Sunday, August 14, 2011

THAT FORSYTE WOMAN (MGM 1949) Warner Archive Collection

Based on John Galsworthy's first novel in the Forysyte Saga, entitled 'A Man of Property', director Compton Bennett's That Forsyte Woman (1949) is a rather stodgy romantic melodrama with plenty of solid performances and some truly stunning costume design to recommend it. The screenplay by Jan Lustig, Ivan Tors, James B. Williams and Arthur Wimperis has the monumental task of condensing the novel's sprawling narrative into a 93 minute movie. For the most part the exercise is successful.
Far less convincing is the ensemble of stars MGM has gathered for the outing, many who refuse to adopt or even attempt to retrieve a British flare for the material, thereby Americanizing the flavor of the piece - occasionally to its own detriment. The film is essentially a lover's triangle concerning impoverished piano teacher Irene (Greer Garson) who is besought by one marriage proposal after another from wealthy English gentleman, Soames Forsyte (Errol Flynn). Irene does not love Soames and informs him of this lacking repeatedly.
But it does her no good. Soames is a man of property whose insatiable desire to possess Irene is really all that matters to him. Eventually, Soames wears Irene's resolve down and she agrees to marry him. He makes her a comfortable home and affords her all the luxuries of a lady. But he is often cruel in his chastisements and makes Irene ever aware that the family has reluctantly accepted her as one of them. Initially, Soames' infatuation was condemned by the rest of the Forsyte clan - all except aged Uncle Jolyon (Harry Davenport). Meanwhile, in another part of London the family's prodigal son, Jolyon Jr. (Walter Pigeon) is making his living as a struggling artist after being ostracized by the family. Jolyon Jr.'s wife was also judged as unsuitable by the clan. But their daughter, June (Janet Leigh) has been accepted into the fold for some time.
It is June's friendship with Irene that will eventually tear the family apart. But not yet. Right now June has become involved with a struggling architect, Philip Bossinney (Robert Young) who is openly critical of the hoi polloi. He sees the Foryte family and its wealth as a cancer on the aristocracy. Unhappy chance that in introducing Philip to Irene the two fall madly in love just as Soames' marriage to Irene is crumbling. Soames is a cruel man, heartless in his pretensions. Although he professes to love Irene he really is only obsessed with her and seeks to keep her a prisoner in his own home. At June's insistence Soames commissions Philip to build him and Irene a country estate. But as Irene's feelings for Philip become more obvious June begins to suspect that she is losing the only man she ever really loved.
After discovering the truth about Irene and Philip, June sends Soames a letter exposing the lovers. Feeling guilty, June reunites with her estranged father to confess her wickedness. Philip rushes to Irene's aid but is struck and killed by a carriage while crossing the foggy streets of London. Soames returns to beg for reconciliation with Irene. But she has already decided to divorce him and marry Joylon Jr. instead. The story ends in a gallery in Paris where Soames is admiring a portrait painted by Joylon of Irene. Still obsessed with Irene, Soames offers the gallery owner to buy it, whatever the cost but is told that the painting is not for sale. After some disagreement, Irene quietly instructs the gallery owner to send the painting to Soames, telling Joylon "He has so very little and we have so much."
That Forsyte Woman is a fine literary adaptation brought to the big screen with most of its harrowing plot points intact. Regrettably, the film is shot entirely on the MGM back lot and even more regrettably, on sound stages masquerading as exterior locations. Soames and Irene's trek into the country to oversee the location where their new home is to be built is so obvious in all its paper mache and cardboard cut outs that the uncanny effect is very much like observing a moving tableau of waxworks. Daniel B. Cathcart and Cedric Gibbons art direction is otherwise quite superb at typifying the claustrophobic bric a brac of turn of the century England. If only the actors in front of it had put half as much effort in pretending to be British the film might have retained a more traditional flavor.
Errol Flynn, more mature and looking every bit embittered and obsessive is remarkably good as Soames. His performance is the standout. Greer Garson is almost as good. The enduring on screen chemistry she has with co-star Walter Pigeon from their other MGM outings makes the resolution of her running away with Joylon believable. The last notable performance in the film belongs to 77 year old Harry Davenport - a stalwart of his profession who died that same year.
Most problematic are Robert Young and Janet Leigh, neither adopting a British accent nor seemingly any depth at all in their respective roles. They are wholly unbelievable in their performances. One wonders why Irene would prefer Philip to Soames. Her husband may be heartless, but he is infinitely more interesting in his behavior and far less wooden in his mannerisms. As with most vintage MGM melodramas, the good outweighs the bad. That Forsyte Woman is no exception. Compton Bennett's direction is fairly solid, if occasionally stilted. Bronislau Kaper's musical underscoring is first rate, as is Joseph Ruttenberg's lush cinematography. If the film is remembered today, then it is for these virtues rather than its vices. That Forsyte Woman is definitely worth a second look.
This is another Warner Archive MOD DVD offering and one deserving of a better transfer hopefully in the near future. The 3 strip Technicolor has retained a remarkable amount of its original brilliance. But the image is suffering from the first obvious signs of vinegar syndrome. The entire transfer has adopted a slightly reddish/orange hue. This is not as bad as it sounds but, from a preservationist's perspective - it's hardly a good thing either!
Nevertheless, colors are mostly accurate if a tad too warm. The other shortcoming in this transfer is its barrage of age related artifacts. These are prevalent throughout and occasionally quite distracting. There's a lot of grit and dirt present. At times contrast levels appear ever so slightly boosted. The audio is mono as originally recorded but invariably suffers from hiss and pop. Otherwise it isn't too much of a strain on the ears. Like most of the early Warner Archive titles this one comes with NO extras!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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