US / 75 minutes / bw / Albert Ray, Allied Dir: Albert Ray Pr: M.H. Hoffman Scr: Frances Hyland Story: Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert Cine: Harry Neumann, Tom Galligan Cast: H.B. Warner, Lila Lee, Joyce Compton, Ivan Lebedeff, Beryl Mercer, Jason Robards Sr., Lysle Talbot (i.e., Lyle Talbot), Kathlyn Williams, Richard Carlyle, Frances Rich.
Late one night, stately old Dr. Daniel “Dan” Gregory (Warner) arrives at the cottage where elderly gardener A. “Brownie” Bailey (Carlyle) is dying. Brownie is really the patient of Dan’s doctor son Jerome Preston “Jerry” Gregory (Talbot), but Jerry has for some reason chickened out on treating him, instead concentrating on comforting Brownie’s lovely daughter Sheila (Compton). Brownie soon dies and, before Dan leaves, Jerry drops a bombshell: he and Sheila have secretly married.
Jerry (Lyle Talbot) and Dan (H.B. Warner) argue about Jerry’s marriage to Sheila.
Sheila (Joyce Compton) shows little distress over her father’s death.
Dan goes straight to the home of his old friend Mrs. Mary Bradford (Williams) and breaks to her the news of Jerry’s marriage. The two elderly people are distressed together, because it’s long been assumed that Jerry will marry Mary’s daughter Jane (Lee), who loves him dearly. The worst of it, they agree, is that Sheila, being merely a gardener’s daughter, is so obviously quite unsuitable to be the bride of a wealthy society doctor. Yet, as we know but Dan and Mary don’t, there’s a real problem about Sheila: We saw, back at the cottage, that she wasn’t the least bit upset about her father’s death, despite her public tears. We also saw that Mrs. Cawley (Mercer), the good-natured neighbor who helped the old man during his final illness, held the younger woman in poorly concealed contempt.
At the awful party, Jane (Lila Lee) and Dan (H.B. Warner) laugh about the snobbery on display.
Jane takes the news of the marriage better than we might expect when Dan breaks it to her:
Jane: “In other words, Jerry has brought home another stray kitten.”
Dan: “Yes. And we’re all going to get fleas. Except Jerry.”
Jane: “But Jerry will be awfully sorry that we get fleas.”
Dan: “He will if we tell him . . .”
The exchange is typical of a screenplay that can’t distinguish between admirable evocativeness and self-parody.
Alex (Ivan Lebedeff) is immediately attracted to Sheila.
Jerry’s doctorly duties keep him out of the Gregory family mansion to all hours, and the lonely Sheila, seeing their young neighbor Simmie Simmington (Robards) playing tennis with his novelist pal Alex Stockmar (Lebedeff), adroitly bats her eyelashes in order to spark a friendship. At this stage it seems she’s merely semi-innocently flirting. His intentions, though, are clearly otherwise:
Simmington: “Say, d’you play tennis?”
Simmington: “Swell, I’ll teach you. Well . . . I’ll teach you to . . . [smirk] play tennis.”
Simmie also bets Alex $500 that he’ll succeed in getting inside Sheila’s pants within the next few weeks.
Jerry’s society friends make a point of snubbing Sheila at every turn. When she holds an open house, no one turns up. She expresses her unhappiness to Jerry—who’s just about to rush out to deliver yet another baby—but he makes light of it. Old man Dan, on the other hand, overhearing, realizes that he himself is far from guiltless in the young woman’s unhappiness. He offers to take Sheila that evening to a dance that’s being organized at the swanky Club d’Este.
Sheila (Joyce Compton) sets the country club dancefloor alight with Pete (uncredited).
When they arrive there, all the tables are taken. Ordinarily it’d be merely a matter of cadging an invitation to join someone else’s table but, since Sheila is of such lowly social standing, everyone spurns them—despite, or because of, the fact that you can hardly hear the band for the sound of male tongues flopping into ashtrays.
Sheila (Joyce Compton) makes Alex (Ivan Lebedeff) an offer he has no wish to refuse.
But then Jane, there with her friends Alex Stockmar (whom we already met), Gail Abbott (Rich) and Pete Sherman (uncredited), sees what’s going on and invites the mismatched couple to her table. Not only does Jane go out of her way to be friendly to Sheila, she encourages Pete to dance with her—which he does, to the obvious envy of the other men there. When the pair get back to the table, though, Gail behaves disgustingly.
Gail Abbott: “Did you enjoy the dance?”
Pete: “You bet I did.”
Gail: “What were you discussing so earnestly? Bulbs?”
There’s a spat, and we suspect Jane’s friendship with Gail is over (lucky Jane). Alex invites the other three back to his place for cocktails and, pleased to escape the noxious atmosphere at the Club d’Este, they agree. There it becomes plain to Dan and Jane that Sheila has taken a shine to Alex. Again this seems like nothing more than semi-innocent flirtation until Alex, left alone for a moment, pulls from his pocket a note from Simmie saying that he claims his five hundred bucks . . .
Next we know, Sheila’s in the midst of a full-fledged affair with Alex, has filched some of Jerry’s money to set Mrs. Cawley (remember her?) up in a cottage where the adulterous couple can spend amorous afternoons, and is in general living up—or down—to the standards all those ghastly society snobs expected from a low-born gardener’s daughter. Clearly the stage has been set for tragedy.
Mrs. Cawley (Beryl Mercer) tells all to Dan.
There’s a very great deal to like about this movie. Warner’s performance is splendid, although—presumably as a hangover from his stage experience—he tends to slow down every scene he’s in with his somewhat ponderous enunciation; it’s as if the other actors felt they had to slow down to match him or seem to be gabbling. Talbot’s pretty dreadful and Robards not so very much better, but their roles are surprisingly minor so this is less important than you’d think. Lebedeff offers a nice mix of formality and sleaze.
But the movie really rests on the shoulders of Lee and Compton, and between the two of them they make it compulsive viewing. Lee’s an actress who was a big star in her day, smoothly achieving the transition from silents to talkies, but who has perhaps unaccountably rather dropped below cinema history’s radar. There’s something very much of the Betty Boop about her, maybe because of the hair and the large eyes; I always have to remind myself that it was another actress, Helen Kane, whom Betty was supposedly based on. Those expressive eyes, which served Lee so admirably in the silents era, continue to do so here. She’s clearly a tad old for the ingenue, but she still conjures a very appealing Jane on the screen for us.
. . . and there’s even a nighttime car chase!
And then there’s Compton. Compton had one of the sweetest, most disarming smiles ever seen on screen, which she used to great effect in what’s probably her most famous role, despite its being a relatively small one: that of Cary Grant’s vaudeville girlfriend Dixie Belle Lee in The Awful Truth (1937). She uses it to great effect here, too, but she moves back and forward between that innocently smiling persona and a very vampish, knowing one. The combination is of temperature somewhere around that of the Lake of Eternal Fire. As she dances with Pete at the Club d’Este in her sideless dress it’s hard to know why fights aren’t breaking out.
The adaptation of Flaubert’s novel is obviously pretty loose—not least in the shift of venue from the town of Ry (disguised as “Yonville”), near Rouen in Normandy, to Rye, in New York State. As noted above, the screenplay wobbles between a genuine wit and an odd pseudery, sometimes in the same line of dialogue. I laughed aloud (identifying in all directions, I guess) when Jane introduced Alex to Dan with a fond insult:
“He writes novels, Dan. But they’re not very good so you needn’t pretend you’ve read them.”
But then I almost started giggling again, for all the wrong reasons, as Dan tried to explain to Sheila why her affair with Alex must end:
“When Jerry was quite young, he had the ridiculous habit of riding his bicycle with his eyes closed. He said it felt like flying. But it used to hurt both of us acutely . . . when he would run into a tree.”
Well, yes. It—sob—would, wouldn’t it?
What the screenplay does manage to do, however, and strikingly so, is present Sheila as not so much the sole author of her selfish, hedonistic ways as the creation of a fairly foul social environment. After her marriage, everyone except Jerry cordially loathes her because she has “married above her station,” and most of the snobs make no secret of the fact; even Jerry doesn’t so much interact with her as a human being as treat her like a cross between a porcelain doll and an inflatable one. It’s hardly a wonder she seeks to bolster her self-esteem through flirtation (and more, if we’re to believe Simmie, which I’m not sure we can) or by responding to Alex’s affection. While the people around Sheila, their hypocrisy a reek in the air, may be severely judgmental of her, the screenplay manages not to be. To be sure, she’s guilty of moral turpitude galore and she’s hurting people, but to a great extent our sympathies lie with her.
Spelling has never been Hollywood’s strong point.
Since the appearance of the sensationally titled Unholy Love, there’ve been countless other adaptations of Madame Bovary for the large screen and small: you can find many of them listed here)—and those are just the ones with Madame Bovary as the title. Of particular interest, perhaps, is Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery (2014), based on the 1999 Posy Simmonds graphic novel and starring Gemma Arterton as the sinful spouse.
On Amazon.com: Unholy Love DVD