Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tuesday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films: THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1948) starring Gig Young, Alexis Smith, Eleanor Parker and Sydney Greenstreet

If it's Tuesday, you know it's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Films day. The relevant links are listed over at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom. Please avail yourselves. We are an eccentric bunch.

Some of you may know of my late in life love affair with Wilkie Collins' two Victorian masterpieces, THE WOMAN IN WHITE and THE MOONSTONE - both of which I'd read (and written about) within the last couple of years. What can I say - I'm a late-starter.

THE WOMAN IN WHITE officially became one of my very favorite books of all time. (I loved THE MOONSTONE too, though not with the same fervor.)

But I'd never seen TWIW on film.

Imagine my surprise when I learned from Jacqueline at Another Old Movie Blog that a movie was filmed of the book in 1948 AND with Sydney Greenstreet as Count Fosco. So where was I while this was going on? Oh, growing up, I was only kid at the time. But later, I should have seen this film at some point. But no, somehow I don't think I ever did. Go figure.

By the way, you really do need to read Jacqueline's brilliant overview of the film. She has it all pinned down in ways that I'm incapable of doing. I'm just going to give a general long-winded assessment (as I like to do) and then steer you over to Jacqueline's to get the factual low-down on the film. Link to Another Old Movie Blog.

I'm also steering you to my original book review so you can get my take on the book itself when you have a moment.

THE WOMAN IN WHITE is a 1948 film directed by Peter Godfrey and starring Gig Young, Alexis Smith, Eleanor Parker and Sydney Greenstreet.

Most of the film was shot on a Hollywood back-lot with a non-British cast (which, by the way, boggles the mind - it is a British masterpiece, after all) who try but fail to hang on to any sort of appropriate accent. Not only that, but the ending of the film differs from book (it's actually a better ending, but really that's not enough of a reason to change the thing) and in between there are all sorts of changes probably in the spirit of making the film more understandable, fitted into the almost two hour time-frame. (It's a rather thick book and the story is tricky.)

Count Fosco (Sydney Greenstreet) looking disgruntled at breakfast. What is the man doing in the Fairlie house at breakfast? Beats me. Note that Gig Young (the young man with the mustache) is shackled for the entire movie in an outfit that looks very much like a chauffeur's uniform. Strange. Or maybe it's a drawing master's uniform?

A nervous John Abbott in his dressing gown, having conniptions and berating his poor valet Louie. Alexis Smith looks ready to beat both of them about the head with something heavy.

In the movie, oddly, all the characters appear to be living in the same house (not so in the book). There's the wonderful John Abbott as the very entertaining hypochondriac, Frederick Fairlie (and boy does he do everything he can to steal the movie). Abbott is a horrid delight as the sniveling, overset uncle always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It is his vast country estate in which most of the action takes place - except for the mad house and the town scenes near the end - wait, wait, we're getting there.

Yes, there is a madhouse. You knew that was coming - this is a Victorian story. We suspect there's a madhouse involved somewhere when we see Eleanor Parker drifting along in the night shadows, garbed all in white as she accosts Gig Young on a moonlight walk late at night. She breathlessly begs for his help only to disappear into the gloom as a carriage comes rumbling down the lane. 

Hanging around Fairlie manor is the sinister Count Fosco played very...uh, sinister-ly by the wonderful Sydney Greenstreet. He is not my idea of Fosco as described in the book, but as I always say: any Greenstreet is better than none. 

In the book, Count Fosco casts a huge aura of malevolence. He is, in a word: icky. He is the evil puppet master for whom all the characters must perform. We get that in the film too, but never as chilling as in the book. Maybe Fosco is so much bigger than life that it's impossible to pin the character down in black and white reality. Though Greenstreet obviously is having fun playing him - his little chortle comes in handy.

Fosco is in cahoots with a neighboring 'noble man' who has designs on one of the heroines of the piece. Sir Percival Glyde (cool name) is played by John Emery in a way that leaves no doubt as to his evil intentions. I mean, the guy reeks of badness. He always did in any role he played - he just had that kind of face.

Poor Gig Young has to wear an insipid little mustache throughout the movie as the Victorian 'hero' who is drawn into a strange dark tangle moments after arriving on the scene. He plays Walter Hartright, hired to teach two young ladies to draw - though for the life of me I can't think why. Anyway, the two young ladies are close friends and possibly cousins (can't remember). 

Laura Fairlie is played by Eleanor Parker (supposed to be a sweet angelic young thing, she is affianced to the unspeakably vulgar low-life Sir Percival, who is only after her huge inheritance).

Problem number one: Parker seems too old and too un-English to be the naive Miss Fairlie.

Problem number two: The other young lady is Marian Halcombe played by Alexis Smith. Marian is described in the book as being rather ugly. There is no way that Alexis Smith can be described as 'ugly' in any way, shape or form. 

However, let's pretend. Okay, so Eleanor and Walter become friends almost immediately, but he has googly-eyes only for Laura. And almost before you can say, fetch the art supplies, they are seen smooching on the lawn. (This never happens in the book. In fact, in the strict Victorian society in which these people are supposed to be living, such a breach of conduct would have been unthinkable - the smooching, I mean. However, this is Hollywood and you know how that goes.)

Marian asks Walter to leave the house asap because Laura is affianced to Sir Percival (in the book Walter is understood to be a penniless art teacher) and it's the right thing to do. If he [Walter] stays, a scandal might ensue. Walter is made to understand that the relationship between Laura and Sir Percival is as binding as a marriage in the eyes of...well, everybody who is anybody.

Let me add that all this happens within the first half hour or so of the film - the screenplay really zips right along.

In the meantime, where is the Woman in White? Don't worry, she's due to make another appearance shortly.

It seems that the mysterious woman whom Walter saw on the road on the night he first arrived at the Fairlie country estate is in actuality, someone named Ann Catherick. Ann happens to be the spitting image of Laura Fairlie (we find out why near the end) and she's been incarcerated in the local loony bin by none other than Count Fosco and dear Percy.

She has escaped in order to deliver a word of warning to Laura. Clutching at Walter whom she again runs into in the dark, she tells him that Laura must NOT marry Percy. Well, hardly a surprise, we all knew that going in. But apparently she has additional info.

The warning comes too late.

When Walter (as he most decidedly does NOT in the book) tries to stop the marriage, nobody believes his accusations. (Ann has disappeared again.) Count Fosco scoffs, insinuating that maybe Walter needs to go to an asylum as well. Sir Percival smirks. Even poor deluded Marian who had assumed that Fosco was just a jovial old friend with a monkey and a canary, demands some proof. After all, she hardly knows Walter.

So off goes the drawing master in a snit.

The melodrama quotient really increases after Laura and Sir Percy come back from a honeymoon in Italy. (Ugh, the mere thought of Percy and Laura...well, you get the idea. UGH!) At any rate, after a few months on the continent, the married couple comes back to the house and the plot, as they say, thickens nicely.

Fosco stays Percy's hand since he is too much inclined to act first and think later. Marian holds Laura - they are finally beginning to understand they are in the presence of great evil.

We find out that Count Fosco has the hots for Marian (he admires her spunk) and he presses her to run off with him - never mind that he has a wife. She is repulsed but then decides to sacrifice all for Laura's sake. 

Despite the several major changes (from the book), things move right along as Laura and Marian and Ann (not to mention the Count's poor wife played by Agnes Moorehead) must work to escape the wicked clutches of Fosco and Percy and their henchmen who will stop at nothing to get Laura to sign a paper turning over all her money to Percy. 

Luckily, Walter is back on the scene and has, inexplicably, switched his affections to Marian. Not so in the book where one wishes he had as well. Laura is a nice enough widgeon, but really, she doesn't have a clue. She's the type that needs to be taken care of, while Marian is more a man's equal in brains and character. But you know Victorian novels, equality in 'brains and character' usually meant the girl was ugly - it's the helpless beautiful ditz who usually gets the man. (Funny thing, because author Wilkie Collins had some fairly un-Victorian ideas about marriage and

At any rate, there is another night time escape from the local loony bin (honestly, where is security when you need it?) and two deaths to deal with - actually three, but I won't say who, what and why - before the bad guys get their comeuppance and we get the long awaited happy ending.

I'd say that the film probably works better if you haven't read the book, but it's up to you. Jacqueline liked it better than I did, so don't forget to read her post to see what convinced her.


  1. And I'm the opposite of you, I've seen this movie a few times, but have yet to read the book. After reading your review, I'm kinda glad I did it that way. I rather liked the movie, but I didn't have the book rattling around in my head. It's what I'm trying to do lately, watch the movie first, then read the book. I did that with The Woman in Black, and think I enjoyed the movie more for that.

    I got the DVDs earlier today, and I can't wait to watch them. Thank you!

  2. You crack me up. So witty, my dear. Thanks so much for the link.

    I loved both the movie and the book, but I take them separately. Kind of like a little kid who doesn't want her peas and mashed potatoes to touch on her plate.

    A jovial old friend with a monkey and a canary. You crack me up.

  3. Love the book but have never seen (Or even heard) of this.

  4. You're welcome, Ryan. :) Let me know what you think.

    Oh you must read the book, Ryan. THE WOMAN IN WHITE, I mean. You must.

    I can't believe I waited so long to read it myself. But maybe I had to wait until I was ready....

  5. It's so funny, Jacqueline because in the book I actually worried what would happen to Fosco's 'pets'. That's me all over. Animals first. Ha.

    Thanks for the compliment, m'dear. Coming from you it means a lot.

  6. Well, Patti, that's why this is called FORGOTTEN (or OVERLOOKED)films. Ha!

  7. Very funny review, Yvette! Loved it. I think I saw this a long, long time ago. But I can't watch any more adapatations of this book because like you I love the story too much. That musical version? Bleech! There is only one time it was done very well for the screen.

    Someday if you have the time (and the patience) you might want to check out the 1982 TV mini-series (from UK TV) which is perhaps the truest adaptation of The Woman in White. It's at Youtube but... in 20 parts (5 episodes of 4 parts each). That's why I say you need patience. I watched it over two days one rainy weekend and loved it. Very little is missing and the actor who plays Count Fosco is amazing.

    But on all accounts avoid the the most recent 1997 TV version (easily available on DVD) which butchers the book. Tara Fitzgerald as Marion is the only good thing in it. Simon Callow as Fosco is wasted because his role is reduced practically to nothing. Imagine! Fosco reduced. HA! But what they do to the story? Unforgiveable.

  8. Thank you, John. :)

    Oh that PBS series sounds like it might be just the thing for a nice wintery weekend. I think I have the patience...

    Don't worry, I'll avoid the musical. MUSICAL??? I can just see Count Fosco singing up a storm and kicking his heels. Yegads. It might make for an opera though, hmmm.....!

    At any rate I won't see the newer version. Had no plans to. But thanks for the warning, m'dear.

  9. Hello Yvette:
    Although we have not seen these films, Wilkie Collins remains a favourite author. We first came across him when we heard 'The Woman in White' read as Book at Bedtime on the radio.

  10. I can't believe I missed this, what a cast. Alexis was such a gorgeous woman.
    I will try to find it. Thanks .yvonne

  11. I saw this decades a go before reading the book and can't really remember much about it though I'm no fan of Eleanor Parker usually (she always seemed very affected and a bit high and mighty for my tastes) - these films always sound like a lot of fun the way you tell it Yvette - cheers!

  12. I read Wilkie Collins late in life, Jane and Lance, that's why I like to call myself a recent convert. :)

    I'll bet that THE WOMAN IN WHITE makes for splendid audio.

  13. You're welcome, Yvonne. If you can't find it, I can lend you my copy. :)

    Just let me know.

  14. Thanks, Sergio. I do my best to entertain. Ha! Actually it's that certain movies just bring out the devil in me. :)

    I'm not a fan of Eleanor Parker either.

    She made one film in which I liked her:
    BETWEEN TWO WORLDS. At least, that I can remember.

  15. This is a great review, nearly as funny as your review of the book.

    I have not seen this but I've looked high and low for it. I've seen one of the British versions, which was okay, not great.

    I'd love to see this cast performing.I like Alexis Smith. Eleanor Parker kind of fades on the vine, but that's what she does. And the villain -- what a good choice.

    I'll look for this version on film. Maybe I should join Netflix.

  16. Thanks, Kathy. It really is worth the search to find a copy of this film. Just to compare and maybe have a few laughs.

    P.S. Netflix doesn't have it.

  17. Yvette, thanks for the very well-written and entertaining review of THE WOMAN IN WHITE. I didn't know about this film or the actors, barring Eleanor Parker, and I don't think I have read the book. I liked the way you take the reader back and forth between the film and the book. A fine overview of both.

  18. Thanks, Prashant. The book is a must as far as I'm concerned. Maybe you'll find a copy when you're out book hunting.

  19. Heard of this film but have yet to ever see it. Looks like I need to add it to my list!


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