film feature: the astonished heart

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The Astonished Heart (1949)

Film Events at the Walter Reade Theatre
Coward on Film — part of Noël Coward in New York 
May 11, 2012
165 West 65th Street

On the first day of three days of Coward film screenings, faithful fans and the merely curious assemble to view one of Coward’s rarely shown and lesser films. Coward in classic form suggests he shared this view: “I would love to see it again,” biographer Barry Day quotes him as saying, “if only to see if it was as bad as they said it was.” What The Astonished Heart offers is a glimpse into a public performance of a profoundly private man. A quiet and accomplished homosexual playing a heterosexual psychoanalyst who has a strategic affair with another woman (in the story on-screen) while his long-term partner Graham Payne plays household assistant Tim in the story. (In fact, some of the scenes between the two men reveal, to me, more gentle warmth than any of the movie’s scenes between supposed husband and wife, and supposed man and mistress. These moments reveal what a truly lovely “astonished heart” might have been had Coward the man and the mores of the time allowed for that story to be told.) The film’s limitations stem from its genre of melodrama, while its value as a view of Coward at a particular point of his life and fame, and a view of others in his personal and professional life on-screen around him, are tremendous charms.

Coward as Faber delivers some ponderous pronouncement or another. Not an ounce of humor to be found.

Last year in this same venue during a similar cross-venue celebration of Judy Garland, a colleague and good friend of Coward, we attendees benefited from introductions and debriefing sessions by Garland historian and enthusiast John Fricke.  For this screening similar valuable introductions are provided by Richard Peña of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and by the acknowledged Coward expert and biographer Barry Day.  Day, who made an original career in Britain in advertising before moving into the world of publishing about Coward, has edited collections of Coward’s letters and writings, assisted with the memoir of Coward’s long time companion Payne, and become the general go-to book of knowledge and enthusiasm for all things Coward.  His work with the NYPL on their on-going Lincoln Center exhibit of history and memorabilia Star Quality: The World of Noël Coward is truly stunning.  And an online resource treasure trove crafted by astute staff at the NYPL including resources and original essays by Day are a truly lovely contribution to Coward appreciation and scholarship.  We have entered a world.

(L-R) Margaret Leighton and Celia Johnson. Old friend and wife of the doctor meet “cute” in a rainstorm after many years. And fun loving blonde causes an emotional ruckus.

Peña notes that rather than think of Coward as a renaissance man, as many describe him, touching on many areas of endeavor (writer, performer, director) — he thinks of him as a twentieth century integrated artist, a modern artist fully comfortable on many platforms.  Day’s contextual commentary covers Coward personal attributes as well as casting and other concerns.  Coward “moved quickly .. as if he never had time to do what he was going to do.”  The original casting of the role of our story’s psychiatrist eventually taken on by Coward was Michael Redgrave. After viewing early rushes, Noel made the quick decision to replace him. And, as is noted in promotion materials for the screening, Noel’s personal and artistic “family” (including his partner Graham Payne) appears in supporting roles.

(L-R) Graham Payn and Joyce Carey. Supporting players we could see more of and be quite happy.

The film itself is a ponderously paced and lugubriously directed melodrama among the well-to-do in post war London. Barbara Faber (Celia Johnson) and her husband Dr. Christian Faber (Coward) live in expansive digs that contain Dr. Faber’s consulting offices.  Secretaries/household staff Susan Birch (Joyce Carey) and Tim Verney (Graham Payn) keep the practice and the household running (along with other staff), while the Doctor travels giving lectures and sitting on boards between seeing patients.  Into this calmly humming world comes an old school chum of Barbara’s — Leonora Vail (Margaret Leighton).  Without any rationale other than the facts that Leonora is exotic and wife Barbara is familiar, the previously taciturn and profoundly unemotional Christian is moved to initiate an affair with Leonora and quickly to suffer outrageous pangs of jealousy when she is not seeing him exclusively.  If there were any sparks of, well, anything, between Christian and Leonora we as audience members might go along for part of this ride but as it is, alas, we merely marvel. A character is moved to self-harm and, as Coward would put it, there are floods of tears.

Other than the unbelievable plotting, non-existent emotional context, and plodding direction (is that all?) there are some marvelous Coward lines to entertain.

  • “I wish I had the same indecision over dry martinis.”
  • “Tears let the grief out a little bit.”
  • “I foresee a flood of reminiscence.”
  • “She’s pretty?” “Very smooth and shiny.”
  • “All the time my brain is raising its eyeballs at me and sneering.”
  • “We’re all trying so hard to be sensible and well-behaved — it’s quite a strain.”

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 25, 2012)

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