10 April 2003 | Kalaman
Underrated gem; perhaps the most overlooked classic of 1937
James Whale's "The Great Garrick" is perhaps the most overlooked classic of 1937, a year that also saw such classics as "Stage Door", "The Awful Truth", "Make Way for Tomorrow", "History is Made at Night", "Angel" and some others.
"Great Garrick" is a brazen but abundantly enthralling costume comedy on David Garrick, a Shakespearen ham actor and the most famous English actor of the 18th century. Garrick played a significant role in the development of English stage in this period which saw the rise of Shakespeare and other playwrights. Garrick had a reputation of enthralling his audiences on and off stage. Here in "Great Garrick", he is ingeniously played by Brian Aherne, a sadly underrated actor giving one of his most memorable performances. Aherne's co-stars include Olivia de Havilland as Garrick's love interest Germaine, Edward Everett Horton as Garrick's sidekick Tubby, Melville Cooper, Lionel Atwill, Lana Turner, and Luis Alberni.
Beautifully shot in stark black-and-white photography by Ernest Haller, "Great Garrick" is a nonstop laugh riot. The opening titles tell us, "David Garrick the actor was at the height of his fame. He was the idol of London and the tale we are now unfold is a romantic adventure that might have happened during the vividly gay career of the colourful Garrick". Garrick is just finishing playing "Hamlet" and makes a farewell curtain speech to the audience at London's Theatre Royal Drury Lane. He has been invited to Paris by the Comédie Francaise, a famous French theatre which rivalled in fame London's Theatre Royal. To convince the audience he is not actually ditching them, he reads a blank letter telling them that he is going there to teach the French. In Paris, the actors of the Comédie Francaise hold an emergency meeting to discuss what they consider to be an insult. "Ridicule kills" says one of the actors. Thus, they perpetrate a series of hoaxes at an Adam and Eve inn near Paris where Garrick and his Tubby will be staying there before they arrive in Paris.
Some of the hoaxes are outrageously hammy and over-the-top, especially Luis Alberni's annoying Basset, but that doesn't really hurt the picture at all. There are genuine glories in "Great Garrick" and most important of all are Whale's inventive, stylized direction, Ernest Vajda's endlessly witty screenplay, and Aherne's quietly graceful incarnation of Garrick.
The film works as a companion piece to Whale's underrated 1936 musical "Show Boat" in that both films are entrancing and exuberant celebrations of the theatre. "Show Boat" concerns a group of traveling actors who are putting on a show; "Garrick" is bio-pic of a famous actor. Both films display the talent and versatility of a great director.