Sunday, April 11, 2010


Though the DVD cover might lead one to believe that this is a Technicolor lustfest based on a Tennessee Williams play, it's actually a black & white melodrama (with about as much lust as the 40's Production Code would allow) based on a Chekhov novel. Though the opening is set in post-Revolution 1919 after the aristocrats have lost their lands and their wealth, the bulk of the story, told in flashback, takes place during the summer of 1912 and revolves around a saucy peasant wench (Linda Darnell) and the three men who love her: the respectable judge (George Sanders), the wealthy Count (Edward Everett Horton), and the manager of the Count's properties (Hugo Haas). Darnell, the daughter of a woodsman, longs for a better life, and one afternoon during a summer storm, Horton and Sanders, taking a stroll about Horton's estate, take refuge in a small cottage where they find Darnell napping. Both men take a shine to her, although Sanders is already more-or-less engaged to the daughter of a publisher (Anna Lee). However, the first man to make a move on Darnell is Haas, not rich but a step above peasant status; when he buys her a pair of dress boots, she decides to marry him (even though she finds him repulsive) as her first step toward upward mobility. At her engagement party, she kisses Sanders, full well knowing that Lee is watching from the doorway, and shooting her a bitchslap look the whole time. Lee leaves Sanders, Darnell marries Haas, Sanders carries on an affair with Darnell, and soon Horton is also courting Darnell, begging her to get a divorce and marry him. Things come to a head at an end-of-summer shooting party on Horton's estate: someone gets stabbed, an innocent gets blamed, and the guilty party slinks away into obscurity--until 1919 when justice is finally served.

This early Douglas Sirk movie shows some of his trademark concerns (well-appointed sets, passions both raging and tamped-down), but the real reason to watch is the acting. Darnell, though OK, is the weak link, projecting smoldering sexuality without working up much of a personality. Sanders goes a bit against type, playing down his distant, ironic persona and doing a nice job as a terribly conflicted man, good but weak--I think this is the first time I've seen Sanders play a character I thought was actually capable of romantic love. Haas, who went on to become a cult B-film director, is also fine as the poor cuckold, but best of all is Horton, who manages to take his fussy, befuddled film persona from the 30's Astaire/Rogers movies and smooth off the edges to fit believably into this tempestuous Russian story. Horton and Sanders, who share quite a bit of screen time, work very well together. Two of the characters die with the phrase "heavenly electricity" on their lips, a reference to the lightning that scares Darnell in the storm scene, though it seems an odd choice for a thematic catchphrase. Many critics dismiss this movie as a weak Hollywood attempt at making a European-style film, but taken on its own terms, I found it quite watchable. [DVD]

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