Friday, July 6, 2018

Holy Matrimony (John Stahl, 1943)


HOLY MATRIMONY
USA, 1943 Dir: John M. Stahl

Italian title.: Una moglie in più. Story.: Buried Alive by Arnold Bennett. Script.: Nunnally Johnson. Director of photography.: Lucien Ballard. Editing.: James B. Clark. Art directors.: James Basevi, J. Russell Spencer. Musis.: Cyril J. Mockridge.
Cast.: Monty Woolley (Priam Farll), Gracie Fields (Alice Chalice), Laird Cregar (Clive Oxford), Una O'Connor (Sarah Leek), Alan Mowbray (Mr. Pennington), Franklin Pangborn (Duncan Farll), George Zucco (Mr. Crepitude), Eric Blore (Henry Leek).
Prod.: 20th Century Fox

In 1905, Priam Farll, a nationally celebrated English painter who has been living in seclusion on a remote tropical island, is drawn back to civilisation having received notice from the king of England that he is to be honoured with a knighthood. Upon his arrival in London, Farll's loyal valet Leek unexpectedly dies. By a curious mix of honest mistake and mischief, Farll swaps his identity for the dead valet’s, which leads to chaos, confusion and trickery. All attempts to correct are ineffective: people believe what they want to believe.


Holy Matrimony is a supreme variation on Stahl's favourite theme of concealed or mistaken identities. Here the secrecy is twofold. Despite their amiable relationship, Farll is oblivious to the married Leek’s correspondence with another woman, a widow named Alice Chalice, whom he meets at his ‘funeral’ at Westminster. Alice is also kept in the dark about the true identity of the man she meets, having only seen a photograph of the painter and the valet together beforehand.


While comic touches are never absent in Stahl’s work, even in his sombre melodramas, here, unlike less successful comedic efforts such as Our Wife (screwball comedy/melodrama) and Oh, You Beautiful Doll (musical/comedy), Stahl's economical and invisible style is close to perfection.

The film is aided by a superb cast. Monty Woolley, who repeats some of the earlier success he had with The Man Who Came to Dinner (William Keighley, 1942), is wonderful as the fussy, arrogant artist who gradually comes to earth and learns to like more than just himself. As is Gracie Fields as the strong-willed Alice, who tames and charms Farll. A personal favourite of screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, the same story had previously been filmed at least three times under the titles The Great Adventure (1915 and 1921) and His Double Life (1933).


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