Thursday, June 19, 2014

She Turned The Tide of History



THE DIVINE LADY

As silent films gave way to those "100% All Talking" features that would kill off that particular style of filmmaking forever (The Artist more a throwback/homage than a revival), a few films straddled both worlds.  The Divine Lady is one of them: essentially a silent movie but with sound effects and original score.  At times it suffers from those aspects of silent film that people dislike: acting that is a bit theatrical, but while it isn't remembered today (apart from the fact that Frank Lloyd won Best Director at the Second Academy Awards) The Divine Lady is quite entertaining, well-made and anchored (no pun intended) with a beautiful performance by a beautiful lady.

Emma Hart (Corrine Griffith) is a poor working-class girl.  When she and her mother (Marie Dressler) arrive at the home of the Honorable Charles Grenville (Ian Keith), he is horrified by Emma's flirtatious manners.  However, he too quickly falls for Emma's charms, a physical beauty mixed with a joie de vivre and vitality.  Grenville is torn about Emma: on the one hand, he finds her beautiful and vivacious.  On the other, she is common and unabashedly enthusiastic (at one point leading a sing-along at a country fair).  Telling her that he wishes for her and her mother to visit his uncle Sir William Hamilton (H. B. Warner), Grenville sends them off to Naples where Sir William serves as British Ambassador to the Royal Court.  Perhaps with this in mind, Sir William falls in love with Emma.  She pines for Grenville and tells Sir William that she won't be passed from one man to another, and that she isn't in love with him.  Sir William tells her he knows this but still wishes to marry her anyway.  Thus, the cook's daughter becomes Lady Hamilton.

It is the height of the French Revolution and Napoleon's rise to power.  Naples maintains neutrality but war between Napoleon and the British is inevitable.  Into this steps Horatio Nelson (Victor Varconi), who at first doesn't wish to see the Ambassadoress but who is immediately charmed by her vivaciousness and beauty.  Over time, despite his rise to Admiral and his injuries (he is left with one eye and one arm), they fall madly in love, and their affair shocks and scandalizes an Empire.  Nelson has his duty to perform, and thanks to Lady Hamilton's intervention at Court with Queen Maria Carolina of Naples (Dorothy Cumming) the British fleet is saved and in turn saves Naples.

However, as Lady Hamilton is scorned by society for being so open about the affair and shames Nelson by living with him in quiet retirement without either divorcing their respective spouses, The British Lion calls Nelson again.  He now goes to meet his fate at Trafalgar, where he tells his men, "England expects that every man will do his duty" in that typical British understatement.  Lady Hamilton must now end her love affair with Lord Nelson as he dies, having done his duty.  


The Divine Lady may be historically wrong, but one forgives all this because one doesn't watch The Divine Lady for lessons in naval history.  One watches for the sweeping romance between the cook's daughter and the hero of the Empire, and to their credit Griffith and Varconi play Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson as these two people passionately in love.  Frank Lloyd gave a subtle subtext to show their consummation of their love: as they are about to kiss for the first time, crashing waves are seen, suggesting the storm of passion that will overtake them.

Lloyd also gives Griffith really good material to work with.  We see in her performance that Emma may be uneducated (though there is a montage of her undergoing various forms of refinement, down to learning to play the harp) but she is also a kind woman who loves life.  We see this when she leads the informal sing-along at the fair.  She certainly wasn't doing it to attract attention to herself.  She began to sing for her own amusement, and once she attracted attention she saw nothing wrong in everyone having a good time. 

Interestingly, in this scene and when she sings to Nelson at their first and final meeting in Naples, we have sound.  This is a silent picture in that the actors' voices are not heard, but Lloyd did what few directors in the chaotic transition from silent to sound did: integrate sound while keeping the film mute.  The sound effects (cannons firing, crowds cheering) were integrated effectively, and moreover, I think they should have served as a template to how silent and sound films could have been integrated without throwing out everything.  Sadly, other filmmakers didn't follow Lloyd's lead, leading to much confusion and wrecked careers (not to mention, lost films). 

Lloyd also has moments of quite good directing.  When Horatio first attempts to kiss Emma, she quickly places a rose between their lips, and the image of Emma, Lady Hamilton with a rose on her lips is still a beautiful image. 

Corrine Griffith, not remembered today, is simply beautiful as Lady Hamilton.  When we are first introduced to her, we see a beautiful, carefree flirt, mixing innocence with experience.  However, as time goes on we see Griffith gave a very good performances without most of the mannered mannerisms of silent film acting.  There was some of that here, but on the whole Griffith brought the evolution from carefree girl to woman deeply in love and hurt that circumstances could not allow her to live in peace with the man who had sacrificed for her and for whom she had sacrificed for.  These two figures living out this larger-than-life history are not allowed to have a happy ending, and Griffith makes this a beautiful performance.

As the 'divine lady' of The Divine Lady, it is only fair that Griffith have the lion's share of attention, and she goes through many emotions and handles them well.  I also thought well of Warner as the Ambassador who is aware of things without drawing attention to them.  "I don't believe rumors," he 'tells' his nephew, "in case the rumors turn out to be true".  The acting on the whole was above-average when thinking of silent films, with  only Cumming succumbing to a more exagerrated manner. 

On the whole I found The Divine Lady to hold up rather well.   It told its story well, the acting was not exagerrated (mostly) and as a bonus, it integrated sound effects into a silent film to where it didn't topple one or the other.  I found much to admire in The Divine Lady...just like Lord Nelson.

A Love Story For the Ages...


DECISION: B+

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