“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

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“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

Some might find this hard to believe, but I used to be an avid viewer of PBS’s “MASTERPIECE THEATER” years ago. Even when I was a child. That is right. Even as a child, I was hooked on period dramas set in Great Britain’s past. One of the productions that I never forgot happened to be one that is rarely, if ever, discussed by period drama fans today – namely the 1981 miniseries, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” is really a biopic – an adaptation of author Elspeth Huxley’s 1959 memoirs of her childhood in Kenya during the last year of the Edwardian Age . . . that last year before the outbreak of World War I. The story begins in 1913 when young Elspeth Grant and her mother Tilly arrive in British East Africa (now known as Kenya) to meet her father, Robin. The latter, who is a British Army veteran, has plans to establish a coffee plantation. The Grants encounter many problems in setting up their new home. With the help of a Boer big game hunter named Piet Roos, they hire a Kikuyu local named Njombo to serve as translator for any new workers. Two of those workers are another local of Masai/Kikuyu descent named Sammy, who serves as the Grants’ headman; and a Swahili cook named Juma. As life begins to improve for the Grants, they acquire new neighbors, who include a recently arrived couple named Hereward and Lettice Palmer, a Scottish-born former nurse named Mrs. Nimmo, a young and inexperienced farmer named Alec Wilson and a very dashing big game hunter named Ian Crawford. However, just as the Grants were learning to adjust to life in British East Africa, World War I begins and they are forced to adjust to a new future all over again.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as a pretty decent production. It is a beautiful series to look at, thanks to Ian Wilson’s cinematography. He did a marvelous job in recapturing the space and scope of Kenya. Yes, the miniseries was filmed on location. My only qualm is that Wilson may have used slightly inferior film stock. The production’s color seemed to have somewhat faded over the past twenty to thirty years. Roy Stannard’s art direction greatly contributed to the miniseries’ look. I can also say the same about Maggie Quigley’s costume designs. They looked attractive when the scene or moment called for borderline glamour. But Quigley remained mindful of her characters’ social standing, age and personalities. I feel that Stannard and Quigley, along with production managers Clifton Brandon and Johnny Goodman did a very good job in recapturing the look and feel of colonial pre-World War I East Africa. Let me clarify . . . colonial East Africa for middle-class Britons.

I might as well be frank. Many years had passed between the first and last times I saw “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”. It took this recent viewing for me to realize that the production’s narrative was not as consistent as I had originally assumed it was. Let me put it another way . . . I found the narrative for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” a bit episodic. I tried to think of a continuous story arc featured in the miniseries, but I could only think of one – namely the love affair between Lettice Palmer, the wife of the Grants’ boorish neighbor; and big game hunter Ian Crawford. And this story arc only lasted between Episodes Three and Seven. Otherwise, the viewers experienced vignettes of the Grants’ one year in East Africa. And each vignette only seemed to last one episode. I must admit that I found this slightly disappointing.

There were some vignettes that enjoyed. I certainly enjoyed Episode One, which featured the Grants’ arrival in East Africa and their efforts to recruit help from the locals to establish their farm. I also enjoyed those episodes that featured the Grants and the Palmers’ efforts to kill a leopard; a major safari in which Tilly Grant, the Palmers and Ian Crawford participated in Episode Six; and the impact of World War I upon their lives in the miniseries’ final episode. However, I had some problems with other episodes. I found Episode Two, which featured young Elspeth’s rather strange New Year’s experiences nearly boring. Nearly. I must admit that some of the characters featured in that particular episode struck me as rather interesting. The episode that featured a personal quarrel between the Grants’ translator Njombo and their headman Sammy ended up pissing me off. It pissed me off because its resolution, namely an “Act of God” in the form Tilly, struck me as a typical example of European condescension . . . even in the early 1980s.

The performances for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as pretty first-rate. I rather enjoyed Hayley Mills and David Robb’s performances as young Elspeth’s parents, Tilly and Robin Grant. Although both actors came off as likable, they also did an excellent job in portraying Tilly and Robin’s less than admirable qualities . . . including an insidious form of bigotry. What I am trying to say is . . . neither Tilly or Robin came off as overt bigots. But there were moments when their prejudices managed to creep out of the woodwork, thanks to Mills and Robb’s subtle performances. Sharon Maughan and Nicholas Jones were also excellent as the Grants’ neighbors, Lettice and Hereward Palmer. It was easier for me to like the delicate and ladylike Lettice, even though there were times when she came of as self-absorbed. Jones’ Hereward struck me as somewhat friendly at first. But as the series progressed, the actor did a great job in exposing Hereward’s more unpleasant nature, which culminated in the safari featured in Episode Six. Ben Cross gave a charming and slightly virile performance as big game hunter Ian Crawford. But if I must be honest, the character was not exactly one of his more complex and interesting roles. But the one performance that shined above the others came from the then twelve year-old Holly Aird, who portrayed Elspeth Grant, the miniseries’ main character. Not only did Aird give a delightful performance, she also held her own with her much older cast mates. Quite an achievement for someone who was either eleven or twelve at the time.

There were other performances in “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” that I found impressive. Carol MacReady was entertaining as the somewhat narrow-minded Mrs. Nimmo. Mick Chege gave a charming performance as the always cheerful and popular . David Bradley’s portrayal of young neighbor Alec struck me as equally charming. Paul Onsongo gave a solid performance as the Grants’ major domo/cook Juma. However, Onsongo’s last scene proved to be very complex and interesting when Juma discovered that he could not accompany the Grants back to Britain. One of the series’ most interesting performances came from William Morgan Sheppard, who portrayed Boer big game hunter, Piet Roos. The interesting aspect of Sheppard’s performance is that although he conveyed Roos’ more unpleasant and racist side in Episode One, he did an excellent in winning the audience’s sympathy as his character dealt with the more unpleasant Hereward Palmer during the leopard hunt in Episode Five. Another interesting performance came from Steve Mwenesi as the Grants’ headsman, Sammy. Mwenesi did an excellent job in portraying the very complex Sammy. The latter seemed so cool and subtle. Yet, Mwenesi also made audiences aware of Sammy’s emotions by utilizing facial expressions and his eyes.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” was an entertaining production that gave audiences a peek into the lives of colonial Britons during the last year of peace before the outbreak of World War I. Realizing that the story deal with members of the British middle-class and the Kikuyu and Swahili locals, the production team ensured that the miniseries was rich in atmospheric details without over-glamorizing the setting and costumes. And although the miniseries’ narrative came off as somewhat episodic, I also managed to enjoy the performances of a first-rate cast led by Hayley Mills, David Robb and an enchanting Holly Aird.

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“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1977) Review

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“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1977) Review

I have heard of the 1977 adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’ 1902 adventure film. But I never thought I would see it. Recently, it occurred to me to rent the movie from Netflix, because I have yet to run across it at any store that sells DVDs. I did rent “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. Needless to say, it produced some rather interesting feelings within me. 

Anyone familiar with Mason’s tale knows that “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is the story about a 19th century British Army officer named Harry Faversham, who harbor plans to resign from his commission in the Royal North Surrey Regiment and live out the rest of his days with future wife Ethne Eustace. During a ball held at his family estate, telegrams for Harry and three of his friends – Jack Durrance, William Trench and Thomas Willoughby – ordering them to report for duty, due to their regiment being shipped out to the Sudan to participate in the Mahdist War. Being the first to receive the telegrams, Harry had them destroyed so that he would not have to report for duty a day before his resignation from the Army was due to be official. Realizing what Harry had done, his father ostracized him, his three friends gave him white feathers that labeled him as a coward, and Ethne breaks off their engagement and also hands him a white feather. Also, Harry’s best friend, Captain Durrance, becomes a rival for Ethne. Haunted by his efforts to avoid combat, Harry travels to the Sudan to help his friends any way possible and return their feathers.

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” attracted a good deal of critical acclaim, after it aired on British and American television. The movie also earned a Primetime Emmy nomination. And if I must be honest, I find that particularly surprising. I have seen this movie twice. Granted, it seemed pretty decent as far as television movies go. But . . . an Emmy nomination? “THE FOUR FEATHERS”? It just did not strike me as being that memorable. The Wikipedia site claimed that it was a very faithful to Mason’s 1902 novel. Actually, it was no more faithful than any other adaptation I have seen. But I do feel that the movie’s critical acclaim might be overrated.

The movie can boast its virtues. “THE FOUR FEATHERS” provided a small, but detailed peek into Harry Faversham’s childhood that gave audiences a good idea behind his aversion to continuing his military career. It also featured at least two excellent action sequences – the skirmish that led to the destruction of Durrance’s company and his blindness, and Harry and Trench’s escape from the prison-of-war camp at Omdurman. Dramatic scenes abound in the film, especially one that featured the breakup of Harry and Ethne’s engagement and the former’s final confrontation with his militant father, retired General Faversham.

And I cannot deny that some very good performances were also featured in “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. David Robb, Harry Andrews and Robin Bailey all gave solid performances. I found Simon Ward’s portrayal of William Trench rather intense, but believable. Both Robert Powell and Jane Seymour were excellent as Jack Durrance and Ethne Eustace. Beau Bridges proved to be an enjoyable surprise in his portrayal of the lead character, Harry Faversham. I recall reading one review of this movie, in which the critic praised the rest of the cast, but put down Bridges’ performance. Apparently, he found the idea of an American portraying a Victorian British military officer unbelievable. I have seen Americans portray British characters before. And quite honestly, I thought Bridges did an excellent job by giving a subtle performance and avoiding histronics . . . unlike his performance in the 1976 film,“SWASHBUCKLER”.

And while I found the production’s quality solid, I did not find it particularly dazzling. I can only assume that as a television production, it would not be on the same quality as a theatrical release. The movie’s costume designs by Olga Lehmann seemed a little more impressive. I especially enjoyed her costumes for Jane Seymour, despite my confusion over whether the costumes reflected the 1870s or the 1880s. But if I must be honest, I have seen other television productions a lot more impressive. I was also disappointed to find that the story’s jingoistic portrayal of the British Empire somewhat off-putting, especially for a television movie that had aired in the 1970s. I would even add that the sympathetic portrayal of Harry’s anti-military attitude struck me as a bit hypocritical, considering that the movie’s conservative view of British imperialism. I must also admit that I found myself slightly repelled at the sight of white English actors portraying Sudanese soldiers. Did the producers really find it that difficult to find non-white actors to portray the Sudanese? Speaking of white actors portraying African ones:

RJohnson - Four Feathers 77

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. The above photo is an image of British actor Richard Johnson portraying a Sudanese Arab named Abou Fatma, who assists Harry in his efforts to save his friends. Johnson gave a nice, solid performance as Fatma, but . . . why?Why??? Why on earth did the producers cast Johnson in this role? He looked like a performer in a 19th century minstrel show . . . or a cast member from “THE BIRTH OF A NATION”. This kind of wince-inducing casting may have been common in the film industry during the first half of the 20th century. But “THE FOUR FEATHERS” aired on television around 1977/78. Nearly a year after the ABC miniseries, “ROOTS”. What in the hell were the producers and casting director Paul Lee Lander thinking?

Do not get me wrong. “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is a pretty solid adventure movie that can boast a first-rate cast led by Beau Bridges. But I do feel that the movie is critically overrated. I did not find it that impressive, dramatically or production wise. I found the casting of white actors portraying non-white characters rather repulsive. And the movie’s sympathetic portrayal of the character’s anti-military stance in comparison to its pro-conservative portrayal of British imperialism struck me as hypocritical. Still . . . it was not a bad movie.

“POLDARK” Series One (2015): Episodes Five to Eight

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“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (2015): EPISODES FIVE TO EIGHT

Within the past year, I had developed a major interest in author Winston Graham’s 1945-2002 “POLDARK” literary saga and the two television adaptations of it. Series One of the second adaptation produced by Debbie Horsfield, premiered on the BBC (in Great Britain) and PBS (in the United States) last year. Consisting of eight episodes, Series One of “POLDARK” was an adaptation of 1945’s “Ross Poldark – A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787” and “Demelza – A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790”. Whereas Episodes One to Four adapted the 1945 novel, Episodes Five to Eight adapted the 1946 novel. 

Episode Four left off with the death of Ross Poldark’s uncle, Charles; leaving Trenwith, the family’s premiere estate, in the hands of his cousin Francis. Ross’ former kitchen maid and new bride, Demelza Carne Poldark, formed a friendship with Francis’ sister Verity and accompanied Ross to a rather tense Christmas celebration at Trenwith, which was further marred by an unexpected appearance of the noveau-riche Warleggan family and friends. Ross also learned that copper had been discovered inside his mine and that Demelza had become pregnant with their first child.

Episode Five began several months later with the arrival of a traveling theater company that includes a young actress named Keren, who attracts the attention of miner Mark Daniels. The episode also marked the arrival of two other players – Dwight Enys, a former British Army officer and doctor, who happens to be a former comrade of Ross’; and young Julia Poldark, whose birth interrupted her parents’ enjoyment of the traveling theater company’s performance. The four episodes featured a good number of events and changes in Ross Poldark’s life. Julia’s birth led to a riotous christening in which he and Demelza had to deal with unexpected guests. Francis lost his fortune and his mine to George Warleggan’s cousin Matthew Sanson at a gaming party. Ross learned that his former employee Jim Carter was seriously ill at the Bodomin Jail and tried to rescue the latter with Dwight Enys’ help. The tragic consequences of their attempt led to Ross’ ill nature at the Warleggan’s ball. Dwight drifted into an affair with Keren Daniels, with tragic results.

Ross and several other mine owners created the Carnmore Copper Company in an effort to break the Warleggans’ stranglehold on the mineral smelting business, while Demelza plotted to resurrect her cousin-in-law Verity Poldark’s romance with Captain Andrew Blamey. The success of her efforts led to an estrangement between Ross and Frances. Demelza’s matchmaking also led to financial disaster for her husband’s new business venture. A Putrid’s Throat epidemic struck the neighborhood, affecting Francis, Elizabeth and their son Geoffrey Charles. Not long after Demelza had nursed them back to health, both she and Julia were stricken by disease. The season ended with a series of tragic and tumultuous events. Although Demelza recovered, Julia succumbed to Putrid’s Throat. The Warleggans’ merchant ship wrecked off the coast of Poldark land and Ross alerted locals like Jud and Prudie Paynter to salvage any goods that wash up on the shore. This “salvaging” led to violence between those on Poldark lands and neighboring miners and later, both against local military troops. One of the victims of the shipwreck turned out to be the Warleggans’ cousin, Matthew Sanson. After Ross insulted Sanson’s death in George Warleggan’s face, the season ended with the latter arranging for Ross’ arrest for inciting the riot.

I must admit that I liked these next four episodes a bit more than I did the first quartet. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed those first episodes very much. But Episodes Five to Eight not only deepened the saga – naturally, considering a they were continuation of the first four – but also expanded the world of Ross Poldark.

One of the aspects of Series One’s second half that caught both my attention and my admiration was the production’s continuing portrayal of Britain’s declining economic situation during the late 18th century . . . especially for the working class. Both Episodes Five and Seven featured brief scenes that conveyed this situation. In Episode Five; Ross, Demelza and Verity encounter a starving family on the road to Turo, begging for food or money. A second brief scene in Episode Seven featured Demelza baking bread and later, dispersing it to the neighborhood’s starving poor. However, the series also featured bigger scenes that really drove home the dire economic situation. Upon reaching Truro in Episode Five, both Demelza and Verity witnessed a riot that broke out between working-class locals and the militia when the former tried to access the grain stored inside Matthew Sanson’s warehouse. I found the sequence well shot by director William McGregor. The latter also did an excellent job in the sequence that featured locals like the Paynters ransacking much needed food and other goods that washed ashore from the Warleggans’ wrecked ship. I was especially impressed by how the entire sequence segued from Ross wallowing in a state of grief over his daughter’s death before spotting the shipwreck to the militia’s violent attempt to put down the riot that had developed between the tenants and miners on Ross’ land and locals from other community.

Even the upper-classes have felt the pinch of economic decline, due to the closing and loses of mines across the region and being in debt to bankers like the Warleggans. Following the discovery of copper inside his family’s mine in Episode Four, Ross seemed destined to avoid such destitution. Not only was he able to afford a new gown and jewels for Demelza to wear at the Warleggan ball in Episode Six, he used his profits from the mine to create a smelting company – the Carnmore Copper Company – with the assistance of other shareholders in an effort to break the Warleggans’ monopoly on the local mining industry. One cannot say the same for his cousin Francis, who continued to skirt on the edge of debt, following his father’s death. Unfortunately, Francis wasted a good deal of his money on gambling and presents for the local prostitute named Margaret. In a scene that was not in the novel, but I found both enjoyable and very effective, he lost both his remaining fortune and his mine, Wheal Grambler, to the Warleggans’ cousin, Matthew Sanson, at a gaming party. But this was not the end of the sequence. Thanks to director William McGregor and Horsfield’s script. The sequence became even more fascinating once the Poldarks at Trenwith learned of Francis’ loss, especially Elizabeth. And it ended on a dramatic level with Francis being forced to officially close Wheal Grambler in front a crowd. I realize the sequence was not featured in Graham’s novel, but if I must be honest; I thought Horsfield’s changes really added a good deal of drama to this turn of events. Not only did McGregor shot this sequence rather well, I really have to give kudos to Kyle Soller, who did an excellent job in portraying Francis at his nadir in this situation; and Heida Reed, who did such a superb job conveying the end of Elizabeth’s patience with her wayward husband with a slight change in voice tone, body language and expression.

I was also impressed by other scenes in Series One’s second half. The christening for Ross and Demelza’s new daughter, Julia, provided some rather hilarious moments as their upper-crust neighbors met Demelza’s religious fanatic of a father and stepmother. Thanks to Harriet Ballard and Mark Frost’s performances, I especially enjoyed the confrontation between the snobbish Ruth Treneglos and the blunt Mark Carne. It was a blast. Ross and Dwight’s ill-fated rescue of a seriously ill Jim Carter from the Bodmin Jail was filled with both tension and tragedy. Tension also marked the tone in one scene which one of the Warleggans’ minions become aware of the newly formed Carnmore Copper Company during a bidding session. Another scene that caught my interest featured George Warleggan’s successful attempt at manipulating a very angry Francis into revealing the names of shareholders in Ross’ new cooperative . . . especially after the latter learned about his sister Verity’s elopement with Andrew Blamey. Both Soller and Jack Farthing gave excellent and subtle performances in this scene. Once again, McGregor displayed a talent for directing large scenes in his handling of the sequence that featured the wreck of the Warleggans’ ship, the Queen Charlotte, and both the looting and riot on the beach that followed. Series One ended on a dismal note with Ross and Demelza dealing with the aftermath of young Julia’s death and Ross’ arrest by the militia for leading the beach riot. Although I found the latter scene a bit of a throwaway, I was impressed by the scene featuring a grieving Ross and Demelza, thanks to the excellent performances from series leads, Aidan Turner and Elinor Tomlinson.

If there is one sequence that I really enjoyed in Series One of “POLDARK”, it was the Warleggan ball featured in Episode Six. Ironically, not many people enjoyed it. They seemed put out by Ross’ boorish behavior. I enjoyed it. Ross seemed in danger of becoming a Gary Stu by this point. I thought it was time that audiences saw how unpleasant he can be. And Turner did such an excellent job in conveying that aspect of Ross’ personality. He also got the chance to verbally cross swords with Robin Ellis’ Reverend Dr. Halse for the second time. Frankly, it was one of the most enjoyable moments in the series, so far. Both Turner and Ellis really should consider doing another project together. The segment ended with not only an argument between Ross and Demelza that I found enjoyable, but also a rather tense card game between “our hero” and the Warleggans’ cousin Matthew Sanson that seemed enriched by performances from both Turner and Jason Thorpe.

I wish I had nothing further to say about Episodes to Eight of Series One. I really do. But . . . well, the episodes featured a good number of things to complain about. One, there were two sequences in which Horsfield and McGregor tried to utilize two scenes by showing them simultaneously. Episode Seven featured a segment in which both Demelza and Elizabeth tried to prevent a quarrel between two men in separate scenes – at the same time. And Episode Eight featured a segment in which both Ross and Demelza tried to explain the circumstances of their financial downfall (the destruction of the Carnmore Copper Company and Verity Poldark’s elopement) to each other via flashbacks . . . and at the same time. Either Horsfield was trying to be artistic or economic with the running time she had available. I do not know. However, I do feel that both sequences were clumsily handled and I hope that no such narrative device will be utilized in Series Two.

I have another minor quibble and it has to do with makeup for both Eleanor Tomlinson and Heida Reed. In Episode Eight, the characters for both actresses – Demelza Poldark and Elizabeth Poldark – had been stricken by Putrid’s Throat. Both characters came within an inch of death. Yet . . . for the likes of me, I found the production’s different handling of the makeup for both women upon their recovery from Putrid’s Throat rather odd. Whereas Elizabeth looked as if she had recently recovered from a serious illness or death (extreme paleness and dark circles under the eyes), the slight reddish tints on Demelza’s face made her looked as if she had recently recovered from a cold. Winston Graham’s portrayal of Demelza has always struck me as a bit too idealized. In fact, she tends to come off as a borderline Mary Sue. And both the 1970s series and this recent production are just as guilty in their handling of Demelza’s character. But this determination to make Demelza look beautiful – even while recovering from a near fatal illness – strikes me as completely ridiculous.

If there is one aspect of this second group of Series One’s episodes that really troubled me, it was the portrayal of traveling actress Keren Smith Daniels and her affair with Dr. Dwight Enys. After viewing Debbie Horsfield’s portrayal of the Keren Daniels character, I found myself wondering it Debbie Horsfield harbored some kind of whore/Madonna mentality. Why on earth did she portray Keren in such an unflattering and one-dimensional manner? Instead of delving into Keren’s unsatisfaction as Mark Daniels’ wife and treating her as a complex woman, Horsfield ended up portraying her as some one-dimensional hussy/adultress who saw Dwight as a stepping stone up the social ladder. Only in the final seconds of Keren’s death was actress Sabrina Barlett able to convey the character’s frustration with her life as a miner’s wife. Worse, Horsfield changed the nature of Keren’s death, by having Mark accidentally squeeze her to death during an altercation, instead of deliberately murdering her. Many had accused Horsfield of portraing Keren in this manner in order to justify Mark’s killing of her, along with Ross and Demelza’s decision to help him evade the law. Frankly, I agree. I find it distasteful that the portrayal of a character – especially a female character – was compromised to enrich the heroic image of the two leads – especially the leading man. Will this be the only instance of a supporting character being compromised for the sake of the leading character? Or was Horsfield’s portrayal of Keren Daniels the first of such other unnecessary changes to come?

Despite my disppointment with the portrayal of the Keren Daniels character and her affair with Dwigh Enys and a few other aspects of the production, I had no problems with Episode Five to Eight of Series One for “POLDARK”. If I must be honest, I enjoyed it slightly more than I did the first four episodes. With the adaptation of “Demelza – A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790” complete, I am curious to see how Debbie Horsfield and her production staff handle the adaptation of Winston Graham’s next two novels in his literary series.

“JOHNNY TREMAIN” (1957) Review

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“JOHNNY TREMAIN” (1957) Review

Nearly sixty-one years ago, the Walt Disney Studios produced a television movie set during a three year period that focused on the years in Boston, Massachusetts Colony prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. The name of that movie was 1957’s “JOHNNY TREMAIN”

Directed by Robert Stevenson, “JOHNNY TREMAIN” was an adaptation of Esther Forbes’ 1944 Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel. It told the story of an arrogant adolescent named Johnny Tremain, who happened to be an apprentice for a silversmith living in Boston. Johnny has dreams of owning his shop one day and becoming wealthy and respected in the process.

When a wealthy merchant named Jonathan Lyte commissions his master to repair a family’s christening cup, Johnny takes it upon himself to do the actual repairs and win the arrogant Lyte’s patronage. Unfortunately, Johnny picked the Sabbath to repair Lyte’s cup. And in his haste to repair it before being discovered for breaking the Sabbath, Johnny damages his hand. While repairing Lyte’s cup, Johnny discovers that he is the merchant’s long lost nephew on his mother’s side. But Lyte refuses to acknowledge Johnny as his kinsman and has the boy locked up. Johnny’s difficulties with Lyte and in acquiring a job eventually leads him to join the Sons of Liberty, an organization dedicated to American independence from the British Empire. Along the way Johnny befriends several historical giants including Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and Joseph Warren. The story reaches its climax with the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the beginning of the American Revolution.

It had been a long time since I first saw this movie. A very long time. And considering that it had been originally produced as a Disney television movie, I was ready to harbor a low opinion of it. Considering the Disney Studios’ reputation for churning out a superficial take on American History, one would be inclined to dismiss the film. And if I must be honest,“JOHNNY TREMAIN” has a superficial take on the later years of the Colonial Era and the beginning of the American Revolution. Although there is some depth in the movie’s characters, there seemed to be lacking any ambiguity whatsoever. Well . . . I take that back. Aside from Johnny Tremain’s brief foray into arrogance in the movie’s first fifteen minutes, there were no ambiguity in the other American characters. Thankfully, screenwriters Esther Forbes and Tom Blackburn allowed some ambiguity in the British characters and prevented them from being portrayed as cold-blooded and one-dimensional villains. Even Sebastian Cabot’s Jonathan Lyte (Johnny’s British uncle) was saved from a fate of one-note villainy in his final reaction to Johnny’s decision not to accept his patronage.

Disney film or not, “JOHNNY TREMAIN” is an entertaining historical drama infused with energy, good solid performances and a somewhat in-depth look into American history in Boston, between 1772 and 1775. Despite a running time of 80 minutes, the movie explored some of the events during that period – events that included an introduction of some of the important members of the Sons of Liberty, the Boston Tea Party of December 1773, the British closure of Boston’s port, Paul Revere’s famous ride and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. It is also the first costume drama that revealed the establishment of slavery in a Northern state – or in this case, colony. In the midst of all this history, Forbes and Blackburn delved into Johnny’s personal drama – including his conflicts with his uncle, dealing with his physical disability and his relationship with Priscilla Lapham, his former master’s daughter – with solid detail.

With the use of matte paintings, colorful photography by Charles P. Boyle and Peter Ellenshaw’s production designs, director Robert Stevenson did a good job in transforming television viewers back to Boston of the 1770s. But the one production aspect of “JOHNNY TREMAIN” that really impressed me was the original song, “Liberty Tree”, written by Blackburn and George Bruns. The song struck me as very catchy and remained stuck in my mind some time after watching the movie. The performances are pretty solid, but not particularly memorable. Again, allow me to correct myself. There was one outstanding performance . . . and it came from the late Sebastian Cabot, who portrayed Johnny’s arrogant uncle, Jonathan Lyte. Everyone else – including leads Hal Stalmaster, Luana Patten and Richard Beymer, who would enjoy brief stardom in the early 1960s – did not exactly dazzle me.

My gut instinct tells me that the average adult might lacked the patience to watch a movie like “JOHNNY TREMAIN”. Although historical drama remains very popular with moviegoers and television viewers, I suspect that Disney’s early superficial style of portraying history might be slightly off-putting. However, “JOHNNY TREMAIN” might serve as a first-rate introduction to American History for children. And if one is in the mood for Disney nostalgia, I see no reason not to watch it again. Even after sixty years or so, it is still an entertaining little movie.

1700-1749 Costumes in Movies and Television

Samuel Richardson, the Novelist (1684-1761), Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family 1740-41 1708-1776 by Francis Hayman 1708-1776

Below are images of 1700-1749 fashion found in movies and television productions over the years:

 

1700-1749 COSTUMES IN MOVIES AND TELEVISION

Tom Jones 1963

“Tom Jones” (1963)

 

 

The First Churchills 1969

“The First Churchills” (1969)

 

 

 

Young Catherine 1991

“Young Catherine” (1991)

 

 

 

Rob Roy 1995

“Rob Roy” (1995)

 

 

 

Catherine the Great 1996

“Catherine the Great” (1996)

 

 

 

The History of Tom Jones 1997

“The History of Tom Jones” (1997)

 

 

 

Pirates of the Caribbean - Curse of the Black Pearl 2003

“Pirates of the Caribbean:  Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)

 

 

 

Perfume - The Story of a Murderer 2005

“Perfume:  The Story of a Murderer” (2005)

 

 

 

Black Sails 2014-2017

“Black Sails” (2014-2017)

 

 

 

Outlander 2015-Present

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“POLDARK” Series One (1975): Episodes Five to Eight

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“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (1975): EPISODES FIVE TO EIGHT

Last winter, I began watching the BBC’s 1975-77 adaptation of Winston Graham’s literary series about the life of a British Army officer and American Revolutionary War veteran, following his return to his home in Cornwall. The first four episodes proved to be adaptation of the first novel in Graham’s series, 1945’s “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787”. Episodes Five to Eight focused on the series’ second novel, 1946’s “Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790”

Episode Four ended with Ross Poldark, a Cornish landowner and mine owner, discovering that his young kitchen maid, the 17 year-old Demelza Carne, is pregnant with his child. Abandoning his plan to reunite with his former fiancée, Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark, who had married his cousin Francis Polark; Ross decides to marry Demelza and take responsibility for their unborn child. Episode Five opened up six to seven months later with the birth of their daughter, Julia Poldark. Ross and Demelza decide to hold two christenings – one for his upper-crust family and neighbors and one for her working-class family. Unfortunately, fate upsets their plans when Demelza’s family crash the first christening. Episode Five also featured the introduction of new characters – a young doctor named Dwight Enys, who quickly befriends Ross; Keren Daniels, a young traveling actress who married a local miner named Mark Daniels; and George Warleggan, the scion of the Warleggan family, who became Ross’ archenemy.

The four episodes that formed the adaptation of “Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall” pretty much focused on the first two years of Ross’ marriage to Demelza. Their relationship seemed to thrive, despite the unromantic reasons why they got married in the first place. It was nice to see Ross and Demelza quickly settled into becoming an established couple. This was especially apparent in first christening for Ross and Demelza’s newborn, Julia, attended by Ross’ family and upper-class neighbors. However, this sequence also revealed that Ross and Demelza still had a long way to go, when Demelza’s religious and fanatical father and stepmother crashed the first christening. I enjoyed the sequence very much, even if it ended on an irritating note – namely Demelza and Mr. Carne’s shouting match that played merry hell on my ears. Although there were times when their relationship threatened to seem a bit too ideal, I have no other problems with it.

From a narrative point of view, the only hitch in Ross and Demelza’s relationship – so far – proved to be Demelza’s determination to help her cousin-in-law Verity Poldark’s renew the latter’s disastrous relationship with a Captain Andrew Blamey . . . behind Ross’ back. Following Blamey and Francis’ disastrous encounter in the second (or third) episode, Ross made it clear that he had no intention of helping Verity and Blamey’s romantic situation. Demelza, being young, romantic and naive; decided to intervene and help them continue their courtship. Her efforts were almost sidetracked when Francis and Elizabeth’s son, Geoffrey Charles, was stricken with Putrid Throat. Ross’ new friend, Dr. Enys, had recruited Verity to nurse Geoffrey Charles, believing that Elizabeth was incapable of serving as her son’s nurse. I must be honest . . . I found this plot line a bit contrived. One, it seemed like a theatrical way to inject tension into Verity’s romance with Captain Blamey and their plans to elope. And two, Elizabeth has never struck me as the type of woman incapable of nursing her own son, let alone anyone else. Nevertheless, Demelza’s efforts proved to be successful in the end when Verity and Captain Blamey finally eloped in Episode Seven.

Verity and Captain Blamey’s elopement also produced an ugly reaction from her brother Francis, who had been against their relationship from the beginning. That ugly reaction formed into an emotional rant against his sister that not only spoiled his wife Elizabeth and son Geoffrey Charles’ Christmas meal, but concluded with him succumbing to Putrid Throat. I will say this about Francis Poldark . . . his presence in Episodes Five to Eight proved to be a lot stronger than it was in the first four episodes. Viewers learned in the conclusion of Episode Six that he had betrayed the shareholder names of Ross’ new Carnmore Copper Company, an smelting organization formed to break the Warleggans’ monopoly on the mining industry in that part of Cornwall.

I am a little confused by why so many claim that Clive Francis had portrayed the character as less of a loser than Kyle Soller did in 2015. For example, in an article posted on the Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two, the writer made this description of Francis in Episode Eight of the 1975 series – “I’ve come to realize that Francis is made considerably more appealing by Wheeler’s script: Graham’s Francis is witty, but his open self-berating and guilt are from Wheeler; also his generosity of spirit now and again.”.

That was not the Francis Poldark I saw in Episode Eight. Come to think of it, that was NOT the Francis I saw between Episodes Three and Eight. Well . . . I do recall Francis engaging in self-pitying behavior. I also recall Francis being half-hearted in his attempt to reconcile with Elizabeth, his occasionally self-defensive attitude and anger at Verity for eloping. The only sign of wit I can recall was Francis’ clumsy and slightly insulting reaction at the Warleggan ball to news of prostitute Margaret’s recent wedding. And although I enjoyed Clive Francis’ performance, there were moments when he was guilty of some really histrionic acting – especially in Episode Eight, when his character went into a rant against Verity’s elopement during his family’s Christmas dinner. Either these fans and critics had failed to notice how much of a loser Francis Poldark was in the 1975 series, they remembered the actor’s performance in the episodes that followed Episode Eight, or they were blinded by nostalgia for the 1975 series. Clive Francis’ portrayal of the character struck me as much of a loser as Soller’s portrayal.

The renewal of Verity and Captain Blamey’s romance was not the only relationship shrouded in secrecy. As I had earlier pointed a traveling actress named Keren had abandoned her tawdry profession life to remain in the area and marry local miner, Mark Daniels, after meeting him at the second christening for the newborn Julia Poldark. I admire how the production went out of its way to portray Keren’s growing disenchantment with life as a miner’s wife and her marriage to Mark. In doing so, screenwriter Mark Wheeler allowed audiences to sympathize with Keren’s emotions and understand what led her to pursue an extramarital affair with the neighborhood’s new physician, the quiet and charming Dr. Dwight Enys. Although this sequence featured solid performances from Richard Morant and Martin Fisk as Dwight Enys and Mark Daniels; the one performance that really impressed me came from Sheila White, who portrayed the unfortunate Keren Daniels. However, I was not particular thrilled by how the affair ended. Mark Daniels deliberately murdered Keren, when he discovered the affair. What really riled me was that both Ross and Demelza went out of their way to help Mark evade justice. Their actions seemed to justify and approve of Mark’s violent action against his wife. The entire scenario smacked of another example of misogyny in this saga.

Episode Six of “POLDARK” not only introduced the character of George Warleggan, it also featured one of my favorite segments in the series, so far – the Warleggan ball. I thought Wheeler and Paul Annett did a solid job in this particular sequence. It was not perfect, but it proved to be an elegant affair, capped by a tense situation when Ross engaged in a gambling showdown with the Warleggans’ cousin Matthew Sanson, before exposing the latter as a cheat. One aspect of the ball sequence that really impressed me were the costumes and the music provided by Kenyon Emrys-Roberts, which helped maintained the sequence’s atmosphere. I also enjoyed both Robin Ellis and Milton Johns’ performances as Ross Poldark and Matthew Sanson in the card game sequence. Both actors did a very good job of injecting more tension in what was already a high-wired situation. By the way, both actors, along with Clive Francis, had appeared in the 1971 adaptation of “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”.

There were other moments and sequences that I enjoyed. Aside from the Warleggan ball, I was very impressed by two other scenes. One featured Demelza’s attempt to play matchmaker for Verity and Captain Blamey in Truro. Well, the sequence began with Demelza playing matchmaker before all three became swept into a food riot that led to a violent brawl between some very hungry townsmen and local military troops trying to prevent the men from breaking into Matthew Sanson’s grain storehouse. I found the entire scene rather well shot by director Paul Annett. I was also impressed by Annett’s work in Episode Seven that featured Ross’ attempt to help Mark Daniels evade arrest for Keren’s murder. I may not approved of what happened, but I was impressed by Annett’s direction. But I feel that the director did his best work in Episode Eight, which featured the wreck of the Warleggans’ ship on Poldark land. It began on a high note when the Paynters and other locals began pillaging the ship’s cargo for much needed food, clothing and other materials. But it really got interesting when a riot broke out between the Poldark workers, miners from a nearby estate and the local troops who tried to stop them. Again, Annett really did a first-rate job in making the sequence very exciting, despite the fact that it was shot in the dark.

I noticed that Paul Wheeler, who wrote the transcripts for these four episodes and Episode Eleven, made several changes from Graham’s novel. To be honest, I can only recall one major change that did not bother me one whit. In Episode Seven, young Geoffrey Charles Poldark was stricken with Putrid’s Throat before Verity had the chance to elope with Captain Blamey. Once Verity and Elizabeth helped the boy recover, she finally took the opportunity to elope. Yes, I am aware that Verity had eloped before the Putrid fever outbreak, but I see that Wheeler was trying to create a little tension for her situation. When Francis was struck with Putrid’s Throat on Christmas, Demelza arrived at Trenwith to help Elizabeth nurse him. The two women engaged in a warm and honest conversation that showcased both Jill Townsend and Angharad Rees as talented actresses they were. However, this conversation never occurred in the novel. In fact, the literary Elizabeth Poldark also came down with Putrid’s Throat. But this change did not bother me, due to the excellent scene between Townsend and Rees.

Unfortunately, I had problems with some of Wheeler’s other changes. One change originated back in Episode Four with the “Demelza gets knocked up” storyline that led to hers and Ross’ shotgun wedding. I had assumed that the Trenwith Christmas party sequence, which followed Ross and Demelza’s wedding, would appear in Episode Five. After all, it was one of my favorite sequences from the 1945 novel. But the sequence never appeared – not in Episode Four or Episode Five. Instead, the latter opened with Julia Poldark’s birth and the christening. And I felt very disappointed.

Another change involved Ross’ former employee, Jim Carter. Back in Episode Three, Jim was tried and convicted for poaching on another landowner’s estate. In Episode Six, Ross received word that Jim was severely ill inside Bodmin Jail. With Dwight Enys’ help, the pair break the younger man out. But instead of dying during Dwight’s attempt to amputate an infected limb, Jim survived . . . until Episode Seven. This change allowed Ross to indulge in a speech on the inequities suffered by the poor and working-class in British. Personally, I had difficulty feeling sympathetic, considering that he had fired Jud and Prudie Paynter, earlier in the episode. Mind you, Jud had deserved to be fired for his drunken behavior and insults to Demelza. But Prudie did not. She tried to stop Jud and ended up fired by Ross (who found her guilty by matrimony to the perpetrator). And I ended up regarding Ross as nothing more than a first-rate hypocrite.

Because Jim Cater had survived Episode Six, Ross did not attend the Warleggan ball angry and in a drunken state. Instead, he remained a perfect and sober gentleman throughout the sequence. Which was a pity . . . at least for me. Perhaps Wheeler had decided that Prudie’s fate was sufficient enough to expose Ross’ less pleasant side of his personality, I did not. The card game between Ross and Sanson provided some tension during the ball sequence, thanks to the skillful performances of Robin Ellis, Milton Johns and Ralph Bates. But it was not enough for me. I thought a good deal of the sequence’s drama was deleted due to “our hero” not having an excuse to get drunk and surly. I suspect that Wheeler, along with producers Morris Barry and Anthony Coburn, wanted to – once again – maintain Ross’ heroic image.

The Warleggan ball also featured another change. At the end of Episode Six, George Warleggan revealed to his father, Nicholas, that he knew the names of Ross’ Carnmore Copper Company. The revelation left me feeling flabbergasted. In the novel, Francis had not exposed the shareholders’ names to George until after Verity and Blamey’s elopement. He had believed Ross was responsible for arranging it and betrayed the latter in retaliation. Since Francis had obviously betrayed Ross before Episode Six’s final scene in the 1975 series, I found myself wondering why he had betrayed his cousin’s company in the first place. Why did he do it? Someone had hinted that Francis felt jealous over Elizabeth’s feelings for Ross. Yet, the relationship between those two had been particularly frosty since the revelation of Demelza’s pregnancy back in Episode Four. If Francis had been experiencing jealousy, what happened before the end of Episode Six that led him to finally betray Ross and the Carnmore Copper Company shareholders? It could not have been for money. Although George Warleggan had paid back the money that his cousin had cheated from Francis and the other gamblers at the ball, he did not dismiss Francis’ debt to the Warleggan Bank. If only Wheeler had followed Graham’s novel and allowed Francis to betray Ross following Verity’s elopement. This would have made more sense. Instead, the screenwriter never really made clear the reason behind the betrayal. Rather sloppy, if you ask me.

Overall, Episodes Five to Eight of “POLDARK” struck me as an interesting and very entertaining set of episodes. This is not surprising, considering that they were basically an adaptation of “Demelza – A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790”. Director Paul Annett and Paul Wheeler did a very solid job in adapting Graham’s novel. Yes, I had some quibbles with Wheeler’s screenplay – especially his handling of the Francis Polark character. But overall, I believe the two men, along with the cast led by Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees did an first-rate job. On to Episode Nine and the adaptation of the next novel in Graham’s series.

“CHINA SEAS” (1935) Review

Annex - Harlow, Jean (China Seas)_01

“CHINA SEAS” (1935) Review

For years, film critics and moviegoers have claimed that either Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie, “JAWS” or George Lucas’ 1977 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” ushered in or created the summer box office film. I had believed this for years, until I saw Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1935 film, “CHINA SEAS”

To understand how “CHINA SEAS” came about, one would have to look into the career of MGM producer, Irving Thalberg. For several years, he served as the studio’s Production Chief, supervising the output of movies being released by MGM. After suffering a heart attack around Christmas Eve 1932, he was ordered by his doctor to take a long rest. Thalberg and his wife, Norma Shearer, spent several months traveling in Europe. When they finally returned during the summer of 1933, Thalberg discovered that studio chief Louis B. Mayer and the CEO of parent company Loew’s, had changed the studio’s managerial structure. The position of Production Chief had been eliminated and Thalberg became one of many producers on the lot with their own production unit. Thalberg struggled for two years to personally produce a major hit. He scored a few hits. But he did not really hit it big, until this 1935 movie that starred Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery.

Based on the 1931 novel written by Crosbie Garstin, “CHINA SEAS” is an ocean going adventure film about a merchant ship carrying both passengers and important cargo from Hong Kong to Shanghai. British sea captain Alan Gaskell is recruited by his company’s owner to transport a secret shipment of gold in order to fool high seas pirates into believing that the gold is being transported by another ship. Naturally, the plan fails due to an old friend named Jamesy McArdle’s discovering the plot. The latter recruits Malay pirates to board the ship as passengers and crewman so that the gold can be hijacked during the voyager. Also along for the ride are two of Captain Gaskell’s former paramours – a brassy prostitute, dance hall girl or mistress (hell, I have no idea which one) named Dolly Portland and Sybil Barclay, the elegant widow of an old friend; an alcoholic American named Charlie McCaleb; a disgraced ship’s officer formerly accused of cowardice named Tom David; an elegant Chinese lady named Soo Young; and Dolly’s extroverted maid, Isabel McCarthy . . . among others. Not only does Gaskell and his crew have to deal with marauding pirates, but also a typhoon.

Undoubtedly, “CHINA SEAS” is an entertaining movie. It possesses one of the elements that make certain movies particularly enjoyable for me – namely a story featuring long distance travel. In fact, watching “CHINA SEAS” strongly reminded me of a film released by Paramount Pictures over three years ago – 1932’s “SHANGHAI EXPRESS”. Both movies were set in or around Asia. Both movies featured long distance traveling with Shanghai as the final destination . Both movies featured a leading male character who is British, a leading female character in a sexual profession, and a Chinese woman as a supporting character. Both movies featured the violent takeover by non-Western men – Chinese troops in “SHANGHAI EXPRESS” and Malay pirates in “CHINA SEAS”. And both movies featured Jules Furthman as screenwriter. The similarities between the two movies are so strong that their differences almost seem irrelevant to me. If it were not for the fact that “CHINA SEAS” was an adaptation of Garstin’s novel, I would have accused Thalberg and MGM of plagarism.

The reason I brought up the topic of summer blockbusters when I first began this review is that “CHINA SEAS” seemed like a prime example of one. Think about it. “CHINA SEAS” possessed a cast of major stars like Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery. Rosalind Russell was not quite a star when she co-starred in this film. The movie was given a large budget for its production – at least one million dollars. A good deal of that budget was spent on visual effects. The movie featured heavy action and over-the-top melodrama. And even more ironic, “CHINA SEAS” was released during the summer of 1935, made tons of money and put Irving Thalberg back on top, professionally. If the movie had been made today, Roland Emmerich probably would have directed it. After watching “CHINA SEAS”, I could not help but wonder why film critics and historians failed to remember this film, when citing the origins of the summer blockbuster movie.

Mind you, “CHINA SEAS” is not a terrible film. I would rank it between very good and mediocre. But for some reason, I hardly found it appealing. The problem is that I it did not strike me as particularly original. The movie’s portrayal of its non-white characters struck me as wince-inducing. One aspect of the movie that really annoyed me was how the movie portrayed the Malay pirates a lot worse than Jamesy McArdle, despite the fact that the ship’s hijacking was his plan. However, Hattie McDaniel managed to overcome this racial limitation with a very entertaining performance and warm chemistry with leading lady Jean Harlow. And like 1937’s “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, most of the action in “CHINA SEAS” is set during its second half. The violence, by the way, struck me pretty harsh for a mid-1930s film – especially the tortures of Clark Gable and Lewis Stone’s characters.

Most of the characters struck me as cardboard archetypes, even the more amusing ones portrayed by McDaniel, Bencheley, Edward Brophy and Akim Tamiroff. Lewis Stone’s character, the doomed Tom Davids, came close to being an interesting and complex. But when all said and done, even his “coward who redeems himself” character proved to be a cliche. I love Jean Harlow. And I found her Dolly Portland a lively addition to the cast. And the insecurities that plagued her character proved to be very interesting. But in the end, her performance came off as a bit too shrill for my tastes. I have to give kudos to Rosalind Russell for giving a credible portrayal of an upper-class Englishwoman . . . even if the Sybil Barclay character struck me as one-dimensional. Only Wallace Beery’s Jamesy McArdle managed to avoid any one-dimensional or cliched characterization. His Jamesy proved to be the most complex and ambiguous character in the movie. This would explain why despite his villainy, his character was portrayed with a good deal of sympathy.

From a casting point of view, the biggest problem for me proved to be Clark Gable as Captain Alan Gaskell. Gable was not the first American actor to portray a British character . . . even during that period in Hollywood. Gary Cooper did it. So did Robert Taylor. But they got away with it, due to their ability to project the image of a European (especially British) male without losing their American accent. Through body language and attitude, certain American actors like Cooper and Taylor knew how to get away with portraying British men. They knew how to sell it. Gable, on the other hand, did not. Mind you, as a Midwesterner from Ohio, he did a damn good job in portraying an aristocratic Southerner in 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”. But he was still portraying an American. When Gable’s Captain Gaskell started spouting sentiments about the glories of England, I swear I was simply too astounded to break into laughter. During my second viewing of “CHINA SEAS”, I laughed. I am sorry. Gable was a first-rate actor. The torture sequence obviously proved this. But he lacked . . . something that prevented him from portraying an Englishman with an American accent with any plausibility.

From the numerous reviews I have read, many seemed to view “CHINA SEAS” as an example of the best that Old Hollywood had to offer. Look, the movie is filled with a good deal of action and melodrama that prevents it from being boring. And one can thank director Tay Garnett for keeping it lively. But for me, it is basically a 1930s version of a summer blockbuster movie – one that did not particularly knock my socks off. I do not hate the movie, but I certainly do not view it as among the best that Old Hollywood had offered.