Sunday, December 9, 2018

CHRISTMAS ON REMAKE AVENUE: Kind Lady 1935 and 1951


Hugh Walpole's short story The Silver Mask was the basis for Edward Chodorov's play Kind Lady. Grace George starred in the 1935 Broadway production and a 1940 revival. The first film version was released by MGM in 1935. 

Kind Lady is a psychological thriller starring the incredible Aline MacMahon and the versatile Basil Rathbone. Ms. McMahon plays Mary Herries, a wealthy woman living comfortably in London. She has an affectionate family and is well-thought-of by friends and strangers alike.

Since losing her fiance in the Great War Mary Herries has devoted herself to her collection of art. She has a kind heart and also a physically weak heart. Her sister Lucy played by Doris Lloyd encourages her to get out more, but Mary feels content in her life. Her Niece Phyllis played by Mary Carlisle is happily engaged to an American, Peter played by Frank Albertson and they bring a youthful energy to Mary's stately home. 

Aline MacMahon, Basil Rathbone

It is a fateful Christmas Eve when Miss Herries crosses paths with Henry Abbott played by Basil Rathbone. Abbott's life has also been affected by the Great War. He is a clever man, an artist, and deeply disturbed. Abbott takes advantage of Miss Herries' generous impulses and insinuates himself into her home using the pretense of a sick wife and tiny child. Eventually, a family of crooks played by Dudley Digges, Eily Malyon and Barbara Shields join Abbott in controlling the household. Also part of the gang is a murderous doctor played by Murray Kinnell.

Basil Rathbone, Nola Luxford

Miss Herries' cook has walked out and her devoted maid Rose played by Nola Luxford is about to do the same. Miss Herries comes to the realization that Abbott plans to take over her household and dispose of her art collection. She has a heart episode and is sadly left to the tender mercy of the cutthroats with everyone who loves her thinking she is enjoying herself on a trip with Rose.

It is a battle of wills and nerve as avenues of escape are closed to the terrified woman who must keep her wits about her against the combined forces of these "wretched people". The mentally disturbed Abbott is particularly troubling with his power and sense of entitlement.

Kind Lady was the only teaming of actors MacMahon and Rathbone and they bring the script to life with a strong sense of the strengths and weaknesses of their characters. Directed by George B. Seitz (The Last of the Mohicans, Hardy Family series) Kind Lady is an emotionally engrossing thriller.

Trivia:

Henry Daniell, Basil Rathbone as Moriarty and Holmes
The Woman in Green

Henry Daniell played Henry Abbott in the 1935 Broadway production opposite Grace George, the role taken by Basil Rathbone on the screen. Daniell played Henri Trochard in the 1953 play My 3 Angels. Rathbone took that role in the 1953 movie We're No Angels. The two actors seem to have had a Holmes and Moriarty thing happening.



MGM remade Kind Lady in 1951 with an outstanding cast and directed by John Sturges. Sturges' output for the studio at this time includes Mystery Street, The Magnificent Yankee, The People Against O'Hara and The Girl in White. All are top-flight entertainment and Kind Lady is no exception. In many respects, I think this film outdoes the earlier version. The psychological intensity and the darkness in the story are played up beautifully.

Note that the tagline, 15 years apart, remained the same. Outstanding aspects of this treatment are the cinematography by Oscar winner Joseph Ruttenberg (Gaslight, Madame Curie) and the score by David Raksin (Laura, Separate Tables).

Maurice Evans, Betsy Blair, Ethel Barrymore, Keenan Wynn, Angela Lansbury

Ethel Barrymore is exceptional in the role of Mary Herries. At the age of 72, her portrayal of an "old lady" as this character makes the whole situation more poignant and fraught with anxiety. Maurice Evans plays the villainous Henry Elcott and his frail wife Ada is played by Betsy Blair. In this treatment, it is a genuine family instead of a thrown-together facade. This makes Henry's maniacal hold over Ada even more dire.

The couple Henry brings into his plans, Mr. and Mrs. Henry, is played by Keenan Wynn and Angela Lansbury, and they are more hirees than friends, making their loyalty suspect. Their simple daughter Aggie appears only briefly.

Doris Lloyd as Rose

The loyal Rose is played by Doris Lloyd and again her instincts regarding the artist in their midst are spot on. John Williams is cast as a banker new to the Herries account, but sharp in his judgement.

Instead of the Christmas Eve beginning, the movie opens a week before Christmas and by that day Elcott's plans are flourishing. Miss Herries does not suffer from a heart problem but is physically restrained to her bed while Elcott spreads the news that she has had a nervous breakdown thus explaining away any screams heard by neighbours or the police.

Henry immediately begins selling off the priceless possessions collected by Miss Herries. All the while he cheekily refers to her as "Aunt Mary" and presents himself to outsiders as a relative. He also continues his work on a portrait which shows the woman descending into madness. Miss Herries calls the portrait "corrupt, vicious, and insane." She is not wrong.

Miss Herries is a cany individual who plays her tormentors against each other. Ada in this version is frightened of her husband and open to anything that will free her. Mrs. Edwards is smart enough not to trust Henry but has difficulty convincing her husband of their own personal danger.

The hoped-for comeuppance of Henry Elcott is led by Miss Herries with unforeseen and tragic assistance. The villain is done in by his own madness and greed.

Trivia:

Basil Rathbone, Doris Lloyd

Doris Lloyd, the loyal maid in our 1951 version, pictured here in the 1935 film as Lucy Weston, Mary Herries' sister.












18 comments:

  1. I have never even heard of either movie. I'm sure both would be a great new discovery so I'll try to track them down.

    I've really become a fan of Ethel Barrymore. Every time I see her in a movie I'm just struck by how fantastic she is. Just saw her in Portrait of Jennie and she stole every scene in a film that has a very strong cast.

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    1. Indeed. There is a reason Ethel became a great star. Her talent and the force of her personality make her unforgettable.

      I think you'll enjoy both movies, particularly the Sturges' take.

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  2. I was familiar with the later version, but I had never seen the McMahon-Rathbone version until recently and I loved it! You're right that the tension between the two actors adds a great deal to the suspense. Also, I have to say that McMahon being younger adds a slight subtext of sexual threat which didn't exist with Ethel Barrymore. I also have to say that the young Rathbone is sexier than Maurice Evans!

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    1. "I also have to say that the young Rathbone is sexier than Maurice Evans!" 'Tis true.

      I have found that I enjoy each movie the more for knowing the other. A play should continue to live and grow, if it is worthy.

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  3. I haven't seen either version, despite it being such an intriguing story. I especially like the idea of Basil Rathbone in that role. (I quite like him in non-heroic roles.) I'll take you up on your recommendation to see both films.

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    1. You won't regret it. It's a fascinating concept that I doubt will ever run out of steam. These two casts are quite intriguing.

      Yes! Rathbone can do everything!

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  4. Would love to see both. Thanks for reviewing and comparing them. Two fine actresses- MacMahon and Barrymore.

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    1. MacMahon and Barrymore are truly fine. The more I see of them, the more I love them. I'm sure you will find these movies to be just your thing.

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  5. I didn't know there was an earlier version of the 1951 film; but interesting that they both use the same "Broadway" tagline. Shows how the Broadway imprimatur still meant something then in American culture. I've seen the Ethel Barrymore version; she's usually so indomitable, it's strange seeing her play helpless. I've also read the original short story, which had a much more 'down' ending (frankly, I'm glad it was changed!). I enjoyed your writing about the earlier version with Rathbone and the great Aline McMahon; it sounds worth catching.

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    1. I'm surprised that the play hasn't been updated and remade yet again. The roles are so good and the story still impacts.

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  6. Nice! I also didn't know that there were 2 versions of the film (I had only seen the Ethel Barrymore one) until TCM played the 1930's version recently. I tend to favor the later version more, probably because of Barrymore and Angela Lansbury. As much as I love Basil Rathbone, I actually thought Maurice Evans played the role of the artist better for the storyline. He was more subtle with his evil which made the film more intriguing for me.

    Tam May
    The Dream Book Blog
    https://thedreambookblog.wordpress.com

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    1. It is certainly more enjoyable for us when filmmakers can put their own stamp on the same material instead of giving us a carbon copy of what went before.

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  7. Thank you you for this, I’m looking forward to seeing both!

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    1. You are most welcome. I'm sure you will be impressed with both films.

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  8. Thanks for your enjoyable post covering both versions of "Kind Lady." The 1951 movie has long been a favorite of mine. It has a superlative cast, a great story, and I enjoy it every time I see it. I haven't seen the 1935 version yet, despite being a Basil Rathbone fan. I'll have to rectify that in the near future!

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    1. Sometimes it is nice, as a fan, to know we have that "new" film left to watch.

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  9. Paddy Lee, another really good write-up of two movies that I've never seen. Well, I'll have to seek them out. Thank you.

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    1. A well done drama with interesting roles for interesting actors. The Christmas setting adds a certain poignancy. I would like to see a stage version someday, or at least a third film attempt.

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