Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Encyclopedia Brown: How about a little Service?


Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Bess Meredyth and H.M. Harwood (based on the play Service by Dodie Smith)

Spoilers: moderate

As much as the previous year's The Son-Daughter was something extraordinarily different alreadyalbeit in at least a few key respects still part of Clarence Brown's grand run of women's pictures that stretched from the late 20s into the early 30s and beyond1933 allowed the director a real change of pace, and his first film of that year, Looking Forward, wasn't even close to being the half of it.  We'll be getting to that shortly, but for now, we have a very good, incredibly nice movie that for the first time in any of his twenty-odd films to date feels a little like Brown getting to do something that actually neatly dovetailed with his stated conservative politics, though you wouldn't necessarily think so: the movie, after all, is called Looking Forward, after a book released literally only a month and a half earlier by the new president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, as a way of explicating this whole "New Deal" business to a frightened but hopeful public presently experiencing the worst of the Great Depression.

It was pure bandwagoning, and just shockingly hypocritical: I probably don't need to say that the movie was not in any sense based upon Roosevelt's policy tome, considering that the president's Looking Forward has chapters titled things like "Need For Economic Planning," "Expenditure and Taxation," and "What About Agriculture?"; but it is a little gauche how these three Hoover voters who were terrified of RooseveltLouis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, and Brownsomehow managed to pretend to an association with the New Deal by way of a movie that was more Hooverite in its response to the crisis than the actual Hoover Administration had been, even at the latter's most callous and fumbling. I mean, I have not read the entire book, and I don't know why I would want to, but it's remarkable that by the thirtieth page, in the midst of all his other commie posturing (that is, Keynesianism with some social democracy), Roosevelt writes about how impossible it is for the working man to start his own business because of the oligarchic nature of capitaland yet that's one of the main things the movie bearing his book's name is about.  The other thing it's about is how depressions are bad, but it's really terrible when rich people lose their money.

Ah, well.  For the exact reasons that plans to improve society somewhat via technocratic means make for better policy than merely assuming a bootstrap, they represent a pretty boring basis for a movie, and so surely it was best they didn't bother.  The actual source material is Dodie Smith's play, Service, and that was the title it bore through production; neither its first new title, the just plain New Deal, nor its second, the one it was released with, seem to have impacted its content.  Smith's play, being from only a year earlier in 1932, is equally concerned with the Depression; of course, Smith's play, being British like Smith herself, is set in Britain and so we have the added irony, or in this case just the klutziness, of the movie being named after an American president's book not even being in or about America or Americans, except to the extent it stars Americans who, in fine Old Hollywood tradition (and I sound sarcastic but mean this with total sincerity), don't even try to do dialect work.

So Looking Forward takes us to London, some time after the collapse of the American stock exchange has thrown the global economy into chaos and made things even worse for the United Kingdom, where their Great Depression had already effectively begun about as soon as World War I was over.  The effects have finally caught up with one of the most deeply-rooted merchants in the city, Service's department store, founded two centuries before by one man named Gabriel Service, and presently run by another, his descendant and heir (Lewis Stone), an aging man who's perhaps unhappier than he even realizes.  Some time ago he took on partners, who are now pressuring him to respond to the economic downturn with the proper cruelty of a businessman, firing his workers and perhaps even selling the store to one of their downmarket and unprestigious but profitable competitors.  With enormous reluctance, he accepts their counsel about cutting the payroll, and one of the men he fires is a man he's known since practically boyhood, a bookkeeper with 40 years of, well, service, Tim Benton (Lionel Barrymore).  Tim's life is devastated, but, with proper spirit, and with his wife Lil (Doris Lloyd), son Willie (Douglas Walton), and daughter Elsie (Viva Tattersall), he reinvents himself as the proprietor of a family business, a bakery run out of his own home.  Gabriel, for his part, faces death by a thousand cuts, realizing that he has failed to inculcate any great passion for his family business in his son Michael (Phillips Holmes), daughter Caroline (Elizabeth Allan), or their young stepmother Isobel (Benita Hume), the latter of whom is screwing around on him, to boot.  All they seem to care about at all is being wealthy, and so, with a broken heart, Gabriel prepares to ensure they can be kept in the style to which they are accustomed by giving up his life's purpose and selling the store.  However, perhaps Gabriel has not judged things correctly.

So in addition to being dishonest about being in any way adjacent to the New Deal, Looking Forward isn't even being honest to you about starring Lionel Barrymore, and I assume this was in part a best foot forward for the public, to whom Barrymore would present as this film's biggest star, and perhaps in part a sop to Mayer, for whom Barrymore was his favorite actor for some reason (probably not totally down to Barrymore being the fourth Hoover-voting principal here such as I can confirm, who was likewise an income tax evader).  I suppose I myself usually enjoy Barrymore, though headlining this meant 1933 was his year of "the very rich are pretty much the same as you and I" movies for MGM, the others being the deeply uneven Dinner At Eight and the outright awful Sweepings, and as in both of those he played the wealthy patriarch battered by the storm of the Great Depression and let down by disappointing children, I guess he simply didn't have time to play that role three times, but then again, this only represents about half his roles for the year.  Anyway, Barrymore is good and very Barrymorey in his usual rattling-around manner; he is vastly better-suited to this one's "friend of the bosses betrayed" role than to the role of the actual boss, for unlike his brother John in Counsellor At Law or Brown's next film, Night Flight, Lionel's usually just not a very credible authority figure (It's a Wonderful Life excepted, but I think it's the joke in A Guy Named Joe), while he plays anxious mediocrities very well.  But good or whatever, in this 82 minute film, he has essentially just four scenes, which you could narrow down to two scenes if you liked, as they come in adjoining pairs.*  If we're being accurately descriptive, then, the movie stars Lewis Stone.

This was a fine going away present from Brown for one of his most stalwart onscreen collaboratorsthis was their sixth and final film together, so I think Stone must rank no. 4 on the list after Gable, Garbo, and Crawfordand represents one of what I believe must be one of the fairly few leading roles he had left in him in this final stage of his career, which was principally character acting now as the "genteel old guy" and, modally, just Judge Hardy, trying and often failing to knock an adolescent Mickey Rooney into the shape of an actual human being.  And so it is a present for me, as well, for Stone has been the secret weapon in a lot of Brown's best movies; in Romance and Inspiration his specific participation, and in such similar yet wildly distinct roles, had been nearly as necessary as that of Greta GarboI can't think of greater praiseand so I cannot say this is my favorite performance from him I've seen.  But it's a terrifically well-tailored opportunity to use Stone's affable minimalism as an actor to an absolutely magnetic effect, as he sulks his way through this crisis with the quiet dignity that Gabriel Service has decided can be the only acceptable way to deal with his own impotence and the frightened emptiness that's crept into his soul as the only world he's ever known falls apart around him.  (He's got no British accent, but he's still pretty British about it.)

Stone manages to engender great sympathy for the kind of capitalist who was already rare to the point of extinction by 1932, calling into question whether such a beast ever really existed at allkindly in his paternalism, careful in his exercise of power, rich but deserving, human and intimately-drawn enough you feel reasonably comfortable using his given name in a review of his movie, and so obviously perceiving himself as a monster when he fires Tim, while still rather poorly attempting to evade his own self-loathing, that you somehow feel worse for the guy doing the firing than the guy being fired (which Barrymore, in a canny and complex beat, picks up on, and just as obviously extends his sympathy on our behalf, somehow managing both a "what the hell am I doing?" current in his own performance as he does, and the slightest whisper, so that you can only suspect it, that the act of being so damnably pleasant about his own sacking is his modest measure of revenge).  The closest you get to wanting to slap Gabriel in the mouth is probably when he tells his daughter that, if he goes through with his plans to sell his mansion and plow the money back into the store, they're going to get an apartment where they won't be able to keep their dogs, mostly because these are just some unnecessary stakes (I bet a rich guy renting an apartment could, in fact, arrange to keep his comical-looking dogs).  But the main thing Stone does is to create a center for all the various spokes of Service's department store and embody the vibe of the world that is being lost, for the subject of Looking Forward is not really either of its stars, but a way of life.

Brown has made it one of his handsomer movies of the early 30sonce he'd shaken off sound jitters with Anna Christie and Romance, that's a competitive fieldand the scenes that are focused upon Gabriel and the Service home are recipients of Brown's characteristically careful blocking, this time with a subtle sense of oppressiveness in the triangular compositions he manages out of the relationships pulling Gabriel this way and that, not to mention the slightly-discomfiting emptiness of the Service household (leftover sets from other Brown movies, particularly Emma, though I don't think you'd definitely notice that without being told), which is more frequently captured through deep master shots with our principals separated by dozens of feet.  (DP Oliver Marsh still doesn't have the lenses for it, but it kind of works better that Gabriel's family are often out-of-focus annoyances and distractions.)  And you can contrast this easily enough, if you like, with the looser, less overly-planned (and much cozier) blocking in the Benton home, where its economic actors, though humbler, are still capable of a nimble adaptation to the times.

But the film sings above all when just dealing with a department store, and Brown pretty clearly knows this and intends it, considering this film's most woozily-complicated shots, by far, are designed to impress upon you the size and scope of Gabriel's operation by physically connecting the geographic sprawl of his store in a single take, and if it's just a camera in the back of an elevator at an actual department store as it visits each floor, I guess I can't really call it amazing, but I'm almost entirely sure it's not, but rather some complex trickery involving split-second choreography of actors and some splendid rear-projections, so that the fact that I still have some doubts that it's movie magic means that if it is movie magic, it's downright supernatural.  Pretty much all the filmmaking around the department store sets is great, likewise in the Berkeleyesque (proto-Berkeleyesque, even) arrays of bookkeepers flying in dynamic diagonals towards a vanishing point, or just the ultra-light comedy of a put-upon sales clerk trying to keep up with a lady who can't make up her mind which (if any) dog basket is right for her.  The screenplay can be just as diligent (the way it keenly makes a point about the domino effect of unemployment when the Bentons in turn must fire their servant (Eily Maylon) is so outstanding that it manages to be weepy, and it's probably the closest this film ever gets to anything Rooseveltian, in that here it seems to have a dim comprehension of aggregate demand); but it's Brown supplying the most inspired touches, like the way Tim energetically ascends the escalator on his way to Gabriel's office, not content to treat the machine as a ride, and the echo of this shot from the other side, as he descends without moving, contemplating destitution.  Even the best (and most dynamically-shot!) scenes at the Service household happen when Gabriel's business intrudes into his domestic life, in the form of his secretary, Geoffrey Fielding (Colin Clive), who gets a shy little romance with daughter Caroline that's been smooshed into the smallest corner of the movie that could still possibly fit it, and is all the cuter for it.

It joins Brown's other collective visions of insular, distinctive communities, united in their common culture and common hardshiphis Trail of '98, soon his Night Flight, and ultimately his Human Comedyand again his emphasis is upon the community that the Services have created, with the distinct sensation that not only is everyone consciously willing themselves to carry on even though they'd rather be in hysterics, but that their despair is all the greater because they represent the last of their kind, servants in a mode of commerce that is dignified, restrained, and all but dead in the face of loud, modern hucksterism.  When Gabriel and Tim are reunited by happenstancereally, more by a mutual morbidity that brings them to the same placeit's unlikely to be a mistake that it's in a graveyard.  The film has a happy ending, which is no spoiler, I think, given its weird desperation to tie itself to Roosevelt and the prospect of renewal, but it's only a happy ending because it's managed to give you a sense of what's been lost, and happier still because while things change, for they must change in order for this vast organism called humanity to survive, what mattersI keep using the word dignity, but all the better capitalist virtues, as wellhas been preserved.  It's "British" in its setting and its script and even so Brown managed something like Americana hereis Service's not practically its own small-town?and there is a measured nostalgia here for a not-quite-gone-past that's sad but wonderful.

Now, a word of caution: I think it is a film that can only work if you keep strictly in mind its own context, of the slow-motion apocalypse happening outside the theater where you'd be watching it, were it new and were this still 1933, for without that in mind I can't really imagine it coming off as meaningful or, frankly, even well-intentioned; yet this runs into a snag right away, because it wasn't especially well-liked even in the actual 1933, either, so I suppose I just respond aesthetically to extremely corny shit suffused with this brand of old-timey American optimism.  I obviously do: why exactly that is, I don't feel like it's really worth investigating, but it is probably why I vote for Democrats.

Score: 8/10

*Barrymore does get the film's most hilarious line by far, though it's not on purpose, a dialogue couplet that goes: "Everyone's got his kink and Service's is his"/"I'll thank you not to call my feeling for a very great man a kink," indicating that that word meant something radically different in 1933.  Friend of the bosses, and how!

No comments:

Post a Comment