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The Anniversary (1968)
The stage origins show all too clearly
It's highly unlikely that anyone nowadays would remember seeing the original London stage play with Mona Washbourne in the Bette Davis part. However, those who did so will tell you that Mona was far more effective in the main role than Bette, who just flew over to the UK to do her Big Hollywood Movie Star thing. Most of the rest of the cast were in the original stage production so just give their theatre performances. Indeed, the play's origins are emphasised throughout by the lack of any background music. This, plus the lack of any kind of filmic "style", makes for a disappointing movie, though Bette's fans will doubtless relish her occasional bravura moments.
One of the trio of "silent shorts " that H. G. Wells wrote for Elsa Lanchester
In this, Elsa Lanchester plays a boarding-house "skivvy," living-in and doing menial jobs for the landlady (Marie Wright). Elsa tells her friend Maggie (Dorice Fordred) that she thinks one of the other lodgers, a foreign student named Ram Das (Charles Laughton) has his eye on her: "I reckon he thinks I'd do for one of his columbines," Elsa remarks.
In Elsa's room, Maggie sees a photo of the Countess Pornay, the world's most romantic widow. Maggie tells Elsa all about the Countess who, before her marriage to the rich Count, was herself a lodging-house keeper's daughter. While she listens, Elsa is transported - as in a daydream. She vividly imagines herself, and the people in her daily life, acting out the Pornay drama as narrated by her friend.
She marries the wealthy Count Pornay and tours the world in supreme luxury. Then, one evening at the theatre, a rich, plump and bejewelled Rajah appears (Charles Laughton again). Elsa (as the Countess) ignores his designs on her, but nevertheless the Rajah will have her at any price. So his servants abduct her and take her to the rich Rajah's yacht. Her husband, the Count (Harold Warrender) pursues them in a hired aeroplane but loses control, crashes into the sea and sinks the yacht.
The three survive on a raft - Elsa (still in her daydream as the Countess), the Count and the Rajah. The two men fight over her desperately but they both fall into the sea, leaving only tell-tale bubbles on the surface. The Countess, when rescued, is all alone and hailed as the most popular widow in Europe.
Elsa has followed the story intently from start to finish. Open-eyed and now wide awake, she prepares excitedly to pack her things and leave her menial tasks behind. "Where are you off to?" asks Maggie. "Well, if a boarding-house lodger's daughter can become a Countess," she tells her friend as she hurries downstairs, "then so can I!"
The Tonic (1928)
An H.G. Wells Comedy-Drama, written for Elsa Lanchester
The irascible and very wealthy Great Aunt Louisa (played by Renee De Vaux) is a confirmed invalid. She is ensconced at a hotel where she discharges one maid after another for incompetence. Her family, at the head of whom is Father (Charles Laughton) and Mother (Marie Wright) have expectations of what they would do with Aunt Louisa's money. "Let's send Elsa," they suggest, in the hope that their household drudge will completely mix up Aunt Louisa's medicines and hasten her end. So the new maid (Elsa Lanchester) duly arrives at the hotel. However, despite Elsa indeed making a complete mess of her medicine duties, Aunt Louisa survives, only to collapse in a faint at the sight of a huge caterpillar on her lettuce.
A doctor brings her round and Elsa enquires "Will she live?" ... "Of course," the doctor replies, "she just needs a sudden shock to cure her hypochondria". So Elsa plans the new shock treatment. She leaves the old lady fast asleep in her bath-chair in the middle of the road as motor maniacs speed past, but she sleeps soundly on. Then she wheels the bath-chair onto a railway track with the old lady still sleeping blissfully. The train's impact whisks Aunt Louisa clean out of her chair and, before Elsa knows it, the old lady is cavorting down a country lane, skirts held high, at great speed.
Back to the family, still relying on Elsa to polish the old lady off and waiting in high expectations of a great fortune from Aunt Louisa's will. Instead, they receive a telegram from the old lady: "Am cured and feeling thirty years younger. Have adopted Elsa!" A tableau of the aghast family brings the story to an end.
White Woman (1933)
Laughton as a cockney river trader in Malaya
It's probably worth mentioning that this jungle islands "farrago", as Simon Callow calls it in his biography of Laughton, is set in Malaya, not Africa. In those days it was still part of the British Empire, which accounts for Laughton's cockney accent. In addition, at the dinner party on Laughton's river-boat (about 20 minutes into the film), his new wife (Carole Lombard) says she'd like to learn Malay.
This was the last of the handful of films which Laughton made for Paramount during 1932-33 under a short-term contract (the others being Devil and the Deep, Sign of the Cross, If I Had a Million, and Island of Lost Souls). Callow thinks Laughton's acting is both original and preposterous: "giggling and teasing and play-acting, screwing up his eyes, scratching his head, pulling at his moustache and using a whole battery of tics."
It's certainly preposterous that the Carole Lombard character would ever have considered marrying such an unpleasant person as Laughton makes him, so this fatally weakens the story. On the other hand, she has little choice, having been ostracised by the British community who would like to see the back of her. The mysterious suicide of her husband has forced her to earn a living singing in shady bars, so Laughton's proposal of marriage, coupled with his claim that he owns a great deal of land up river, offers a way out of her predicament. It's only when she arrives at his house-boat that she realises what she's got herself into, and seeks solace with some other, rather more pleasant, male members of the cast.
Laughton's Horace Prin has never been considered in the same breath as his Henry VIII, Captain Bligh, or Quasimodo. Even so, it is still probably worth seeing, if only as an example of his early Hollywood work.
On Our Merry Way (1948)
More details about the deleted Laughton sequence referred to in Trivia.
As the "Trivia" section states, Charles Laughton was in the original version of this film under its title "A Miracle Can Happen". His was a sequence of 20 minutes or so which came between the Fonda/Stewart story and the one with Fred MacMurray which ended the movie. During the war, Laughton had taken to reading from great works of literature, including the Bible, to invalided US servicemen. He continued to give reading tours after the war and his appearance in "A Miracle Can Happen" was clearly an attempt to put one of his Bible readings on film. He played a washed-out minister who bores his congregation to tears, but one rainy night a small boy asks Laughton to visit his sick father. In an attempt to boost the dying man's spirits, Laughton rises to the occasion with an over-the-top delivery of the Saul and David story that completely revitalises the father. It then turned out that the little boy who invited Laughton in, but who has now disappeared from the scene, had died some years earlier. So, as Laughton told Meredith at the end of the sequence, "a miracle happened."
For whatever reason, the Laughton sequence was deleted from the US release but not before prints has been sent abroad to other countries. Consequently, it has long been known that, for example, a Spanish version of "A Miracle Can Happen" - with Laughton and all the others dubbed into that language - has been seen on TV in Spain and is now available there on DVD, complete with the original English dialogue.
With Laughton having been deleted, the Dorothy Lamour sequence was added in as a replacement, and the film was duly re-titled "On Our Merry Way." I agree with the sentiments expressed by others who find this film an embarrassment all round. Fonda and Stewart are no masters of farcical comedy and neither are any of the other principals. As for Laughton in the original film, his hamming up of the Bible story has to be seen to be believed. Nevertheless, both versions are of some interest because of the talents involved but I agree with anyone who says that once you've seen either version you're not likely to want to see them again!
Early British "Screen Revue" with Laughton and Lanchester
Released at the beginning of 1930, this "Musical Revue" featured a number of prominent vaudeville and theatrical British artists of the day in songs, dances, dramatic and musical sketches. Originally, in addition to those listed, it featured The Tiller Girls, Noni and Horace, the Melton Club Orchestra, Strelsky's Cossacks, and The Golden Serenaders. Later that same year a "revised version" was issued, drastically cut and considerably sharpened up since it was first shown, with only the most important items remaining. "Comets" was notable for an early teaming on film of Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester. They duetted in "The Ballad of Frankie and Johnnie," a repeat for celluloid of a performance they had given of this number in a show called "Riverside Nights" at the Arts Theatre Club, London, in 1928. In 1934, when Laughton and Lanchester had found fame as Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves in "The Private Life of Henry VIII", their "Comets" duet was extracted and shown in America as a 7-minute 'Talking Short' entitled "Frankie and Johnnie". 'Variety' commented that this brief 'short' was a "slovenly produced version of the popular song" but that although Laughton "displays artistry in spite of the drivel he is compelled to sing", the critic found Elsa Lanchester "wild both as to voice and action."
Frozen North Melodrama
Adapted from a stage play and set in the frozen North, this early British talkie (it was released in the UK in May 1930) features Dorothy Gish as a girl who is saved from privation and death in Labrador by a gang of outlaws ruled by Charles Laughton. She is nursed back to health by a young doctor but all the men desire to possess her and draw lots. Laughton, as the leader, is more human than the others: he fakes the draw and plans to help her escape. She flees the camp in an open-boat during a blizzard while Laughton holds the desperadoes at bay until he dies and the gang is blown up by an explosion. Dorothy Gish acquits herself well in the leading role but most of the male players are sadly miscast. Laughton tries to temper his performance with humour but this destroys the virility of his role.
Several years later, with Laughton now famous as a Hollywood star, the 57-minute original movie was reduced to a cut-down version lasting 37 minutes and released in the States under the title "Wanted Men". When one of the other actors in the film heard this he vowed to save up and buy all the existing prints with the idea of making a bonfire of them!
Passport to Destiny (1944)
Elsa Lanchester scrubs her way across Occupied Europe
This is surely one of the most extraordinary films to have come out of America during the war. It is also notable for being the only Hollywood movie in which Elsa Lanchester, best known as The Bride of Frankenstein, had the lead part and top billing. She plays a cockney charlady who is convinced she's protected by a "lucky charm" once owned by her late husband (cut to a photo of Charles Laughton) and is resolved to assassinate Hitler. During the London blitz, armed only with her bucket and a mop, she stows away on a ship across the English Channel and proceeds to scrub her way across Occupied Europe by pretending to be deaf and dumb. She lands up in Hitler's HQ in Berlin where language problems are solved by all the 'bad' Germans speaking English with funny guttural accents! Elsa gets a job as a cleaner in Hitler's office but he's out at the time so she delivers a propaganda-like speech to his empty chair. Some 'good' Germans opposed to Hitler (they all speak English with American accents) whisk Elsa back to England in a stolen plane. She is hailed as a heroine only to discover that the "lucky charm" she took with her was part of a job-lot of glass eyes! An absolutely priceless movie, and one which at the end is dedicated to the fighting US forces overseas. One can only wonder what they made of it.
Down River (1931)
Smuggling melodrama with River Thames background
Early British talkie (some scenes are "silent" and others have "synchronised sound" added) in which Charles Laughton plays a murderous half-Dutch, half-oriental skipper involved in dope-trafficking. A girl reporter (Jane Baxter) investigating his activities is discovered and held captive by Laughton but saved in the nick of time by her Customs Officer fiancée (Harold Huth). There are some hectic fights between Laughton's ship's crew and the police which are somewhat speeded up in the Keystone Cops manner. Laughton's make-up is suitably oriental in appearance though he's never too sure of his Dutch accent. A contemporary review wrote: "Thick-ear melodrama, excellent Thames-side background, good schoolboy stuff."