Movie Review: ‘Love from a Stranger’ (1936)

In film, psychology/psychiatry on March 25, 2008 at 3:04 am
Ann Harding in her young prime, c.1929

Ann Harding in her young prime, c.1929

This is another of those old movies with a lot of things wrong with them but is still interesting enough to tempt me to stay up till 2.30am watching it on tv. I’d never seen it, or heard of it, but I was particularly fascinated because I’d never seen Ann Harding on screen before. I was unsure at first and thought it might be the English actress of the same name; she was using that popular trans-Atlantic accent required from ‘lady’ stars of the time who were trained to enunciate like English women born to the manor: Ruth Chatterton, Kay Francis, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn… She looked like the American star physically but surely there was something missing.

But no, this Ann Harding was the American superstar of very early talkies. A top attraction from 1929, her pay rate from the RKO-Pathe studio in 1933 was $9,000 a week — in all the Hollywood starlight behind only Will Rogers, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert second equal, Maurice Chevalier and Ruth Chatterton. Like Chatterton, Nancy Carroll, Elissa Landi and several other stellar women of the time, she was stereotyped in “women’s pictures” and quickly lost popularity.

This film was made in England by lower case company Trafalgar but had the supposed advantages of the American star — even one on the slide rated higher box-office than most top English ones — as well as a prestigious American screen writer (Frances Marion) and director (Rowland V. Lee). Before looking it up I couldn’t place it in time and guessed it must be around 1931, even ’30; there was something primitive about the staging, even the lighting. And the directing was so unimaginative and static I thought it must have been made during that short phase on the introduction of talkies when filmmakers were still getting used to audio technology. Luckily the ingenious plotting and imaginative dialogue of Frances Marion, by this time a legendary screen writer for a quarter century, made up for it.

Certainly by now, though just 35, the gloss seemed to have gone off Ann. In the “Golden Era of Movies” around this age was considered the declining phase for screen females — unless you were Shirley Temple, then it was 10. At 38, Joan Crawford was dumped by MGM, and at 40 Bette Davis was playing middle aged in every sense. Even the thought of a sexually active 50-year-old in the mold of Jessica Lange, Ellen Barkin or Pam Grier — if it ever even occurred to any male mogul in Hollywood at the time — would have been considered outright disgusting. From earlier photos, Ann was highly attractive, with a luminous presence. A sedate and dignified blonde — a species totally extinct on screen since the Thirties.

Rathbone, the master villain, in costume in 1936

Rathbone, the master villain, in costume in 1936

Here she might have been deliberately unglamorised to make believable for the role of a woman (on the wrong side of thirty and in danger of being left on the shelf!) duped into love by a charming roue. Her leading man was Basil Rathbone, looking her match aged 44, years before he got into his famous Sherlock Holmes series that sustained him another decade. He had been a much sought-after leading man early in the decade for the screen’s leading divas, and was now in his period as the best costume villain on screen, usually trying to foil Errol Flynn, in Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro and so on.

The plot has it that after winning a lottery she dumps, after a minor spat, her long-time boyfriend (Bruce Seton) — one of those teddibly, teddibly civilized, dependable Nigels or Lionels of the day who admirably played the doormat once shat upon. When she springs the news on him, in Basil Rathbone’s presence, that she’s thrown him over, he later apologizes for how he reacted, having left the room dumbfounded in the circumstances. Of course, he hangs around for the rest of the movie trying to keep her from harm. Neither he nor her faithful sidekick (Binnie Hale) can talk any sense into her. She even writes off the ex as a jealous cad interfering with her new-found but illusory happiness. Note that the template of the independent, wilfully self-absorbed female, totally lacking in judgment between male characters (or rather, deluding herself over her own motives), was not new in the Nineties.

As these things tend to go in real life — and remember this is written by a woman, and from an Agatha Christie story — the heroine’s love has been won by an unmitigated bounder and disreputable rotter rolled into one. It turns out several of his ex-wives are no more and he is quite a celebrated case, so much so that there are books about him floating around. Somehow the heroine doesn’t recognize him from the photo and anyway she only starts to object when he raises his hand to her.

The acting in the denouement is fairly ripe but expertly done, and incredibly subtle by today’s standards — where the actor-automatons just scrunch their faces up in unadulterated fury and beat the shit out of each other. The psychiatry here isn’t even half right — as usual mixing up psychotic and psychopathic characteristics — but that’s entertainment?! Not for the Arnie/Sly Stallone/Harrison Ford crowd or other special effects and pyrotechnics lovers.

  1. I liked this movie and I like the review.

    G. A. (Gary) De Forest


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