Friday, 10 June 2016

Something for the weekend, sir? The super "Knight Without Armour" (1937) or the hilariously stinky "Miracle of the Bells" (1948)

I'm going through a phase where I can barely stand to watch modern films. Not sure why (perhaps it's because so many of them are so bloody terrible.) So it was a relief when I recently managed to get the YouTube app working again on our Samsung TV. This means I can once more watch any old movies available on YouTube on the TV (the computer screen is no substitute). I've downloaded about twenty to be getting on with, and have started working my way through them. I began with Max Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), a beautifully made slice of glamorous romantic period hokum (it starts in fin de siècle Vienna) starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan. Their paths cross three times over the years, and despite getting her up the duff the second time they become embroiled (having not recognised as the girl who used to live next door), he doesn't recognise her the third time either, even though they've evidently been somewhat intimate during their previous liaison - should have gone to Specsavers, Louis). Not really my kind of thing, but easy to admire:

Next came Rene Claire's 1945 version of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, which, oddly, I'd always assumed would be rather tedious, but which is actually borderline brilliant - I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite having recently watched the rather good TV adaptation featuring Charles Dance and Toby Stephens. Worth a gander if you haven't ever seen it:

But the film I've enjoyed most in the past fortnight was undoubtedly Knight Without Armour (1937), a British film produced by Alexander Korda's London Films, directed by Jacques Feyder (a Belgian I'd never heard of), and starring Robert Donat as a Russian-speaking Englishman who becomes a British spy, and who, for doing his patriotic duty, is imprisoned during the last days of the Czar - and Marlene Dietrich as the Russian countess whom he ends up saving after the Revolution. It is an absolute corker: there's genuine chemistry between the stars, it zips along at a tremendous pace, the confusions, terrors and stupidities of post-revolutionary turmoil are conveyed economically and effectively, and both side - the Reds and the Whites - are depicted as irrational, vengeful, trigger-happy butchers (there are several convincing scenes of soldiers and/or peasants being executed in courtyards). I usually find Dietrich irritating and mannered, but she's fine in this: Robert Donat is probably my all-time favourite screen-actor, and he's in top form here. Korda was on the verge of replacing him when Donat suffered a week-long bout of asthma (he was never a well man), but Dietrich - bless her - persuaded the producer to be patient.

Unfortunately (and inexplicably) Knight Without Armour was a box-office failure (it cost $1million, but only made $750,000). It was based on a novel by the excellent British writer James Hilton, who also wrote Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon. Bizarrely, Lost Horizon, which was also released as a film in 1937, also fared poorly at the box office - it took five years just to break even. Audiences were presumably spoiled for choice back then.

Okay, the next one is a bit of a cheat, because RKO's The Miracle of the Bells (1948) isn't available on YouTube - I saw it on the Sky TV channel, Talking Pictures TV, but I enjoyed it so much (albeit for all the wrong reasons) I can't resist recommending it.  It stars Fred MacMurray, Alida Valli, Frank Sinatra, and Lee J. Cobb. MacMurray (another of my favourite screen actors in dramatic rather than light-comedy roles) is a studio press agent bringing the body of a Polish actress (the heavily-accented Italian, Alida Valli - Harry Lime's main squeeze in The Third Man) back to the down-at-heel industrial dump, Coaltown, where she was raised, and where she wanted to be buried. She had just finished starring as Joan of Arc in a film produced by MacMurray's boss, Lee J. Cobb (looking even more dyspeptic and misanthropic than usual) - MacMurray "discovered" her and manoeuvred her into the plum role - when she dies of some coal dust-related disease. Lee J. Cobb decides not to release the film, opting instead to recast and remake it. MacMurray resigns, disgusted that the woman he loved will die an unknown, and heads for Coaltown, coffin in tow.

In Coaltown, MacMurray (whose acting is way better than the film deserves) meets Frank Sinatra, stupendously miscast and out of his depth as the priest of the most down-at-heel of the town's five Catholic churches (Sinatra signals that he is a True Man of God by acting as if he's just smoked a humungous joint after swallowing 50mgs of valium). MacMurray tries to bounce Lee J. Cobb into releasing the film via some corny PR stunt - but then a possibly miraculous event takes place (statues move in the church where the actress is to be buried, seemingly of their own accord), all the town's churches are suddenly filled to overflowing, their bells ring out, and Lee J. Cobb turns up from Hollywood to announce that he has decided to release the original picture after all (while looking about as happy as a man who's about to undergo a proctological examination). Somehow, this whole, hilarious farrago was written by the great screenwriter, Ben Hecht (perhaps he was undergoing an extended proctological examination while writing it).  It deservedly bombed at the box office.

If you really can't wait for The Miracle of the Bells to turn up on TV, you can listen to the Lux Theatre radio version, broadcast in May 1938, which also starred MacMurray and Alida Valli. Strangely, it works much better without the visuals - Sinatra's certainly more convincing when you can't see him.


  1. How did Olivier Todd get in there, Scott? I must admit the picture of Robert Donat did suggest a resemblance - something about the mouth. Whatever happened to HIM?

    1. Thank you for pointing out my bizarre error, Helen - I'm not quite sure how I got from a film star to a writer/journalist! - but I've corrected it so other visitors aren't baffled. Is 63 too young to claim a senior moment? Or is it that I've never been able to get over the confusion of Louis Jordan almost sharing a name with the the man who brought us "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie", "Caldonia" and "Saturday Night Fish-Fry"? Who knows?

      By the way, who is the HIM you refer to? The "thinking woman's crumpet" Olivier Todd is apparently still with us, at 85. Louis Jourdan died at his Beverly Hills home just over a year ago at the age of 93. He was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 2010. The bandleader Louis Jordan died in 1975 (I really hope he was buried in a zoot suit). Robert Donat - who would no doubt have appeared in many more films had it not been for his chronic asthma - died of a brain tumour in 1958, the same year his last film, "Inn of the Sixth Happiness" was released. I saw his penultimate film, "Lease of Life" (1954) in which he plays an ineffective vicar who discovers he hasn't long to live, for the first time a few months ago (it sounds like a potentially dreary subject, but it's very watchable, and Donat is - as always - first rate).

  2. Thanks Scott. I always leave your blog better informed and, generally, happier! Any "unhappiness" is the result of general frustration with the world, and fear that the Donald may end up with his finger on the button.