During World War II, many of the studios made all-star extravaganzas, usually musicals, propaganda pieces used as a rallying cry to the movie-going public. The plots of these movies, unusually lightweight even for musicals, featured songs, comedy routines and the democratic notion that Hollywood’s biggest stars were regular people, happy to hobnob with common, every day folk. Not only that, but these stars would drop matters at the drop of a hat to entertain the troops. The underlying message was we are all in this together,and must come together to defeat the enemy.
Warner Bros. invited audiences to “Thank Your Lucky Stars” (1943) at the “Hollywood Canteen” (1944), M-G-M let roar “Thousands Cheer” (1943), Paramount provided a toe-tapping “Star Spangled Rhythm” (1942), Universal ordered audiences to “Follow the Boys” (1944) and United Artists beckoned audiences to the “Stage Door Canteen (1943).
I’m very fond of all of these movies, being a particular sucker for all-star musicals. But among these all-star propaganda pieces, I offer one of the most modest yet intriguing offerings, the very pro-British “Forever and a Day” (1943), featuring the vast cream of Hollywood’s British acting colony, along with a few imports from the other side of the ocean, to tell the story of 140 years of inhabitants of an English house, mainly of two families, the Trimbles and the Pomfrets.
It was RKO’s offering in the all-star rallies, but it really wasn’t a studio move per se, as all the studios donated time and talent to the project. RKO agreed to distribute the picture at cost, with the profits to be divided among various Allied war charities, mainly the British War Effort and, at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt, the National (U.S.) Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. RKO also provided all production technical services and the studio’s technicians went uncredited.
Seven directors, however, are credited: Edmund Goulding, Cedric Hardwicke, Frank Lloyd, Victor Saville, Robert Stevenson, Herbert Wilcox and Rene Clair. Despite consulting several books, I have not been able to determine who directed what. I will include the information when possible, but I wish I had more to go on in this respect. If anyone knows, I would greatly appreciate hearing from them.
IMDB lists 21 screenwriters, and an interesting bit of trivia: this film has more credited writers than any other. Many of them are familiar names from both the literary and movie worlds: Charles Bennett, Alan Campbell, Norman Corwin, C.S. Forester, Peter Godfrey, Jack Hartfield, Laurence Hazard, Sid Herzig, James Hilton, Alfred Hitchcock (uncredited), Michael Hogan, Christopher Isherwood, Emmet Lavery, W.P. Lipscomb, Gene Lockhart, Frederick Lonsdale, Alice Dyer Miller, R.C. Sherriff, Donald Ogden Stewart, John Van Druten, Claudine West and Keith Winter.
Among the famous faces on display: Kent Smith, Reginald Gardiner, Victor McLaglen, Billy Bevan, Arthur Treacher, Ruth Warrick, Herbert Marshall, C. Aubrey Smith, Edmund Gwenn and Ray Milland.
Also: Dame May Whitty, Gene Lockhart, Anna Neagle, Claude Rains, Halliwell Hobbes, Jessie Matthews, Reginald Owen, Ian Hunter, Charles Laughton and Anna Lee.
Don’t forget: Buster Keaton, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Edward Everett Horton, Patric Knowles, June Duprez, Cecil Kellaway, Isobel Elsom, Ida Lupino, Wendy Barrie, Eric Blore and Brian Ahearne.
Wait, the movie’s not over yet: Merle Oberon, Walter Kingsford, Dennis Hoey, Una O’Connor, Richard Haydn, Nigel Bruce, Elsa Lanchester, Roland Young, Gladys Cooper, Robert Coote, Robert Cummings and Donald Crisp.
Deleted from the final print were Sara Allgood, Ray Bolger, Lionel Belmore and Charles Coburn.
The film was a very popular one with audiences, generating much needed money for their charities. It was fairly well reviewed, with even some superlatives thrown its way. It still entertains today, mainly due to the cast. Anglophiles should love it, as it shows the best of England in only the most positive light. What else can one say about an English saga that starts with C. Aubrey Smith and ends with Donald Crisp?
Due to its propaganda nature and its perceived importance, cast and crew members donated their services to the endeavor, with some actors performing in the smallest of roles just to help out. For instance, Patric Knowles appears for about 10 seconds and says one line as Edward Everett Horton’s son.
John T. Soister in his book “Claude Rains A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference" (McFarland and Company, 1999), offers interesting background on the production: “The scope of the project had originally included France, and sundry instances of its national esprit, but when that government signed the armistice with Hitler, the Brits decided to go it alone. Let the Rafters Ring, an historic/patriotic huzzah by Robert Stevenson, was to be the pivot on which all the dramatics turned, but this was later whittled to a nub, elaborated upon by the efforts of some 21 writers and renamed The Changing World. Pre-production began back in May of 1941, but the vagaries of war constantly interrupted the shooting schedule, and some 18 months passed before the picture was wrapped. Despite numerous pleas for cooperation, stars would absent themselves from the studio on their appointed days in order to visit hospitals, entertain wounded troops, provide a bit of moral boost to frightened and bewildered citizens, and, in several cases, join the armed forces themselves.”
Due to this haphazard scheduling, “Forever and a Day” was in production for more than a year. I’m speculating here, but I’m wondering if the lack of knowledge about who directed what is because production was so undisciplined, and directors worked only when they had a hole in their schedules. I wouldn’t be surprised if some directors and writers did work on the film uncredited
Soister again: “For 1943 picture-goers, desperately desiring entertainment, peace of mind, and moral support, Forever and a Day was a star-studded paean to the 'indomitable British spirit.' Nearly 60 years later, it is a picturesque curiosity. Both helped and hindered by its episodic nature and venerable framing device, the film is uneven, dated, and strangely inconclusive; for the right audiences, however, it is still a moving and enjoyable experience.”
I like the film more than Soister does, but agree some sequences play better than others. Also, the film’s relatively short running time of 104 minutes to tell a story spanning a century and a half means some characters and situations are given short shrift. That’s the film’s main drawback. But there’s still much to enjoy here.
The film’s framing device centers around Kent Smith as Gates Trimble Pomfret, an American in London during the Blitz to sell the Trimble house, which has been in the family since 1804. A distant cousin Lesley Trimble (Ruth Warrick) currently lives in the house and doesn’t want to sell it. She knows the history of the house and all its inhabitants. Gates isn’t as romantic about the past as she is. The house’s basement serves as an air raid shelter for the neighborhood and during one bombing raid they take refuge in the basement, where the locals are being comforted by the local chaplin, played by Herbert Marshall.
During their time in the basement, and afterwards as they walk through the house, Lesley explains to Gates why Trimble House is more than a house, but almost a living, breathing reflection of the generations who lived there previously. She starts her tale at the beginning. (There will be some slight, unavoidable spoilers ahead).
In 1804, as Napoleon threatens the peace and stability of England, retired Admiral Eustace Trimble (C. Aubrey Smith), spots some prime acreage outside London as the perfect place to build a house. He’s happy in the house, and says a house is more than brick and mortar, it’s the people who live there that matter, a potent metaphor for the English people. Etched into the stone basement are these words: “Eustace Trimble Built This House and wishes well to all who Shelter here. AD 1804”
His son William (Ray Milland) serves in the British Navy and visits his father on leave. One afternoon in the garden they spot a young woman running through their yard. It’s Susan (Anna Neagle) running away from her guardian, their neighbor Ambrose Pomfret (Claude Rains). Ambrose insists on them returning Susan to him. She doesn’t want to go, William and Susan fall in love and decide to marry. Ambrose shrugs and lets them be.
Here is one of the film’s faults, and where the episodic nature of the film hinders it. We hear that Ambrose has a fearsome reputation, yet he’s very nonchalant about giving up his ward and fiancee to his neighbor.
When Ambrose later buys the house, it’s almost seen as an act of vengeance against the Trimbles. But Susan tells him: “A house is not more than bricks and mortar. It’s all the people who lived in it; it’s their lives, their joys and their sorrows. It’s love, friendship, decency – all the things you have never known. That’s why this house doesn’t want you.”
Indeed it doesn’t, and there’s a suggestion that not only is the old Admiral haunting the house, but the house is physically rejecting Ambrose.
The house may be owned by the Pomfret’s, but the Trimbles will always think of it as theirs. The two families become one when Mildred Trimble (Jessie Matthews) marries Ambrose’s son Dexter (Ian Hunter) and introduce modern conveniences to the house, starting with a bathtub installed by Buster Keaton and Sir Cedric Hardwicke.
It’s a hoot seeing Sir Cedric as a Cockney tradesman. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play such a role before. According to one of my Buster Keaton books, Hardwicke directed this segment and there’s some well-timed comedy as Keaton demonstrates the Rube Goldberg-like bathtub appliances. It makes for a nice break in the proceedings.
London has grown over the years and the former country house is now smack in the middle of London, enough that a parade celebrating Queen Victoria’s Jubilee goes right past the house. In this segment, current owner is Sir Anthony Trimble-Pomfret (Edward Everett Horton), Lady Trimble-Pomfret (Isobel Elsom) and their spoiled children, including daughters played by Wendy Barrie and June Duprez. (How Edward Everett Horton could be the father of Wendy Barrie and June Duprez staggers the imagination).
Desperate to see the passing parade, and hopefully catch sight of the Queen, is one of the family’s maids, Jenny Jones (Ida Lupino). Blocking her view from the basement window is black sheep cousin Jim Trimble (Brian Ahearne), and romance blossoms between the two as he makes plans to go to America. Jim tells Jenny that there’s only three years left in the century, and, in a salute to Anglo-American friendship, says America will be the place to be in the 20th century. Jenny and Jim seem to me to be representatives of the eroding class system, where class differences can be put aside in America, and where a family maid can marry a cousin of her employer. That daughters Barrie and Duprez are insufferable bores helps make her decision to go with Jim to America.
According to Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan, Hitchcock wrote this sequence uncredited, and was also scheduled to direct it. But the timing didn’t work out, and Rene Clair helmed this sequence. For Lupino fans, this is a must see as the good-hearted Jenny Jones is one of her most likeable portrayals.
The next sequence is my favorite, and a highlight of the film. The year is now 1917 and Trimble House has been turned into the Trimble Hall Hotel. Guests include fussbudget Richard Haydn, Robert Coote as a blind soldier, Nigel Bruce as a (financially) slightly over-extended guest and Roland Young and Gladys Cooper as the Barringers, in London to meet their son on leave, an ace flying pilot and war hero. Working the hotel are Una O’Connor and Merle Oberon, with Elsa Lanchester as one of the maids.
Checking in for one night is another soldier on leave, American Ned Trimble (Robert Cummings), son of Jenny and Jim, who has heard about the house from his mother and wants to spend the night there. The Barringers invite Ned to join them for the reunion with their son. It’s fairly obvious what’s going to happen, but the whole sequence is beautifully played by Young and Cooper, a mother role 360 degrees different from her portrayal in “Now Voyager” (1942). Young and Cooper are the embodiments of thousands of mothers and fathers who must endure horrific sacrifices to ensure the country’s survival.
The film returns to modern times, just as another bombing raid commences. A bomb destroys much of Trimble House, but even Gates, after hearing about its rich history, is convinced the house should be re-built. Like England itself during the war, it may be battered but never unbowed. England will survive. The house is England, and England is its house, and its people will always endure.
Despite its flaws, there’s much to enjoy here. Its manna from Heaven for Golden Age movie fans as there’s a familiar star or character actor in practically every scene.
I wish the DVD transfer were better. It was issued in the days before digital clean-ups were the norm. The film is often dark with splices on the soundtrack and dirt visible throughout the film. It was one of the first DVDs I ever purchased, for about $6 at a local used book and video store. Prices for sealed copies now fetch about $100, with used copies running around $50. I hope the folks at Warner Archive can re-master it. It deserves a wider audience and with “Downton Abbey” such a huge hit, this film will appeal to that audience. Not just them, but the Anglophile in all of us.
I’m very pleased to take part in the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) blogathon on 1940s movies. Visit the site at http://clamba.blogspot.com/ for a list of titles and sites. I promise lots of informative and entertaining reading.