Thursday 10 May 2007

A Woman Rebels (1936) Mark Sandrich

In late Victorian England women very much had their place, but anyone played by Katharine Hepburn isn't likely to pay much attention to that sort of nonsense. She's Pamela Thistlewaite, known as Pam, and she's the daughter of Judge Byron Thistlewaite, played by no less a martinet than Donald Crisp. She doesn't buy into all the nonsense written down in Mrs Ellis's Daughters of England that describes everything that women should be, and prefers to sneak down the library at night to read and learn.

Her sister Flora is far more traditional in her beliefs and happily falls in love with someone suitable to her father, even though he's played by David Manners five years after Dracula and in his last film to boot. While the Judge tries to marry Pam off too, she won't even think of it and enjoys liaisons with a young gentleman of her own choice at Madame Tussaud's, who of course happens to be as much of a black sheep as she is. He's Van Heflin, playing the future Lord Gerald Waring Gaythorne, who apparently married some woman in Paris on a drunken spree and hadn't told her about it.

I'm sure that in 1936 this felt much more appropriate than it does today. After all women's suffrage had become a serious issue to consider and women were, shock horror, starting to make all sorts of decisions for themselves. In the 21st century, such things thankfully aren't even an issue any more and Mrs Ellis is completely forgotten. Unfortunately it also means that films like this don't have a lot of relevance because the story is complete melodrama and serves only to tell us a message that's seventy years out of date.

We should be shocked yet quietly led to thought by the story. Flora falls down a staircase and dies, while heavily pregnant, after hearing of the death of her husband. The baby survives and Pamela brings her up, completely logical yet horrendously unthinkable. She plans to live alone and work and all sorts of bizarre concepts, but of course having a girl as a secretary would make a company a laughing stock and a girl as a sales assistant in a shop would alienate the customers.

She does impress Thomas Lane though, a member of the diplomatic service played by Herbert Marshall, who thinks she's 'honest, forthright, independent', hardly womanly virtues in the 1880s. He's forthright and independent enough himself to be interested, but just as she finds herself a position, at a magazine called the Women's Weekly Companion, even though it's a dangerous precedent, he's posted back to Rome.

It's about at this point that everything completely loses its way. Up until now it's been a solid film with promise, but the script falls apart rapidly. We leap forward twenty years, so young Flora grows up but Pamela doesn't age, resulting in a niece who looks older than her aunt; we're given a revelation about Pamela that in one fell swoop makes her character entirely contradictory and strips away all the power it's been given; Herbert Marshall, while excellent, is granted precisely nothing to do so that he's completely wasted; the plot ignores where it had got to and becomes purely a soap opera; after the opening scenes, Pamela's father doesn't return until the end and proves that he hasn't learned a thing except to lose his nerve; and the finale is a complete joke.

None of this is the fault of the actors, who do their best with the material, and I don't think it's the fault of director Mark Sandrich, however much he's known for more fluffy material (this one came in between four Astaire/Rogers musicals, following Top Hat and Follow the Fleet and preceding Shall We Dance and Carefree). It's surely the fault of the people behind the story, though which carry the blame I have no clue. It was originally a novel, Portrait of a Rebel, by Netta Syrett; and it was turned into a screenplay by Anthony Veiller and Ernest Vajda.

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