Wednesday, February 3, 2016

O Canada blogathon: "Jalna" and its star, David Manners

The second annual O Canada blogathon is underway hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy. The blogathon runs February 1 - 5. Visit the great white north without leaving home!  Day 1 recap.  Day 2 recap.  Day 3 recap.  Day 4 recap.  Day 5 recap.

It wasn't until a screening on TCM a few years ago that I became aware of this 1935 film based on Mazo de la Roche's immortal Whiteoaks of Jalna series. This seems strange to me as both a classic movie fan and a Canadian. While not a touchstone for Canadian youngsters like Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, nor forced to read in school, like Farley Mowat or Margaret Atwood, de la Roche's 16 novels in the Chronicles of Whiteoaks were an immensely popular and successful worldwide phenomenon beginning in 1927.

One hundred years and generations of Whiteoaks came to life in Mazo de la Roche's stories. It seemed as if the library copies I borrowed lorded it over the other novels in the section. Ms. de la Roche became something of a celebrity with newspapers and magazines chronicling her life. I recommend the 2012 film The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche which goes into detail on the author.

The success of the BBCs The Forsyte Saga inspired the CBC to adapt Whiteoaks into a miniseries in 1972. I know I watched, but memories are vague.

David Manners plays Eden Whiteoaks, who has a "slight, but pretty" talent in the writing line, according to his Uncle Ernest. It is something that sets him apart from his farming family, firmly ensconced at their Ontario estate for generations. Kay Johnson stars as Alayne Archer, the reader at the NYC firm that publishes Eden's book of poetry, falls for the sensitivity in his writing and his good looks. Alayne has no idea what she has signed on for when she marries Eden and moves with him to Jalna. Fairly soon, she does realize that the man she married is not the man she made of him in her imagination. Eden proves to be somewhat of the spoiled wastrel. If Alayne has married the wrong man, the right man is her brother-in-law and de facto head of the family, Renny played by Ian Hunter.

Renny and all of the Whiteoaks have a queen in the nearly one hundred-year-old Gran, played by Jessie Ralph. She rightfully assumes all of her wishes and pronouncements are honoured. The elderly uncles Ernest and Nicholas are played by C. Aubrey Smith and Halliwell Hobbs. It is common that the Whiteoaks all have their say at once! Renny's older sister Meg played by Ian Hunter was disappointed in love by their neighbour Maurice Vaughn played by unlikely Casanova, Nigel Bruce. Meg has perfected her role as the scorned sweetheart over twenty years.

Maurice's daughter, Pheasant (love that name!) is romantically involved with Meg and Renny's younger half-brother Piers, played by Theodore Newton as a bit of a hothead. Youngsters Finch and Wakefield played by George Offerman Jr. and Clifford Severn round out the group. When Piers marries Pheasant and he brings her home at the same time Eden brings Alayne, life will never be the same for the Whiteoaks of Jalna.

Anthony Veiller, Oscar-nominated for The Killers and Stage Door, wrote the screenplay. Jalna was directed with his usual display of charm and style by John Cromwell (Anna and the King of Siam, The Prisoner of Zenda, Caged), who was at the time (1928-1946) married to his leading lady Kay Johnson.

The discovery of Jalna was an unexpected treat for me and I am sure would be the same for anyone coming across it, whether or not they have heard of Mazo de la Roche's novels. The cast is comprised of a mix of Americans and British ex-pats to make up the Canadian family. Three of the cast, Ian Hunter, Clifford Severn and Molly Lamont hail from South Africa. We find among the troupe one Haligonian, that is, a person born in Halifax. In this case, Halifax, Nova Scotia being the birthplace of David Manners.

David Manners

Surely Rauff de Ryther Duan Acklom is the most interesting birth name of a future Hollywood star since Spangler Arlington Brugh. David Manners is a little easier to recall, for audiences and producers. An excellent scholar from a wealthy family, David was studying Forestry at the University of Toronto, but his heart was with the school's Hart House Theatre Company. He left school in his final year of 1923 to join a touring company out of New York run by Basil Sydney. He gained experience and a solid reputation and in 1924 appeared with Helen Hayes in Dancing Mothers and they became lifelong friends.

James Whale wanted Manners for the role of Lieutenant Raleigh in a New York production of Journey's End, but the timing did not work out. Fortunately, things worked out for the 1930 film version of this always timely anti-war play written by R.C. Sherriff and directed by Whale. It was an auspicious Hollywood beginning for David Manners. By 1936 David Manners would have 39 motion pictures to his credit.  Let's look at a few of my favourites.

David Manners
The Black Cat publicity still

Horror film fans are among the most loyal of our breed. David Manners is forever immortal to horror fans for three films in particular. 1931s Dracula set the tone for classic horror with Bela Lugosi's archetypal performance in the title role and Dwight Frye's scene-stealing as Renfield. David is John Harker, out-of-his-depth hero. 1932s The Mummy gave the great Boris Karloff one of his best-remembered roles. Zita Johann is torn between her dead-for-centuries lover Karloff or contemporary sweetie Manners. 1934s The Black Cat gives Manners a role with a bit more meat on its bones as his character, mystery writer Peter Allison has to deal with both Karloff and Lugosi and their tortured relationship. It must be seen to be believed, and maybe not even then.

David Manners, Marian Marsh, Warren William
Beauty and the Boss

I find 1931s The Millionaire in which Manners co-stars with George Arliss to be totally charming. Written by Earl Derr Biggers and Booth Tarkington the story features Arliss as a retired millionaire who goes into business with Manners incognito. He wants to bring some meaning back into what had become a boring life. The same year David Manners co-starred with Barbara Stanwyck in Frank Capra's The Miracle Woman. On paper the character of a blind composer who shyly uses a ventriloquists dummy to speak for him sounds like an impossibly maudlin role. David Manners gives us a character of moral depth and honest conflict. He is as fascinating to watch as his co-star Stanwyck as a phony Evangelist.

The entire cast impressed me in 1931s The Last Flight, an emotional drama of the lost generation from John Monk Saunders. 1932s Beauty and the Boss from Ladislas Fodor's play The Church Mouse features one of my favourite David Manners performances. As the callow younger brother of a successful banker David is strictly second lead to Warren William. Both men are vying for an impossibly charming secretary played by Marian Marsh. You know going in that she will win over her playboy boss, but David is so unselfconsciously besotted that I can't help rooting for him.

The best of David Manners work in 1930s films shows that he gave one hundred percent to his profession and received in return the trappings of fame and adoration. Before the decade was over David would make a change in his lifestyle that few would imagine many with his success undertaking.

A combination of things led to a decision to abandon Hollywood. Physically the Los Angeles smog was wreaking havoc on David's chronic asthma. Creatively there were other worlds for him to explore. He would publish novels during the 1940s.  He would be a painter for the rest of his days. Much of his time was spent on a ranch near the Mojave Desert. "I did all the things I wanted to do.  I wrote three novels, rode my horses for miles, created more than one hundred paintings and every day milked the cows myself."

Broadway beckoned and in 1946 David replaced Henry Daniell as Lord Windermere in Lady Windermere's Fan. Earlier that season he appeared in the brief run of Maxwell Anderson's Truckline Cafe. Co-star in that production Marlon Brando was among those contacted by Charles Foster for his book Once Upon a Time in Paradise: Canadians in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Marlon Brando: "David Manners spent hour coaching me in my small role.  He allowed me to steal the one scene I played with him by telling me how to do it."

Lucille Ball: "He took me to a swanky restaurant and we went dancing afterwards. He was mobbed everywhere, but he always had time for his fans. The reason why I spend so much time with my fans today is because David showed me on that special date it was the right thing to do."

Loretta Young: "He hadn't an ounce of difficulty or obstinacy in him. Every girl in town wanted to work with him. He was a dream actor, handsome, charming, and totally genuine. He was very competent, never flustered, always knew his lines, and was always ready to help newcomers to the film industry."

Helen Hayes and Edward G. Robinson provided anecdotes where David Manners, who dabbled in boxing in his youth, actually defended them from rowdy fans with separate displays of fisticuffs.

In his later years, David devoted much of his time in spiritual and philosophical pursuits and publishing his journey in Look Through, An Evidence of Self Discovery, The Soundless Voice and Awakenings from the Dream of Me.

I think it would have been nice to know the man behind this quote:

"Perhaps to the young, old age looks pretty grim, but let me tell it. For this ancient one, this is the happiest, most beautiful time of a long life. How come? The appearances are that I have less freedom, less motion, less of everything, including hair and shape, but these are the lesser blessings. There are blessings today that were never dreamed of."

Once Upon a Time in Paradise by Charles Foster


  1. I always thought the Manners character in DRACULA was the least interesting, but then again, not every character in a horror movie can be weird. He did have a better role in THE BLACK CAT.

    1. Agreed. In "Dracula" and "The Mummy" Manners just has to be there, the movies are all about the creepy villains. I imagine going to work on "The Black Cat", there must have been a moment of "Cripes! Both of them! What's a guy to do?!"

  2. This is absolutely wonderful. I knew very little about David Manners before reading your post, and now I'm a huge fan! I loved the anecdotes you included from Marlon Brando et al, as well as his philosophical views. No wonder everyone wanted to work with him!

    As for the Jalna series, I've never read it, but I will see if our library has one. I looked up the miniseries on Wikipedia, and it says CBC published a family tree for viewers?? Do you remember this being true?

    1. Oops – forgot to thank you for coming to the O Canada party, and for bringing the handsome Mr Manners along!

    2. My pleasure to bring Mr. Manners to the party. It will be fun to give his movies a second look knowing more about him.

      Here's the CBCs Whiteoaks family tree. I recognize Kate Reid, but that's about all.

  3. Wonderful post and a two-fer for Canadian entertainment (well three counting the film adaptation). Sometimes I think, "poor David Manners" when most fans just asked him about Dracula, but he did all this other acting and had so many talents besides. Thanks so much for featuring him and Jalna for the blogathon!

    1. I had a great time revisiting "Jalna" and sharing some of David Manners' background.

      The variety of posts for the blogathan is terrific. Putting the kettle on, putting my feet up and enjoying the posts.

  4. David Manners is in The Miracle Woman! I knew I had seen him before! It was nice of you to include quotes about him. I now admire him more than before.
    As for Jalna, it was added to my always-growing watchlist.
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. We can start our own David Manners fan club, my friend. Thanks so much for reading. I am sure you will enjoy "Jalna".

  5. I'll definitely have to check out Jalna. It sounds like a very interesting film. And I have always liked David Manners.

    1. For a relatively short career, he certainly had a long and interesting life. "Jalna" is well worth your time. The opening credits are very clever. Intrigued?

  6. I have an urge to eat a fly...or a spider! Not really, but this was a great profile of David Manners. Had never heard of JALNA, so that made for interesting reading, too.

    1. "Jalna" seems to have fallen through the cracks in the pantheon of family dramas, probably due to its Canadian setting. I would think it would give it a sort of exotic appeal. Maybe we're coming up on a time when TCM will start airing it with some of the regularity of a few other titles we could mention.

      Stay away from those old movies and spiders!

  7. JALNA is new to me (and I'm sorry I missed the O Canada blogathon - not enough hours in the day - but David Manners is a longtime favorite. I love his work, and I admire his the quiet confidence of his independence.

    1. Where is that limitless supply of time I used to think grownups had at their disposal?

      I am very impressed with David Manner's ability to live life on his own terms in a profession where pleasing others of often the core of existence.



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