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Escape (1930)

In the middle of a five year sentence for manslaughter, a convict decides he's had enough and goes on the run on Dartmoor. He meets various characters on his journey.

Escape was one of the first fruits of the hook-up between Basil Dean's ATP company and Hollywood studio RKO. Dean threw everything he had at it, including an impressive roster of stars. However the episodic nature of the plot gives each of them little to do and most of them struggle to adapt to sound, particularly the lead, Sir Gerald du Maurier. Strangely the one actor who manages to give a filmic rather than a theatrical performance is Mabel Poulton who has gone down in film history as British cinema's major casualty of sound. She's great as a perky prostitute openly picking up strange men in a park. 

Script adapt.: (o.a.) John Galsworthy, Basil Dean

Director: Basil Dean

Players: Edna Best, Gordon Harker, Madeleine Carroll, Lewis Casson, Mabel Poulton, Ian Hunter, Marie Ney, Felix Aylmer, Jean Cadell, Nigel Bruce, Horace Hodges, Ben Field, Fred Groves, S.J. Warminton, Phyllis Konstam, Ann Casson, George Curzon, David Hawthorne, H. St Barbe West, Eric Crowley  

Escape Me Never (1935)

A penniless composer and his straight-laced brother get involved with a debutante and a street waif with a child in tow. 

The street waif is played by Elizabeth Bergner and it's her show all the way. She'd scored a big hit in the stage production and her husband directed the film. The film was a success and got Bergner an Oscar nomination. Bergner was the film's big draw, now she's the film's big drawback.

As the child-woman, Bergner chuckles and giggles and gurgles her way through Europe. Her type of femininity - seemingly based on pretending to be a five year old simpleton - just isn't fashionable now. In fact, it's very wearing. Yet there are moments in her performance - a gesture, the turn of a line, an instance of stillness - which are astonishingly right.

But the moments are brief. When her child dies in hospital, she refuses to believe it. With any other actress, this would be a touching moment of grief shading into madness, but she's so barking anyway it just seems like business as usual. 

Despite the difficulties in Bergner's performance, the other actors aren't in her league. They're from the stiff-upper-lip, drawing-room tradition of the English stage. Penelope Dudley Ward as her love rival is particularly bad. 

Beside Bergner, the other attraction the film has is the location shooting: Venice, the Dolomites, even the stage of the Drury Lane Theatre. Even after all this gadding about there was still enough money left in the kitty to create some fabulous sets. Sadly none of this helps disguise the structure of a well-made, three-act play that time has been unkind to.

Because of the play's success, the censors seem to have left it alone. Bergner does mumble something about being married to her child's father before his death which she doesn't in the play, but since she doesn't seem to recall his name this seems a bit of a fib. This is all part of the adultness of the play, but that adultness works against the film. Bergner takes back her composer husband, despite the fact he's cheated on her and publicly chucked her out of the theatre when she tried to tell him of her child's death, saying as she hugs him in the closing shot "I don't want a perfect man". It might be true to life, but it's not the stuff romance is made of.

If Escape Me Never is remembered now it's for being William Walton's first feature film score. But there are couple of other footnotes to add. Margot Fonteyn is in the chorus of the ballet, and Bergner's character is named Gemma - the name star Griffith Jones chose for his daughter, now a respected actress.

Still of Elizabeth Bergner in Escape Me Never

Script adapt.: (o.a.) Margaret Kennedy, Robert J. Cullen

Director: Paul Czinner

Players: Hugh Sinclair, Leon Quatermaine, Irene Vanbrugh, Lyn Harding, Rosalinde Fuller

Esther Waters (1948)

Oh, the trials of Victorian womanhood! Our naive and religious heroine gets herself a job in service in a large household which is mainly interested in racing. It's not long before she's seduced by the groom, but before she can tell him she's in trouble, he runs off with the daughter of the house. She goes off to a hostel to give birth and then finds a job in another household. The baby is farmed out. When she discovers the baby farm is a place where children are routinely bumped off, she has to leave her position and take to the streets. She is taken in by a kindly family and falls for a local preacher. Then she bumps into the groom (he's now a successful publican and bookie) and she decides to marry him. The marriage is mainly successful, but he dies and she returns to the original household now a semi-ruin to look after the elderly owner.      

George Moore's most successful novel is brought to the screen by Ian Dalrymple's Wessex unit. They spent a lot of money on it, though they saved money on the cast. Sweet little Kathleen Ryan played Esther and a young man called Dirk Bogarde played the groom William Latch. It was only his third film appearance and he was due to play a smaller part, but Stewart Granger pulled out at the last minute and so Dirk got his big break.

Today, the main interest is Bogarde's performance. He's very young and scrawny but he's already well assured. This is his early shifty-young-thug stage when he's trying to be the new James Mason. He's good at it, but is nowhere near as good an actor as Mason yet.

The money spent on the production design was well spent and it all looks right enough; yet none of it makes the impact it should, with the exception of the Derby Day scenes. The rest is just typical Victoriana with no heart behind it. The same can be said of the script, which takes no time to establish Esther's deep religious convictions and how they cope with coming up against the fast world of racing folk. Instead her religion is just a reason for her not to fall for William too quickly. It makes the ending where she returns to nurse her former employer more a postscript to the story than its fulfillment.

In conclusion, the film could have done with more melodrama or more intelligent analysis of Victorian morality. As it is it just passes the time without making the impact it should.

Script: Michael Gordon, William Rose, Gerard Tyrrell

Director: Ian Dalrymple

Players: Cyril Cusack, Ivor Barnard, Fay Compton, Mary Clare

Eureka Stockade (1948)

Chips Rafferty stars in this Australian Gold Rush tale. It concerns the battle between the miners and the Australian government for control of the land and is as political as you would expect from writer Walter Greenwood (Love on the Dole). I don't recall it mentioning aborigine land rights but never mind. Best to enjoy it as a period adventure.

Script: Harry Watt, Walter Greenwood

Director: Harry Watt

Players: Jane Barrett, Gordon Jackson, Jack Lambert, Peter Illing, Ralph Truman