feelings. For some reason this doesn’t work so well, and yet they do feel better, after all, than they should. Anyway, the first climax arrives when a guest diva (Karin Booth) arrives to dance Swan Lake, and Meg is so possessed by jealousy that she does something regrettable.
All the backstabbing, scheming, and bribery among the ten-year-olds is both funny and chilling. Meg is accused by one beady-eyed best friend of having political connections. Meanwhile, the several dance sequences are dazzling. These brilliant, elaborate numbers are unbounded expressions of the simmering passions in all the backstage sturm-und-drang, or at least a lot of hellzapoppin’ eye candy.
The movie doesn’t know what to do with its last third, although the unconvincing ending has one surprising element. All contemporary movies about successful women show them glad to give up their careers when they finally net a man. This film, however, doesn’t endorse that philosophy. It takes the subversive route of suggesting that some things really are more important to a woman than just being someone’s wife.
This movie probably can’t be called successful (and it wasn’t at the time), though it’s fascinating. According to John Wakeman’s World Film Directors, director Henry Koster didn’t like it. He’s quoted telling an interviewer “Don’t look at it.” We’ll contradict him and say “Seek it out”, but we understand his dismay. Koster and producer Joe Pasternak had just moved to MGM from Universal, where they’d made a child star of Deanna Durbin in sparkling musical comedies, so MGM must have thought this serious, off-kilter drama was up their alley. Koster generally made his mark with light comedies, though later he was often saddled with Cinemascope epics. He was at home with warm, old-fashioned sentiments, not heavier feelings.
Perhaps the ideal director for this brooding if shockingly bright dance picture would have been Curtis Bernhardt. Bernhardt and Koster had made several movies in Germany as a director/writer team, including a 1925 version of Jane Eyre called The Orphan from Lowood. Relocated to Warner Brothers, Bernhardt made a series of women’s dramas, one of which returns to the same territory. Devotion (1946) is another curiosity from the high studio era: an attempt to make a serious soap opera out of the tragic history of the Bronte sisters: Charlotte (Olivia De Havilland), Emily (Ida Lupino), and Anne (Nancy Coleman), who all died young of tuberculosis after achieving literary success.
It’s shot in a studio-bound English moors where the sisters and their drunken ne’er-do-well brother Branwell (Arthur Kennedy) enact their doomed lives. Emily and Charlotte independently court Paul Henried as the local curate or vicar or whatever he is. He’s neither like Heathcliff nor Rochester but the movie works on the theory that both sisters love the same man. The movie ends “happily” on Charlotte’s marital success without mentioning that she’d be dead in a few years, while Emily is presented as the more brilliant and serious one who loses the man and kicks the bucket. In an engaging interlude, Charlotte and Emily briefly are teachers in a French school that provided grist for Charlotte’s Villette as Charlotte flirts with the headmaster (Victor Francen).
It’s the kind of literary biopic that’s not above having Emily point out a lonely house on a bluff and declare “I call it Wuthering Heights” as she strides away with purpose. While dying, she has a special-effects dream of a dark horseman riding toward her, cape billowing. Sydney Greenstreet, billed fourth, steals the movie by showing up in the last third as William Makepeace Thackeray, inimitably pinching snuff and making supercilious remarks about Dickens as he escorts the now bestselling Charlotte about the London of Vanity Fair. If only she’d moved there from those darned moors, she might have survived a bit longer.
Again, this movie can’t be called a success, but it’s too odd and well-made not to be fascinatingly watchable, with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music churning us up in high romantic mode. Perhaps both Devotion and The Unfinished Dance are pretentious misfires according to the standards of Hollywood escapism of the postwar era, but those are such high standards that even the misfires have plenty of spark.