Understanding Screenwriting #88: Young Adult, A Dangerous Method, The Palm Beach Story, & More

Hollywood studio development executives always insist that characters have to be “likable” and usually ask for a scene early in the script that shows it.

Understanding Screenwriting #88: Young Adult, A Dangerous Method, The Palm Beach Story, & More
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Coming Up In This Column: Young Adult, A Dangerous Method, Like Crazy, The Palm Beach Story, Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward, but first…

Fan Mail: “stammitti90” wondered, as others have, about the title of the column being “Understanding Screenwriting,” since he thinks the column is just film reviews with a few references to screenwriters. There are of course more than a few references. Compare how many times I mention the writers in my reviews to any other reviewer. Or how much I talk about the script in my comments on Hugo in that column as opposed to how much David Ehrenstein talks about Scorsese in his comments on the item. Too often people writing about screenwriting seem to forget that screenwriting is part of the process of filmmaking. Rather than a generic (Three Acts, Hero’s Journey, et al) column about screenwriting, I am trying to give you a nuanced look at how the screenwriting elements of a film are part of the collaborative process of filmmaking. You will see an example of that below in the discussion about the script and Charlize Theron’s performance in Young Adult.

David E. was getting on me for “dissing” the visuals in Hugo, but the one time I mentioned the visuals it was to praise them for giving us reactions of Hugo watching the people in the station. I am not sure I agree with David that I have a “terribly literal idea of what cinematic narrative consists of,” unless by that I want the film to make sense in an interesting way. It can do that with dialogue and/or visuals, as I indicated a little farther down in that column in my comments on Sullivan’s Travels. By the way, David, thanks for the story on Vidal quoting Robert Grieg’s speech from Travels. It tickles my mind to think of Vidal doing that speech.

Young Adult (2011. Written by Diablo Cody. 94 minutes.)

Petting the dog: Hollywood studio development executives always insist that characters have to be “likable” and usually ask for a scene early in the script that shows it. This is known in the trade as the “petting the dog” scene, after the old silent film convention that the hero comes into town and pets the dog, while the villain comes in and kicks the dog. You even see it in documentary films. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Triumph of the Will has two of the most brilliant cuts in her career: she cuts from Hitler in a car looking up to a pussycat looking down out of a window, and then cuts back to Hitler turning back from looking up. Uncle Adolph loves the pussycat and the pussycat loves Uncle Adolph. Needless to say, screenwriters resent this. When David Benioff was writing Troy (2004), he kept getting notes from Warners that Achilles had to be more likable. Benioff later told David S. Cohen, “He’s not likable. You’re not going to have a pet-the-dog scene with Achilles. It is something I had to resist.”

Mavis Gary, the main character in Young Adult, has a dog. It’s one of those little obnoxious types. She puts it out on the patio to eat its food. She stuffs it into her purse to take on her trip back to her hometown. She leaves it in the hotel room with only a plastic diaper to poop in. But she never, never, ever pets it. Thank you, Diablo Cody.

Mavis is not a likable person. She writes Young Adult novels under a pseudonym. Her apartment is a mess. She drinks too much. And she dates a boring guy whom she is not afraid to show us, if not him, how boring he is, even if he is about to go off to do good deeds overseas. And that’s just before the credits. Then she really gets going. Getting an email that her old high school flame Buddy and his wife Beth have had their first child, Mavis goes back to her hometown determined to break up Buddy and Beth and get back together with Buddy because, well, she thinks they were always meant to be together. Ouch, she is delusional as well.

This is the character we are supposed to follow through a movie? Yes. And we do. Why? Because when Mavis is on-screen, stuff happens. And that above all is what you really need in a main character in a film. Not being a fan of southern belles, I would not like Scarlett O’Hara in real life, but by God, when she’s on-screen, you can’t not watch her. Mavis is like that, only more so, and Cody makes it work. When Mavis arrives back home, the first person she runs into is Matt Freehauf. They were in high school together, but she does not recognize him until she sees his crutch. Ah, he’s the “Hate Crime Guy,” who was beat up by a bunch of jocks who thought he was gay. Oh, we are going to have a sentimental gay best friend for her. Nope, not only is he not gay, he is just as sharp-tongued as she is, and not afraid to call her on her bullshit. Hardly a best friend, but we like them together because they bounce off each other in funny ways. She meets Buddy and they have a drink, not in a dark make-out bar, but in a well-lighted sports bar. He is clueless about what she is back in town for. Her cover story is that she is handling some real estate deal, which leads us to suspect her parents are dead, since she is staying in a motel. Guess who drives up to her on the street a little later in the picture? Her mom. Mom and Dad are still both alive and well. Mavis is upset they still have a picture of her wedding (not to Buddy), given that the marriage failed, but Mom remembers it was a very nice wedding. Typical clueless parental units, and we can see why Cody does not have Mavis spend more time with them.

Buddy invites Mavis to see Beth play in a rock band called Nipple Compression, a group Beth and other mothers formed to get them out of the house. One of the other mothers says to a third, on seeing Mavis, “Psycho Prom Queen Bitch,” and we believe her. Beth, on the other hand, is a charming character who works with emotionally stunted kids. And she and Buddy are very happy. Mavis is not convinced. Buddy invites her to the baby-naming ceremony at their house. One of the great running bits is watching Mavis prepare for each meeting with Buddy: different nail polish for each event, different clothes. I bet a male writer would have not have come up with those details. So Mavis goes to the ceremony, and we are on the edge of our seats, because we know it’s going to be a train wreck, a term several critics have used to describe Mavis. She gets Buddy in a room alone and tells him that she knows he feels the way she does. He doesn’t. Farther out on the edge of our seats because we know no good will come of that. And we are right. Mavis makes a total fool of herself in the front yard, with all the people she knows standing there. We find out here that Mavis had been pregnant by Buddy (he knew) and had a miscarriage. We also find out that it was not Buddy who insisted she come to the ceremony, it was Beth. She felt sorry for Mavis, about the worst thing you can say to Mavis.

So Mavis stomps off and goes to see Matt. And they have sex. But, but, she’s gorgeous and he’s…well, fat and crippled. And he told her earlier that not only did the beating hurt his leg, but also his genitals so he can only piss or come sideways. That’s a great detail, but unfortunately Cody never figures out a way to make that pay off in the scene, as we now get it, of Matt and Mavis. So what about when they wake up in the morning and talk about it? Well, they don’t. Mavis wakes up first and is sneaking out of the house when she is caught by Matt’s sister Sandra. We met Sandra earlier and she is one of many people, like Matt, who idolized Mavis not only when she was in high school but later when she went off to the big city (Minneapolis) and became a famous author. Well, she’s not famous but still, Sandra and Matt are the sort of people who never got out of town and idolize those who do. At this point that’s enough for Mavis. There are still people who admire her, but she has learned no lessons, had no “Aww!” moment.

More than The United States of Tara (see US #43), this is the riskiest script Cody has ever done. If the balance is not perfect, she’ll lose us. She doesn’t lose us. She also has the advantage of having Charlize Theron as Mavis. Theron told David Letterman that the director, Jason Reitman, had said he wanted only her for the part because he could see Mavis in her. Theron said she was not sure that was a compliment, but the role is certainly within her range, and I think a trickier role and performance than her award winning part in Monster (2003). We cringe at what Mavis does, but she is so interesting to watch that we like her as well, at least a little bit. And the film takes advantage of Theron’s beauty, although often we see her in day-old makeup. Like Matt and Sandra, we sort of want to see her get what she wants because she is physically gorgeous. It is a peculiarity of movies, and real life as well, that we assume that good-looking people are good. We really know that is not true, but we still pretend that it is, at least in the movies.

Here is another way the script is risky. The film doesn’t have a sentimental bone in its body about small towns or high school. Of what other American film can you say that? Mavis’s hometown is no Bedford Falls. There are some nice people there (Beth, Mavis’s clueless parents) and some not so nice (Matt), but it is not the American dream. Mavis is, like way too many Americans, sentimental about high school, but the film is not. The series of Young Adult novels Mavis is writing is set in the fictional high school Waverly Place. At first this just seems like a mildly interesting detail. Midway through the film we (and I think Mavis) discover from a bookstore clerk that the series is being cancelled. So the book she is writing throughout the film is the final book in the series, and Mavis’s voiceovers from the book near the end match the “end” of her high school life with Buddy. Nice subtle writing.

A Dangerous Method (2011. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on his play The Talking Cure and the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr. 99 minutes.)

A Dangerous Method

Come lie down on my couch, little girl: This is almost as risky a script as Cody’s for Young Adult. It’s 1902 and Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian woman who is mad as a hatter, is brought to the young doctor Carl Jung. He decides she is a perfect case of what Sigmund Freud has called The Talking Cure, or what we now call psychoanalysis. Jung has great success treating her, but then he starts sleeping with her, even though he knows he shouldn’t. He vows to stop, and doesn’t. He and Freud meet for the first time about the case, and then come to disagree, since Freud is insistent only on dealing with the sexual elements, while Jung wants to look at wider issues. By the end of the film Sabina has become an analyst and Jung is about to have a nervous breakdown.

You want to count all the different ways Hampton could screw this one up? The Talking Cure is exactly what it says, talk, talk, talk, which is why it is often so boring on screen (and on stage as well). We are dealing with two of the towering figures of the 20th century and how do you show them as humans, not gods? How do the sexual scenes avoid gross exploitation? How do all the discussions of theoretical differences between Freud and Jung keep us from falling asleep? Hampton, whose script for Chéri (2009, see US #30) I did not care for, gets it all right this time.

My guess is that Hampton did what Milos Forman had Peter Shaffer do when Shaffer adapted his play Amadeus for the 1984 film. Forman told Shaffer not to adapt the play, but to figure out how to tell the same story on film. Hampton had a head start on thinking of this as a film. According to an article in the January 3, 2012 Los Angeles Times, Hampton first got interested in Sabina’s story in the ’90s when he read A Secret Symmetry, a book by Aldo Corotenuto. Shortly thereafter Julia Roberts’s company sent him John Kerr’s book, and Hampton says, “I jumped at the chance of using is as the basis for a screenplay.” The screenplay was never produced, and Hampton decided to turn it into a stage play. The movie does not feel like an adapted play. Hampton opens with the film with Sabina being driven in a carriage to Jung’s clinic. It makes for a wonderfully cinematic opening: wide-open spaces, charging horses, and a mad Sabina. Some reviews have thought Keira Knightley is too over the top in these opening scenes, but the woman is mad, and Knightley makes her not just conventionally mad, but disturbingly so. We see that Jung has his work cut out for him. Hampton breaks up the therapy sequences so some are in the clinic and some are out on walks in the countryside, including a beautiful one on an old bridge. In screen time the therapy goes quickly so we don’t get bogged down in it. Jung here is very straight-laced, but we can see why he is attracted to her, first as a patient, then as an assistant, and finally as a sexual partner wildly different from his equally straight-laced wife. Hampton, Knightley, Michael Fassbender (Fassbender is having the male equivalent to Jessica Chastain’s year), and director David Cronenberg focus on these characters in these situations. I am not a big fan of Cronenberg’s gross-out movies, but I love his subtler ones, like this and 2005’s A History of Violence. Both here and in Violence there is always the possibility of violence, which makes it more shocking when it does come.

And then we come to meet Freud. Hampton has done a beautiful job of making Jung and Freud different. You would not think Freud would be a part for Viggo Mortensen, who we tend to think of as a more physical actor, but he inhabits the role in a variety of subtle ways, and we believe Jung when he describes Freud as seductive. To paraphrase the real Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a great prop. Hampton gives us just enough of the intellectual differences between the two men that their conflict works as drama. I suspect Hampton’s having done this first as a play and seen what works with an audience helped him develop a sense of how many of the details of the Jung-Freud debates as well as Sabina’s cure he needed. That also means understanding how much he did not need.

Hampton’s final two scenes are two of the best. Years after her treatment, Sabina comes to visit Jung and his wife. The first scene is with Sabina, now pregnant by her husband, and Jung’s wife Emma. Emma has been a good, conventional wife, supporting Jung financially with her own inheritance, and giving Jung several children, including finally a son. But now she knows that Jung is in a difficult mental state and Sabina is probably the only one who can help him. Hampton gives the history of Emma and Sabina (Emma knew about the affair) in a short, simple scene. Then we get Sabina talking to Jung. It is 1913 and he has had a disturbing—and very Jungian—dream of water coming down through the mountains, turning red with blood and filled with dead bodies. We know, and Jung suspects, that it is the coming World War I. Freud’s approach is not much help here. The end titles tell us that Jung had a nervous breakdown shortly thereafter before going on to do his greatest work. Both these two final scenes are gorgeously photographed by the great Peter Suschitsky, the first scene on a large lawn and the second by a beautiful lake. Again, Hampton understands what you can do with film that you cannot do on stage.

I had written the first drafts of this item thinking that I had not seen the play. I remembered hearing about it, but neither the reviews nor the film itself reminded me of anything I had seen. Then Charles McNulty, the theater critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote an article on adaptations from the stage and mentioned it had played at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 2004. Huh? My wife and I have had season tickets for the Taper for years, but I had no recollection of seeing the play. I checked out our calendar and my diary, and dug out the program. I had seen it. Usually in a case like that, particularly when I can look at the program, some details of the production pop back into my mind. Nothing this time, which almost never happens to me, since I tend to have a fairly good memory for movies and plays. I wrote in my diary for that night that it was “an OK play, which we liked better than the LAT reviewer did.” Obviously Hampton has made it a lot more vivid in his screenplay than he did in his stage play.

Like Crazy (2011. Written by Drake Doremus and Ben York Jones. 90 minutes.)

Like Crazy

There is a reason why films are written, people: Felicity Jones, who plays Anna, a British girl who falls in love with the American Jacob in this film, described to the Los Angeles Times (December 1st) how the scripting process worked on this film:

“There was a “scriptment”—I think we should see if we can get this word into the dictionary. It’s a cross between a script and a treatment. It’s more like a short story. It has a very clear idea of what the characters are. It has elements of each scene and what was to happen. We have very clear objectives for every scene, but then you as an actor have to find a way of doing it that’s as naturalistic and believable as possible.”

The whole idea behind this approach is that the actors, understanding the characters, will come up with fresh and interesting material. That’s the theory, but as this film so relentless proves, the practice is often a mess. The actors are more or less making it up as they go along, and in this case, there is virtually no inspiration in anything they do or say. Maybe it’s just that I have been listening to a lot of Preston Sturges scripts lately, but the dialogue in this film is flat, and not even pointed enough to call it “on the nose.” There is one good line: Jacob’s second girlfriend brings him breakfast in bed, then starts eating the bacon on the tray. She says, “I don’t share bacon,” which immediately makes her the brightest and most watchable person in the film.

So what we get is scene after scene of Anna and Jacob looking dreamily at each other or else looking miserable at not being with each other. Felicity Jones (Anna) and Anton Yelchin (Jacob) have shown elsewhere they are good actors, but “scriptment” gives them nothing to play in terms of character. She romantically overstays her visa when she is first in Los Angeles, and this keeps her from coming back to him. Her visa problems make her seem more than a little unsympathetic. Yeah, yeah, I know it was a romantic gesture to stay, but there is not that thick a line between romantic and stupid. The few other characters in the film are not particularly well-developed either, stranding such normally good actors as Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead, and Finola Hughes. Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone (2010) at least gets the one good line mentioned above, but she’s been hired for her cuteness rather than her acting chops.

The inspiration for the film was a long-distance relationship Doremus had, but the film is very sloppy about the details of a relationship like that. I have been in three, two that did not work out, and one that did, which is why my wife and I went to see the film. All of us involved in those relationships did not moon about in jerky-cam closeups. We tired to make it work; sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. The film is simply not very specific about what they do, what their attitudes are, how those attitudes shape their actions. You let actors improvise and too often, as happens here, they will go for some generic line or emotion. The actors are usually much better at improvising if they start from a strong script. In Juno (2007) Allison Janney improvised only one line. When Juno says Bren, her stepmother, does not really know her, Janney’s Bren shoots back, “I know enough.” A great line, and a great Bren line, and it came from Janney working from the script.

You really need a writer to shape the material. Really, you do.

The Palm Beach Story (1942. Written by Preston Sturges. 88 minutes.)

The Palm Beach Story

The Sturges Project, Take Five: Sturges expected that Sullivan’s Travels (1941) might not do as well as his previous films, since it had more serious elements to it. He was right, and he had already decided to try to alternate comedies with films with at least a hint of seriousness. So with this film he set out to do a film based on a theory he had, that a woman could go far on beauty alone. He was also going to examine marriage, as indicated by his original title: Is Marriage Necessary? Needless to say, the Breen office, the official censorship organization of the film industry, shot down that title. Sturges shifted to Is That Bad? before changing it to The Palm Beach Story. (The background information is, as before, from James Curtis’s biography Between Flops.)

Brian Henderson, in Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges (his first volume, Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges was understandably well enough received to provoke a second volume), discovered that Sturges had trouble getting the script going, unlike some of his earlier ones. Sturges thought of Gerry, the wife, as kind of a female John Sullivan and wanted her to go on the road and have adventures as Sullivan did. The question was, what motivated her? Maybe she simply wanted to see how far she could go on her beauty. But Sturges also thought she might be doing all this to help her husband, Tom, who has an invention (an airport made out of suspended wires) he is having trouble getting investors for. And if she is doing that, does Tom go along with her? In other words, is he pimping his wife out? Needless to say, the Breen office frowned on that, and they were not alone. Sturges pretty much figured out that Tom is not complicit, and the few lines that survived in the script that suggested he might be got dropped, either in the shooting or the editing.

Sturges started by making notes for early scenes between Tom and Gerry, and you will find no better look at the difference between talent and craft than in Henderson’s discussion of those scenes. Henderson includes lots of dialogue from those scenes, and the Sturges talent for dialogue is all there. But the scenes would not work as they needed to in the film. Sturges very carefully crafted the opening twenty minutes or so of the film over a period of several weeks in September-October 1941. Gerry is leaving Tom, even though she still loves him, sort of, since she does not think she’s really the wife for him. She’s the one who considers getting some rich man to help with Tom’s project. She is encouraged to flee by the Wienie King, an old man who is considering renting their apartment, since they are being kicked out. He thinks she should enjoy life while she’s still young.

Once she gets going, she decides to go to Palm Beach to get a divorce. She ends up on the train with one of Sturges’s greatest creations, the Ale and Quail Club, a group of middle-aged men drinking and shooting, sometimes on the train, on their way to Florida. Sturges whipped off the Ale and Quail Club scenes very quickly, although he was concerned that they might be a digression. Which they are. They appear 26 minutes into the film and are left on the tracks at 43 minutes, and we never see or hear from them again. You could cut them out of the picture entirely. Fortunately Sturges was smart enough not to do that. True, you don’t need them, but sometimes stuff you come up with is so good you can’t not use it.

Sturges knew he was writing Tom for Joel McCrea, and reading Tom’s lines in the script, you hear McCrea, more so than you do in the script for Sullivan’s Travels. He is upright, a little stuffy, and most helpfully a little jealous of Gerry. Gerry is Claudette Colbert, one of the great screwball leading ladies of the ’30s. She plays beautifully the contradictions in Gerry’s character that survive from Sturges’s working over the material. Sturges also knew he was writing the role of the starchy millionaire John D. Hackensacker III for Rudy Vallée. Vallée had been a hugely popular crooner in the ’20s and ’30s, but never attained true star status in movies. Sturges saw him in a B musical and thought he was funny, especially when he was not trying to be. Paramount was horrified when Sturges insisted on hiring him, but the studio was so pleased with the result they signed him to a contract, and he continued acting in films for years. Including many of Sturges’s. Sturges was so taken with Vallée that his early notes for the script simply refer to the character as Vallée. Vallée is starchy in the film, but he is also enormously likable. His rich sister is played by Mary Astor, and she never quite got the vocal lightness Sturges wanted.

Gerry meets John D. on the train, and he takes her to Palm Beach, where Tom has already arrived by plane. Gerry introduces Tom as her brother, which immediately interests the Princess, John D.’s sister. Who is going to end up with whom? In the earlier drafts of the script, there is a sequence where it turns out that Tom and Gerry each have a twin sibling, whom they might have married, but ended up with each other. The sequence explaining this was condensed to a montage that Sturges puts under the main titles. Most first-time viewers are completely baffled by the title sequence, and it may take you several viewings to figure out who may be who. In the final draft of the script, Sturges cuts from the discovery that there are the twins to a double wedding: Tom and Gerry standing on the sidelines watching John D. marrying Gerry’s twin and the Princess marrying Tom’s twin.

When the picture was released Bosley Crowther, the lead critic for the New York Times for over twenty years, called it “generally slow and garrulous.” I think what he was responding to was the opening twenty minutes of the film. Sturges had spent a lot of time working out the details of what puts Gerry on the road, and it is a little more serious than most romantic comedies of the time. Sturges as a director shoots the ten minutes of scenes of Tom and Gerry discussing their marriage mostly in rather loose two-shots. Sometimes he does a lot in a single take, but the material is not quite strong enough support that. The ten minutes before those scenes include the first Wienie King scene, and he is certainly garrulous, but in an entertaining way. You should also keep in mind that Crowther had an absolute tin ear for dialogue. Twenty years after this picture, he described Robert Bolt’s dialogue for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) as “surprisingly lusterless.”

The Ale and Quail members are all from Sturges’s stock company: William Demarest (Paramount used him to introduce the trailer for the film, which makes you think it was only about the Ale and Quail Club), Robert Warwick (Le Brand in Sullivan’s Travels), Jimmy Conlin, Robert Greig, et al. Yes, the scene is a digression, but we don’t mind for reasons mentioned above. The Club is often the only thing people remember from the film, and it has influenced screenwriters ever since. Look at the community council in Ron Shelton’s screenplay for the 1986 film The Best of Times.

Vallée gives everything Sturges wanted, and Astor is not bad, but the script is Tom and Gerry’s story and McCrea and Colbert manage to be both funny and serious. Sturges was, again, writing great star parts. The film is more serious about looking at marriage than most people realize. Gerry does not leave Tom because he, or she, has been unfaithful, but for more complicated reasons, and McCrea and Colbert, especially the latter, put across those emotional moments. Sturges privileges those moments in his direction. Just as The Lady Eve (1941) becomes a more romantic film than the script because of the stars involved, The Palm Beach Story becomes more dramatic.

But Sturges also gives us a great ending with the twins, and here is one of those (rare) examples where the filmed scene is better than the script. The script just shows them all standing up at the altar, with no particular reactions to what is going on. In the film Tom and Gerry’s twins are absolutely baffled as how this situation came to be. It is much funnier that way. Sturges ends the film the same way he ended the title sequence: with a set of titles that says, first “And they lived happily ever after,” followed by “But did they?” See, I told you it was an examination of marriage.

Ivanhoe (1952. Screenplay by Noel Langley (and Marguerite Roberts, uncredited), adaptation by Æneas MacKenzie, from the novel by Sir Walter Scott. 106 minutes.)


Not the RKO film noir version: When Dore Schary was head of production at RKO in the mid-’40s, he thought about a film version of Scott’s novel. Fortunately he did not make it then, or else it probably would have been in black-and-white, shot on the backlot, starring a neurotic Robert Ryan as Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe. When Schary moved to MGM in the late ’40s, he knew he had found the studio for the film. The first screenwriter he approached was Æneas MacKenzie, who had written historical films at Warners. He tried to convince Schary to change the story. Scott had been attacked by Thackery, among others, for his anti-Semitism. Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe is trying to get King Richard-the-Lionheart out of a European prison, and to get the ransom he goes to Isaac of York, a Jewish moneylender, who raises the money. MacKenzie’s objection was not that a Jew was a moneylender, one of the few professions open to Jews in King Richard’s time, but that Ivanhoe sort of falls in love with his daughter Rachel. When push comes to shove at the end, he dumps the adoring Rachel and ends up with his shiksa girlfriend, Lady Rowena. MacKenzie wanted to change the ending to have Ivanhoe and Rachel together, but Schary said no. (The background is from Schary’s memoir Heyday.)

MacKenzie still gets a credit on the film for adaptation, but the heavy lifting got done by Noel Langley, whose best-known credit is The Wizard of Oz (1939). (I haven’t found any indication of what Roberts did on the script.) Aside from some slow spots, it is a solid script, with a great jousting sequence, an equally great siege on a castle, and a nice final duel. MGM decided to shoot it in England and Scotland to use up the MGM English grosses that were frozen by the government after World War II. Smart move, especially since the got British cinematographer F.A. Young (that’s Freddie Young to you and me) to shoot it. Robert Taylor is a stodgy but acceptable Ivanhoe, and he is surrounded by a lot of great British character actors. The picture was huge hit and lead to some follow-ups, one of which we’ll talk about below.

But MacKenzie was proved right. MGM cast the attractive and talented Joan Fontaine as the Lady Rowena. But Rachel is played by the heart-stoppingly beautiful 20-year old Elizabeth Taylor. Photographed by Freddie Young. Even anti-Semites thought Ivanhoe made the wrong choice.

Quentin Durward (1955. Screenplay by Robert Ardrey, adaptation by George Froeschel, from the novel by Sir Walter Scott. 103 minutes.)

Quentin Durward

The later, funny one: The success of Ivanhoe led MGM to do a couple of follow-up swashbucklers. This is one I had never seen, so even though it is generally thought of as not that good, I decided to give it shot when it popped up on a night of Sir Walter Scott adaptations on TCM. It turns out to be much more interesting than its reputation suggests. A lot of the same people are involved, including Robert Taylor in the title role and, alas, Richard Thorpe, directing. The cinematographer this time is Christopher Challis, who’s not bad, but he’s no Freddie Young. The difference is that the screenplay is by Robert Ardrey, who unlike Noel Langley and apparently Sir Walter, had a sense of humor.

Scott begins the novel, set in 15th-century France, with an impoverished Scottish swashbuckler going to France to join his equally impoverished uncle, who is a mercenary for one of the political divisions in France. Ardrey gives us a much better opening scene. The uncle, Lord Crawford, is alive, rich, and not as young as he used to be. He is played by Ernest Thesiger twenty years after he was Doctor Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein. He is trying to arrange a marriage with the much younger Isabelle, Countess of Marcroy. She has sent him a small, idealized portrait of herself, and he is returning the favor by having commissioned a large, highly romanticized painting of himself thirty years younger. Quentin comments on this and it’s obvious the uncle knows exactly what he is doing. Uncle is sending Quentin to France to meet Isabelle, take her measure, and plead his case. Quentin notes that he is a chivalrous man when the times of chivalry have long passed, a theme that Ardrey brings up often. The scene sets a nice light tone for the rest of the film, which is a little quicker on its feet than Ivanhoe. We don’t think of Robert Taylor as having a light touch, and he doesn’t, but he gets the rueful quality of knowing he is a man out of time.

Well, you can see where this is going. Quentin goes to France, has a meet cute with Isabelle, and naturally falls in love. She’s not the heart-stoppingly beautiful 20-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, but the next best thing: the heart-stoppingly beautiful and wickedly funny 28-year-old Kay Kendall. Kendall would be more than up to the demands of where Ardrey is taking the script, but Richard Thorpe has no idea how to use Kendall. One review said Kendall was too modern for the part, but Ardrey’s view is something of a modern view. Thorpe just doesn’t get it and the Quentin-Isabelle scenes don’t zing as they should. There are some more British characters giving value for the money. We get a lot of plotting with the French factions, and we get a great duel between Quentin and the baddie while both of them are swinging on the bell ropes in a bell tower. Needless to say, all ends well.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Tom Stempel

Tom Stempel is an American film scholar and critic. He is a professor emeritus in film at Los Angeles City College, where he taught from 1971 to 2011.

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Sundance Film Festival 2012: The Sessions and John Dies at the End