Saturday, July 02, 2016

The Great Garrick a.k.a. The Countess Takes A Ham by Paul F. Etcheverry

"A brilliant chess game of contrasting overblown acting styles, deliriously funny, with some of the best pasteboard period décor and most flavorsome character acting to be seen anywhere. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Paris Journal, 1974"

Today's post is our contribution to the Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies.

All weekend, classic movie fans shall be extending a respectful tip of a spectacular chapeau in glorious Technicolor to Olivia de Havilland, who celebrated her 100th birthday yesterday. Sight & Sound has devoted their July 2016 issue to her illustrious career.

Olivia’s the TCM Star Of The Month and with good reason - she starred in numerous unbeatable classic movies for Warner Brothers, some among the studio’s biggest box office smashes, others under-the-radar.

For the blogathon, we review a unique and funny historical romantic comedy, The Great Garrick, which, both for Miss de Havilland and director James Whale, remains in the second category. It is Olivia's eighth silver screen appearance and, regardless of billing (especially in re-releases), essentially a supporting role.

No doubt those audiences who flocked to theaters with the hopes of seeing the gorgeous and charismatic young maiden from the rousing Errol Flynn swashbucklers Captain Blood and The Charge Of The Light Brigade found it quite a disappointment that new star Olivia de Havilland did not make her first appearance in The Great Garrick until 39 minutes into the movie!

That's due to the fact that The Great Garrick, an adaptation of screenwriter Ernest Vajda's play Ladies and Gentlemen, is essentially a vehicle for British stage actor Brian Aherne, soon to be the hubby of Olivia's sister, Joan Fontaine, later in Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess and later still the author of A Dreadful Man - The Story of Hollywood's Most Original Cad, a biography of George Sanders.

Aherne stars in a very John Barrymore-ish self parodying role as an egocentric Shakespearian actor and is very much at the center of this film.

The supporting cast includes extremely talented character actors, led by the inimitable Edward Everett Horton and the diminutive Etienne Girardot. At times brilliant, The Great Garrick has moments of hilarity throughout.

The plot is based on a "what might have been" scenario involving celebrated 18th century actor and poet David Garrick (1717-1779); in other words, it didn't happen, but what the heck, maybe it could have.

Frankly, watching Aherne gently rib the art of shameless overacting playing "Hamlet - With Variations" in the opening scene gets this correspondent thinking of both the extremely funny Warner Bros. "Goofy Gophers" cartoon A Ham In A Role and Jon Lovitz as Master Thespian on Saturday Night Live (lo, 50 years after the production of The Great Garrick).

The star of London's acclaimed Drury Lane troupe, Garrick announces after his last performance of "Hamlet - With Variations" that he is leaving for Paris, where has been invited to be the special guest star performer with the Comédie-Française.

His loyal British audience is not thrilled at this news! They protest loudly ("YOU MEAN WE'RE NOT GOOD ENOUGH???") and hurl fruits and vegetables at him. The Great Garrick then offers to stay in London. An audience member in the capacity crowd yells that Garrick must be leaving town to teach the French how to act. This immediately catches like wildfire, leading to the entire London audience lustily shouting, TEACH THE FRENCH! TEACH THE FRENCH!

Alas, also in the audience: Beaumarchais, a most unamused Parisian playwright and Comédie-Française troupe member (portrayed with style and panache by Lionel Atwill).

The news gets back to Paris, causing outrage among the thespian community and the Comédie-Française. Not surprisingly, the enraged response from the besmirched acting community of Paris is "we'll teach that guy a lesson, all right." Soon enough, a hoax designed to humiliate The Great Garrick is on - and let the games begin!

The cunning plan, as if hatched by Baldrick in Blackadder: have the Comédie-Française troupe take over The Adam & Eve Inn that The Great Garrick and his long suffering valet "Tubby" (played to the hilt by the devastatingly funny Horton), shall stay in for one night - and then scare the living daylights out of both of them. While this is happening, a coach carrying Germaine Dupont, a young countess in England fleeing France and an arranged marriage, breaks down near the roadside inn.

Although wise to the Comédie-Française ruse immediately and playing along, totally convinced all the while that the countess is actually a not particularly good actress from the Parisian troupe, noted playboy Garrick is also quite genuinely taken with and charmed by her.

Complicating matters: the young and strikingly beautiful Countess de la Corbe is simply gaga over Garrick and knows his legend as England's most celebrated actor.

The hostile takeover of The Adam & Eve Inn by rampaging and out-of-control thespians means all Comédie-Française members on premises ham it up in the best/worst possible way while staging horrific episodes of roguery - including wild marital quarrels, shootings, swordfights, knife-brandishing loons, etc. not to mention wanton destruction of furniture and china - and inn-competence so grievous as to, hopefully, get "conceited popinjay" Garrick and manservant Tubby sprinting back to London.

It also means that The Great Garrick is squarely and resolutely in The Suspension Of Disbelief department, as there are no French actors in the movie. This is with the full understanding that the price tag for Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, Raymond Condy or Jean Dasté would have very likely been prohibitively high for Jack Warner and also that Maurice Chevalier would have turned the danged film into a musical.

So all Comédie-Française players speak like the English, the only one we could imagine as a Frenchman is Atwill, and not even Warner Brothers perennial Hugh Herbert is on hand to do the cheesy French accent he would employ in the 1938 musical Gold Diggers Of Paris.

With the two stars heading the cast, supported by such stalwart members of the Character Actors' Hall Of Fame as Horton, Melville Cooper and Luis Alberni, as well as a teenage (and darn near unrecognizable) Lana Turner, why did The Great Garrick lay an egg at the box office? It may have simply been that it was a witty period piece comedy with an original and clever script - seldom a ticket to boffo box office success - and simply did not have the star power demonstrated in spades by the Warner Brothers vehicles for Bette Davis, Jimmy Cagney, Errol Flynn and later Humphrey Bogart. Olivia de Havilland would soon possess all of that star power - and then some - just a bit down the road, but doesn't have a heckuva a lot to do in this opus other than be adorable, which, naturally, she does exceedingly well.

The storyline, which attempts to merge the European stage lore of 1750 with elements of 1937 style screwball comedy mayhem, presents a tough assignment for the two stars. Any attempt to match the humor seen in such iconic screwball comedies as The Half-Naked Truth, Twentieth Century, Hands Across The Table, She Married Her Boss and My Man Godfrey, even as one element in a film (then and now) proves most ambitious and difficult to achieve.

Miss de Havilland gives a warm and heartfelt performance, emotionally investing herself in her role, which does not demand a story-driving screwball comedy turn a la Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert or Irene Dunne. The screenplay does not offer additional nuances or a sense of what makes her character tick to give the story more interest. We know the countess looks fabulous and ran away from France, her father and an arranged marriage, but that's about it. As always, with personality and good humor, Miss de Havilland gets the maximum from the script, but, given the depth and breadth of her acting talent, one knows she could nail a much more complex characterization with ease.

Aherne's task is even more daunting: as a great Shakespearian actor, match the florid yet nuanced and hilarious self-parody that was John Barrymore's stock in trade. He's good, through much of the movie very good, but not that good. Perhaps the decision to not be quite as larger-than-life and outrageous as Barrymore (or for that matter, Peter O' Toole 30 years later) was not the right choice.

More importantly, key to the premise is that David Garrick is so laser-focused on his craft that he's unable to see or feel real emotion, and thus, the film is built around a character who is not particularly likable. While not nearly as unsympathetic as John Gilbert as "the cad" in Downstairs or any number of very bad bad guys played by Robert Mitchum, the character of The Great Garrick is . . . well, unsympathetic enough to make this movie problematic. Now matter how many witty exchanges happen between the star and his manservant Tubby - and there are many - it's difficult to root for this guy, or give a darn about the budding romance between David Garrick and the Countess de la Corbe.

That said, all the world's a stage and in the film's final moments, a deeply, profoundly smitten David Garrick confesses his adoration for the fetching Countess de la Corbe in the only way he knows how - before an adoring SRO audience at the Comédie-Française! It is an excellent payoff to a unique film filled with surprises.

The hijinx at the Adam & Eve Inn includes several brilliant sequences of physical comedy and offers the supporting cast an opportunity to go way, way over the top and have a blast doing so. In the end, as funny as said cast is - Horton, regal Atwill, stentorian Melville Cooper and especially a cheerfully wacko Luis Alberni - their stellar contributions (unlike in the aforementioned My Man Godfrey or several Preston Sturges features) cannot carry the movie by themselves. The film belongs to the two stars.

James Whale's direction is imaginative, his shot selection and framing of actors ingenious, while the cinematography and camera movement of Ernest Haller, as always, is inventive and fluid. All of the above, plus excellent costuming, makes for a fine motion picture, but does not entirely compensate for the need for a more bravura, electric and humorous performance from Aherne and less of a standard ingenue characterization for Miss de Havilland.

Nonetheless, this is latter-day nitpicking. The original blend of backstage scenario, period piece and wacky comedy equals highly entertaining movie fun, especially if one is lucky enough to live in the vicinity of such film friendly venues as the Stanford, the Castro Theatre, UCLA, the New Beverly, George Eastman House or NYC MoMa that will give screen it, as intended, in proper big screen glory.

The Great Garrick can also be bought on DVD via Warner Archive Collection. As part of its month-long Olivia de Havilland retrospective, Turner Classic Movies will be showing The Great Garrick on July 9.

We close by extending the Fred Astaire top hat tip to In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies for hosting the Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon.

For the entire group of blogathon entries, click here.

The classic movie-loving reprobates who are both Way Too Lazy To Write A Blog and Way Too Damn Lazy To Host A Blogathon appreciate the opportunity to contribute and shall enjoy reading the posts by the many fine writers. Kudos, bravos and huzzahs to all who participated - and cheers to Olivia!


Judy said...

This sounds like great fun even if it isn't a masterpiece - I'd be very interested to see it, though it sounds as if it might not be an entirely accurate account of Garrick's life! Great piece about this little-known film.

Caftan Woman said...

For years I would see this title listed in film books and assumed it was a straight-forward biography of the famous actor. Silly me! Unexpectedly enjoyed this immensely when it popped up on TCM a few years ago. I hope others who may have skipped it in the past will read your article and give it a go.

Silver Screenings said...

I have to say I've never even heard of this film! I must see this – it sounds like a grand time. Thanks for the introduction to The Great Garrick! :)

Joe Thompson said...

"The Countess Takes A Ham." -- That was brilliant. I will watch for it to turn up on TCM. It sounds like a blast. If only they had remade it with Peter O'Toole. He would have played the part more sympathetically, I suspect.

Phyl said...

Will definately be watching this Saturday! I had no idea if was a screwball comedy! I can never get over how gorgeous Olivia is...

Thanks for bringing this film to our attention for the Blogathon!!!

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thanks for all your comments and kudos to Phyl for co-hosting the blogathon with Crystal!

Joe, you're on to something, as what this movie needed was (drum roll). . . ALAN SWANN! Still, THE GREAT GARRICK is great fun, the supporting cast is a riot and Olivia de Havilland plays her role with spunk, warmth and humor.

Phyl said...

Watched it this morning! It may take 39 min for Olivia to make her entrance, but what an entrance!!! Thanks for writing about this film again. I don't think I would have watched it otherwise.

Hamlette said...

What an unusual-sounding movie! I will keep my eye out for it. Great review!