Monday, February 17, 2014

BELOVED INFIDEL: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1959) Twilight Time

How turgidly bland can a failed romance be? Perhaps we ought to consult English-born nationally syndicated gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham whose vapid little tidbits, rumors and innuendos about Hollywood’s hoi poloi made her something of a media pariah equally loathed and feared in her own time. It’s often said that fate doesn’t give us what we want, but rather what we deserve. Thus, this maven of the lurid byline was to experience something of her own sour-tasting grapes when she began a fairly public liaison with F. Scott Fitzgerald; considered something of a sell-out and has-been in both pop entertainment and great literature by the time Graham entered those dark and unflattering later years of this once-celebrated author’s private life.
These often sad – rather than sordid – details about the couple’s love decaying under turbulent times became the inspiration for Beloved Infidel: The Education of a Woman, first published by Graham in 1958. If only director Henry King had been as inspired to transform Graham’s autobiographical account into something greater than syrupy goo; yet another variation on 2oth Century-Fox’s warhorse formula – churned out melodrama in Cinemascope - then Beloved Infidel (1959) might have arisen into the ranks of the studio’s other moonlit molasses. Regrettably, Sy Bartlett’s screenplay can never make up its mind whether it wants to be a Peyton Place (1957) or An Affair to Remember (1957) and, as such, becomes a muddled mishmash of both, lacking the dramatic impetus of either – or even something vaguely reminiscent of Graham’s biographical portrait, caught instead in the whirlpool of forgettable nothingness; overwrought with garish sentiment and overplayed to the point of absurdity by its two stars – Gregory Peck and Deborah Kerr. 
Peck’s F. Scott Fitzgerald is morose and insipid; a one-time literary giant marginalized into premature obsolescence. On the flipside is Sheila Graham, herein made the brittle shark with a poisoned pen; Deborah Kerr playing the celebrated scandalmonger with too much starch in her britches, but not enough guts to take a healthy spoonful of the same bitter medicine she liberally doles out in the columns.  These gross caricatures impact our allegiance to either character in the film. After all, why should we invest in a story about a forlorn writer turned Jekyll to Hyde monstrous when he drinks, and, his doyenne of dreck who is contented, seemingly only when she spews her clever barbs and vitriol in the tabloids? These aren’t beautiful people – at least, not as portrayed in the movie.
Worse, Sy Bartlett’s screenplay cannot make up its mind in which direction it is headed. The first third starts off as the story of this go-getter from Leeds; Graham coming to America after her failed engagement to an English aristocrat, Lord Donegall (John Sutton). Actually, the real Graham was married at the time (it lasted several years into her American tenure until she ultimately filed for divorce). The screenplays machinations mask Graham’s embarrassment over her lower middle class beginnings as Lily Shuel – the daughter of Ukrainian/Jewish émigrés who barely spoke English; both parents dead by the time Lil’ was six and placed in an orphanage. But this past comes tearfully tumbling out of Sheilah in a rather hammy confessional to Scott – on a beach with roaring surf, no less; the moment vaguely reminiscent of Kerr’s famously sultry pas deux with Burt Lancaster in From Here To Eternity (1953) but without any of the gravitas infused into that iconic romantic moment; Kerr’s ‘please don’t hate me because I’m not the person you thought I was’ protestations momentarily comforted by Peck’s meaningless, ‘I love you for who you are’ declaration, presumably meant as foreshadowing; that these are two very fractured people sunk to their comparative level of coexistence.  What a pair!  
Not all movies made at Fox in the 1950’s were ideally suited to the expansive Cinemascope frame. Arguably, Beloved Infidel might have been more effective as a B-budget, B&W programmer shot in the standard Academy ratio of 1.33:1. Instead, we get the vast lay of the land in widescreen and color; the California sunshine glistening off the surf in Malibu, or reconstituted under more controlled conditions of kilowatt stardust inside some rather cavernous, though nevertheless obvious indoor sets, unconvincingly mimicking the great outdoors. After some initial – and very feeble – attempts to ‘open up’ the action with a few choice exteriors – including some of the Fox back lot, even though there is no indication to suggest either Fitzgerald or Graham ever worked there – the movie settles into its’ showcase for some rather artificial sets created by art directors, Maurice Ransford and Lyle R. Wheeler; luminously photographed in DeLuxe color by Fox’s resident ‘crabby’ cameraman, Leon Shamroy. 
Regrettably, the artifice doesn’t serve the story well. Vast portions of the Cinemascope frame are left vacant of any action at all; Eli Benneche and Walter M. Scott’s re-envisioned California-chic leaving much to be desired. Shamroy is an accomplished artist in his field. So it’s rather odd to see all of the action herein staged and photographed flat and head-on, the camera maintaining its distance from the actors and thereby diffused of any intimacy. Most every scene is done in a very static two shot moving tableau; the actors hitting some fairly obvious marks before becoming locked in each other’s embrace or exiting the room separately in a huff. It just doesn’t work.
The greatest flaw of Beloved Infidel is, of course, its script: desiring to say a lot more, perhaps, but never quite getting around to providing anything beyond the most threadbare deconstruction of either character’s motives or purpose. The movie just drags, and drags, and drags some more; Peck woefully miscast as the unremarkable dead pan grand disappointment of the literary scene, forced into the more lucrative screenwriting profession to pay for his wife, Zelda’s institutionalization – after her nervous breakdown – and his daughter’s expensive education abroad, but unable to successfully morph his poetic writing style into the commercial crassness of the movies. Scott’s muse has left him. But then he rediscovers it in Graham – God only knows how or why? Sy Barrett’s screenplay takes far too long to get their love affair off the ground. Instead, we have a lengthy prologue of farewells – Lord Donegall bidding his British fiancée bon voyage as she sails to New York aboard the Queen Mary (actual stock footage of the famed luxury liner unpersuasively cut into newly filmed shots of Kerr waving from the same manufactured decks of a set built on the Fox back lot for An Affair to Remember).  
From here, we regress to something of a backstory as to how Graham became the toast of tainted gossip. Here too, Barrett’s screenplay muddles the truth. Graham was already a successful columnist writing tawdry tidbits for the New York Mirror and New York Journal American by the time she met John Neville Wheeler (Philip Ober) the head of the North American Newspaper Alliance. In the film, it’s Wheeler who gets Graham her first job at the Mirror, then doggedly strives to land her more high-profile writing gigs – presumably because he recognizes her style - eventually convincing his most infamous columnist to move out to Hollywood and embark on a competitive course with the already entrenched gargoyles working in print and on the radio – Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. Newly arrived in this land of movie stars, Graham is already considered something of a pariah; the majors plotting her ban from their back lots until Stan Harris (Herbert Rudley), the seemingly benevolent mogul of an undisclosed studio, allows Graham free access to his roster of talent; a decision that does not bode well with rising star, Janet Pierce (Karin Booth) who, earlier, was the subject of a rather unsavory back-stabber penned by Graham.
To further ease Graham into Hollywood society, Harris throws a chichi ‘who’s who’ dinner party at his home, also attended by F. Scott Fitzgerald whom everyone simply refers to as ‘Scott’. It is one of the misfires in Sy Barrett’s screenplay that name-dropping of the rich and famous (from Garbo to Jack {presumably Warner} and Eddie Cantor, Sam Goldwyn, et al), is substituted for glimpses of the real thing. None of the aforementioned (or anyone of notoriety for that matter) ever appears in the film - even in cameo; the whole atmosphere of this supposed true story about Hollywood existing in a sort of alternate reality to the movie-making capital’s already life-sized mythologies being told about itself. We even get Eddie Albert, doing a wickedly transparent take on famed comedian Robert Benchley, shooting one of those goofy Metro shorts, only herein presumably being made for the movie’s own undisclosed studio where all of our action is taking place.
Graham’s big break almost breaks her; the stars railing against her sadistic wit; Wheeler flying out to the coast to suggest that if she doesn’t dial back her acidic assaults on the high and mighty she’ll lose what toe-hold she has in the industry and instead become its’ laughing joke. Pouting into her pillow, Graham’s pride gets a much needed shot in the arm when Scott telephones her for a proposed weekend in Tijuana. This escape from the artificiality of Hollywood might have served to cement the movie’s burgeoning love between Scott and Graham. Instead, we’re given a comically bad travelogue – snippets from a coming attraction never to come – the couple returning home after their brief respite, each renewed of mind, body and spirit as they once more sink into the mire that is the reality of their lives. Reality can be very unsatisfying. The famous are not immune to the mundane.
Thus, Graham’s foray into radio is a disaster. Scott reads in the paper that the Pasadena Playhouse is putting on a play adapted from one of his minor works and elects to cheer his gal pal up by taking her out for a night on the town. Regrettably, the pair discovers that the play is actually being put on by a small group of students from the nearby high school to a crowd of their peers, one of them callously remarking they thought F. Scott Fitzgerald was dead. Wounded pride is one thing. But when Scott is informed by Stan he’s being let go from the studio because his writing has no spark of genius for the visual media, Scott goes on a bender that embarrasses Graham. In a plot development that might have been torn from the pages of Moss Hart’s more competently understated alcoholic suffrage in A Star is Born (1954), we observe Scott and Graham having their first tiff, then a frustratingly silly falling out over his accosting a loyal fan aboard an airplane.
Graham and Scott fly to Chicago to convince the radio network to give Sheilah another chance. After all, her initial nervousness was a fluke. She can helm a radio program to draw in the ratings and advertising dollars. Regrettably, Scott’s chronic inebriation gets the better of Graham who flubs her lines and blows her chances once more. Back in California, Scott forsakes the bottle – momentarily – pouring his concentrations into a new novel at the Malibu cottage Graham has rented to keep her man sober and happy. Scott sends off sample chapters to his publisher, believing he has made a fresh start of things, only to receive a crushing letter of rejection as his reply. More boozing; this time with a pair of loose-tongued, middle-aged riffraff, whom Graham orders out of the house, thereby embarrassing Scott and incurring his wrath. The mood turns ugly between the two, then violent, as Scott vows to get his pistol and shoot Graham dead. He gives her a few light smacks, then wrestles with her for the gun until Graham - deflated but still angry - tells him to go ahead and shoot because he’d be doing them both a favor.
Scott comes to his senses and tries to make a mends by going the clean and sober route once more – this time, for good. Regrettably, Graham cannot bring herself to believe in the man she once loved, forcing Scott to quietly stalk her with repeat phone calls. He even breaks into the house they once shared while Graham is away at the studio, leaving her a bouquet of flowers and a crushing mash letter surrendering his undying love.  Oh, beloved infidel, the magic those prose can work on a woman’s heart. Graham agrees to go out on a date with Scott. Then another. Then…well…it’s back to basics, Scott moving in with Graham to finish what will ultimately be his last novel.
When Graham gets an invitation to screen a musical at Fox, Scott elects to attend as her date. But something is terribly wrong; Scott experiencing crushing pain in his chest, and sudden weakness in his limbs. Graham devotedly ushers Scott out of the auditorium and into their car, tending to his every need while he takes things easy for a few days. Upon learning of the outbreak of WWII, Scott vows to one day take Graham back to the Europe he once knew. Alas, it’s not to be. He collapses a few moments later, his head striking his typewriter and then the floor. A hysterical Graham rushes to a nearby neighbor’s for help but it’s too late. F. Scott Fitzgerald is dead. We regress to the beach, with Graham stirred to tears, then voice-over recollections of their time together, carrying with her these imperfect memories of their love affair as the screen ignites in lurid strains of Franz Waxman’s underscore and the song ‘Beloved Infidel’ – presumably meant to recapture the stirring final moments from Fox’s Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), though never reaching such melodramatic heights.    
Beloved Infidel is an abysmally slow and impossible dower movie to muddle through. It’s difficult, if not entirely impossible for the audience to invest themselves in the characters as written; the screenplay becoming increasingly episodic by its third act – tripping over the details in Graham’s book with not so subtle lapses in time and lack of tact that effectively neuter the story of virtually all its personalized integrity.  It is as though director Henry King has resigned himself to delivering nothing better than a patch job; his vignettes loosely strung together by a rapid series of dissolves and intermittent fades to black. The entire enterprise suffers from the bloating malaise of Cinemascope, or perhaps an all-pervasive ennui and mendacity to either its’ real-life flesh and blood counterparts and/or Graham’s autobiographical account of them.  
Gregory Peck and Deborah Kerr fail to generate sparks of excitement. She’s too uppity and high-strung. He’s too glum and laid back. It doesn’t work – none of it – and the result is a colossal disappointment for those expecting another of those lush and lovely escapist fantasy romances 2oth Century-Fox was justly famous for throughout the 1950’s. Alas, Beloved Infidel isn’t one of them; not even a second-tier contender.
Second-tier is a good way of describing this middling hi-def transfer from Fox, given third party limited distribution through Twilight Time. After releasing some fairly amazing early restoration and remastering efforts through this home video boutique label (Désirée 1954 and The Egyptian 1954, Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing 1955 immediately come to mind) Fox has fallen back on giving us whatever quality these films currently exist in with minimal (if any) clean-up and color balancing applied. Beloved Infidel doesn’t look particularly bad; although, on the flip-side, it lacks the razor-sharp precision of these aforementioned efforts; with weaker than expected colors and contrast; film grain not very accurately represented and with minor age-related imperfections factored in. There also appears to be a hint of vinegar syndrome creeping in; the beach scenes suffering from a slightly purplish/yellow tint.
In the past I’ve been something of a proponent for the studios’ doing right by their vintage catalogue; meaning that if a movie is good enough to be considered a contender for the 1080p treatment, then it should get the full Monty, so to speak. In Beloved Infidel’s case, I’m not all that upset Fox didn’t go the extra mile. The movie is hardly worth the effort, perhaps. I still think all the studios ought to be more invested in the preservation of their own back catalogues. Yeah…right…in a perfect world.  But with Beloved Infidel I’m not all that surprised the effort wasn’t made. The DTS 5.1 audio fairs better; very lush and vibrant – as is the isolated track dedicated to Franz Waxman’s gushingly romanticized underscore. As ever, noted historian Julie Kirgo gives us some good solid critiquing of the movie’s gestation in her exemplary liner notes.  Bottom line: recommended only to those who absolutely adore this movie.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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