Thursday, October 14, 2010

"That Forsyte Woman" - 1949

In “That Forsyte Woman” (1949), Errol Flynn gives a riveting performance as a jerk. He is a man of substantial self-importance, without humor or any self-effacing quality which might be termed human. And yet, he turns this characterization on its axis, and we find ourselves fascinated, and ultimately sympathetic with his very human flaws.

He plays Soames Forsyte in this dramatization of the John Galsworthy classic stories. Greer Garson is a lady of no particular age, whose loveliness in this role is tempered by her wretchedness, and a sordid realization that she has compromised on many levels the integrity we are meant to believe in her, hurting herself and others.

She is a piano teacher, poor and alone in the world, with only her beauty and her finer qualities of character to recommend her, who marries the snobbish Errol Flynn mainly because she is exhausted from refusing him, which she had done a number of times.

But we are told time and again in this movie that what Errol wants, Errol gets, through shear willpower and determination.

It probably does not need to be said, but one is compelled to note again how mind-blowingly handsome this man was.

Right, then. Continuing…

Though he beams with the triumph of ownership when she becomes his bride, Errol soon realizes with bitterness that a woman is not a piece of furniture or an object of art, or any pretty bauble that one buys and owns, because he cannot own all of her. He does not have her heart.

Walter Pidgeon is on board as Errol’s cousin and Greer’s sympathetic friend, and eventual soul mate. This is only right and proper; he is, after all, Walter Pidgeon.

Robert Young is a cheeky young architect engaged to Janet Leigh, who is Walter’s daughter. However (insert ominous chords of music here), Robert and Greer are scandalously attracted to each other, and fall in love. All told, there are three suitors in this film after Greer Garson. Not a bad gig.

Set in London in the 1880s, the film is rich with Victorian set dressing, lush costuming, gaslight, and impenetrable fog. We find ourselves in elegant drawing rooms, art galleries, and cold, stark artists’ studios.

The Forsytes are only a couple generations removed from working class people, but now they are the newly wealthy, and as stuck up as possible, regarding every privilege as a birthright and every non-family member as an underling.

Harry Davenport plays Walter Pidgeon’s father, the patriarch of this stuffy clan. Walter, however, is banished from their company because he is the black sheep. For one, he is an artist, not a man of business. For another, he eloped with his baby daughter’s nursery governess after the death of his wife and ran off to Paris to paint. He left his daughter, Janet Leigh, in the care of his powerful family, who forbid him to see her.

There is so much to look at in this film, but one is always distracted by the elegant Errol Flynn, who wears his impatient pomposity like a monarch’s robe; something he has been born to, deserves, and never fails to parade. What finally induces Greer to marry him is possibly his enormous self confidence. For many women, this is as much a lure of security as a healthy bank book.

This quality may be what Mr. Flynn understands most about the character and why he plays it so well. He was himself a man of prodigious self confidence, a person for whom perhaps everything came easy. Boredom and restlessness result from this trait as much as does success. It can be a double-edged sword. It probably was in Flynn’s case.

What strikes the viewer is the playfulness, even more than the understanding, that he brings to this character. He seems to enjoy wearing a pince-nez. In one scene, he enters the dim hall of Greer’s boarding house, and his top hat smacks against the chandelier. He gives it a glance of longsuffering loathing, refusing to surrender his dignity. It is moment of comedy, and a glimpse into Flynn’s ability to be self-effacing even if Soames Forsyte is not.

His characterization is not parody, however. Mr. Flynn has another good scene over the dinner table with Greer on their wedding anniversary. He is chafing under her polite formality with him, knowing that despite her acquiescence to his every whim, including letting him choose her dresses for her, she cannot love him with the passion he seems to feel he has bought and paid for. We are meant to take it as a slight to his vanity throughout the film, for he never indicates his passion for her. It is only at the end of the movie we see his wounded heart and feel sorry for him.

Until then, he only displays irritability as a mask for his hurt feelings. At one point during the course of his brittle dinner conversation, a scene that shows marvelous restraint, he accuses her of forgetting their anniversary. When at last he discovers under a napkin the gift she has left on his plate, he is contrite and vulnerable. Flynn does excellent work in this tense scene.

Obviously, for purposes of the film, the Galsworthy stories are condensed and somewhat altered, but the movie is a good introduction to the troubled and tragic Forsyte family.

Greer becomes almost instantly attracted to Robert Young, who, open and fun-loving, a man who talks to children as an equal, is by nature the exact opposite of Mr. Flynn. He pursues her, and she refuses him because, more than the threat of scandal, she does not want to betray her beloved “niece”, Janet Leigh, who is like a companion to her. However, they are all tragedy bound.

Greer starts this film visiting a morgue, a haunted expression on her face, her eyes puffy. It is an unglamorous beginning. Though in some scenes she still produces gaiety with that trademark slip of laughter in her voice, she is for the most part an unhappy woman in this film. She is a victim of circumstances, of her own bad choices, and fate.

Walter Pidgeon is also tragic, but he appears as a more romantic figure for all his melancholy perhaps because, unlike Greer and Errol, he is true to his heart and honest about his feelings. He is a gentle, kindly man, humble about his artistic talent, who wants to reunite with his daughter. It is funny to think that in five years this dark-haired 40-ish dashing artist will become the gray-haired worn-out businessman in “Executive Suite” (1954) - see previous post here.

That is perhaps another fun thing about this movie, the great romantic intrigue, the jealously and passion are all played out by middle-aged characters. By contrast, the young Janet Leigh, groomed by MGM and kept busy in a number of films at this point in her career, seems callow and less interesting.

Here, Mr. Pidgeon is ultimately still Greer’s hero. Perhaps we would be disappointed if he were not. Clem and Kay Miniver are ghosts in every movie in which Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon appeared together after “Mrs. Miniver.” This was, I think, the sixth of eight total movies. No matter how compelling the magnificent Errol was, even he couldn’t break up the team.


Caftan Woman said...

My introduction to the Forsyte clan was on Masterpiece Theatre in the 60s. I wouldn't be that caught up in a show again until "Rich Man, Poor Man".

When I first saw that Flynn was cast as Soames I wasn't anticipating much which was unkind as well as unwise because I had recently come to realize how talented he was at his job. The image of the swashbuckler is strong and to see the Soames that he brought to the screen makes me angry that Errol Flynn wasn't given more opportunities to show us his range.

I caught the handsome young man yesterday on TCM in a small role in a small film, "Don't Bet on Blondes". It was all there!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

So well put as usual, Caftan Woman. I remember the Masterpiece Theatre version, though I don't think I caught all of it. I miss those sagas. They did them so well.

I agree that Flynn had a much larger range as an actor than he was often allowed to display, but he certainly left an impression in any film he did.

Yvette said...

I've never seen this film, but after your brilliant introduction/review, I am definitely going to seek it out. I do remember seeing The Forsyths on PBS, Masterpiece Theater, I think, and loving it then.

Erroll Flynn: My favorite Flynn hero/film: CAPTAIN BLOOD. Though later, of course, ROBIN HOOD was hard to top. And even later, I loved him in THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN. I even liked him in those BIG westerns he did. SAN ANTONIO, probably my favorite of those. He was SUCH a dreamboat.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Yvette. I'm glad to see we have another Masterpiece Theatre fan. I wish they'd replay those old series.

And another Errol Flynn fan, too. Dreamboat, indeed.

Laura said...

This is one I didn't see on MASTERPIECE THEATRE...

This looks good!! Jacqueline, you always make me want to watch the movies you write about immediately. I've got this on a tape somewhere...

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you very much, Laura. What amazes me is you seem to have every movie in the world on a tape somewhere. You only have to find it and move it to the top of the queue. When I read about a film on your blog that I want to see, nine times out of ten I don't have it and I end up searching the Internet or the library.

I am jealous.

I think you should start your own channel like TCM. Call it The Laura Network and show every movie in your bountiful collection.

panavia999 said...

I love this movie and liked poor Soames most of all. His pride made him lonely and suffer. Flynn did a brilliant understanding and understated job of making an unlikeable person very sympathetic. Soames is not a bad man; he is deeply flawed. Flynn made the viewer understand Soames, so that you do not despise him. Ralph Richardson could not have been better in the role.
The Forsythe novels are must read list.
Another film character that comes to mind is Michael Hordern as the father twisted by jealousy in "The Spanish Gardner". Hordern always shows how much the character loves his son, and his estranged wife. Yet pride, possesiveness and jealousy makes him suffer agonies and to it out on others. He is driven to ever more stupid behaviour before he sees the light. (The Spanish Gardner is based on an A J Cronin novel.)
Thanks for another nice post Jacqueline!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, panavia, for sharing your own impressions of Soames and Flynn. I guess we all pretty much agree Errol did a great job in the role. Thanks too, for bringing up "The Spanish Gardner" and the Forsyte books.

By coincidence last weekend (after I had already planned this post), I discovered, and bought, a 1945 edition of "The Forsyte Saga". It's a so-called "memorial edition", but I don't know if this is the first time all the stories were published in one volume.

I bought it at an outdoor used book sale in support of a small town library in Connecticut. One of those miraculous New England fall days when the sun makes the changing leaves luminescent, the air is crisp. You've bought your pumpkin at the farm stand by the road, taking turns with others to shoot photos of the covered bridge, and now you're strolling through a village in search of pie and a cuppa. A couple of artists sketch the town monument. Suddenly, a giant used book sale looms before you like The Promised Land.

My "Forsyte Saga" book was signed by the original owner, who wrote her name in beautiful cursive writing. Underneath her name she wrote "Clinton, Missouri - 1946." How did the book get from Missouri to Connecticut in the past 66 years?

Sorry, I've rambled.

Meredith L. Grau said...

I saw this movie for the first time a few weeks ago. So amazing. I loved it!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Meredith. I'm so glad this movie has so many fans.

Judy said...

Really enjoyed your review. I loved both Flynn and Garson's performances - I also love the long 1960s series of 'The Forsyte Saga', but I think this movie version definitely deserves to be better-known. It surprised me a bit that Soames doesn't rape Irene in the film as he does in the book, but I suppose it would have been impossible to get such a scene past the censors at the time. Even without that key plot point, though, I think Flynn still puts across the controlling nature of Soames' passion for Irene. I thought Robert Young was a bit old for the part but enjoyed his performance anyway.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Judy, and thanks for joining the discussion. I was thinking about the rape scene as well. It could be due, as you say, to censorship standards of the day. There are some other aspects to consider as well.

Back in the day (and perhaps for some, shockingly even now) a husband forcing himself on his wife was not legally or by social standards considered rape. There is precendent for this even in classic film. Remember the scene in "Gone With the Wind" where Clark Gable carries Vivien Leigh up the staircase and says, "This is one night you won't turn me out."

It looks almost romantic, and even the morning after scene shows Scarlett looking pleased. She becomes ironically annoyed when Rhett apologizes. So, it's possible a rape scene in "That Forsyte Woman" (obviously we're talking about implying rape and not graphically showing it) might fly by the censors if handled with restraint.

But, there could be another reason this scene is avoided. A few years before this movie was made, Errol Flynn was brought up on rape charges. I don't remember if he was found not guilty or if the case was thrown out due to lack of evidence. Either way, it was past him, and I imagine the studio did not want to revive any speculation by the public.

So, the film takes a slight detour, and either through the writers or through Flynn, we see the Soames character as less boorish, but still flawed.

Laura said...

What an interesting discussion has continued in the comments. Very much enjoyed it. I'll be coming back and reviewing this post again for more insight when I see the movie!

Your "Laura Network" comment gave me a chuckle, Jacqueline! I wish I had time to watch them all many movies, so little time!

Best wishes,

Judy said...

Thanks very much for your reply, Jacqueline. I agree the scene could have been suggested rather than shown graphically - but wondered if the very suggestion would be hard to get past the censors at that time. I also agree that the view that a husband couldn't rape his wife used to be widely accepted - indeed in the novel I think the chilling phrase used is that Soames "enforced his marital rights", or something like that. It hadn't struck me that the studio might have avoided the whole rape storyline because of Flynn's history with the statutory rape charges, but I think you may well be right that this was another reason for avoiding the scene.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much to everyone for commenting, I love when we get a good discussion going.

panavia999 said...

The "rape scene" in GWTW was not really that because Scarlet succumbs to Rhett's rough, err, charms. (She wanted to be mastered, etc etc - a ubiquitous staple of sex in historic novels - I usually skip those pages.) It's quite clear in the book that she had a fantastic night and plenty of people knew the novel well when the movie was made, so censorship was a minor point. My mother saw GWTW when it was released and she was too young to 'get it'. (At 9, she found the movie very depressing and sad.) Fast forward to the 70's and she knew I was reading the novel so asked about the big scene. I read the chapter and she laughed out loud.
As for 'forcing marital rights' in the Fortsyte novels, it happened a couple times.
Nor was it gratuitous, Galsworthy was very sympathetic to women and their place and plight in his day and used the deed to good literary purpose.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much for coming back and adding more of your always excellent insight to the discussion, panavia.

Judy said...

Just returning to this thread to say that I've just heard this movie is being released on DVD in Warner Archive, along with 'Cry Wolf' and a number of other titles featuring either Errol Flynn or Barbara Stanwyck:

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for the update, Judy, and the link. A really timely coincidence. Glad they'll be available on DVD.

Juanita's Journal said...

Another role of Flynn's you should check out is Geoffrey Vickers in 1936's "THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE". Although he is superficially a swashbuckler and heroic in this movie, his Vickers is also an asshole who refuses to accept that he lost Olivia De Havilland's heart to Patric Knowles. It's a very interesting performance.

danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Greer Garson Wednesday at

Keep up the good work!

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