Friday, January 24, 2014

Larry's a Cad

A young couple has just married; they are deeply in love, and exuberant after their wedding.  They arrive at an inn, where the proprietress, Mrs. Truesdale (Zasu Pitts) has obviously dealt with the young man before - she won't let him in until she sees a marriage license!  Flash forward a few months, and the couple are quarreling: being married is interfering with his writing, and then he discovers he is about to the a father.  Flash forward another three years:  our "hero" is frustrated with the duties of fatherhood, and the need to prostitute his "art" in order to pay the bills.  After yet another quarrel with his wife, he leaves, never to return.

Westward Passage (1932) stars Ann Harding as young wife Olivia Van Tyne Allen later Ottendorf) and Laurence Olivier as her husband, Nicholas Allen. It is unlikely that you will ever meet as unattractive a "hero" as Nick Allen.  He is a selfish boor, a horrible father, and a verbally abusive husband.  Why Olivia would want to be married to this man is beyond us.  When he meets his ex-wife 6 years after their divorce, he has to be reminded that he has a child (he can't even remember how old she is), and he would prefer to ship the little girl off to boarding school than actually deal with her. Quite frankly, Nick doesn't have even one redeeming feature. He knows nothing about compromise, and he remains unchanged throughout the film.  The only time we had even the tiniest bit of sympathy for him was when Olivia's friend spills tea all over his newly typed manuscript. Her callous disregard for his work and livelihood gave him at least ten seconds worth of appeal.

In the past few weeks, we've watched two movies with Asian characters, and in our discussion of Son of the Gods we discussed the "cringeworthy" nature of some of the Western attitudes portrayed in those films.  Here, Nick has a Chinese butler.  Nick's discussions with Olivia about Chung make those other films tame.  Both of their comments are so racially charged as to make one want to blush. 

Olivier's portrayal of Nick paints him as a very unappealing man.  We were puzzled as to why the author thought the audience would root for this cad.  And Olivier's makeup in this film is quite odd and distracting - he's wearing more eye-makeup than Ann Harding; one ends up looking at his eyeliner rather than him.

As to Ann Harding's Olivia, she is incomprehensible.  Olivia has remarried Harry Ottendorf (Irving Pichel), a good husband and a loving father to a child who is not his own.  Yet, she obviously prefers Nick.  Why? Who know.

A quick nod to that nine-year-old version of the young Olivia, played here by Bonita Granville.  She is quite good and appealing, as is the child that plays little Olivia at age 2. We also have near cameos by Zasu Pitts, as an innkeeper who never seems to want residents at her inn, and by Edgar Kennedy. 

According to this TCM article, the film lost a chunk of money. Yet it got a quite good review in the New York Times, which compared it favorably to Coward's Private Lives.  Also, it seems that this, Olivier's second US film, convinced Greta Garbo to request him as her leading man  in Queen Christina,  a somewhat notorious action that resulted in Garbo later asking that he be fired, and her former lover John Gilbert hired in his stead.  Seems Garbo felt she and Olivier had no chemistry.  As a result of these two films, Olivier goes back to the London stage, and it is quite a while before he can be attracted to appear in another Hollywood film.

We can't really recommend this one, unless you want to see Laurence Olivier before he was a big star. Next week, we'll venture forward, to the 1940's.