Wednesday 23 September 2009

Lady with Red Hair (1940)

Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Star: Miriam Hopkins

Mrs Leslie Carter is getting divorced, which would be nothing to speak at today, but this is 1889 and ethics and morals were a little different back then. She had married into riches in 1880 but seven years later sought a divorce on grounds of 'physical assault and abandonment'. The tables are quickly turned though. Her husband names a correspondent and Mrs Carter herself plays into his hands with a string of theatrical outbursts in the courtroom, so many months later she finds herself on the losing side, Chicago society turned against her as an adultress and a prohibition against seeing her son Dudley any more than once every two weeks, at Miss Humbert's School for Young Boys & Girls.

While she's far from poor she doesn't have the money to fight her rich husband on appeal, so she heads off to New York to raise the funds by becoming an actress. After all everyone's been suggesting that she's something of an actress all through the court case and she's played by Miriam Hopkins, so it can't be too hard. She has plenty of arrogance and presumption and while she moves into a theatrical boarding house full of struggling actors, he's blissfully happy to start at the top. She walks into no less a theatrical producer's office than that of David Belasco with a letter of reference expecting him to write a play for her. Needless to say it takes a little longer than that, especially as Belasco gives Claude Rains plenty of opportunity to demonstrate his talents, but she makes it. It takes her two years to get back to play Chicago where she conquers the boos and hisses and achieves everything except to win her son back.

This is based on a true story, adapted from the real Mrs Leslie Carter's memoirs and a story called Portrait of a Lady with Red Hair. However being Hollywood it doesn't bear a heck of a lot of resemblance to reality. Half the film ties to Mrs Carter's attempts to make the money to fight for her son who the courts and society have effectively taken from her, but in reality he chose to live with his mother right after the trial and was thus written out of his father's will. There's a struggle to make Belasco notice her, though in real life he was struck from the moment he met her. Then she has to learn to act though apparently the first thing Belasco noticed was her poise. When she finally marries again, it's to Lou Payne, a failed actor who leaves for a career in the stock companies as she prepares for success in New York. She did marry him in real life, but he was hardly relegated to the minor stages, having played opposite her often enough as his leading man.

It's almost easy to overlook Hollywood departures from the truth when making biopics because once you've seen enough of them, you don't expect the truth because it's so rare that its presence is more surprising than its absence. What mattered were the performances and the scenes, Hollywood paying a lot of attention to Samuel Goldwyn's famous line about a good film having three good scenes and no bad ones. This has a number of good scenes, mostly through good performances. The best has Claude Rains flouncing about outside the theatre on the first night of her second play, the one that succeeds and makes her a star. While he knows precisely how his players should act and drives them ruthlessly to get there, he's utterly terrified of walking out onto the stage himself and he's full of pessimism about whether the applause is real or just politeness.

While Claude Rains could never just be a supporting actor and he's excellent here in yet another hairstyle and with some powerfully bold eyebrows, this film belongs to Miriam Hopkins as the lead. There are some sharp supporting turns to help her. Mona Barrie is a deliciously polite yet vicious society lady who causes Mrs Carter so much trouble in Chicago. Helen Westley is even better as the proprietress of the theatrical boarding house Mrs Carter finds in New York. Richard Ainley and Laura Hope Crews are decent but mostly just there. The film doesn't do much more than that, telling the story of its leading character with capability but not too much style. 'David Belasco can make an actress out of a telegraph pole,' says David Belasco, a real producer with a talent for making hits. I wonder what he'd have done with this film.

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