Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tonight's Movie: The Saxon Charm (1948)

Matt Saxon (Robert Montgomery) is a giant of the Broadway theater. Saxon may be brilliant, but he also has a reputation for being self-centered and arrogant. He'll do anything to get his way, whether it's through bullying or turning on THE SAXON CHARM.

Despite Saxon's mercurial, often difficult ways, novelist turned playwright Eric Busch (John Payne) is eager to have Saxon produce his first play. Eric's clear-eyed wife Janet (Susan Hayward) is dubious of Saxon but supportive of her husband.

Unfortunately, Saxon's talent has not kept pace with his ego, and as his manipulative actions reach a peak, his professional house of cards comes tumbling down.

This is one of a handful of unpleasant lead characters Montgomery played during his long film career, and he's certainly not afraid to take the part and run with it. He's compelling as a narcissistic man who has never really grown up, and he's ultimately a tragic figure, as it appears he will never change, even when life hits him over the head.

Saxon is a frustrating character, but the movie as a whole is quite absorbing, thanks to its fine cast. Susan Hayward is excellent as Janet, Eric's quietly confident wife who is one of the only characters Saxon isn't able to bowl over. (In a lighter sequence, Saxon also has a bit of trouble with his independent yacht captain, played by Chill Wills.) It's no coincidence that Saxon throws an appalling temper tantrum in a restaurant shortly after Janet refuses to let him order her meal. Janet is one of the few characters Saxon can't control. Ultimately, he attempts to "manage" her another way, by manipulating her husband away from her side.

John Payne manages to carry off the role of the playwright without making him look like a complete weakling -- he's just an easygoing guy who would like to do whatever it takes to get his first play produced. When Payne's Eric finally goes too far and dashes off to Mexico at Saxon's behest, his previously supportive wife lets him have it, and the audience is glad.

Audrey Totter, Montgomery's costar in the previous year's LADY IN THE LAKE, is very appealing as the unfortunately named Alma Wragge, who knows who and what Saxon is and loves him anyway. Her final scene with Saxon is the best one in the movie; when this film is shown to an audience, surely there must be some applause as she walks out the door!

Another excellent sequence has Saxon directing Alma's audition to sing at a nightclub. Totter's singing of "I'm in the Mood for Love" is dubbed by the wonderful Martha Mears. When Marjorie Reynolds debuted "White Christmas" with Bing Crosby in HOLIDAY INN (1942), it's actually Mears singing; her voice appears on the soundtrack of many other films, dubbing actresses including Veronica Lake and Rita Hayworth.

Harry Morgan, who recently turned 95, has a very effective scene as the last man left standing in Saxon's inner circle. Heather Angel is likewise notable in a brief sequence as the ex-wife used and quickly abandoned by Saxon. The cast also includes Harry Von Zell and Cara Williams.

THE SAXON CHARM was written and directed by the talented Claude Binyon. Binyon had spent many years as a writer at Paramount, where he wrote countless films for stars such as Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland, Claudette Colbert, and Bing Crosby. THE SAXON CHARM marked his directorial debut.

This film runs 88 minutes. It was filmed by Milton Krasner.

THE SAXON CHARM has had a release in Spain on Region 2 DVD. Ivan reviewed the DVD last year at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. The movie has not had a U.S. release on video or DVD.

I'm always especially happy to see a Robert Montgomery film for the first time. My thanks to Moira for making it possible.


Blogger Joy2theWorld said...

What no review of this film ever seems to talk about is the homoerotic subplot of this film. "Never grows up" is often a euphemism for -a wink and a nod to- a character's homosexuality. Placing the action in a theatrical setting, where gay men have historically had the semblance of power, the brutal cattiness of Saxon, based on his being the expert at "taste", and finally, the insistence of moving bright young talented men away from the women in their lives (you know this is not the first time Saxon has done this as the film ends with him starting over again at the film's end) points to this interpretation. Why does Saxon call Busch at all hours, insisting that he come immediately to see him at his apartment alone, even whisking him away to Mexico, at one point? I maintain that it's not just about power, but warped sexual dominance.

Saxon is punished, all his power stripped away, he has no money, and no friends, the woman who loved him commits suicide (we never find out why Saxon divorces her- but we know he doesn't like women) and his Number One- Hermy-walks away. But Saxon lives to see another day- to prey on some other unsuspecting piece of talent.

This is the year, 1948, of Kinsey's Sexual Behavior of the Human Male, and the beginning of the Red Scare associating gay people with communists, thus becoming the Lavender Scare. In 1947 the US Park Police initiated a "Sex Perversion Elimination Program" targeting gay men and 1948 the World Health Organization published the ICD -6 that included homosexuality as sexual deviation. Its no wonder then, that John Saxon had to be seen as a narcissistic, sick, uncaring, horror of a person. I maintain this film served as propaganda, and a warning, playing on society's fear of homosexuals, and the confirmation that homosexuality was an illness.

6:20 PM  
Blogger ducdebrabant said...

There may indeed be homosexual subtext in the film, but the character of Saxon is based on the producer Jed Harris, brilliant and wllfully destructive, about whom Wakeman based his source novel. Harris (based on my reading of the biography THE BURDEN OF GENIUS) was not gay. That needn't have prevented Wakeman from adding gay subtext, of course, or Binyon from doing so.

2:03 PM  
Anonymous Barry Lane said...

A pair of smart comments, and I agree with both takes.

8:43 AM  

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