Thursday 15 September 2016

Doctor Syn (1937)

Director: Roy William Neill
Writer: Roger Burford, from the novel by Russell Thorndike, with additional dialogue by Michael Hogan
Stars: George Arliss, Margaret Lockwood and John Loder

Alfred Hitchcock was hardly one to heap praise on his actors, whether or not his famous quote about actors being cattle was ever spoken or not. However, after working with Margaret Lockwood on The Lady Vanishes, he was highly complimentary of her talents. ‘She has an undoubted gift in expressing her beauty in terms of emotion,’ he told the press, ‘which is exceptionally well suited to the camera. Allied to this is the fact that she photographs more than normally easily, and has an extraordinary insight to get the feel of her lines, to live within them, so to speak, as long as the duration of the picture lasts.’ He was optimistic about her future as well, albeit in oddly paradoxical fashion: ‘It is not too much to expect that in Margaret Lockwood the British picture industry has a possibility of developing a star of hitherto un-anticipated possibilities.’ How an un-anticipated possibility could be thus anticipated, I have no idea but I’m not going to argue with the master, especially on what would have been Lockwood’s hundredth birthday.

To celebrate her career on such an auspicious day, I selected the first film adaptation of Russell Thorndike’s stories of the Kentish smuggler, Doctor Syn, made in 1937 by the British company, Gainsborough Pictures. Doctor Syn apparently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the thirties, the original novel of 1915 starting to generate sequels: two in 1935 and another in 1936, with three more following this film version. I picked it in part because it was a major stepping stone for Lockwood, who stepped in when Anna Lee dropped out and earned a three year contract with Gainsborough for her troubles, but also because it’s the last movie role for the fascinating actor, George Arliss, who was the first Briton to win an Academy Award and the first actor from anywhere to win for portraying a real person, Benjamin Disraeli. I’d like to see a lot more Arliss movies than I have, but two have especially remained with me over time for his performances in them: The Green Goddess and The Millionaire. He’s memorable here too.
Some might see this as a mystery, but they’ll be sorely disappointed because it’s pretty clear from moment one what’s going on. It is 1800 and the very first thing we see in Dymchurch is the gravestone of Captain Nathaniel Clegg, pirate, who was hanged at Rye. We pan up and jump into the church above it to discover a packed house with an eager warden taking collection. Imogene Clegg, the lovely young beauty played by Lockwood, is batting her eyelashes at Denis Cobtree across the aisle and J. Mipps, stone mason and coffin maker, is watching the surrounding area with a telescope from the bell tower. When he spies a detachment of revenue agents from the Royal Navy on their way, he rushes down to warn Dr. Syn, the local parson, who’s about to begin his sermon. The first thing that we wonder as we get underway is why everything seems to be about Captain Clegg when the movie’s title is Doctor Syn and the answer we give ourselves is the obvious one. When Hammer remade this in 1962 they called it Captain Clegg.

It’s pretty clear that Dymchurch is a hotbed of smugglers. While we never actually see any smuggling, we certainly see the things they’ve been smuggling and we watch them talking over them about whether to dump all this fancy French liquor into the sea or run the risk of being rumbled by Captain Howard Collyer and hanged. Nobody hides behind masks; we know who these people are and we watch them move through their secret passages and run rings around the investigators. This isn’t a mystery, it’s more like the origin story of a folk hero. Dr. Syn explains that half the population of Dymchurch was sick and poor when he arrived to begin organised smuggling; now there are neither and there’s a new schoolhouse to boot. If anything is clearer than that Dymchurch is ripe with smugglers, it’s that people are pretty happy about its effects and the continuation of those effects is placed into jeopardy by the extra man that Collyer brings along with his sailors.
He’s generally referred to as a mulatto, though Dr. Syn, hardly politically correct for all his benificent aura, calls him ‘yellow man’ at one point. He’s played by Meinhart Maur, a Hungarian actor active in Jewish theatre, who moved to England to escape the Nazi menace rising in Germany in the early thirties. This is hardly an opportunity for him to demonstrate his command of the English language, as his character had his tongue ripped out immediately before the film begins. We join it as he’s being tied to a tree on a South Sea island and left to die, the sign above his head declaring that this is what happens to those who betray Captain Clegg. For him to arrive in Dymchurch with the revenue agents is the one thing that really worries Dr. Syn, who naturally recognises him, as he’s really... no, I’m not going to give that spoiler even though it’s so obvious that anyone who misses it surely has to be kidding. Maur reminds of George ‘The Animal’ Steele and Tor Johnson. I presume he could act circles around them but not in this film.

If the stirring up of a smuggling town by revenue agents and the real risk of exposure of Dr. Syn’s former life isn’t enough, we get a few subplots to keep this 78 minute feature brisk. Imogene, the daughter of a notorious pirate (not that she apparently knows it) and Denis, the son of Sir Anthony Cobtree, the local squire, are madly in love but clearly from different classes so their future isn’t certain. The aptly-named Samuel Rash, the local schoolmaster, is madly in love with Imogene; he’s ready to have their banns read even though she can’t bear to be around him. In fact, Rash isn’t too popular with anyone, it seems. He butts heads with Dr. Syn on how to keep Collyer and his men away from their goods. One of his students, the unfortunately named Jerry Jerk, hates him with a passion and that leads to both tension and hilarity later on. When the film bogs down in the middle, it’s Graham Moffatt who picks it back up again as Jerry. Most of his films were with Will Hay, but this is a welcome exception.
Moffatt is just one of the actors who infuses this film with character. He may be too old and too big to be particularly believable as one of Mr. Rash’s students but he’s great fun, even when he’s not having conversations with himself. ‘Am I a liar?’ he asks himself for Dr. Syn late in the film. ‘Sometimes. But not now.’ He comes across like a too tall hobbit and I adored him. Muriel George plays Mrs. Waggetts, Jerry and Imogene’s boss at the Ship Inn, and she plays her so well that I recognised the character in at least half a dozen people I grew up with, even though I was born on the other side of the Thames. She doesn’t take lip from anyone, whether it be the kids working for her or the naval captain who’s searching her pub from top to bottom looking for illicit liquor. And then there’s Wilson Coleman, who plays the most unfortunately named character in a movie that includes sinful Dr. Syn, rash Mr. Rash and, well, Jerry Jerk. The latter has to shout ‘Dr. Pepper! Dr. Pepper!’ in the marshes but that’s only hilarious through hindsight.

There’s much to enjoy here, even if the mystery isn’t remotely mysterious. It played to me as a quintessential slice of the British equivalent of Americana. I don’t know if there’s a word for such a thing, but this is so British through and through that it’s easy to see why Talbot Rothwell parodied it so capably in Carry On Dick, one of the better instalments in a series that consistently speared British organisations and institutions. I knew that the title, double entendre aside, referred to highwayman Dick Turpin, another inappropriate British folk hero, but the story is clearly hijacked from Dr. Syn. Sid James merely plays a highwayman who happens to be masquerading as a parson rather than a... no, I still won’t spoil the obvious reveal. I’ll let Capt. Collyer do that when the time is right, because thankfully Roy Emerton is a jovial captain who isn’t quite as dumb as he makes himself out to be. He could easily have played this like the usual inept authority figure but he’s thankfully much more of a worthy character.
Everything here felt like home, with the British character emanating from the good folk and the bad. There’s great hospitality at the squire’s mansion, especially to the drunken doctor. There’s a thriving inn in the middle of town because everything revolves around it as much as the church. There’s organised sticking it to the tax man, which we accept because it’s generally used for the benefit of the people. The smugglers use secret passages, pretend to be marsh phantoms and switch signs around in what should feel dangerous but really feels like jolly good fun. Even the bosun’s bunions are somehow traditional. And, of course, young love surely makes any heart feel like it’s home. Margaret Lockwood and John Loder could have been given much more substance here but they’re both enjoyable to watch and at least the former gets more to do towards the end of the movie than in the build-up to it. Of course, above, behind and on top of everything in town is the title character, played by George Arliss.

I’ve been fascinated by Arliss ever since I saw The Millionaire, a 1931 pre-code that I watched for Jimmy Cagney but left as a fan of George Arliss. He’s an odd duck who doesn’t quite seem real. His head is too big for his body, which sometimes makes him appear to be a walking caricature, but we only laugh with him when he wants us to and we never laugh at him. He underplays for most of the film’s running time; he’s relentlessly calm, even when things aren’t going his way, and he lets others act around him and take the spotlight throughout. Yet we can’t stop watching him, because there’s a presence to him that’s impossible to miss. He’s always the most important person in the shot, whatever the scene and whatever he’s doing in it. As a man with a number of huge secrets, he’s the one who sits there and listens while others sit there and talk, but however quiet he gets and however close Capt. Collyer’s investigation gets, we never believe that he’s not in charge of the situation with a backup plan for his backup plan.
I like that this film marked the end of one career but the ascendance of another. Arliss had made 25 films over 17 years, playing an impressive array of historical figures, including Benjamin Disraeli, Alexander Hamilton, Voltaire, the Duke of Wellington and even Cardinal Richelieu, so many that his fictional characters like Dr. Syn feel as grounded in reality. Margaret Lockwood, however, had only been in film for four years and her most important pictures were still ahead of her: Bank Holiday and The Lady Vanishes in 1938 and, turning her persona upside down, The Man in Grey, The Wicked Lady and Bedelia in the forties. She did well in film, becoming the highest paid actress in British cinema in 1952, but she increasingly returned to the stage. 21 years after Cast a Dark Shadow, she was talked out of retirement for The Slipper and the Rose, a retelling of Cinderella that gave many big names a last hurrah, and even with only that one picture made in the last sixty years, she’s still well-remembered and well-respected today.

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