Monday, May 9, 2011

Grey Market Cinema: Whom the Gods Destroy (1934)

(Ivan’s note: This post will reveal the end of this film, for an important reason that will be apparent in the final paragraph…so if you don’t want it spoiled, stop at the warning…)

Theatrical impresario John Forrester (Walter Connolly) is on a boat trip to London to personally oversee a production when a Titanic-like shipwreck occurs en route, necessitating the traditional “women-and-children-first” scramble for the lifeboats.  Forrester displays tremendous courage during the alarm, even to the point of giving up his life vest to a female passenger and friend, Henrietta Crosland (Maidel Turner).  But in a temporary state of panic, thinking about his wife Margaret (Doris Kenyon) and young son Jack (Scotty Beckett), he does what normally is only dreamt about in sketches on Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Saturday Night Live


…yes, he dons women’s clothing in order to get to safety.  The lifeboats land off the coast of a Newfoundland fishing village and when Forrester’s ruse is discovered he is jeered at and called a coward by the residents save for Alec Klein (Hobart Bosworth), who undertakes the responsibility of nursing Forrester back to health.  Because of his shame at what he’s done, Forrester uses an alias when questioned by a constable gathering information on the survivors of the shipwreck—which results in banner headlines back home trumpeting his demise.  (His host knows otherwise, having found a wallet embossed with his name among his personal effects.)  Making a full recovery and with money borrowed from his benefactor, the producer makes his way back to the Big Apple to a theatre which is currently hosting one of his plays.  But to his horror, he finds this display outside the building:


Crosland, upon her return to the States, has told everyone of John’s selfless act of giving up his life vest and so everyone is convinced that Forrester perished in the wreck while performing his feats of heroism.  He then decides to reveal to the world that he’s very much alive…but then considers that someone might fill in the additional details of how he donned suspenders and a bra to get off the Balkan in the first place, and he is dismayed at what that damage will do to the reputation of his family.  So he adopts a third alias in “Eric Jann,” subsisting on menial jobs like dishwashing when he fortuitously lucks into a position as a watchman at a show run by the autocratic puppeteer Carlo (Henry Kolker); this allows him to be in close proximity to the theatre because his son…


…has grown up to become Jim Anderson Dr. Marcus Welby Robert Young.  The adult Jack, wishing to follow in his father’s footsteps, has designs on becoming a producer and playwright, and ambitiously puts on his first production…


Mmmmmm…bomb-o!” as Mr. Carson used to say.  But the senior Forrester, posing as “an old friend of your father’s,” gives young Jack a pep talk and with advice and encouragement makes the would-be impresario’s next production a raging success.

20th Century-Fox stalwart Walter Lang is best known for directing many of that studio’s musicals, including Tin Pan Alley (1940), Coney Island (1943), State Fair (1945) and The King and I (1956)—not to mention family-friendly vehicles like Sitting Pretty (1948) and Cheaper by the Dozen (1950).  So it was interesting to be able to see this movie from so early in his career because Whom the Gods Destroy (1934) deserves to be much better known—it’s a first-class sleeper.  With a screenplay by Fred Niblo, Jr. and Sidney Buchman (based on a story by Albert Payson Terhune), Destroy stars character great Walter Connolly in a…well, this might seem a contradiction in terms, but a courageous role of a man whose one fleeting moment of spinelessness indelibly brands him a coward for the rest of his life.  We like our movie heroes to be just that, and it’s a testament to Walter’s outstanding performance that he’s able to play what could be a very unlikable fellow in such a sympathetic fashion.  This is driven home in a poignant moment in Destroy where Connolly’s Forrester asks Bosworth’s Alec why he’s played the Good Samaritan despite Forrester’s yellow streak and Alec replies: “Well, when you’ve made a mistake yourself…all of us are cowards at one time or another.”

Connolly’s stock in trade was playing exasperated tycoons or newspapermen in outings like It Happened One Night (1934), Broadway Bill (1934), Libeled Lady (1936) and Nothing Sacred (1937)…and though he did get an opportunity on occasion to play the lead (notably as Nero Wolfe in 1937’s The League of Frightened Men and the titular role of his last film, The Great Victor Herbert [1939]) I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen him take center stage.  A New York Times critic favorably compared Connolly’s performance in Destroy to the sort of roles often essayed by actor Emil Jannings and even remarked that he resembled the Oscar-winning thesp in full beard (though I personally thought he looked more like Sebastian Cabot).

In 1934, Columbia Pictures was still considered a non-prestigious studio (even if they did have Frank Capra on the payroll); it was frequently referred to by industry observers as “Columbia, the germ of the ocean.”  So the shipwreck scenes in Destroy are impressively lavish, despite the fact though they cribbed a bit of stock footage from E.A. Dupont’s Atlantik (1929).  Interestingly, you have a German influence in the film (with the previous Jannings comparison) but one can also detect the heavy hand of Russian cinema in many of Destroy’s eye-popping montage sequences, edited by Viola Lawrence.  The scenes fomented in Connolly’s mind as he imagines the impact that his “resurrection” will have on his and his family’s life are positively amazing.

My position on child actors is probably well-established here by now but I do make notable exceptions for Our Gang members like Mr. Beckett…


…who’s so cute you could eat him up with a spoon.  (But use a fork instead…you’ll want to get every bite, as the soup commercial used to say…)  Other familiar faces you might recognize in the film include Akim Tamiroff (who plays an unruly steerage passenger who gets into a scuffle with Connolly on the boat…and it’s his identity Connolly appropriates upon his arrival in the fishing village)…


And you also have the presence of Grandpappy Amos:


Charles Middleton (wearing the hat) plays the inquisitive constable who, upon entering Alec’s shack, announces “I want to get the name of the brave lad you’ve brought here” in his trademark snarl, and the woman in the checkered blouse is character great Mary Gordon—who was in a gazillion old movies but is best known for playing landlady Martha Hudson in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie series at Universal.  (It is, in fact, customary for my mother and I to shout out “Mrs. Hudson!” whenever we spot Mary in a non-Holmes vehicle.)

(Okay, now for the spoiler alert…)

The running time for Whom the Gods Destroy is listed in Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide as seventy-five minutes, which jibes with a few other sources I consulted—and the importance of this is because the print I watched was obtained from Vintage Film Buff.com (I scored some rare movie titles free-of-charge for contributing reviews of products I previously purchased) and it runs seven minutes shorter.  This is quite evident because the ending of the film in the VFB print has Connolly’s character reunited with wife Kenyon after Young’s stage triumph and their reconciliation ends abruptly, followed by Columbia’s “The End” titles.  But Facebook compadre Hal Erickson confirmed for me via e-mail that the actual ending of Destroy has Connolly going off into the shadows at film’s end after realizing that his opportunity to make up for lost time with his wife and son has pretty much left the station.  (Additionally, an IMDb wag notes that there’s been some trimming in the shipwreck sequence.)  So the VFB copy (Hal’s convinced it’s probably an old TV print that wanted the movie to end on an upbeat note) left me both amused and miffed; amused because whoever edited the “happy ending” version apparently wanted to spare me the heartbreak (I’m a big boy, though—I can take it) and miffed because…well, it should be pretty obvious why.  (To add insult to injury, the synopsis on the back of VFB’s DVD cover does not acknowledge the original ending lost to the ill-advised edit.)  Had I ponied up the funds to purchase this movie I’d really be steamed but the fact that I received it gratis tones down my indignation some.  I do want to say that Whom the Gods Destroy is a movie that you shouldn’t miss (maybe we’ll be lucky and it will turn up on TCM one day since it’s a Columbia joint) but with regards to VFB’s copy, caveat emptor.

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2 comments:

Rachel said...

Putting this one on my to-do list. Any movie in which the hero crossdresses to save his life is worthwhile to me. And it's be great to see Walter Connolly in a leading role.

The Lady Eve said...

I haven’t seen "Whom the Gods Destroy" and wondered if TCM might have it scheduled. Checked the website, it’s not scheduled (I sent a request), but some interesting information. The movie is listed as being 70 – 71 or 75 minutes long. The ending described on the TCM database: After their play is a success, John flees the theater when Jack wants to introduce him around. “Jack brings Margaret to John’s apartment. When Margaret recognizes John, they decide to reunite somewhere far away, and to never reveal the truth to Jack.”