Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Woman in White - 1948

“The Woman in White” (1948) is an example of how Hollywood can “borrow” a classic novel, change things around, slap together “locations” on a soundstage and back lot, even alter the ending, and still, sometimes, get it right.  This movie is a winner because of its engaging cast, and a director who employs film noir techniques on a Victorian mystery.
How the movie succeeds is probably because this is one of the few times where that old bemused studio system arrogance that altered the plots of classic novels as often as it changed the names of its contract players actually came up with a plot that works for this movie.  This is not to say that the movie is the ultimate version of this story, written by Wilkie Collins in 1859—it does not strictly adhere to the plot—but I will say that no filmed version of this story I have seen, including two BBC miniseries (and nobody dramatizes their literature like the British), are better.  All take liberties with plot and characterization.  This movie, I think more closely follows the spirit, certainly energy, of the book.
Long post.  I hope you brought an overnight bag.
The film, directed by Peter Godfrey, employs an economy of script and cinematography to capture the essence of the story.   If there was one thing Old Hollywood did well, it was atmosphere. 
The novel was a smash in its day.  It was at the forefront of the rise of the sensation novel, and one of the first to use a character, or in this case, two characters, to follow logical detection to solve the mystery.  Or mysteries.  There are several.  According to Matthew Sweet, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classic version published in 2009,
“The progress of the plot became a dinner-table topic and bets were struck on the outcome of this or that situation.  Collins received letters from single men demanding to know the identity of the original for his heroine Marian Halcombe, and if she would accept their hand in marriage…The future Prime Minister William Gladstone cancelled a theatre engagement in order to continue reading it...Prince Albert was a great admirer, and sent a copy to the royal family’s most trusted adviser, Baron Stockmar.” (p. xv)
The book is very long and the subplots are intricately entwined.  A modern reader might be surprised to discover that a book written in 1859 could have such a “modern” feel in pacing, but it really is a quick read if only because you can’t put it down.  A charming approach the author uses to create intimacy with the reader is to break up the book into separate first-person narratives with many different characters each taking a turn at bat and giving their perspective on what is happening. 
We know that Marian Halcombe is intelligent, loyal, and forthright, speaks her mind, because of her impressions as she relates them.  We know others regard her with admiration because they say so.  We know Walter Hartright is the hero because he tells us he suspects the ladies are in danger and he wants to help them.  We don’t entirely know who the villains are at first, but slowly we begin to realize from the testimony of others that some people are not to be trusted.
The movie similarly sets us up right away on the characters of Marian, played by Alexis Smith; and Walter, played by Gig Young.  We know right off the bat they are to be trusted, because both director and novelist know we have to come to the table trusting somebody.  We experience the mystery through them.  I like Gig Young in the role.  He’s stalwart and transparent, and we need to see him as the Rock of Gibraltar.
In the book, Marian is described as tall and graceful, but with an unattractive face.  Some critics may fault the film or at least smile at it because Alexis Smith was not unattractive.  However, the previously mentioned BBC offerings featured actresses in the role who were also attractive, so it seems a moot point among directors to regard that bit of information on Marian as unimportant.  And so it is.
Miss Smith is warm and natural in her role, speaks her accent with a greater ease than the other Americans, enjoyed good reviews, but this was one of the last films she made for Warner Brothers, having finally worked her way to star billing.
Walter Hartright is called to the mansion of Frederick Fairlie to teach his nieces to draw.   In the book, the young women are half-sisters, who share a mother.  Their parents are all deceased and Laura, the younger, is Fairlie’s ward.  Laura, through her father, is the heiress of a great fortune.  Marian, who is a few years older, has only a small income.  They are inseparable and devoted to each other.  Marian tells Walter at the beginning that neither she nor Laura can do without the other, so he must please both of them.  In the end, he does.
In the movie, Marian and Laura are cousins.  I’m not sure what necessitated this particular change in script, but the novel deals with Laura’s father having an illegitimate child, and maybe this was too close a relationship to make the censors happy.  Beats me.  That child is Anne, who in this movie becomes yet another cousin.  She is a near lookalike to Laura.  So, in this movie both Anne and Laura are played by Eleanor Parker.
I won’t go play-by-play from here on in, but what the movie does change from the novel is a skillful paring down of a very long story to under two hours of film.  The movie should be taken separately from the novel as its own creation, and will be best appreciated as such.
For instance, and here is a big fat spoiler—in the movie, Walter falls in love with Laura, but later circumstances change and he falls in love with Marian.  In the novel, Walter falls in love with Laura and marries her.  In this case, I prefer the movie version.  Laura is a weaker character and by the end of the novel, quite emotionally and physically dependent on Marian and Walter to take care of her.  She draws our sympathy, but does not seem like she should be an object of passion.  Marian, however, has been at Walter’s side through thick and thin, helping him and facing danger.  He tells us how much he admires her, and other characters in the story do, too.  One villain in particular is infatuated with her. It seems more logical that Walter would be, too.  The author’s only reason for Walter’s romantic disinterest in Marian seems to be that she’s ugly.
Eleanor Parker, one of Hollywood's most gifted actresses, is quite good in the dual roles of Laura and Anne.  Laura is charming, lighthearted, and unaffected.  Anne, who has just escaped from an asylum, is tense, with a wandering mind and an overly emotional response to others.  There may be a bit of scenery chewing here, but Anne’s at the edge and sometimes all an actress can do is go to the edge with her.

John Abbott plays Frederick Fairlie, plays him so well you wonder why he didn’t star in films instead of just play bit parts or uncredited walk-ons.  Frederick is a self-absorbed fop, dramatically fussing about his nerves and comically displaying a disinterest in everything but himself.  Mr. Abbott is spot-on and terrific in this role.  He’s hysterical.  It’s like this guy knew he was given the role of his life.  He takes the baton and runs with it.
Poor Curt Bois, who I think gets one line in the film, is his bullied servant.  With a slackened stance and hangdog look, he seems to be channeling Buster Keaton in a couple scenes, and makes the most of his part.


John Emery is Sir Percival, who is engaged to marry Laura.  He’s charming one minute, and a villain the next.  He’s out for her money.
The best for last.  Sydney Greenstreet.  It’s as if Wilkie Collins had Sydney Greenstreet in mind when he wrote the complicated character Count Fosco.  A brilliant man of self indulgence, who plays human beings like chess pieces, and is so wicked that writes his own rules.  And usually gets away with it.
We know early on Mr. Greenstreet must be wicked, because the director gives us a hint at the very beginning of the movie.  Gig Young is walking in the twilight mist of the English countryside of the back lot.  He meets Anne, learns a bit of her story, learns she is running away, and then she bolts as a carriage approaches. A man asks if Young has seen an escapee from the asylum.  Inside the carriage where Gig Young can’t see him, is Sydney Greenstreet with a scowl on his face.  He looks mean.
We next see Greenstreet when he pops through the French windows from the terrace as Mr. Young is welcomed to the mansion by Alexis Smith.  She is delighted to see Mr. Greenstreet, and treats him like a fond and funny uncle.  It's as if he is a different person.  So, we see from the start his character is duplicitous. 
We are quickly fed the plot in bite-size chunks—about asylums (there will be more than one escape before the movie is through), about inheritance, and getting robbed of one’s inheritance, and how to foil the bad guys. 
Alexis, by virtue of her being the older girl and because John Abbott can’t be bothered, takes responsibility for the younger Laura.  When she senses Gig Young falling for Laura, she warns him that Laura’s already engaged and he has to knock it off.  We see, though he does not, that Alexis is falling in love with him.  A few nice very light touches by the director indicate her desire.  In one scene, he questions Mr. Greenstreet's motives, and she tells him not to overstep his bounds. 
The camera is on her as she turns her back to him and proceeds to leave the room, but she thinks the better of it, softens, and turns to address him again.


The camera shows us he has already turned his back to her and is walking out to the terrace to be with Laura.  Camera cuts back to Alexis, who looks like a despondent wallflower at a country dance.  We can imagine she has been in this situation before.
In another scene he plans to leave the estate because Laura is going to marry John Emery.  He kisses Alexis’ hand and she leans over him slightly as his head is bowed.  She lingers as if she will touch him or say something, but doesn’t.  These are great clues that will make their union logical at the end, except we get no clues from Gig Young.  The director doesn’t set up any scenes with his reactions to her.  His later declaration of love for her seems a surprise, to us as well as her.


The director gives us some other shots though, that are splendid, uniting the 1940s with the 1850s in a neat way.  Lots of ground-to-ceiling film noir shots that show menacing figures, a few shadows on the wall. 

There’s a spiffy scene shot from the ceiling to the floor through the crystal jungle of a chandelier.  It is morning, and a few characters leave the room through a door, closing it behind them. 


Then, instantly it is night, the chandelier is lit, the door opens, and another character walks through.  It is a seamless showing of the passage of time.
On another occasion, Gig Young and Eleanor Parker are spied on through a telescope, and the camera takes a view of them through the telescope that looks like an iris shot from a silent movie.  Then it opens up, and we are no longer watching them from a distance; we are right behind them.  We could touch them.
I also really like the score of this movie.  Max Steiner is credited, but some of the English country ballad flourishes sound authentic to me, and I wonder if he adapted some traditional music?
Laura, who has now married Sir Percival, may be in great danger.  We suspect this when Alexis, who has spent a few months with relatives in the country while Laura and Sir Percival are in Europe on their honeymoon, returns to silly John Abbott’s mansion to wait for them.  Hey, none of the servants are familiar!  They’re all new!  Including marvelous Anita Sharp-Bolster, who we discussed here in this previous post.  That woman, with her stupendous profile, could play scary/funny like nobody. 
Alexis is given a different room on the other side of the mansion!  Away from Laura!
Alexis confronts John Abbott about this.  He attempts a tantrum, but his blood sugar level is too low.
Alexis discovers that Sydney Greenstreet is living here now with his wife, played by Agnes Moorehead.  She is an enigma, and takes the character from the novel to a different, more intense, level.  We may puzzle at Greenstreet’s hold over her, that allows him to taunt and manipulate her, but still waters run deep.  There’s a lot more going on here.  We will soon see she’s not just a wax figure under her husband’s thumb.  Miss Moorehead does so much with a small role, it's like she conducting a master class in acting.
When the honeymooners return, Laura is a changed person—haughty, gaudily bejeweled and attempting to smoke at the dinner table.  (GAD!)  She has not replied to Alexis’ letters to her during their separation.

Back in her room that night, Alexis writes her fears in her diary that Laura is lost to her.  This is about the only scene, except for some beginning narration by Gig Young, that tries to imitate the novel in first-person perspective, but that’s hard to keep up in a movie.
Later Laura sneaks into Alexis’ room, tells her  she has to act out a part because she’s in danger.  Alexis gets to do some girl power stunts when she climbs out on a ledge in a storm to eavesdrop (quite literally under the eaves) on the plans of the bad guys.
She returns to her room and we see her figure in a shadow on the wall as she is changing from a rain-soaked nightgown to a dry one.  Then the curtains part, and it’s Sydney Greenstreet!  He thinks she knows too much.  He’s also attracted to her.
There’s a nifty exchange between them when she asks, “Was it necessary to hide there and shame me as well?”
He responds with that gravely-voiced huff, “I was only too happy to discover at last something as flawless in form as it is in spirit.”  It took me several viewings of this movie to realize that meant he’d been watching her undress.  Yes, I am that obtuse.
There’s nothing quite so charming as Victorian lechery.
And, funny enough, just before this a scene where we hear John Emery muttering his frustration and he appears, if I’ve heard right, to use the word “bugger”.  Obviously, to us in the US this is just a funny sounding oath, but in British English it’s a vulgarity.  It may have lost quite a bit of its punch through the decades and no longer so offensive, but at the time story is set, it was quite vulgar and author Wilkie Collins never used it.  I guess those minding the store didn’t know that.
Actor and screenwriter 1, Production Code 0.


Because Anne and Laura are played by the same actress, we do have one Patty Duke Show scene where they’re together, but it’s not overdone.  I don’t think we ever mistake one for the other because they behave differently, and Anne’s makeup, with her dark circles under her hollow eyes indicates she is sickly.  But others mistake them, and I won’t tell you what happens because of it.  So there.
Mr. Greenstreet gloats over Alexis when she refuses his offer to be his mistress, predicting she will return of her own accord.  She does, when she thinks Laura’s in too big a jam and Walter unable to help.  She offers herself to the big guy if he lets Laura go.
Alexis Smith appeared with Sydney Greenstreet in “Conflict”(1945) discussed here, and she enjoyed working with him.  On “The Woman in White”, her husband in real life, Craig Stevens, was quoted in The Women of Warner Brothers by David Bubbeo (McFarland and Co., Inc.: Jefferson, NC, 2002) “Alexis was mesmerized by Sydney Greenstreet…He memorized the entire script.  He knew everyone else’s role.  She just thought he was fascinating to be around.”
In the novel, Marian describes Fosco as a man, “who devours pastry as I have never yet seen it devoured by any human beings but girls at boarding-schools…”  In a nutshell we have Fosco’s love of food, and Marian’s witty sense of humor.
In another passage, she tries to get Laura to leave her cruel husband, “Are you to break your heart to set his mind at ease?  No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women.  Men!  They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace—they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship—they take us body and soul to themselves and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel.  And what does the best of them give us in return?  Let me go, Laura—I’m mad when I think of it!”
Doesn’t sound very Victorian, does it?  The book also has an astounding subplot of murder by a 19th century style Italian Mafia. 
Watch the movie and enjoy it for all it is, which is plenty.  But treat yourself to the book as well.  Hollywood exploited popular literature and classic literature, but also introduced  a fair number of its audience to these books for the first time.  A lovely co-dependence.  Like Marian and Laura.


Stephen Reginald said...

Wonderful post. I've always enjoyed this version of the novel, which I've read. Like the Welles/Fontaine version of "Jane Eyre," the producers captured the spirit, if not the exact plotting of the novel. Film is a different world than literature, so it shouldn't be too harshly judged when things are changed, in my opinion. As a note, the first line of the novel, "Gone With The Wind," says, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were." No one seemed to mind that Vivian Leigh was, indeed, beautiful! Again, wonderful job here.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Stephen. So glad you've read the book, so you come to the table already prepared to compare the two. Good point about the opening to "Gone With the Wind". Film is indeed a different creature, but with all its flaws, I think this one works well to complement the book.

barrylane said...

A fabulous post about a film I did not care about and a novel that I did. You have given us all a new way to enjoy both. And, a smarter way to read Wilkie Collins. One thought re Alexis Smith. She had been "starring" in films as early as 1942. Check out Gentleman Jim's credits.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Barrylane. What I meant about Alexis was that she was given top billing in this one.

Yvette said...

Jacqueline, I loved this review. (Well, when have I ever NOT loved one of your reviews?) most especially because I read the book two years ago and fell madly in love with IT.

I waited years and years to read THE WOMAN AND WHITE and, for that matter, THE MOONSTONE, but I'm glad I did. I read them at just the right time to appreciate them as they should be appreciated.

I've never seen any of the movie or TV series versions so I am kind of a blank slate.

That's about to change. I'm about to try and get my hands on this movie by hook or by crook.

I love Gig Young, I love Alexis. Not crazy about Eleanor Parker but I can tolerate her. I love John Abbott (he also played 'you know who' from Spanishtown, Jamaica' in JANE EYRE)
and I simply adore Sydney Greenstreet.

Must. See. This. Movie.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Yvette. I knew you of all people would be familiar with Wilkie Collins and this wonderful book. I'd really love to know your take on how the movie deviates from the novel.

There is a brief clip of this movie on YouTube, and also I believe both of the BBC versions I mentioned are on YouTube parsed out in different segments.

Page said...

Count me in as one who hasn't read the novel or seen any of the interpretations of it on screen or via BBC. (Who are masters when bringing these novels to television.) While I don't dislike Alexis Smith, I've just never been a fan of hers. Now, I do like Eleanor Parker and Gig so that's a plus.

I really enjoyed reading your review, the comparisons to the novel, differences and changes. Do you think changing the character from illegitimate child to sibling takes away from the story? Do you think the studio could have found away to keep it the same?

I'm always amused when actors play a duel role with scenes side by side. (Thanks for including the photo) I always think of Bette Davis in "A Stolen Life" and those hideous bangs.

I hope I can find the BBC mini series. I've been watching a lot of their shows lately. After falling madly in love with "Sherlock" I've recently started watching Ford Maddox Ford's "Parade's End" and wouldn't ya know that Benedict Cumberbatch is in it as well. If you haven't seen it I do hope you'll give it a try.

Thanks for mentioning that clips of the BBC version of this can be found on Youtube. I'll go have a look.

Wonderful reading as always, Jacqueline. : )

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Page. I don't think the making the girls cousins rather than half-sisters detracts from the story. I don't think it's necessary, but it doesn't hurt anything. It's just that it would make more sense for the two characters that Eleanor Parker plays to be half-sisters and resemble each other than for them to be cousins and resemble each other.

All the cast is great, and if Alexis Smith doesn't send you, there's a wonderful team of minor characters who are terrific.

Laura said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your post, as usual! This is one of my younger daughter's favorite movies, yet I still haven't seen it. She even bought the book after watching the movie!

Both Smith and Parker look lovely in your photos above. Your post on top of her recommendation has me quite intrigued.

So many movies to see! I guess the good thing is we're not likely to run out any time soon. :)

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Laura. Your daughter's reaction to the movie, being prompted to buy the book is exactly what I mean by the power of certain classic Hollywood films, including this one, to complement the novel. I'd love to read her comparisons of the movie vs the book, and if she thought the actors were well cast.

So many movies is right.

Kevin Deany said...

A very entertaining and informative post and I especially enjoyed some of the background info on Wilkie Collins. I've never read "The Woman in White", but I picked up "The Moonstone" at a used book sale awhile ago. I'll read it one of these days.

If you're interested, Wilkie Collins plays a major role in Dan Simmons' novel "Drood", with a strong emphasis on the friendship between Collins and Charles Dickens.

I think you are right about some of Steiner's score incorporating English folk tunes. He did that with his Americana scores, so no reason why he wouldn't do the same with his English subjects.

Peter Godfrey may be one of my least favorite directors from the Golden Age, but "The Woman in White" might be his best film. His daughter Roberta grew up to marry the film composer Basil Poledouris of "Conan the Barbarian" (1982). It's one of the greatest scores ever written.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Kevin. I've not read "Drood", but it sounds interesting. I've got to get to "Moonstone", too, sometime or other.

DorianTB said...

So many Hollywood adaptations, so little time to read them and watch the movie version! :-) Jacqueline, I'll admit I've only read reviews and synopses of THE WOMAN IN WHITE, never having time to read the entire book start to finish; sometimes I think I should have a separate library of nothing but Cliffs Notes! But with this Hollywood cast and your very enjoyable review, I knew you'd make it a most enjoyable read! You also describe the imagery well, like the iris-out. I liked the low-key mention of our heroine in her nightie, too. Excellent post, Jacqueline, as always! Happy Valentine's Day!

P.S.: Shameless Plug Alert: Since we're discussing a plot involving twins here, feel free to check out the twin brothers in the latest Tales of the Easily Distracted: Danny Kaye in WONDER MAN! END SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT! :-)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Dorian, and Happy Valentine's Day to you and yours. I hope you can see the movie sometime soon. Come to think of it, it really is like a film adaptation of the Cliff Notes rather than the actual novel.

Ryan said...

I've only seen the movie, I've never read the book, though I keep meaning to. I read The Moonstone a few years ago and loved it, but for whatever reason I haven't doe it with this book.

I think, especially after reading Yvette's reviw of the movie, that maybe I'm better off for it. I'm almost to the point where that will be my new rule, movie first, book second. I did it with The Woman in Black, and had I read the book first, I would not have cared for the movie.

I'm glad I found your blog through Yvette.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Ryan. I saw the movie first, too. I love both movie and book, but I suppose the order we experience them probably does matter sometimes, doesn't it?

Kelsey Williams said...

I recently finished the book and I would really like to see the 1948 Film version of The Woman in White. Does anyone know where I can find it? I have scoured the internet. I am open to purchasing or streaming. I would even buy it from one of you if anyone owns it! Or maybe rent it if you're attached?...

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Kelsey. I sympathize - it's really hard finding some movies. This one has been shown on TCM, so it likely will be again. In the meantime, if you can't wait, email me at:

...and I'll see if I can help.

RGM said...

Thank you very much for this post, Jacqueline. I saw the film yesterday, and since I found it a little confusing I looked for something that may amswer my doubts. You did it nicely, mainly by comparing the film plot with the novel (that I haven't read.
I still think the film has some feeble points, but the atmosphere is really good.
Excuse me for my english, I write from Barcelona.
I'll follow your other posts!

By the way, Kelsey, if you have e-mule trie this:

Don't Send Cash said...

I happened to watch this movie on the Turner Classic Movies channel last night, and about halfway through I was fighting to stay awake (it happens when you are 65 and still have to work a full day time job). I never did doze off completely, but I missed some key plot points, and I was rooting around today to find out what I had missed when I came across your blog. I really enjoyed reading your analysis of the movie, and I can see I missed significant portions of the last half hour of the film. Keep up the good work.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks so much for stopping by, and I'm glad I could fill in some blanks for you. I know what you mean about not making it through a movie and then wondering how it all turned out. Welcome to the blog.

barrylane said...

The Woman In White has just been released by Warner Archive. Well worth having.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Great news! Thanks, Barrylane.

Bevlion said...

I've truly enjoyed coming to this site whenever I have the chance. Especially with your well-taken blog post on "The Woman In White," a fascinating story if ever there was one. I've just uploaded an entire website to this extraordinary actress, Eleanor Parker at and hope you'll visit sometime. I'd also like to include your site as I update my site and make mention of it when I'm ready to do a full page or two on TWIW.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you very much. TWIW is indeed a fascinating movie, and the book was wonderful. I'll look forward to exploring your new site on Eleanor Parker, and I appreciate your interest in linking to my blog. I'm very grateful you'd like to mention this post, do feel free.

Bevlion said...

Thank you Jacqueline. I'll let you know as soon as I do the latest update to the website, as I make mention of your wonderful take on this timeless classic that has fascinated so many for so long.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

You're very kind.

Unknown said...

I’m writing a couple years after the last post. Great review and commentary on TWIW. Watched the first episode of the latest series on PBS Masterpiece this week. It was all new to me. Recorded the movie on Turner then curiosity led me to you blog. Please help me understand if the Count is the one who fathered Laura’s son. I suspect it from the surprise on her husband’s face when he learns she’s preggers. Plus the Count is such a letch. Thanks, Carlos

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi Carlos, thank you for stopping by. I'm looking forward to watching the new PBS version, too. I'm trying to remember from the book, but I don't think the Count fathered Laura's son. I'm a little fuzzy on that, but I don't think so.

john reese said...

I just finished the book and watched the movie the next day. Personally, it was a let down.
Greenstreet is one of my favorite actors but the Fosco in my mind was even more charming, effusive, upbeat and witty than was Sidney. I read it with he in mind so my expectations got the better of me.
Most of the other characters were consistent with my mind's eye but the simplification of the plot, though probably needed, was also a disappointment.
not a bad movie , but could have been better. The book I enjoyed moreso than Moonstone

Related Products