Monday, December 15, 2014

Henry Hathaway | Peter Ibbetson

i’ll see you in your dreams

by Douglas Messerli

John Meehan, Edwin Justus Mayer, Waldemar Young, Constance Collier, and Vincent Lawrence (screenplay, based on a story by George du Maurier), Henry Hathaway (director) Peter Ibbetson / 1935

The French Surrealists, helped along by the work’s rediscovery by Paul Eluard, adored Henry Hathaway’s 1935 film, Peter Ibbetson, based on the tale of 1891 by George Du Maurier. For them it not only encapsulated the concept of a love that survives all obstacles expressed in the term l’amour fou, but, through its shadowy, slightly blurred sequences created by cinematographer, Charles Lang perceived it as a sensual justification for the primacy of dreams. If this fact might help to elevate the film’s status for English and American viewers, it also simply reconfirms the retrograde Romantic tendencies of that movement and its questionable idealization of childhood, as well as their often patriarchal genuflection before what they saw as the “feminine principle.” And even if one finds plenty to enjoy in this fairy-tale like fantasia, one has to wade through the film’s excessive sentimentality and rigid religiosity to get there.

Child actors Dickie Moore (as the Peter, nicknamed Gogo) and Virginia Weidler (as the six year-old Mary) are, for a minutes at least, quite charming and sweet. Just to look into young Gogo’s picture-perfect face is enough to melt hearts. But these child actors, forced to engage their adult audience in a struggle between the sexes for the first third of the film, quickly shift from the sweet and sickly sentiments expressed through their acting out of friendly boy-girl squabbles to the requirement that they, simultaneously, tear up on queue, before crying their little eyes out. Audience manipulation has seldom been so obvious.

     Their early arguments concern not only who is in control (the young Mimsey has all the building blocks—the planks of wood they both desire—in her back yard), but whose creative vision is superior. Little Mary simply wants to build a simulacrum of life, a doll house, while Gogo desires to create something functional, a “real” wagon which can move them forward into time and space. The male’s vision is obviously superior—at least if one values the real world in motion. But, of course, as we know reality is a terribly flawed thing, likely to change at a moment’s notice, stealing away everything we know and love. As a being of that world, poor Gogo, in a blink of an eye, not only loses his mother to the disease with which she has been suffering from the film’s very first frame, but is forced, by the sudden appearance of an unknown uncle, to leave his beloved “secret garden” hidden away in a Paris suburb to join the horse-and-hound set of a English county estate. No wonder the terrified boy, girlfriend in hand, attempts to run off; and the moment we next encounter him as a young architectural assistant working for a kind—and, significantly, blind—British employer (Donald Meek) he is in a blue funk. Forced to give up everything that truly matters—a potentially functioning machine in an enchanted garden of a long ago past—who wouldn’t be depressed. Little Gogo, all grown up, has become the ill-at-ease dandy, Peter Ibbetson, a strikingly handsome, mustached gentleman (a slightly effeminate Gary Cooper) without anyone to dandle and fondle. 
     His superior may be blind, but he sees right through his favorite worker, suggesting he take a break in gay Paris. There, our diffident hero encounters, at a local museum, a worker who might be more at home in a dance hall, with whom, without hesitation, he immediately takes up. Indeed, we realize it’s a perfect combination because it will never lead him into evil; she is so every day and course that she cannot possibly lead such a distracted young man astray. Peter is so dreamy that he hardly knows she is there, particularly when they wander out to the old estate he inhabited as a boy. Like an adult child, his new-found paramour runs straight to the swing, expecting him to push her up into sexual ecstasy, while Peter stumbles around the now decaying grounds, rummaging like a sleepwalker, through the memories of his distant past. 
     Returning to London, he is immediately bundled off to York, where he has been asked to design an addition to a stable on the wealthy Duke of Powers (John Halliday) estate. The man’s beautiful wife, the Duchess (Ann Harding) wants the new stables to match precisely the ancient, straw-thatched creation of decades before. Sound familiar? If this lovely lady does not precisely seek a simulacrum, she is certainly expressing her preference for an imitation of life, while our hero is determined to “make it new,” to tear down the old stables in order to construct a useful, more modern structure to house her husband’s beloved horses. Briefly, the two wittily duke it out, the young architect winning over the equally stubborn Duchess, particularly since she immediately perceives there are greater things at stake.

     If the movie up to this time has appeared almost as wooden in its structures as the buildings Peter designs, for a few moments—as the couple gradually comes to discover that each is inexplicably attracted to the other—seemingly everyday events momentarily dissociate from reality, and the movie reminds one a bit of Cocteau. A rain storm quickly descends upon Peter and his workers with the swiftness and ferocity of a cyclone, as he and his associates are forced to take refuge beneath a tent-like canopy wherein he quickly drags his small architectural model—reminding us of the would-be doll-house to which the young boy chaffed in the first scene of the film. At another moment, the Duchess begins to relate her dream to the architect, while he finishes her sentences, relating the same events from his own point of view. Both are abashed at what seems like a remarkable coincidence, before the Duchess (whom we now realize is the adult Mary) denies any mystical implications in the strange occurrence. But by dinner, after the Duke astutely recognizes the silences behind his table-mates, they recognize that, between them, they have just experienced an astounding empathy. In Peter’s denial of their love, claiming he loves only one woman fixed in his mind as a six year old all dressed in white, they both are struck by the truth: they are the lovers trapped in the past of their own minds.


    While they recognize they now have no choice but to break off any further intercourse—if for no reason than to keep that pure and innocent relationship from becoming tainted by the carnality they now both desire—we recognize that they have no longer have any choice in the matter. They are doomed by the very fact that they have been expelled from that childhood Eden. Embracement and kisses symbolically replace what is a virtual rape, as they enter a world where the Duke’s attempt to end their retreat from time through murder can result only in the end of his own present life. Peter kills the Duke in self-defense, but destroys him and his lover in the same act.
     The rest of the story unfurls—or we might better say, rewinds—itself as if the two were simultaneously staring into a mirror. Once more, Peter is pulled away from his loved one, this time to endure an even more horrific imprisonment, because it is real, than the one which he suffered as a young lad. There, like Christ, he is mocked, beaten, and, finally, crucified on the frame of his own bed. Both, through intense suffering and near-death, find themselves now able to transcend life, particularly since they have, in fact, long ago given up the present. Mary visits her lover in his sleep, returning to him through the emblem of a ring, the next morning. And once they realize the powers they now have to escape the world in which they are only slightly still contained, they meet nightly in each other’s dreams.
   If this “transcendent” experience might have been presented, by a more imaginative group of writers and a more brilliant director, as a true world apart from the one we know, by, let us imagine, an eerie surrealist landscape or, better yet, a slightly askew Expressionist world that could transport us visually into another time and place, Hathaway and his five scribes instead present us with what later might be described as a Hallmark Card vision of paradise. There’s a wonderful moment, when Peter (like Christ’s Peter, a rock), after temporarily losing his faith, encounters a monstrous landslide that nearly does him and his dream-love in; but they quickly rediscover those heavenly pastures where they lay down in bucolic pleasure throughout the long night, the music swelling up  into Wagnerian proportions in case we missed the point. Even a rock eventually crumbles.
    Even more banally, when our worn-out heroine finally dies, she meets her lover one last time to invite him into a Christian-like paradise, all spirit and no fun. “I’m waiting for you,” she breathes out the last words she is permitted to speak. God is such a kill-joy! But then, I guess he is willing to allow this couple through the pearly gates, despite the red letters (or perhaps purple passages) this clichéd piece of cinema has blazoned across their chests.
       The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, without so much prudery and propriety, and ending in a far-less ethereal after-life—these ghosts do fortunately materialize—did this all so much better.

Los Angeles, December 14, 2014

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