The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1943
Hollywood Above All
Hollywood Above All
"Nobody writes a true love poem.... The poets tried to tell one eternal truth and got lost in their medium..... Of all things on earth, God has made no more noble, nor beautiful, nor poetic, nor exultant thing than a man and woman who truly love each other in bed together.
That Mouthful is one of the obiter dicta of Clive Hanley (alias Briggs) in Eric Knight's novel "This Above All." Clive is, of course, an utter prig, and by the time you've got to page 130, on which the above-quoted passage appears, you are so painfully aware of his priggishness that you tend to skipped that passage, because it contains a near-truth which is seldom enunciated outside the C. of E. marriage service.
I say a near-truth because the passage is quite obviously a masterpiece of over-statement. And Clive really shouldn't condemn poets as a class for dishonest concealment of the Facts of Life until he has read donne, or even that anonymous quatrain in the Grand Manner:
"Oh Western wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again."
Nevertheless, it's a valuable statement. And what gets my goat is that in the film version of "This Above All "they cut out the last three words.
I thought I'd long outgrown the intellectual-adolescent stage of enlightened and passionate protest against sexual obscurantism. "I do believe in being frank about these things, don't you, darling?") But after seeing the film I felt once again that old super-righteous crusading Zeal. I wanted to dash out and convert the heathen, armed with Stopes on Contraception and irrefutable statistics on illegitimacy and the incidence of venereal disease. This militant mood quietly passed away,—but I'm going on the bash on the day when Hollywood first acknowledge to its public that there might perhaps be something in what Clive says.
Now when a soldier on leave asks a Waaf to go away for a holiday with him, and she consents, it's pretty plain that the intentions of both are strictly dishonourable. In the novel, the holiday takes its anticipated course, quite naturally and without the slightest suggestion of smut, and the most effective and moving passages of the whole work are those in which the attraction between Clive and Prudence develops and matures. In the film, however, Clive and Prudence occupy separate bedrooms in both their pubs, and there appears to be only one nocturnal meeting when Prudence beautifully and adequqtely gowned, goes into Clive's room to find out what he's talking about in his sleep. And just in case any film-goer with a pure mind reads between the reels what isn't there, Prudence announces to her father with emphatic and virtuous pride that although she's been on a holiday with a soldier " they did nothing of which they were ashamed."
The result is that a fine love story becomes insipid and ordinary. Prudence doesn't conceive, and a hospital marriage gives the final touch of respectability. All traces of sex are triumphantly exorcised.
Now it wouldn't be worth making a fuss about all this if it weren't so typical of the manner in which Hollywood has treated the rest of the novel—and, indeed, most of the significant novels which it has put on to celluloid. After all, mankind gets the films it deserves, as well as the Governments, and if we possess an unhealthy sexual ethic, we can't expect to see films where people get into bed together for any other purpose than to make the audience laugh like hell.
In the novel "This Above All." Clive is a typical muddled pseudo-intellectual who deserts after Dunkirk because he can't find any logical justification for supporting the war. (but, of course—"God knows I'm not a Communist, or a fawner on Russia"). His conflict is resolved by a relapse to faith, inpage break
spired partly by a curious clergyman called Polkinghorne, who says, inter alia, Communism, Fascism, these are mere intellectual conclusions. But conclusions of faith will solve what these cannot." This set-up, as will be readily understood, isn't particularly promising, involving as it does a confession of the authors inability to find an intellectual justification for supporting the war. It is indeed surprising that the conception of two wars—that of the democracies against fascism, and the subsequent fight of the people against capitalism—should so clearly emerge from Clive's pulpit oratory. But it is not surprising that the film version effectively clouds the issue.
It does this in a remarkably subtle manner. In the novel, Prudence delivers an affecting speech about England, Shakespeare, Cockneys and the thump of cricket bats, pitiful in its superficiality. That's what England means to Prudence. And Clive then tells her at length what England means to him—slums, the stigma of bastardy, poverty and struggle. By the time he's finished, there isn't much left of the cricket bats, and we can at least understand why Clive needs an overdose of faith to con-vert him.
In the film, Prudence's speech is presented with awful solemnity as the highlight of the piece, and Clive is visibly shaken. Every word of it is obviously meant to be taken as gospel. And its full horror is accentuated by the manner of delivery—a high-pitched strained half-whisper, rising in a crescendo of sobs, with a taut uplifted female neck taking up half the screen. Perhaps it's a bit unfair to blame the actress for this shocking exhibition—it must have been difficult to do anything with that passage except the obvious thing.
And what about Clive's slums? Oh yes, they were mentioned. A potted summary of Clive's criti-cisms of the British ruling class and their system was delivered by Tyrone Power. But the trouble was that while Clive developed his brief thesis, Prudence was undressing behind a screen displaying pleasing silhouettes of portions of her very beautiful anatomy and honest to God I can hardly remember a thing he said. This barefaced attempt to put people off the scent succeeded admirably. Mr. Power's faintly subversive words were completely lost by an audience interested very naturally in Miss Fontaine's body.
There was a bit of mud-slinging at the British "aristocracy" here and there, but nobody, least of all the aristocracy, objects to this harmless pastime. Titled lords and ladies are legitimate game for the most conservative script-writer. Hollywood duchesses usually turn out in the end to have hearts of gold, and the only reason why they didn't in this picture seems to be that there wasn't time.
Having been spectacularly converted by the Reverend Polkinghorne after approximately six min-utes' conversation, Clive gets injured in an air raid and is taken to hosiptal. There were one or two pleasing moments when it looked as if he might die. but All Ended Happily. Suddenly, in the last few feet, the producer remembered that he hadn't explained to the audience where the title of the picture came from. So Clive was duly presented with a volume of Shakespeare, and at the meet and right place recited the relevant passage from "Hamlet." This was curiously followed by an exhortation to win the war, which sounded quaint coming from a recumbent figure with its head wrapped up in bandages, and which was apparently linked in some esoteric and quite incomprehensible manner with the Shakespeare.
I understand that Eric Knight was killed in a plane crash before he saw the film version of his novel. .God works in a mysterious way.
Ronald L. Meek.