Saturday 9 August 2008

Emma (1932)

Surprisingly this isn't an Emma based on the Jane Austen novel, unlike what seems like all the other films out there called Emma. This one is from a story by Frances Marion, one of the greatest screenwriters of the classic era, whether you choose to throw the additional and completely necessary word 'female' in there or not. It's a vehicle for Marie Dressler, one of the more unlikely yet most talented stars of the early sound era, for whom Marion had written Min and Bill a year earlier, the film that brought her a well deserved Oscar. She was nominated here too, which was again very much deserved. This is an underrated gem.

Needless to say, Dressler is Emma, and she works in the household of inventor Fred Smith, played by Jean Hersholt. Smith has plenty of kids and as the film begins he gains another one but loses a wife at the same time. Emma is the nurse who brings Ronnie into the world and many years later, when Smith's inventions have made him rich Emma has 32 years behind her as the unofficial matriarch of the family. She's really the housekeeper and the nanny and whatever other titles a highly trusted servant carries. However she's also effectively run the family as well as the household and when she finally takes a holiday, the first in those 32 years, Smith finally proposes and so Niagara Falls changes from a holiday into a honeymoon.

Ronnie is delighted. 'They should have done it years ago!' he says, but the other kids disagree. While he has his head firmly attached to his shoulders the others have gotten spoiled and greedy with the family's wealth. Izzy Smith, now Countess Isabel Smith Marlin, can only think of the headlines. 'Think of the position!' she spits. So when Smith dies, probably after overtaxing his weak heart while rowing in Niagara Falls, he leaves the estate to her and the ungrateful kids take Emma to court for murder. Only Ronnie would be on her side but he's in Alaska hunting bear and she's in a New York courtroom.

Like most people, I imagine, I've been a Marie Dressler fan ever since I first saw one of her films. She is hardly what anyone would expect as a box office draw: in 1932 she was a notably overweight 64 year old who looked like the back end of a battleship. Yet she was such a good actress, such a natural talent and someone who brought such an innate depth of decency to her characters without ever seeming to try, that she was named the top box office actress for thee straight years at the peak of the precodes. She dominates here, partly because the film is totally about her, partly because she's hardly off screen and partly because she's just so damn good at playing this sort of role.

In fact she dominates so much that sometimes it's hard to realise that there are other people in the film. Her employer turned husband is Jean Hersholt, a Dane who had been in film even longer than Dressler, and she was top billed over Charlie Chaplin in the first feature length comedy ever made, Tillie's Punctured Romance. He doesn't get to do much, like most of the kids, even though they include some major actors. Gypsy Smith is Barbara Kent, who had a short but notable film career with such highlights as Flesh and the Devil with Greta Garbo and Welcome Danger with Harold Lloyd. Bill Smith is George Meeker, prolific screen bad guy. Most notably of all, Izzy Smith is Myrna Loy, escaping from her exotic era to play a spoiled brat. It would be another two years before The Thin Man and the real start of a legend. In this company Kathryn Crawford as Sue Smith just faded into the background.

The kid that impressed me most was Ronnie, perhaps partly because he was the one decent one of the bunch and who went against everyone else's grain. He's played dynamically by Richard Cromwell, who reminds a little in different ways of Wil Wheaton and Franchot Tone. He's very likeable, calling Emma 'beautiful' all the time and somehow making us feel that he means it, if not in a physical way, but it would appear that this may be his best role. He started big as an actor after a brief career as an artist to the stars, but gradually faded away into B movies and obscurity. He's probably best known today for being Angela Lansbury's first husband.

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