LOVE AMONG THE RUINS: Blu-ray (ABC Circle Films, 1975) Kino Lorber
A joyous meeting of two great thespians, George Cukor’s 1975 made-for-television dramady, Love Among the Ruins is a radiant, if nostalgic aide-mémoire of just how much has been lost to us with the passage of time, inevitably to inflict its withering on Hollywood’s golden age of inimitably great talents. Katharine Hepburn and Sir Laurence Olivier charm the angels down from the heavens as stalwart lovers from another bygone era in this absolutely absorbing exercise, reveling in the quaint absurdities of our cultural manners and mores. In an age where affectation means nothing, and, the very definition of social graces has been distilled into whether or not one is self-obsessed in the navel-gazing and maladroit art of ‘tweeting’, Love Among the Ruins reminds us of a different time – though, arguably, not a simpler one – as human beings have always been complex creatures of habit. But when one observes Hepburn and Olivier – two irrefutable artists in their respective mediums, aged – yes, but otherwise to have not lessened one iota in their level of craftsmanship – the resultant spectacle of their craft finely wrought together is an experience neither to be missed nor underappreciated. When in observation of these two, you really have ‘lived’ a moment, and, been given nothing less than the best Hollywood once had to offer.
By 1975, a story like Love Among the Ruins could no longer be conceived for theatrical release. Regrettably so, but quite simply, the audience was no longer there. Mercifully, they were willing to stay home and tune into this ABC Circle Films’ production for the BBC, making Love Among the Ruins one of the irrefutable high-water marks of the broadcast season. And herein we must pause, at least for a moment, to reconsider the ballast and cache that a ‘personality’ has to offer the cultural landscape of mass entertainment. While the argument can be made, Sir Larry Olivier was a great actor – first – his status as an unassailable dignitary of the film-actor’s profession arrived to second-best, Kate Hepburn was most unaffectedly and categorically a great ‘temperament’ – hand-crafted by the studios of yore, and, from a vintage in which such commodities – though unique unto themselves – were cultivated in Hollywood as ‘a dime a dozen.’ Yet even then – in 1975, with the bloom of youth long since turned to chalk, both actors remain in their prime. Real talent, you see, has absolutely nothing to do with the weathering of the façade through the years. And better still, both were very much in high demand – the indestructible Hepburn, having only recently won her 3rd Best Actress Academy Award for The Lion in Winter (1968), and, with one more yet to come her way, for On Golden Pond (1981), still a force to be reckoned with – on and off the screen. Arguably, Hepburn’s Teflon-coated reputation would remain intact until her death in 2003; a very – very – resilient lady to the end. As for Olivier, he had just put the finishing touches on ten iconic years at England’s National Theatre where he created or otherwise contributed to some of the most enduring incarnations of Shakespearean stagecraft in the ‘then’ modern age of live performance.
In Love Among the Ruins, Olivier is confirmed old bachelor and barrister, Sir Arthur Granville-Jones – ‘Grannie’ for short, whose services and cunning are very much sought out by Jessica Medlicott (Hepburn) – a wealthy socialite and one-time actress who, in her youth, seduced Arthur while on a theatrical tour in Toronto. He recalls those three absolutely blissful days through the rose-colored rubric of youthful folly, and, as pure escapist romance, whereas Jessica feigns absolutely no recollection of them at all. It ought to have been the beginnings of a life together. Instead, Jessica, fearful of poverty, fled from his arms, and into an arranged marriage to a prominent British businessman, very much her senior, and for some time now, deceased – leaving the widow Medlicott to her most recent folly – a dalliance with twenty-something opportunist, Alfred Pratt (Leigh Lawson). At present, Pratt is suing Jessica for ‘breach-of-promise’ as his expectations to marry her – presumably, strictly for her money (or rather, it and the estate of her late husband), have crushingly come to not. Reintroduced by her solicitor, George Druce (Richard Pearson), Sir Arthur is devastated when his initial investigation of Jessica’s memory appears to yield no such fond afterglows from their mutual past – even as afterthoughts.
Bitter, Arthur nevertheless takes on the case to defend Jessica against Pratt’s allegation. At trial, Pratt cleverly expounds upon the made-up tragedy of his wounded heart and pride, his enterprising mother, Fanny (Joan Sims), observing as her son spins a yarn of spurned love to the court. Council for the plaintiff, J. F. Divine (Colin Blakely) is intrigued by the turn of events, as even he can plainly see his arch rival, Sir Arthur, harbors certain lingering romantic aims towards his own client. These emotional attachments present a distinct conflict of interest, surely to muddle Sir Arthur’s good judgement and reason. Indeed, at intervals, Sir Arthur appears to doddle, drift and otherwise wander aimlessly through a collage of forgotten moments from his own past. At one point in his cross-examination of Jessica’s devoted housemaid, Hermione Davis (Gwen Nelson) Sir Arthur even appears to be working for the plaintiff – exposing the reluctant Davis’ ability to recall, almost a moment-by-moment account of the romantic overtures, encouraged up to a point by Jessica, to have since inspired Pratt to take up against her mistress. Instructing his client to dress ‘more discriminately’ as a woman of her years, in order to help influence the jury, Sir Arthur is disgusted when Jessica instead, defies him by attending the trial in outfits, increasingly to better reflect her ostentatious and devil-may-care attitudes about love – the epitome of her lavish absurdity, brought forth in a fire-engine red gown, trimmed in a plumage of white feathers and plush ivory boa. To counterbalance Jessica’s desperate pursuit of the specter of youth, Sir Arthur instructs the jury to reconsider his client for what she truly is – a brittle stick of kindling, barely recognizable as the voluptuary from his own youth, utterly shameless in her refusal to accept that the girl who once was has yielded to the old crone.
Outraged by Sir Arthur’s insinuations, and, the Judge’s (Robert Harris) total tolerance of this perverse line of interrogation, Jessica defies Sir Arthur with an outburst of her own. But this, instead, provokes her physical removal from the courtroom – carried out, literally, kicking and screaming to an adjacent antechamber. Well aware that, although the lawsuit itself is not unique, its circumstances - having been brought by the man against the woman – are, Sir Arthur now begins his deft summation, laying bare the particulars of the case: that Pratt, far from playing the jilted suitor, expects to be reimbursed £50,000 in damages, presumably to compensate for his wounded pride. In fact, he had no such intentions to wed the widow Medlicott, but rather extort as much money from her as possible – a plot to have backfired, since, now the matter is to be decided in a court of law. Having seemingly savaged his own client’s reputation to spare her the indignity of being considered a frivolous old fool by the prosecution, Sir Arthur now instructs the jury to remember what time does to all people – externally, at least, to steal their sex appeal, but otherwise, leave them with more than a trace of that fiery, headstrong desire from youth to be loved, alas, destined to remain unfulfilled in the passing parade. His eloquent summation strikes at the heart of the jury, who render a verdict in Jessica’s favor, thus casting Pratt and his mother out on their ear as penniless as when they first entered the courtroom.
In the post-trial assessment, Jessica quietly reveals to George she remembers almost every second she spent with Sir Arthur those many years ago in Toronto; that, when she encouraged George to hire him on her behalf, she did so, knowing he too would fondly recall those golden moments of yore, and thus be a passionate proponent in her defense. She furthermore confesses to Sir Arthur to never entirely have loved her late husband, whom she wed out of anxieties about being poor. Although she grew to greatly admire and respect this man – remaining his dutiful wife for 40-years, in the end, Jessica’s one true love has remained Sir Arthur Granville-Jones. In revealing the victory of Jessica’s verdict to her now, Sir Arthur is quietly startled when Jessica begins to account for the particulars with instant recall from their three passionate days spent together. Indeed, she remembers the entire weekend as though it had happened only yesterday. Arthur is immensely affected by her love and offers Jessica his hand. She lovingly accepts it in kind, the two exiting the courthouse and strolling down the lane, presumably to pick up where they left off.
As brilliantly scripted by Emmy Award-winning dramatist, James Costigan, Love Among the Ruins is the sort of unvarnished dramedy that, given to another cast, director, time and place, could so easily have devolved into a big heap of wordy, melodramatic tripe. The picture is, in fact ‘all-talking’, the bulk of its stately eloquence to be derived from the superb sparing between Oliver’s stoic lawyer, rummaging through the reminiscences from his youth with aggrieved tenderness, and Hepburn’s spry and caustic, razor-back unaffectedness, never anything less than authentic. Director George Cukor, who must emphatically be noted as the foremost proponent of such evenly paced cinema story-telling, is undeniably working with two of the greatest talents of the 20th century. Yet, Cukor’s contribution cannot be overstated – his expertise in drawing out the subtleties in their respective performances almost exclusively, sustains our admiration and interest in this sensitive tale of love reincarnated among these ruins. The reality of age, to have, with cruel generosity, afflicted not only the stars – whose ambient sparkle has otherwise not diminished – but also Cukor, who would die in 1983, after giving to the world a peerless catalog of filmed entertainments, among the offerings – though by no means a definitive filmography: 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement, 1933’s Dinner at Eight, and, Little Women, 1935’s David Copperfield, 1936’s Romeo and Juliet, and Camille, 1938’s Holiday, 1939’s The Women, 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, 1944’s Gaslight, 1949’s Adam’s Rib,1950’s Born Yesterday, 1952’s The Marrying Kind, and, Pat and Mike, 1954’s A Star Is Born, 1964’s My Fair Lady, and, 1981’s Rich and Famous (too many irrefutable masterpieces still MIA on Blu-ray!), has equally allowed Cukor a glimmer into that sobering clarity to re-examine love through lens of his own mortality, and, the results herein are bittersweet, mature, and, immensely gratifying.
While Kate ‘the great’ Hepburn cut her teeth on many a screwball from the mid-1930’s, Olivier’s métier was almost always assigned to intensely felt ‘serious’ roles. So, it is even more refreshing to discover each actor, reigned in and fine-tuned in their strengths to a finite precision, capably to reach common ground in Costigan’s witty dialogue, so impeccably evolved as to effortlessly toggle between candid responsiveness and an almost diaphanous comedic farce. Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography, John Barry’s tender score, Carmen Dillion’s art direction, and, Margaret Furse and Germinal Rangel’s costuming have all conspired to will a sumptuous period piece to life. But again, it remains Cukor’s ability to stage the action here with minimal intervention from the camera – cutting to a close-up, only when absolutely necessary, and allowing his actors their moments uninterrupted, with only the subtlest movement between characters within the frame, that makes Love Among the Ruins an absolutely sustainable and totally rewarding entertainment. These are intelligent craftsmen, functioning at the highest levels in performance. The results, are therefore, nothing less than splendid.
Interesting to reconsider what this movie would have been had Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the legendary toasts of live theater, accepted the opportunity to perform it on stage-bound sets – as it was originally planned. Mercifully, the pair dropped out and Love Among the Ruins was instead earmarked as a full-fledged ‘made-for-television’ movie, shot on location in London in a scant 6 weeks. The picture’s cache and caliber, in terms of star power and overall narrative perfection, easily bested most anything that came to the local movie houses in 1975. Indeed, the format, procured by ABC for their ‘film division’ and begun in 1969 as 90-min. ‘movies of the week’, was to morph into full-fledged, 2-hr. product with substantially higher budgets by the time Love Among the Ruins had its premiere. Sad too, to recall that the movie was punctuated by Olivier’s muscular disease, an affliction to gradually put a period to his career and life. As such, Love Among the Ruins remains the benefactor of seasoned pros, conceiving it, very much, as though it were still a period glam-bam, hewn from Hollywood’s golden era: built like a tank and given class plus, in front of and behind the camera.
Long overdue for rediscovery, Love Among the Ruins arrives on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber, properly framed in 1.66:1, and in a new 2K master that will surely not disappoint. While the color palette is subdued, and contrast occasionally falters – the image appearing a little too dark – much of what is here looks positively gorgeous. There are splashes of bold color – here and there – but most of the image is resolved in monochromatic tones of browns/beiges/blacks, with the intermittent burst of tangerine orange in the reflection of cloud-burst sunlight filtering through Sir Arthur’s windows, or Jessica’s ostentatious yellow Rolls-Royce, and, her even more daring red dress, offset by Fanny’s coral blue and pink ensemble. Fine details are rather nicely resolved in all, except for a handful, of scenes. Again, when contrast waffles and the image become slightly darker, we generally lose the preciseness of background detail for a moment or two. Nothing egregious. There are also no signs of age-related artifacts, though on two occasions, a curious moiré pattern briefly emerges. Enough said. Moving on. The DTS 1.0 mono is, of course, in keeping with the picture’s original intent – to be aired on primetime television in an era when sound-design was not an issue as stereo on the boob tube was not even an afterthought. As this is a dialogue-driven movie, ambient sounds are kept to a bare minimum. We lose nothing in this. Better still, Kino Lorber has shelled out for an audio commentary from Stephen Vagg that delves into a many-splendored history of both the production, its stars’ respective careers, and the premise of the title – the elegant poem written by Robert Browning in 1855, and, read in its entirely by Vagg. We also get several trailers for other product of a similar pedigree that Kino is peddling. Bottom line: Love Among the Ruins is a sublime effort by all concerned; an immensely satisfying valentine to that eternal perfection of first love – made whole, intangible and bittersweet by the ravages of time. What a sheer joy it remains today. Very – very – highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)