Friday 19 June 2009

The Canterville Ghost (1944)

Director: Jules Dassin
Stars: Charles Laughton, Robert Young and Margaret O'Brien

Sir Simon de Canterville was killed in 1634 at the end of a bizarre affair that leaves him walled up in an alcove in Canterville Castle by his father for cowardice. You see, his brother Anthony marries Sir Valentine's fiancee and naturally Sir Valentine demands satisfaction. But Anthony substitutes his brother, Sir Simon, and Sir Valentine substitutes Bold Sir Guy and Bold Sir Guy is played by Tor Johnson, so Sir Simon runs away and hides. You can hardly blame him, but it's not something his honourable father can accept so Sir Simon ends up dead.

Fast forward three hundred years and he's now apparently one of the most fearsome of the famous ghosts of England, who emerges from his tomb every night on the stroke of midnight in search of a kinsman willing to perform a brave act on his behalf. He's also a theatrically cowardly soul with an outrageous moustache who Oscar Wilde didn't write specifically for Charles Laughton. However were the years right such a suggestion would ring true because this is casting at the most inspired level and the ghost may be the closest thing this film has to Wilde's original story.

We're quickly introduced to the modern day cast of characters. The family has moved out of Canterville Castle but lives nearby and in time of war has let the castle to a visiting troop of American soldiers. Needless to say they meet the ghost at midnight on their first night in residence and so get no sleep, but at the instigation of young Private Cuffy Williams they soon take their revenge and chase him up the chimney. After all, while he may be a fearful ghost, he's still a coward at heart. And it would hardly be a shock to reveal that Private Cuffy Williams is, unbenownst even to himself, a Canterville and the potential solution to everything.

The link between the two is the present day Lady Jessica de Canterville who is eager to fulfil her duty as a gracious host, even though she's only six years old. Now this isn't a tiny throwaway role for a cutesy six your old, it's a critical one and in the hands of Margaret O'Brien, the demands of the part are fulfilled joyously. In fact it's often hard to notice anyone else when she's taking over the screen, from the amazing dancing scene in which she simply lets her dancing partner dance around her to her recounting of family history with all its corpse snatchers, gibbering idiots and bloodsuckers. She was seven when she made this film but was already an experienced actress with eight previous films behind her including Jane Eyre.

With Laughton and Margaret O'Brien as two of the three leads, that leaves the third with a major task on his hands. Luckily he's played by Robert Young, best known today as TV's Marcus Welby, MD but a leading man of the thirties and forties. He's also tasked with fleshing out his character with the biggest depth of all of them. Sir Simon is a coward, pure and simple, just as Lady Jessica is brave. Yet Cuffy Williams begins brave, discovers his cowardice along with his ancestry, only to have to rediscover his bravery. With such potential for the part, Young isn't bad, but he can't keep up with his co-stars.

Unlike anything I've seen since perhaps Ray Dennis Steckler's Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, this is a film with a split personality. Apparently the original director Norman Z McLeod departed after 38 days, to be replaced by the credited director Jules Dassin. Now I have precisely no idea how long the shoot was and thus how much each director made and I have precisely no idea which director filmed which scenes, so I don't even know if this is the cause for the cinematic schizophrenia, especially as both directors were capable souls.

I've seen many of McLeod's movies, which tend to be OK to good with a couple above that like The Bachelor Father and After Office Hours, and even though his Strange Interlude is one of the worst films I've ever seen, that really wasn't his fault. I've seen a good deal of Dassin's too, which range from OK up to wonderful classics, like Rififi and The Naked City. It's really the writing that's the problem and there only seems to be one writer, Edwin Blum. Perhaps the good stuff is based closely on Wilde's story and the bad stuff is where it departs into Blum's imagination.

The film begins as a curiosity and progresses quickly into being a joy to behold. The first half stands up against any children's classic you could care to mention: it looks great in every regard, the acting is charismatic and the dialogue is blissful. I laughed aloud and wondered how I could have missed seeing such an amazing film when I was young. And then halfway through, it all falls apart. The tightly plotted and charactered setup is forgotten entirely, and the whole thing turns into a set of plot holes that just build onto each other until there's nothing left but plot hole.

To say that this is disappointing is an understatement. It's still worth watching for Laughton and O'Brien, but they get less to do and there's less and less point to what they do too. We focus more on Robert Young, who is less watchable anyway but gets thrown into completely idiotic situations where he has to forget about his character development and turn into a clown. From laughing aloud at how joyous the whole thing was, I started laughing aloud at how awful it was. The laws of physics and geography are torn up, wonderful character actors like Una O'Connor are ignored utterly and there's really nothing left for the second half except young Lady de Canterville kicking a Nazi bomb until it starts ticking. Given how much joy the first half of the film brought, that thought is painful.

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