Tag: Basil Rathbone

David Copperfield (1935)

David Copperfield header
Frank Lawton, WC Fields and Roland Young bring Dickens to life in David Copperfield

Director: George Cukor

Cast: Freddie Bartholomew (Young David Copperfield), Frank Lawston (Old David Copperfield), Edna May Oliver (Betsey Trotwood), Elizabeth Allan (Clara Copperfield), Jessie Ralph (Peggotty), Basil Rathbone (Mr Murdstone), Herbert Mundin (Barkis), Jack Buckler (Ham Peggotty), Una O’Connor (Mrs Gummidge), Lionel Barrymore (Daniel Peggotty), Violet Kmeple Cooper (Jane Murdstone), Elsa Lanchester (Clickett), Jean Cadell (Emma Micawber), WC Fields (Wilkins Micawber), Lennox Pawle (Mr Dick), Lewis Stone (Mr Wickfield), Roland Young (Uriah Heap), Madge Evans (Agnes Wickfield), Hugh Williams (James Steerforth), Maureen O’Sullivan (Dora Spenlow)

You could argue David Copperfield is one of the most influential films ever made. David O Selznick was desperate to bring Dickens’ favourite novel to the screen. But the MGM suits were convinced it couldn’t be done (800 pages in two hours?! Get out of town!) and anyway who would want to come to the cinema when they could read the book at home? They were wrong, wrong, wrong and Selznick proved that classic literature (even if it was a cut-down version of a great book) could be bought to the screen and capture at much of the spirit of the book, even if you couldn’t dramatise all the events. David Copperfield remains very entertaining, not least because it also showed you can’t go to far wrong when you assemble an all-star cast who fit their characters perfectly.

The story of the film pretty much follows the novel (with exceptions, deletions and abridgements). Young David Copperfield (Freddie Bartholomew, growing up into Frank Lawton at the half-way point) grows up loved by his mother (Elizabeth Allan) and nurse Peggotty (Jessie Ralph), but loathed by his step-father Mr Murdstone (Basil Rathbone) who barely waits five minutes after his mother passes away before dispatching David to a factory in London. There David forms a bond with the charming exuberant Mr Micawber (WC Fields) before deciding to walk to Canterbury to seek the protection of his aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver). Growing into a young man, he faces romantic problems, the schemes of the vile Uriah Heap (Roland Young) and the betrayals of his schoolfriend Steerforth (Hugh Williams). Will all turn out well?

Stylistically, David Copperfield aims to be as true to the novel as impossible. It’s designed to look as much as possible like a series of Phiz sketches bought to life and the actors have clearly studied both novel and illustrations to craft themselves as much as possible into living, breathing representations of their characters. Well scripted by Hugh Walpole (who also cameos early on as a Vicar), the film manages to be faithful without being reverential and tells an engaging story with momentum – even if the pace accelerates a little too much towards the end.

Walpole’s adaptation splits the book into two acts: the childhood of our hero and his life as young man. Giving an idea of how the momentum accelerates towards the end, this basically means the first hour of the film covers the novel’s opening 200 pages, leaving the last hour to hurry through the remaining 600. This means several characters and events are deleted, simplified or removed. However, Walpole still manages to retain all the truly vital information and iconic material, and recognises most of the striking material is found in that first 200 pages.

This childhood story is very well told, partially because Freddie Bartholomew (while he has touches of school play about him) is an affecting and endearing actor, who makes the young David a kid we care about rather than either an insufferable goodie-two-shoes or a syrupy brat. He’s a smart, kind, slightly fragile boy who we end up caring about – and it gives a real emotional impact when his mother dies (a very tender Elizabeth Allan) or to see him misused by Mr Murdstone (a perfectly judged performance of austere coldness by Basil Rathbone). Little touches of joy in his life – like the time he spends at the Peggotty’s converted ship home (a perfect representation of its description in the book) are really heartwarming, because David himself is such an endearing fellow.

It does create an obstacle for Frank Lawton when he takes over, since the audience is asked to try and bond with this new actor having already committed their hearts for just over half the run time to another. Lawton also has to deal with scenes rushing towards the conclusion rather than getting character beats like Bartholomew. Cuts impact his key relations: his school friendship with Steerforth is relayed second hand, meaning Steerforth turns up only to almost instantly let everyone down; Dora Spenlow and Agnes Wickfield get only brief screen time to establish their characters. The schemes of Uriah Heap are barely explained (he’s just a hypocritical wrong ‘un, okay?). It says a lot that the last fifteen minutes rush through the deaths of three major characters, a shipwreck, a dramatic confrontation, David travelling the world and a resolution of romantic tensions. It’s the only point when the film feels like its ticking boxes.

But it doesn’t completely matter (even if a two-part film would have helped no end – particularly allowing Lawton more room to develop a character) since the performances are so good. Expertly marshalled by Cukor – who rarely introduces visual flair, but coaches pin-perfect turns from the entire cast – every role is cast to perfection. None more so than WC Fields, for whom Wilkins Micawber became a signature part. Replacing Charles Laughton mid-filming (he claimed he looked more like he was about to molest the boy), Fields keeps his own accent and some of his own persona, but still fits perfectly into the Dickensian larger-than-life optimism and good will of Micawber. His comic timing is spot-on – watch him climbing over a roof or bantering with David and his family – and he seems like he has just walked off the page. If there had been a Supporting Actor Oscar in 1935, he would almost certainly have won it.

He’s the stand-out of a host of excellent performances. Edna May Oliver is very funny and has a more than a touch of genuine emotion as Betsey Trotwood. Jessie Ralph is excellent as Peggotty. Lennox Pawle makes a very sweet Mr Dick. Roland Young is the very picture of unctuous hypocrisy as Uriah Heap. Only the young women get a little short-changed: despite her best efforts, Madge Evans can’t make Agnes Wickfield interesting and Maureen O’Sullivan is rather cloying as Dora.

But the film itself is pretty much spot-on for the tone of Dickens, even if events are rushed. The impact of the Peggotty/Steerforth story is lost since we are never given the time to get to know any of the parties involved, and certain plot complexities are only thinly sketched out. But Cukor marshals the actors perfectly and throws in at least one striking shot, of Murdstone appearing in the distance as the camera follows a cart bearing David away from his mother. It always looks just right and the characters that do get the time are perfectly played, so much so that a few performances (Fields, Oliver, Young) may even be definitive.

David Copperfield proved you could turn a doorstop novel into a film and, even if you sacrificed some of the complexities (and might need to rush to fit it all in) you could still produce something that felt recognisable and true to the original. So, for that – with the mountain of adaptations that followed – we have a lot to thank it for.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Errol Flynn hits the spot in The Adventures of Robin Hood

Director: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley

Cast: Errol Flynn (Robin Hood), Olivia de Havilland (Maid Marian), Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy of Gisbourne), Claude Rains (Prince John), Patrick Knowles (Will Scarlet), Eugene Pallette (Friar Tuck), Alan Hale (Little John), Herbert Mundin (Much, the Miller’s Son), Melville Cooper (Sheriff of Nottingham), Una O’Connor (Bess), Ian Hunter (King Richard)

Has a more enjoyable film ever been made? The Adventures of Robin Hood is such a glorious technicolour treat it’s pretty much an archetype of a Hollywood blockbuster. Reportedly the only film in history that had exactly no changes made to it after preview screenings (so much did the audience lap it up), it’s been entertaining people pretty much non-stop since 1938. Never mind its influence on Robin Hood legend – almost every Robin Hood based film or show recycles elements of the plot here – it’s pretty much built up a picture of what a classic Hollywood Olde Medieval England epic is.

It’s Medieval England at the time of the Crusades (actual history is of course no-one’s concern). King Richard’s wicked brother, the greedy Prince John (Claude Rains) is plotting to seize the throne while bis brother languishes in an Austrian dungeon. Up go the taxes – especially on those pesky Saxons who still fill England’s lands, under the yoke of their Norman rulers. Who can stand in the way of John – and his arrogantly ruthless right-hand man Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone)? Only the Lincoln-green coated Saxon nobleman Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), the most upstandingly, thigh-slappingly, decent chap you could imagine. Taking the name Robin Hood, he takes refuge in Sherwood Forest and builds up a group of like-minded fellows who resolve to rob from the rich, give to the poor and protect the realm for Richard. But things get complicated when Robin falls in love with brave and whipper-smart Maid Maran (Olivia de Havilland) – especially as she is the intended of non-other than the wicked Sir Guy of Gisbourne…

Looking like an explosion in a technicolour workshop, The Adventures of Robin Hood is fast-paced, crammed with rollicking action, packed with good lines and played with a knowing wink by a cast of actors clearly having a whale of a time. It’s a prime slice of entertainment, and it succeeds completely. It’s hard to imagine someone not finding something to enjoy here. Sword fights and chases? Check. Romance and flirtation? Check. Some cheeky gags and a hero thumbing his nose at authority? Check. Villains to hiss and heroes to cheer? You better believe it. I don’t think there is a single type in Hollywood history where the cocktail of action and entertainment was mixed better.

The film has two credited directors. William Keighley was the original, who shot the material in the film shot on location. It’s Keighley who helped tee up the atmosphere, and to get the actors to relax into the style of the thing. Crucial sequences showing the characters meeting (including the encounter with Little John) and a large chunk of the middle-act archery contest were Keighley’s work. So, we have him to thank for working in a competition that includes an arrow piecing straight through the middle of another (a stunt put together with a bit of clever wire work and some genuinely gifted archery skills). However, Keighley was less accomplished at shooting action. And to be honest you can see it, during the sequence where Robin and his Merry Men take hostage Gisborne and the Sheriff. It’s fine, but there is a reason why it’s also not a scene anyone particularly remembers from the film. When the shoot returned to Hollywood for the interiors, a new director was sought out to handle the rest – which included all the big fight scenes.

The man they called on was one of the masters of the studio system, Michael Curtiz. A director famed for his dictatorial approach to film-making (hilariously Flynn agreed to the film on condition that it wouldn’t be directed by Curtiz, the relationship between the two having collapsed during earlier collaborations), what Curtiz could do that Keighley couldn’t was add a really visual scale to the action. And it worked a treat – because Curtiz gifted us two of the greatest, instantly recognisible, action showpieces in Hollywood history. Both epic sword fights in Nottingham Castle are down to him, his camera employing crane, tracking and long shots to add an epic quality. He was also full of cool ideas – it’s him we have to thank for a portion of the closing sword fight being shown through shadow play.

It’s the pace as well that Curtiz really understand. Compare the careful, single shot, used by Keighley for the quarterstaff duel between Robin and Little John. Now admittedly the stakes are lower. But then watch the immediacy and dynamism of Curtiz’s camera moves while Robin fights for his life in Nottingham against dozens of guards, or duels with Sir Guy. The energy – and above all the pace and speed – of these scenes help make them gripping. And it wasn’t just the action. Curtiz bought a romantic jolt of energy to the interplay between Maid Marion and Robin, framing a key scene with a romantic intimacy on the edge of a window sill. While Keighley laid the ground work, it’s arguably Curtiz’ work that makes the film what it is.

Well that and the actors. Errol Flynn was perfectly cast as Robin Hood, the part a wonderful fit for his ability to mix charm with just a hint of rogueish sexuality and cheek. Combine that with his athleticism – some of the stunts he carries out in this film are eye-openingly intense – and you’ve got the man you pretty much cemented the public impression of who Robin Hood was. It’s beyond bizarre to imagine the original choice of actor – James Cagney – playing the role.

Flynn also of course has winning chemistry with Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland uses her great skill to make Maid Marian far more than just a damsel in distress. She’s proactive, plugged in and defiant, convinced of the need for justice and more alert to dangers and opportunities than almost anyone else in the film.

Both of these two go up against one of the finest arrays of baddies I think film has ever seen. Rains is arrogant, aloof and ever-so-slightly camp as the superior Prince John. Rathbone is scowlingly austere and deliciously pleased-with-himself as Sir Guy. And for the chuckles we have the bumbingly cowardly Sheriff, played with comic delight by Melville Cooper. All three of these actors combine perfectly, offering a marvellous troika of villains, each a mirror image of different facets of Flynn’s hero.

It makes for a gloriously entertaining film, all washed down with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s marvellous symphonic score, the bombast and romantic sweep of the music perfectly counterbalancing the action on screen. Still the greatest of all Robin Hood films, The Adventures of Robin Hood is entertaining no matter when you watch it.

The Last Hurrah (1958)

Spencer Tracy runs for office in John Ford’s toothless satire The Last Hurrah

Director: John Ford

Cast: Spencer Tracy (Major Frank Skeffington), Jeffrey Hunter (Adam Caulfield), Dianne Foster (Maeve Caulfield), Pat O’Brien (John Gorman), Basil Rathbone (Norman Cass), Donald Crisp (Cardinal Martin Burke), James Gleason (“Cuke” Gillen), Edward Brophy (“Ditto” Boland), John Carradine (Amos Force), Willis Bouchey (Roger Sugrue), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Weinberg), Wallace Ford (Charles J Hennessey), Basil Ruysdael (Bishop Gardner)

Mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) is running for a fifth term of a “New England city”. Skeffington’s roots lie in the town sprawling Irish population, and has successfully played the game of machine politics all his life. He’s alienated the members of the towns traditional elite – who can trace their ancestors all the way back to the Mayflower – but he’s loved by the regular people of the city. But is Skeffington going to find himself out of touch with a political world starting to embrace populism and the power of television?

John Ford’s adaptation of a hit novel by Edwin O’Connor, is one of his rare “present day” pictures. But it’s a bit of a busted flush. What should have been an exploration of a tipping point in American politics, totally fails to successfully land any of the points it could make. It’s a film that doesn’t understand the Kennedy-esque world America was moments away from embracing, and looks with such ridiculously excessive sentimentality at old-school politics it manages to tell us nothing about the corruption and dirty deals of this sort of machine politics. Effectively it’s a film that takes two long hours to tell us almost nothing at all. 

The film adores two things – and it’s not a surprise in a Ford film – the past and the Irish. Anything from yesteryear is covered in a halo, with the parade of old-school Hollywood character actors from the Ford rep company taking it in turns to denounce and condemn anything and anyone less than 40 years old. Every young person in the film is either a feckless idiot – Skeffington and Cass’ sons are a playboy and an embarrassing moron – or, like Jeffrey Hunter’s Adam Caulfield (Skeffington’s nephew covering the election for the local paper) is there merely to provide doe-eyed adoration. 

As for the Irish, the film loves the grace and charm of this old immigrant community. Skeffington’s Irish political machine is sanitised beyond belief. In the real world these sort of organisations operated on a system of back room deals, intimidation and careful arrangements to deliver set quotas of votes on polling day. Sure many of these politicians also delivered a number of social reforms – as Skeffington does – but any suggestion that any of Skeffington’s dealings could ever be described as dirty are roundly dismissed. Here it’s all about what Skeffington could do for other people, and no mention of the endemic corruption in many politicians like this. Instead Skeffington is presented with nothing but rose-tinted sentimentalism, a respectful widower, a kind man, whose actions are often more about other people than politics.

Former Boston mayor James Michael Curley – who Skeffington was clearly based on – was imprisoned for corruption. No chance of that happening to Skeffington who only uses intimidation and back-street savvy to fight the causes of orphans and widows (literally) and takes nothing at all from the public purse (although he still lives in a lovely big home). By contrast his elite opponents are the sort of scowling, greedy, penny-counters you might find in a Frank Capra film, shameless bankers and newspaper types who care nothing for truth and justice and only their own selfish needs.

Perhaps that’s why Skeffington’s opponent McCluskey (an early Kennedy substitute with his perfect family life, war record and lack of actual accomplishments) is portrayed as such an empty suit, a mindless, grinning yes-man who has nothing to say and no goals to meet. Ford’s contempt for him – and for the new word of television – drips off the screen. The TV shot we see McCluskey shooting is a farcical mess, poorly shot, edited and delivered with stilted artificiality by McCluskey and his tongue-tied wife. Not only is it not particularly funny, the presentation of this just shows how out of touch Ford was with modern America. Two years after this, Kennedy would win an election largely off the back of his ability to present a dynamic image on TV. Skeffington even crumbles in the election due to his traditional, press-the-flesh campaign not competing effectively with TV slots. How can that look even remotely convincing when Ford shows his rival has no mastery of the new media at all? That in fact he’s worse at making TV than Skeffington proves to be?

What exactly was Ford going for? By failing to criticise anything at all about the old-school politics and pouring loathing on the new politics, he ends up saying very little at all. Skeffington is a twinkly angel, but we never understand why so many in the church and the city oppose him – other than the fact I guess that he is Irish. Donald Crisp’s cardinal promises at one point near the end to reveal why he always opposed Skeffington – only to be hushed. If anything bad ever happened, Ford ain’t telling us making this one of the most dishonest of his tributes to Old America.

None of this is to criticise much of the acting, which is great. Spencer Tracy dominates the film with his accustomed skill and charisma, his Skeffington both a twinkly charmer and a practised flesh-presser who manages to subtly pitch and adjust his character depending on his audience and whose physicality helps to assert his dominance in every scene. Pat O’Brien does fine work as his fixer and Basil Rathbone is suitably sinister as a his principle financial opponent. Ford also puts together some memorable shots – especially a long walk Skeffington takes past a victory parade – and scenes, but the film is an empty mess. And, with its extended final twenty minute coda, goes on way too long.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

Holmes and Watson have a few more tourist destinations pointed out to them. Altogether now: “Magnificent!”

Director: Roy William Neill
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr. John Watson), Marjorie Lord (Nancy Partridge), Henry Daniell (William Easter), George Zucco (Heinrich Hinkel), John Archer (Lt. Peter Merriam)

With Sherlock back on our televisions, it’s always great to revisit the old Basil Rathbone classics for a neat comparison. They also serve as reminders to us that setting the stories in the modern day is far from a new idea as, in this picture Holmes takes on a Nazi spy ring in the heart of the American capital.

Of course anyone watching with even an ounce of experience of watching films will quickly suss out nearly everything in the film within seconds. A British agent goes missing en route to Washington carrying some crucial government secrets (in a rather nifty opening sequence we follow our antagonists trying to work out who among the passengers on a train is the British agent). Holmes is called in and the trail soon leads to Washington. The game’s afoot!

It’s all quite good fun clearly inspired by Hitchcock and Chandler, odd as it is to see Holmes running around with American gumshoes or flick Watson a thumbs up. Rathbone carries it all off with style although his deductions are elementary to say the least  (the British agents home is full of photography and microfilm equipment – I wonder what he might have done the letters…) and he has a lot of fun with a few snide put downs and later when disguised as a bumbling Brit in a antiques shop (don’t ask). His smooth, cool authority makes the final scenes really work.

There is also some quite effective comic relief from Nigel Bruce’s Watson, here obsessed with Americana, seen picking up slang, slurping milkshakes and chewing gum. In fact there is a touching pride from the film makers for their travelogue sections, the camera lingering on aerial shots of buildings and stills of famous buildingw. Holmes arrival sequence is almost completely given over to shots of Washington landmarks followed by Rathbone stressing their “magnificance” to Watson and the audience. Later of course Rathbone sings America’s praises and uses a Churchill quote to show that “we are all allies together”. Yay for the allies!

This is silly stuff and highly predictable, but it’s professionally made and bounds along. A sequence at a party mines a lot of humour from the casual passing around of a match book containing the vital microfilm. Most of the American support is pretty forgettable (although Clarence Muse gives a great cameo as a bus boy), but Henry Daniell makes a good heavy and George Zucco’s late introduction as a master agent makes a decent antagonist. Rathbone is authoritative amongst the nonsense and Bruce actually quite fun (though his Watson remains a moron). It’s a fast moving, totally predictable, rather silly spy film that happens to have Sherlock Holmes in it. You’ll enjoy it. And if you forget it don’t worry – you’ll work it all out again as soon as you see it.