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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

FLESH AND FANTASY (1943)

French writer-director Julien Duvivier’s Flesh and Fantasy was his third foray into the form following his remake of The Golem in 1936 and 1939’s La Charrette fantôme (The Phantom Wagon) back in France. Duvivier was brought to Hollywood after the success of his crime-romance Pépé le Moko (1937) which made a star of Jean Gabin. Remade by United Artists in 1938 as Algiers, their chosen star was a fellow Frenchman, the debonair romantic lead Charles Boyer who was subsequently catapulted into international stardom.
Duvivier had already directed Boyer in a Hollywood anthology film. Amongst his five credits spanning World War Two was Tales of Manhattan (1942) centred around the five owners of a cursed tailcoat. Boyer played one third of a love triangle who is shot whilst wearing the garment for making Ginger Rogers’ husband jealous. Another story featured Edward G Robinson as a lawyer-turned-bum. The two men would go on to star in separate strands of Duvivier’s next movie over at Universal.

Flesh and Fantasy was scripted based on short stories by (in order of performance) Ellis St Joseph, Oscar Wilde and László Vadnay, and adapted by Ernest Pascal and Samuel Hoffenstein. As mentioned, an additional tale originally began the film focusing on an escaped murderer (Alan Curtis) seeking refuge from a farmer, who ends up pursuing the man’s daughter through a stunningly realised storm.  This section was intact in the preview version, but for some reason the studio excised it despite great audience reactions. Fortunately, the valuable footage was not wasted. Universal shot new scenes using director Reginald le Borg and built a 1944 feature Destiny around it, although leaving Duvivier’s contribution uncredited. (The killer’s washed-up body does make it into an early scene of Flesh and Fantasy)

The three remaining shorts were equally well-presented with an impressive A-picture budget and care behind it. The year before, The Ghost of Frankenstein (reviewed here ) had signalled Universal’s relegation of their pure horror films to B-movie levels of attention. Flesh and Fantasy however gained greater studio support by blending genres and tones for a wider and classier appeal. Doomed romance, Noir-ish suspense thriller and whimsical humour are stirred in to dilute the stronger genre meat of murder and the supernatural, which are only lightly measured in two of the main courses anyway.

The framing device around the stories is a paranormal problem bothering a gentleman’s club member who goes in one day not intending to seek help but finding it regardless, courtesy of a friend. Any association the film may have with perceived downmarket horror trappings is avoided immediately when we see that the role is taken by popular humourist Robert Benchley. His erudite wit not only made him famous as a newspaper columnist, but as an actor, winning an Academy Award for Best Short Subject in 1935 for one of his smart comedy shorts How to Sleep. Benchley’s character here, Doakes, is plagued by the predictions of a fortune-teller and of nightmares. In a trashier horror vehicle, such a man might be tormented out of his mind. In Benchley’s hands, it is more of a pesky intrusion. Nevertheless, Doakes’s condition is serious enough for a bespectacled academic friend (David Hoffman) to persuade him to sit and listen to a trio of stories designed to free him of fears that dreams and occultists can dictate our destinies. (Hoffman’s own future would see him in horror B-movies such as 1946’s The Beast with Five Fingers and The Creeper in 1948).

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The first instalment is a heart-warming combination of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Ugly Duckling and the Cinderella folk tale in which Henrietta, a New Orleans homely dressmaker (the far from homely Betty Field), is shown the true meaning of love. Bitter at her physical shortcomings and hard life, she secretly pines for handsome and similarly gloomy law student Michael (light comedian and future Hitchcock Dial M for Murder lead Robert Cummings). On Mardi Gras night, a strange, elderly mask shop owner (Edgar Barrier) offers her a choice of masks to wear as long as she returns the disguise by midnight. She selects one that allows her to look beautiful, and as the clock ticks, she spends the evening entrancing Michael with her newly confident exterior. However, the owner’s voice guides her to focus on renewing Michael’s crushed self-belief instead of her own gain. “Give him the confidence he needs. This is your real chance, Henrietta…Don’t think of yourself” Thus, she learns about the unconditional selflessness of love. In return, her rediscovered inner beauty transforms her face as well when at midnight, under her protest, Michael removes her mask. We then see another irritated proprietor appear who claims not to know the owner Henrietta met, and yet, as the lovestruck couple leave, hanging in the window is a bearded mask of the face who helped her…

This happy, fulfilled ending to Episode 1 is almost a surprise. Stanley Cortez and Paul Ivano’s cinematography gives a marvellous, downbeat mood to Henrietta’s potentially unrequited romance, and Alexander Tansman’s sensitive score suggests she may leave this life empty-handed. Throughout the film, these elements delicately convey dark and supernatural possibilities where needed. None more so than in the second story, by far the most oppressive and horror-tinged of the threesome. Edward G Robinson is wealthy American  socialite Marshall Tyler, who attends a party thrown by Lady Pamela Hardwick, (the ideally-cast formidable Dame May Whitty). He scornfully observes the guests being taken in by palmist Septimus Podgers (a mischievous beaming turn by noted character actor Thomas Mitchell, a later Oscar-winner for 1939’s Stagecoach). Podgers hits uncomfortable bulls-eyes with his readings until, only under duress, will he reveal that Tyler will one day commit murder.

Despite his scepticism, Tyler becomes obsessed with the prediction coming true. This is superbly illustrated by his doppelganger image goading him in a whispered voice in every reflective surface: shop windows, a glass desk, even his glasses. Duvivier creates spell-binding suspense worthy of the aforementioned Hitchcock as Tyler attempts to pay the debt on his own terms – “Get it over with”. His bid to euthanise the terminally-ill Lady Pamela with poisoned chocolate fails when she dies unassisted.

In mounting desperation mixed with a homicidal hidden agenda, Tyler visits C. Aubrey Smith as the sombre Dean of Norwalk, whom we last saw essaying a comparable man of the cloth as the Bishop in 1941’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (see here ). The Dean gives religious counsel that holds no truck with any paranormal influence: “But character’s the label of the man, sir – to everything he is and everything he will be”. (Note the worrisome cello as Tyler feverishly struggles with his next move). Such is the Dean’s stalwart faith that it saves him from literally going under the hammer down in his wine cellar.  This story expertly crystallises the film’s overall theme of free will versus a nature-programmed destiny. Ironically for Podgers, it ends badly at the hands of his most tortured client. Again, the cast is a top-drawer delight, galvanised by Robinson’s doomed gravity. He dies in the grounds of a travelling circus gasping “I’m not a murderer. It was written in my hand. I had nothing to do with it!” The implication here is a sticky end for those who absolve their lives of responsibility.

There is an artful transition now as Tyler’s confession segues into the next episode.  Against an apt backdrop of fantasy and tempting showbiz clairvoyants, the commotion barely registers a blip as we are handed over to our next leading man. Charles Boyer’s Gallic gallantry is perfectly suited to the role of the Great Gaspard, an aerialist who specialises in a perilous tightrope drunk act. He becomes the victim of nightmares that predict him tumbling from the high-wire while a frightened Barbara Stanwyck watches him from the crowd below. What follows is then a bittersweet romance as he spots Joan Stanley (Stanwyck) on board a ship and pursues her to understand if they have met before and whether he can beat the premonitions that suddenly rob him of confidence. Attempting pragmatic balance in Gaspard’s corner is Clarence Muse as his black manservant Jeff who, (leaving aside the regrettable dialogue style), lives for the moment - “We here today, but where is we tomorrow?”

Stanwyck and Boyer make a poignant couple, playing off each other with sincerity. He is the epitome of suave, persistent charm that would later be immortalised in the passionate ardour (and odour) of Warner Bros’s Pepe le Pew. Stanwyck meets him fully with a streetwise yet feminine charm, at first wriggling away like Le Pew’s pussycat target – “I must bring you bad luck” – before succumbing to him. Their supernaturally-predicted relationship develops and ends with the forlorn inevitability of Rick and Ilsa’s in the previous year’s Casablanca, which may have inspired their moving and chivalrous parting. Gaspard has learned that only he commands his own fate, while she accepts that she cannot outrun justice after being involved with a mobster.

Back in the real world of the club, Doakes gets the point as well. Refreshed and grateful for his friend’s morality plays, he leaves with the breezy “Superstition is for gypsies”, yet still retains enough caution to go around an open ladder in the doorway.

Flesh and Fantasy is a rich and satisfying film, with thought-provoking layers woven delicately into its bewitching tapestry. 

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