12 September 2003 | jandesimpson
Gorgeous Edwardian Gothic stuff
I realise that my passion for the Golden Age of Hollywood - the mid '30s to the mid '60s - has little to do with such popular genres as Westerns, Musicals and Film Noir; rather is it the Romantic cinema I adore. In the hands of a master director such as William Wyler the genre achieved greatness ( "Carrie", "The Heiress", "Wuthering Heights" and "The Best Years Of Our Lives"). Even works that are little more than good yarns ("Gone With The Wind", "All This And Heaven Too" and "Kings Row") leave me speechless with admiration for their sheer craftsmanship and style. I have to confess to swallowing with considerable pleasure what may be regarded as a by-product of the genre, Hollywood Gothic melodrama, the more outlandish the better ("The Spiral Staircase", "Dragonwyck" or "Ladies in Retirement"). When the genre depicted Victorian or Edwardian London as it so often did I am apt to experience frissons of delight ("Gaslight", "Moss Rose" or "Hangover "Square"). I thought I knew them all until one of our TV channels came up with one I had never heard of, John Sturges's "Kind Lady" of 1951. What a discovery! The eponymous heroine is played by that most commanding of Hollywood matriarchs, Ethel Barrymore, she of the gravel voice and penetrating eyes. It was rare for her to play the tormented party but somehow you know from the beginning that here is a character with the inner strength to overcome the wiles of her tormentors. If the film has a weakness it lies in Maurice Evans's rather colourless arch-villain. Although I have not seen the earlier version of "Kind Lady" I can well imagine the Basil Rathbone who played the part could convey evil with more sinister aplomb. But everything else about the film is absolutely right. Hollywood seemed to have a particular obsession with plots where villains attempted to drive their victims insane or else present them as insane to the rest of the world. If George Cukor's "Gaslight" is probably the finest example "Kind Lady" runs it a close second. With Ethel Barrymore's fine performance and excellent support from Betsy Blair, an amazingly young Angela Lansbury and John Williams as the solicitor who is bound to come to the rescue, superbly accomplished photography from Joseph Ruttenberg who did marvels with "The Great Waltz" and "Mrs Miniver" and a wonderfully lyrical score by David Raksin, to my mind the finest of all the Hollywood in-house composers, what more can one ask. Unadulterated pleasure!