Monday, August 1, 2016

Lieutenant Larry

Captain Geoffrey Roberts (Adolphe Menjou) is engaged in a torrid affair with the very married Alva Sangrito (Lili Damita).  Roberts loves her, and wants to marry her; he encourages her to divorce her husband, Victor (Erich von Stroheim).  After returning her to her home following an alleged outing to the opera, he is appalled to discover that Sangrito is fully aware of his relationship with Alma, and is happy for it to continue as long as Roberts pays for the privilege.  Roberts supplies the required funds, then leaves for his assignment in India, where he is met by his friend Lieutenant Ned Nichols (Laurence Olivier).  It's not long before both men discover that Alma has seduced them both.  After much soul searching, the men agree to banish Alma from their lives, choosing friendship over romance. Friends and Lovers (1931) is the story of that bromance.

Originally titled  The Sphinx has Spoken, the film did not do well upon release, losing $260,000.  Olivier, in his first American film, later claimed that the film "died the death of a dog." (Complete Films of Laurence Olivier); it has also been related that Olivier was having a horrible time converting his acting to a more filmic style.  According to this TCM article, director Victor Schertzinger spent much of his time getting a decent performance out of him:  "It was apparent right from the start that Olivier was completely out of his element acting in movies. He had absolutely no camera sense - my god, we often had to stop takes because he'd look at the camera in the middle of a scene. And he acted the way he did on the stage - all broad gestures and a face forever busy with expressions. He was totally unnatural, an amateur....He was uncomfortable being asked not to 'act,' but just be himself."  In spite of Schertzinger's efforts, Olivier is still obviously uncomfortable in the role.  It would take him years to finally discover the key to screen acting, but when he did - in Wuthering Heights (1939) - it was magic.
But Olivier is not the biggest problem in the film; far more damaging is Lili Damita.   Her Alma not all that attractive, or all that interesting, yet she has every man on the planet hovering over her.  Her husband is making a good living on her "charms," two men who are best friends almost kill one another over her, and despite her reputation, another man is willing to marry her.  Our question was, WHY?  What does Alma have that we don't see? The picture assumes we will take the words of these men that she has something to give, but quite frankly, it weakens the picture. A constant flirt, one wonders of Alma is capable of being in love.
Between 1922 and 1938, Lili Damita made 35 films in France and in the United States, most of them not well remembered today.   She is better remembered for her personal life: in 1935, Damita married Errol Flynn (the same year in which Flynn shot to fame in Captain Blood).  Shortly thereafter, Damita retired from film to raise the couple's son, Sean.  Divorced from Flynn in 1942, Damita would remarry Allen Loomis (who owned a dairy in Fort Dodge, Iowa. They were married until 1983) and left Hollywood for good.  In 1970, Sean, a photojournalist working in Cambodia during the Cambodian Civil War and Vietnam War, disappeared.  Damita never gave up hope that her child was alive, and spent a fortune trying to locate him, however in 1984, Sean was declared dead. Damita died 10 years later of Alzeimer's Disease at age 89.
From an historical perspective, this is a film of interest, since it was Olivier's first film in the U.S., but as a movie, it's not all that impressive.  We'll leave you with a clip from the film - the entrance of Laurence Olivier.  Next time, we'll return with an Olivia de Havilland film from the 1960s.

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