Director: Arthur Hopkins. Atlantic.
Producer: Eddie Dowling. Writers: Arthur Hopkins, Clara Beranger. Camera: Arthur Edeson. Music: Karl Stark, James Hanley. Sets: Joe Schulze, Walter Keller.
Roland Young, Lillian Gish, Montagu Love, Lumsden Hare, Lucy Beaumont, Charles Richman, Oliver Smith, Phillip Tonge, Roland Hogue.
World famous but reclusive artist Priam Farrel (Young) is a tetchy and unsociable individual. So he does little to correct an imperious doctor and his formidable cousin (Love) when they assume he is really the vaguely similar looking valet (Hogue) who has just died, whilst resting in his employer’s bed. Happily assuming this new identity, he encounters a series of problems when he marries a pretty art enthusiast (Gish) and is visited by people from his valet’s past.
In Sunset Boulevard (1950) William Holden’s character said “Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be”. Taking this observation holistically, it’s likewise interesting to see just how shitty really shitty film’s can be.
Now of course, to compare Sunset Boulevard with most films is a trifle unfair. To stand it alongside something as uniquely, excruciatingly inadequate as His Double Life could be seen as cinematic bullying (“Yeah, pow! Take that with my three Oscars!”). It could also prove useful, providing a veritable tick-list for any aspiring director about how to very definitely not make a film.
1) USE YOUR TALENT WELL
It almost breaks the heart to see such otherwise hugely talented stars such as Young and Gish mired in such a quagmire of artistic shoddiness.
Young, who would impress later on with memorable comedic turns in David Copperfield (1935, as a greasy Uriah Heep), Topper (1937 and it’s sequel) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) was obviously an actor who needed a good director behind him. Here, he seems to sleepwalk through the proceedings, mumbling and dithering as if he’s lost his mind, then volcanically over-acting at moments that require a deft comic touch. Such a surprise to see him totally lose his way.
Gish almost appears to hold him up at times and it is readily apparent that he starts to relax and enjoy himself when she is on-screen. And thank heavens for this redoubtable actress who, after years of hard slog as a silent movie leading lady and with only one other sound movie behind her manages to turn in a delicate, adorable and perfectly judged performance in terms of vocal delivery, body movement and facial expression. She’s also the only person who provides any injection of humour in what is supposed to be a screwball comedy.
The rest of the performances are, without exception, stiff and unnatural, as if director Hopkins had cue cards stationed around the set and had to use cattle prods to get his performers to use them, making this the slowest paced screwball comedy ever produced.
RESULT – FAIL
2) LOVE YOUR TYPEWRITER UNTIL IT BECOMES ILLEGAL
The main problem with the comedy failing to catch light is a script in which the laughs are few and far between. It doesn’t help too when the dramatic moments and key plot points seem at best contrived and at worst totally illogical.
The odd drollery was bashed out on Hopkins and Beranger’s keys. Gish was given sage advice by her father about financial investments that, as any Brit can tell you, reach down the generations: “Always keep your money in beer, beer will never fail you in England”. What a clever man – he should have done a rewrite to this script.
But fleeting moments such as these don’t make up for the otherwise hopelessly fudged funny bits (Young’s exasperation at his funeral is just odd, the climactic courtroom scene, with the jurors constantly repeating themselves, is baffling).
The dramatic moments that show the writers up include: Gish, after being clearly told who is who between the artist and his valet in a photo, still manages to mix them up (they really don’t look alike; the valet’s instruction with this photo should not have been used), Gish lets Young move in and marry her and share her booze pennies after she’s only known him for a few days.
RESULT – FAIL
3) REMEMBER HITCHCOCK – ‘THE VISUAL IS FIRST…’
The great man followed this up about the oral being supplementary, so he wouldn’t have been completely useful when looking over this film.
None the less, use your camera as if it were the eye of every cinema patron. And film critic. One good shot that encircles the number of an address in a letter, then seamlessly edited to reveal the actual address encircled above a door shows only the genesis of an interesting visual style. Keep going!
RESULT – SEMI-PASS; I’LL ADMIT, YOU’RE HALF-WAY UP THE STAIRS
4) DIRECTORS NEED A FEW QUALITIES – TIMING, PACING, VISUAL SENSE, BALLS ETC
Pretty obvious, but isn’t this why you are being hired for the job at hand? Because you have some innate ability to encourage/cajole/beat people into doing good things in a movie?
Maybe it didn’t help that Hopkins only had one other film under his belt and that was in 1919. Perhaps he was a better hand at directing plays in the American Expressionist theatre, where he staged pieces by Eugene O’Neill amongst others, but his style here is totally off. One moment that sticks in the mind is when Young leaves his house only to met by an assembled ‘mass’ (about 20 people huddled together) outside. He pauses looking astonished for what seems like an eternity, the crowd looks at him, we get his reaction shot again and then he slowly turns and walks back inside. It almost beggars belief that it happens, so thank heavens for internet playback when you can check you have seen the most poorly executed prat-fall in comedies of this period.
RESULT – FAIL (IN EVERY SENSE)