Posts Tagged ‘American History’

Courageous Mr Penn (1942)

Dir: Lance Comfort | Cast: Clifford Evans, Deborah Kerr, Dennis Arundell, Aubrey Mallalieu | UK Drama 78′

A straightforward history lesson plainly aimed at drumming up support from the isolationist United States of 1941, Penn of Pennsylvania wasn’t ready for cinemas until Pearl Harbor had already forced America’s hand and thus rendered this film obsolete by the time it finally opened in Britain at the end of January 1942. It received only a perfunctory New York airing at the end of 1943 retitled Courageous Mr. Penn to suggest action rather than history and was then quietly forgotten. (The print on YouTube is of the US version, with hasty-looking credits containing errors and omissions – Edmund Willard is billed as ‘Edward’ and the name of director of photography Ernest Palmer is missing altogether.)

Precisely because it’s moment was so brief makes Penn of Pennsylvania extremely interesting viewing today. In many respects it ironically resembles a German ‘genius’ film of the same period such as Friedrich Schiller (1940), in which a fiery young hero back in the Bad Old Days defies convention and outrages the reactionary old establishment. Both a jury of Penn’s peers and Charles II himself (played by Dennis Arundell) are shown taking the side of the dashing young Mr. Penn against the dead weight of the establishment.

The Merry Monarch thoughtfully opines for the benefit of any future waverers across the Pond that “We could take America and turn it into a vast continent whose freedom of thought and liberty of conscience will be the birthright of every man”. Penn goes one better by declaring “We would treat the Indians as brothers and gain their friendship”; although he’s later required to show himself handy with his fists to prevent the lynching of one of his new brethren. Penn also makes a point of obliging his colleagues to leave their weapons at home when he comes to negotiate with the local chief.

(A strange moment occurs when the King himself solicits the opinion of a gentlemen that he addresses as “My Lord Halifax”, who we then cut to in close-up – the actor himself is like many others in the film unidentified in the credits – so that he can respond “I think that Mr. Penn is an extremely brave gentlemen, and I should like to wish him luck.”)

The cast includes many familiar faces in wigs – including Henry Oscar as Samuel Pepys and Gibb McLaughlin as the Indian Chief (fortunately the latter isn’t playing a speaking part) – embellished with handsome sets and photography and William Alwyn’s first score for a feature film. A radiant young Deborah Kerr plays his wife Guli, whose memory a title informs us “was always with him” after her death in 1696. The film omits to mention that he remarried two years later and fathered nine more children. @RichardChatten


That Summer (2017) ***

Dir.: Göran Hugo Olsson; Documentary with Edith Ewing Bouvier, Edith Bouvier Beale, Lee Radziwill, Peter Beard; Sweden/Denmark/USA 2017, 80min.

THAT SUMMER is a kind of prequel to Albert and David Maysles’ cult documentary Grey Gardens (1975) and is all about the nostalgia for nostalgia. Shot in the summer of 1972, using material by Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, Peter Beard and Albert Maysles, bookended (and commentated) by Peter Beard, creates his diary in collage form, this documentary is by far more direct than Grey Gardens, when it comes to its main protagonists Edith Ewing Bouvier and her daughter Edith Bouver Beale, being called lovingly Big and little Edie, who lived alone in splendid isolation in a decaying mansion since the 1930ies.

Using original film material, re-discovered after decades, director Göran Hugo Olsson (Concerning Violence) sets out to describe a magical summer in 1972, when Lee Radziwill, the younger sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her friend the artist and photographer Peter Beard, spent a summer in East Hampton, Long Island. Beard, setting the tone for the feature, calls contemporary East Hampton “Cash” Hampton, a place for the rich and vulgar. But in the early 1970ies, artists like Andy Warhol (who usually preferred urban settings), Truman Capote, Mick and Bianca Jagger mingled with Jackie Onassis and her husband, who paid for the restoration of Grey Gardens, the house Big and Little Edie has lived in. Lee Radziwill directed the work, which included cleaning up cat droppings, which had accumulated during decades. The felines themselves are a main feature always posing attractively. Beard, who now lives in Montauk, not far away from Grey Gardens (which is worth around 18 million Dollar these days) talks about those months in lyrical and poetic terms: Every minute was new, insanely funny, poignant, wild unpredictable and unmatchable… Daily soap operas amongst themselves, the most original scripts, the most paranoid gossip, remarkable historical tales. And the most unforgettable, amazing thing was getting in there – naturally the whole outside world had been padlocked out. Gaining entrance to this world of conscientious objectors: that was the mystery ticket”.

What That Summer underlines is the “castle relationship” between the two Edies: With all the work in the house going on, Radziwill and Beard trying to perform their task of modernisation, whilst mother and daughter continue their role-play like relationship, utterly dependent on each other, yet constantly at odds as they argue the smallest point. They are very much like precocious children, waiting to be asked by the ‘adults’ to perform. Which, in the end they do, singing about autumn and the dwindling, precious days.

Olsson tries very hard to get all different elements to gel but this task is nearly impossible, and what results is a slightly in-cohesive documentary that still manages to keep the audience spellbound. AS


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