Sunday, April 17, 2016

Tonight's Movies: Flesh and Fantasy (1943) and Destiny (1944) at the Noir City Film Festival

This evening was a particularly special night at the 18th annual Noir City Film Festival.

Tonight's double bill consisted of two interrelated Universal Pictures films, FLESH AND FANTASY (1943) and DESTINY (1944). Like all the other films in this festival, both were shown in 35mm.

FLESH AND FANTASY is a stylish anthology film made by French director by Julien Duvivier. The 94-minute film tells three spooky stories, with two romances framing a tale of murder.

Originally DESTINY was intended as the first segment of FLESH AND FANTASY, and Duvivier thus directed roughly two-thirds of DESTINY. Director Reginald LeBorg completed DESTINY; his daughter was in tonight's audience. In its final version DESTINY runs 65 minutes.

FLESH AND FANTASY was filmed by Stanley Cortez and Paul Ivano, while Ivano and George Robinson filmed DESTINY.

Although the ultimate film version of DESTINY turned out to be an uplifting story of redemption, it was originally conceived as something much darker; what was turned into a nightmare in DESTINY was how the segment was originally intended to end when it was part of FLESH AND FANTASY, with the body of Alan Curtis washing ashore, which led into the next story. In the final edit, the body at the opening of FLESH AND FANTASY contributes to the film's otherwordly feeling, but otherwise doesn't relate to anything in the film.

The removal of DESTINY from FLESH AND FANTASY also made some of the story transitions more awkward, so bridging material featuring Robert Benchley talking to a friend (David Hoffman) at his club was added in.

The FLESH AND FANTASY/DESTINY double bill was the highlight of my weekend at Noir City; I particularly enjoyed DESTINY, a film I'd never heard of before the festival.

FLESH AND FANTASY begins with a story in which a bitter seamstress (Betty Field) finally meets the man of her dreams (Robert Cummings) while wearing a beautiful Mardi Gras mask. The very plain seamstress is reluctant to remove her mask and let him see her as she really is, but love brings magic... Look for Marjorie Lord and Peter Lawford in small roles in this section.

In the second segment, based on a story by Oscar Wilde, a fortune teller (Thomas Mitchell) tells a lawyer (Edward G. Robinson) that the lawyer is going to commit a murder. The attorney, who has finally become engaged to the woman of his dreams (Anna Lee), scoffs, but soon finds himself in multiple situations where murder is possible. Dame May Whitty and Sir C. Aubrey Smith are among the supporting cast.

The final story is another romance, in which a high wire artist (Charles Boyer, who co-produced) meets a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) he's literally dreamed of...but despite her matching his dream in every respect, she says they don't have a future together. Charles Winninger costars.

As one might gather from the above, the film has a dreamlike mood, juxtaposing the attorney's nightmare with a pair of miracles. At times the movie calls to mind other films, including the MGM short CARNIVAL IN PARIS (1937) and Stanwyck's REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940), but it also has a very distinct, unusual style which makes it not quite like anything else I've seen. The great cast and effective storytelling made for compelling viewing.

DESTINY tells the story of an ex-con named Cliff (Alan Curtis, PHANTOM LADY) who is tricked into driving a getaway car for a new crime. Fleeing the police Cliff meets three different women: Betty (Grace McDonald), who picks him up hitchhiking and treats him kindly; Marie (Minna Gombell), who runs a roadhouse and seems to be helpful but is only after reward money; and most importantly Jane (Gloria Jean), the blind daughter of a farmer (Frank Craven of OUR TOWN).

Jane can't see in literal terms, but she has an otherworldly sense of things happening around her, and she also has an unusual connection to the natural world. Her relationships with animals and soprano singing makes one think of a Disney princess, which is underscored even more firmly during an amazing nightmare sequence where the trees and bushes protect her as she flees a would-be attacker. It's like a scene from SNOW WHITE come to life and was a real "wow" for me. The set design of the film in general, especially Jane's farmhouse, was excellent.

I don't believe I'd ever seen a film with Gloria Jean before, and I thought she was excellent as Jane, sweet but matter-of-fact. (It was nice to be reminded by Eddie Muller tha the actress, born in 1926, is still with us; she turned 90 last Thursday.) There are a couple of moments where the story edges close to being overly cute -- multiple birds landing on Jane's shoulders drew a brief chuckle from the audience -- but for the most part it's a deeply felt and quite lovely story which I would like to see again in the future.

FLESH AND FANTASY is available on DVD in the Universal Vault Series. DESTINY is not available on DVD.

Thanks to Noir City for another great evening of movies on the big screen!


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