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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

An Oscar for Ethel: NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART Film Review

It is an unusual film in many ways: the directorial debut of author and playwright Clifford Odets (and only one of two for him), an unusual dramatic role for Cary Grant, and the return to Hollywood of stage queen Ethel Barrymore after a twelve-year hiatus.  The film, of course, is NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART (1944). In celebration of Ethel's 137th birthday, I'm pleased to present this post as part of the 2nd Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by Crystal of The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
Ethel is someone that I will admit to putting on a pedestal.  Whenever I'm having a bad day, or need to calm my nervousness and take a risk, I think of her.  That's because my mother told me that, when  she was young, her father encouraged her to 'do her best Ethel Barrymore' in face of trying circumstances.  That stuck with me.  For my grandfather's generation, there was probably no other actress who so embodied excellence in the art of acting.  For those who haven't seen any of her films, I can attest--she was the real thing.
Young Ethel Barrymore
Clifford Odets
I eagerly approached NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART precisely because it was Ms. Barrymore's only Oscar.  I found it often moving, with complex, well-drawn characters, if not wholly satisfying.  The filmmakers went to great lengths to ensure Barrymore would star.  In fact, David Hempstead, producer at RKO Pictures, bought the rights to the novel by Richard Llewellyn, and offered the role of 'Ma Mott' to Barrymore, who turned it down, thinking the novel wouldn't make a good film.  She was reluctant also because her previous film, RASPUTIN & THE EMPRESS, was not a happy experience, despite starring along with both brothers, Lionel & John.  When Clifford Odets was given the job to adapt the novel for the screen, Barrymore softened.  The problem then was her commitment to a touring production of the stage play The Corn is Green during the time filming would commence.  So RKO simply paid the play's producer to take a six-week hiatus.

Barrymore felt comfortable with Odets as director, because of his stage credentials and his deference to her.  Despite its studio production, the film was set in 1930s London, in the working class East End. As widow "Ma" Mott, Barrymore owns a junk shop and barely gets by, no thanks to her vagabond and often AWOL son, Ernie Mott, played by Grant.  Ernie can't seem to stay long enough to take charge of the shop, and there is an uncomfortable truce between mother and son.  Having recently returned from a jaunt to who knows where, this time Ernie is facing for the first time some very unpleasant consequences of leaving again -- Ma is now dying of cancer, and he falls in love with beautiful Ada, as a vulnerable young woman trying to make up for some bad decisions but not quite succeeding.  Things get even more complicated when both Ma and Ernie separately get mixed up with the criminal element.  We wonder if anyone in the film will have a happy ending.
Barrymore as 'Ma Mott' has not had an easy life.  
Grant in an early scene
I've read some commentary claiming that Grant didn't fit the part of a young cockney wastrel, or that he was too old (at just over 40) for the part.  In fact, in Richard Schickel's biography of Grant, the author quotes Grant as feeling that way himself, although he loved playing the role.  For me, he was perfect; the years wore on him well, convincing us he really had thrown away half of his life and it was beginning to catch up to him psychologically. There was never any doubt that underneath his obvious immaturity and indecision he was a good guy--when he first appears on the scene all the neighbors are truly thrilled to see him.  Grant used his (natural) cockney accent to good effect, and was quite subtle and powerful in the more emotional scenes.  Ultimately if he didn't realize the full impact of the character, as Schickel suggests, due to holding back a bit too much, he was believable as a flawed hero.
Luminous June Duprez in NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART
The cast of supporting actors was also mostly very good - Barry Fitzgerald as the crusty aging fellow who lost a son in WWI; June Duprez, the English-born actress as Ada, lovely, vulnerable, but tough.  Jane Wyatt was a bit too angelic in her self-sacrificing love for Grant. I was disappointed that normally supremely interesting and reliable Dan Duryea had a throwaway part as a shopkeeper and had a cringe-worthy accent in the few lines he uttered.
Barry Fitzgerald and Grant have a pint together
With the Salvation Army hat
Barrymore's screen presence was a good match for Grant.  Her accent, at least to my ear, was just right, and considering her acting chops and experience, not surprising.  Having been away from the screen so long she apparently was very nervous, nailing rehearsals but losing confidence during actual filming.  She regained the confidence she needed when in secret, Odets starting filming the rehearsals and playing them back to her to show her how good she was.  She relished disappearing into the role, and wearing a 75 cent hat from the Salvation Army that Odets trampled on to make it all the more 'lived in.'  The final scene in which Barrymore and Grant appear together was so convincing that I couldn't hold back the tears.
A heart-rending scene with Grant
What didn't completely work for me was the journey into film noir territory in the second half of the film with the gangsters, car chases and dimly lit scenes, when the film seemed to be going along quite well as a character-driven melodrama.  The film also got quite 'preachy' about values associated with wartime sacrifice and morality, with the clouds of WWII ominously and quite obviously appearing near the end.  More liberal editing and shorter overall run time would have been welcome.

The film received good reviews, and the normally snarky Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was effusive with his praise: "The poignant and wistful story of the Cockney wanderer, Ernie Mott, and his sad and wonderful mother and their ever-hungry search for some sort of spiritual fulfillment has been rendered in this film with all of the beauty and feeling that one could hopefully expect.".(NY Times, 11/18/1944). The film eventually lost money -- it was apparently too much of a downer for mass audiences -- but won Barrymore her Oscar, which stunned her.  When asked if she thought it was fair for her to have won when others had gone to Hollywood earlier and toiled longer there, she paused, and then replied, "Perhaps they shouldn't have gone."  Her success prompted her to move to Hollywood and devote many more years to the medium--and we are the better for it.
Barrymore with her Oscar and Broderick Crawford (1945)
References:
James Kotsilibas-Davis, The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood, 1981, Crown Publishers.
Richard Schickel, Cary Grant--A Celebration, 1999, Applause Books.

6 comments:

  1. I've wanted to see this for a long time, mostly to hear Cary Grant's accent, but I can see now that there will be a lot in it to delight me when I do finally see it. Barry Fitzgerald always amuses me, and of course, Ethel Barrymore will be amazing.

    BTW, I nominated you for the Liebster Award here. Play if you want to :-)

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Cary is great--but still unmistakably Cary. ;-) The 'Liebster Award' sounds like fun -- I'll definitely join in after I finish a couple of posts I'm currently working on. Thanks so much!

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  2. I was disappointed in the film as a whole, but intrigued and ultimately really felt for the characters. I realize now that it is due to Ethel and Cary's performances. It has been many years since I last watched the film so I will keep the eyes peeled for its next go round.

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    1. It's not a masterpiece, certainly, but has much to recommend it. Unlike HOUR OF THE GUN, the secondary characters here add great interest. I hope you get to see it sometime soon. Thanks for reading :-)

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  3. Hi Jocelyn. I can't seem to find a proper way to contact you directly on your blog. There probably is. I just wanted to drop by to let you know that I've announced another blogathon. You are cordially invited to participate. The link is below with more details.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/announcing-the-judy-garland-blogathon/

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    1. Thanks for your invitation :-) I was thinking about writing about Presenting Lily Mars, but I see that's been taken. Not sure if I can come up with anything else at this point, but if I do I will let you know. Thanks again!

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