Friday, December 3, 2010

Great What-Ifs: Far From The Madding Crowd starring Vivien Leigh

Shame-faced at calling myself an English Major after failing to read certain classics, I made it a priority this summer to at least read some great literature I hadn't before, in between job hunting. And as always, I was more successful on that front than in actually securing something that could make me money. Feh. But anyways! Stop being bitter, you guys.

One of the books I absolutely fell in love with was Thomas Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd, which is well known for being one of his only cheerful books--as in, cheerful for a Thomas Hardy novel. There's still death, destruction, and heartache, but you actually don't feel like your soul has been sucked out by some sci-fi leech/vacuum hybrid by story's end. A quick, inadequate summary: pretty girl named Bathsheba. Turns down nice guy Gabriel. She inherits a farm. She's a kickass womyn, not taking no guff. Except she isn't that kickass; she can't run the farm without Gabriel. Hires him, he's head shepherd. Bathsheba drives Mr. Boldwood, elegant next-door neighbor, mad with the love-crazies. She herself is driven love-crazy by dashing man-whore Sgt. Frank Troy. Oh, it's in Wessex, the fictional English county in pretty much all of Thomas Hardy's books. Lots of colorful commentary from farm workers. There's sweeping romance and bloated sheep having to be poked in the tummies to breathe.

It's great! But I have as yet to see a filmed version that's really blown me away. The 1967 film was a huge disappointment, except for Peter Finch's bang-up job as Boldwood (and poor, nuttier-than-a-can-of-cashews Boldwood is my favorite part of Crowd, so his performance did go a long way toward redeeming the movie for me). The 1997 BBC version was okay, but the casting was iffy. Like I hear with Dark Shadows, however, little rumors tell me there will be a new cinematic version out sometime in the nearish future. I've toyed with the idea of casting that one in my head, a fond hobby of mine, and you'll probably see it often here. But because I love classic movies and vintage stars so much, I figured, hey! Why not cast a version with the actors from yesteryear, by golly? The production values back then and the more overt acting styles would better fit the epic, romantic mood Hardy establishes. I'm helped in this noble endeavor by something I read on a message board once: Vivien Leigh was once signed on to play Bathsheba in a version that was dropped for unknown reasons. Well. That sucks. I would have loved, adored, and eaten up with a spoon any version with Vivien Leigh in it. True, she'd basically just be playing an English country-girl version of Scarlett, but who freaking cares? It's Vivien. In Far From The Madding Crowd. I'm sold!

So, let's cast this imaginary movie filmed sometime in the forties, and...why don't we just cast the five principal leads, since it would take a whole plethora of old-timey character actors to portray all the local color in the thing? Here we go, gang! C'mon, Scoob!

Vivien Leigh as Bathsheba Everdene

There's no way this is not perfect. Now, I admit that I'm more than a little biased when it comes to Vivien. She's just my favorite actress, is all. I like to put on my fancy film buff pants and go, "I knew she was the greatest actress ever from the moment I saw her in A Streetcar Named Desire when I was only a little kid," thus sticking it to folks who know her primarily as Scarlett O'Hara. But while that's all very true, I didn't really become actively addicted to her until middle school, when I, like many privileged, white, ignorant brats before me, became simultaneously addicted to Gone With The Wind. But I do still maintain that her Blanche is probably the greatest performance I've ever seen. I'll probably post more on that some other time. HOWEVER: why's she perfect for Bathsheba in particular?

Well, like I said, it's a no-brainer. Beautiful? Check. The ability to play a petulant brat who means well, but is mired down by her ambitions and vanity? Double check. Dark-haired?! YES, CHECK. Sorry, but that's what really pissed me off with the '67 flick: Julie Christie, aka Blondie McBlonderson, as Bathsheba? No no no. Look, I'm not one of those book traditionalists who flies off the handle if a character's physiology deviates slightly; after all, Vivien's eyes are blue, while Bathsheba's should be brown. But Bathsheba's hair color is a freakin' plot point in one scene, for cryin' out loud. Christie was so miserably miscast.

Even though I compared the idea of Vivien's Bathsheba to an English version of Scarlett, I actually look at her performance in That Hamilton Woman as definitive proof that she would, no doubt, own the role of Bathsheba. In that film she starts out as a giddy little social climber, motivated in equal parts by misplaced love for an unseen rich git and a desire to lead a finer life than that of a chorus girl. Later, after earnestly falling in love and realizing what a shallow lie her life is, she becomes more jaded and wise, more melancholy. And she plays both these facets of Lady Hamilton's character flawlessly--I'd even venture to say it's a technically better performance than Scarlett, though few portrayals can ever touch the fiery charm she achieved in Gone With the Wind. But her ability to play both young/frisky and staid/wise is vital to playing Bathsheba accurately, since Bathsheba has far more of a conscience than Scarlett ever did, though she makes similar mistakes.

Robert Mitchum as Gabriel Oak

"His height and breadth would have been sufficient to make his presence imposing, had they been exhibited with due consideration....He was at the brightest period of masculine growth, for his intellect and his emotions were clearly separated...."
           --Thomas Hardy on Farmer Oak

Ol' Bobby Mitchum is another of my favorites. He was wildly versatile. He could chill you to the bones in Cape Fear and The Night of the Hunter, but it's his gentler, subtler, and more stoically rustic work in The Sundowners and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison that convinces me he would be the ideal Gabriel, maybe the book's one truly morally conscientious character. I couldn't help myself: he's who I pictured almost immediately I started reading, and there he stayed in me head. He's stoic, physically imposing, good looking but not conventionally gorgeous, and just watch the way he looks at Deborah Kerr in Mr. Allison: without making a big fuss, his eyes register painful, frustrated, steadfast adoration, combined with determination to help his lady out no matter what the cost. But nooooo, stupid Kerr had to be a stupid nun, ruining everything! Dumb bint.

Only qualm I have is his ability to pull off an English accent. How'd he handle an Irish brogue, people who have seen Ryan's Daughter?

George Sanders or Claude Rains as Mr. Boldwood

I know in my first post I cast my vote solely in Sanders' favor for this role, but that's simply because he's my current cinematic fixation, thanks to my wee brain's tendency toward perseveration. However, Claude Rains was my initial choice when reading the book (y'see, I hadn't yet watched Village of the Damned, the film that really sparked my Sanders mania). Why? Well, first, watch Notorious. Then watch the 1943 Phantom of the Opera. Then read Hardy's description of Boldwood here: "If an emotion possessed him at all, it ruled him; a feeling not mastering him was entirely latent. Stagnant or rapid, it was never slow.  He was always hit mortally, or he was missed." Now apply that to a portrait of a refined, middle-aged, elegant bachelor whose frigid indifference to women is turned upside-down into a consuming obsession by a flighty girl's practical joke, and you have the ideal role for Claude Rains, what-ho.

But Sanders shouldn't be discounted yet. He's not as obvious a choice as Rains, no, but don't let his caddish ways mislead you. Actually, he could take that ruthless, careless front of his and use it to his performance's advantage, illustrating just how deeply Bathsheba uproots Boldwood's life. Sanders is refined and elegant, and he can play obsessive. Don't believe me? Watch a strange little flick called Summer Storm. He does exactly this; plays a thoughtless but respectable cad until Linda Darnell shoots seductive glances at him through sooty lashes and YOWZA. Brother gets it bad. I feel like a louse saying this, but even in the midst of my admiration for the man, I had no idea he could act so damn well. I was mostly infatuated with his attitude, his man-about-town, rakish persona. But this movie schooled me. Schooled me good. There's a particularly unsettling scene where he drowns his sorrows in a pub/cafe/cabaret type thing after Darnell gives him the cold shoulder, and he gets so sloshed George Sanders actually lets loose! Only in a really demonic, scary way! Someone begins singing some sentimental twaddle that starts hitting too close to home, and his eyes blaze and he shakes in his seat. So he abruptly stands and fumbles his way to the stage, trying to rouse everyone into a more chipper chorus. Then he stops short, staring at his reflection in a large mirror, where he sees, cruelly, what a mook he's become. He's fallen so far from the dignified dandy he was at the start of the picture that his fury just builds and explodes, and he hurls his drink at the glass, shattering it.

That's Boldwood-type manic behavior right there. Trust me.

(I'd also direct you to 1952's Ivanhoe as further proof that Sanders could play unrequited, desperate love well, but nobody should have to sit through that turd. No actor came out well in that, save maybe Liz Taylor. And I forgive no movie that makes our Sanders parade around in baby blue tights and wear a bright auburn wig and mustache. Yeah, we get it, it's technicolor! We've seen it before, don't blind us! And don't get me started on that idiotic helmet with the weird bird tacked on it that he wears in the jousting scene. Nonsense.)

But if you really can't get away from the cad thing, there is another role he and some guy named Archie Leech could contend for....

George Sanders or Cary Grant as Sgt. Frank Troy

Why do I believe Sanders has the ability to play both the proper, repressed Boldwood and the n'er-do-well ladykiller Troy? Because Sanders has always reminded me in equal parts, both physically and in his manner, of a tiger and a penguin, that's why. And he can play both the ferocious predator and tuxedoed bird interchangeably. He'd make a very slick Sgt. Troy, and his age in the 1940s might have been a wee bit more appropriate for Troy than for Boldwood. While Boldwood is only supposed to be forty, an older actor--say, fiftyish?--might better capture the age gap between he and Bathsheba on film (besides, in this my little fantastical version filmed in the '40s, Vivien would already be in her late 20s/early 30s. You might need an older actor to play her Boldwood). However, a part of me can't help but think that Troy is too predictable a role for Sanders, and he might be sorely tempted to fall back on tricks he's played before.

That's why I prefer Grant. He was chiseled out of his bad guy role in Suspicion, and while he played a similar role in 1932's Madame Butterfly (above), I don't think he ever tackled an all-out cad once he became uber-famous. And because Grant is so innately likable, Troy's few soft moments would be more believable, and keep his character from traveling too far into one-dimensional, dumbass jock territory. Just as Sanders often played the Sanders role, so did Grant play the Grant role: a happy-go-lucky hottie who casually gets the girl while ultimately doing no harm. A character like Troy who's mostly a dick but has a few surprisingly redeeming qualities would give Grant an opportunity to flex his skills outside of his usual type. Would he be capable of playing not only a despicable scum-bag, but also a poor schlub sobbing while trying weakly to plant flowers on the grave of a certain character? Maybe we could have gotten a good taste of just how far Grant's range as an actor extended. Plus, he's handsome and jaunty, and just as pretty as Vivien. They'd make a good onscreen match.

Joan Fontaine as Fanny Robin

Remember I mentioned Troy's soft spots? Dear, pathetic Fanny Robin is one of them, though the softness she inspires in him is fickle and rather faint. She's a housemaid at Bathsheba's farm who loves Troy despite the fact he's Troy, and tries eloping with him in the beginning. Under hilariously lame circumstances, that's stalled, and before they can try again....

Joan Fontaine is an actress familiar to anyone who reads the fabulous Self-Styled Siren, where Fontaine is a frequent favorite. I doubt producers in the '40s would have been keen for Fontaine to jeopardize her prim, delicate English rose image by playing a working-class, uneducated, fallen girl like Fanny, though by far Fanny is the most innocent and delicate character in the novel. That's precisely why I think Fontaine would be so effective in the role. She was so enchanting as the shy second Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca that I honestly believe her performance there could be the most touching display of timidity I've ever seen on screen. This gift of hers, playing fragile girls realistically and adorably, would make Fanny's plight all the more poignant. Can you imagine that sweet, nameless girl from Rebecca half dead on the rural streets of the English countryside, struggling down endless roads in the rain to get to a hospital, helped only by clutching the coat of a passing dog? If that image wouldn't strike straight to the hearts of indulgent housewives in '40s movie theaters, I don't know what would.

 Like I said, there are a menagerie of other roughneck extras hanging out in the book, and it would take stronger powers than even my majestic ability to babble on and on to cast each one. However, we're talking about the Golden Age of Hollywood, and in the Golden Age of Hollywood, when you need a likable character actor to play a blustering farm hand, you'd most likely get in touch with this guy:

 Thomas Mitchell as Jan Coggan

You like sprawling epics, the kind you'd only see in full, corny, wonderful detail way back when, in the tradition of William Wyler's Wuthering Heights and that one movie about the Old South that chick Leigh was in? Then I'd recommend reading Far From the Madding Crowd. It's about as close as you can get to that sweepy feeling in classic novel format.

And after you've read it, you can answer the question nagging me now, and will keep me sleeping only fitfully tonight:

Who the heck could have played Liddy Smallbury in those days?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Haven't caught with you on Dark Shadows yet and now this! Sanders was the first actor Hitchcock considered for Sebastian in Notorious. So Sanders and Rains going head-to-head for Boldwood is great.

    As for Ivanhoe, Sanders' love for Taylor is the only thing going in this film. But what's wrong with tights??

    And Summer Storm cannot be beat. Sirk knew Sanders could do it and he did.

    PS: I've always loved Sanders' comment to Vivien Leigh toward the end of her marriage to Olivier. It is probably unprintable here, but is classic Sanders (they were old friends) and, if you are unfamiliar with it (which I doubt), has something to do with middled-aged men and lovemaking.

  3. Dang, you've got all sorts of trivia I've never heard before! I didn't know George was Hitch's first choice for Notorious, or that George was friends with Vivien (which delights me to no end). Bad fan, bad fan.

    I don't really have a problem so much with tights per se; just with baby blue tights. On George Sanders. Ay, there's the rub. And now I need to somehow find that comment George made to Viv....

  4. Sorry. I was out Tuesday. I don't remember the biographer's name, but the story was in one of Vivien Leigh's biographies. I have it somewhere.

  5. Don't trouble yourself if you can't find it! Knowing my querying nature when it comes to scouting out random trivia (particularly about George and Vivien), I'm sure I'll find it. The internets are calling meh!

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