Monday, August 17, 2009

Region 2 Cinema: The Saxon Charm (1948)

Theatrical producer Matt Saxon (Robert Montgomery) is a temperamental, autocratic bully whose charismatic magnetism (hence the film’s title) keeps individuals in his thrall even though the smarter ones know they’d be better off putting as much distance between themselves and Saxon as possible. The latest victim to fall into Saxon’s web is novelist-turned-playwright Eric Busch (John Payne), whose play The Comic Spirit has Matt positively raving; the producer convinces Busch to let him produce the play, and he’s even got an important (and wealthy) backer, Zack Humber (Harry Von Zell). Eric’s wife Janet (Susan Hayward) has reservations about her husband’s loyalty to Saxon; she finds him demanding and boorish, particularly when he makes an embarrassing spectacle of himself at a restaurant. But Busch is determined to learn about the theater from a pro (Saxon’s fiancée, chanteuse Alma Wragge [Audrey Totter], confides to Janet that even the producer’s enemies cannot deny his brilliance); even one who is so ruthless he sabotages Alma’s budding movie career, insults Humber to the point when he pulls out of the production, and inadvertently causes his ex-wife (Heather Angel) to commit suicide. Busch is finally able to break away from Saxon’s monstrousness—but at the end, Saxon is on the phone with another aspiring playwright and using his “charm” to “seduce” another victim.

Written and directed by Claude Binyon (based on the novel by Frederic Wakeman) for Universal-International, The Saxon Charm (1948) is an interesting little picture in the theatre-people-are-ruthless-but-they-have-to-be-to-make-it-in-this-bidness genre, like The Hard Way (1943) and the grand mommy of them all, All About Eve (1950). It’s a little dramatically uneven (at one point in the picture’s last half Montgomery’s Saxon starts to behave less like Jed Harris—Montgomery’s real-life inspiration—and more like Max Bialystock from The Producers [1968]) but benefits from a great cast—even though many critics then and now feel Montgomery was miscast in the lead role. I didn’t have a problem with Montgomery (his character is like a petulant, spoiled child and the actor’s limited range manages to cover that pretty well) although I can certainly think of another actor who would have hit it out of the park (Paging Mr. Welles…) so much as John Payne, who’s a bit disappointing as Busch (Kirk Douglas would have been ideal).

So the acting honors go to the female contingent: Audrey Totter is great as always as the world-weary Alma (so desperately in love with Montgomery, and yet clear-headed enough to warn Hayward about him—plus she sings a mean version of I’m in the Mood For Love to boot) and Susan Hayward is equally superb as devoted wife Janet Busch—who possesses a admirably strong and independent streak and isn’t afraid to speak her mind as far as Montgomery is concerned. I also like the offbeat choices in the supporting parts: Harry Von Zell (known primarily as announcer-foil to radio stars like Eddie Cantor and Dinah Shore) displays some impressive acting chops; as do Harry Morgan (billed here as “Henry”) as Montgomery’s devoted lackey; a platinum blonde Cara Williams as Von Zell’s ditzy wife; and Chill Wills as the highly-strung skipper of Montgomery’s yacht.

I purchased Charm (Sed de Dominio) on an all-region DVD (released by Suevia Films in Spain) about three years ago from an eBay seller; all-region means that it’s engineered to play on any type of DVD player…but it’s also recorded in PAL mode, so you’ll need to have a player with a PAL-to-NTSC converter as well. I thought the back of this DVD’s packaging was unusual in that the company includes some of the players with relatively small roles in the production; great character actors (not unfamiliar to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear readers) like Addison Richards and Philip Van Zandt. TDOY fave Kathleen Freeman has a bit in the film’s beginning as a desk nurse, and if you look sharp you’ll spot Barbara Billingsley as one of Hayward’s St. Louis friends in a scene in her apartment toward the end.

3 comments:

Laura said...

This sounds really interesting. A great cast. I see it's available on Amazon.UK. Does this play on an all-region player, or is it more complicated than that? Thanks!

Best wishes,
Laura

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Laura, it will play on an all-region player, but you also have to make certain that the player has a PAL-to-NTSC converter...and I'll bet dollars to donuts yours probably does, so you should be cool.

You don't have to buy this from Amazon.co.uk, though. DaaVeeDee.com has it for $22.99 U.S. and I'm the sure the postage will be a bit more reasonable.

Laura said...

Thanks much for the additional info. Some of this terminology is new to me as a new all-region player owner (grin). I'll get out my manual and check on the PAL-to-NTSC converter issue.

Thanks for the link! This is definitely one I'll consider getting.

Best wishes,
Laura