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DVD SAVANT

Enchantment


Enchantment
MGM
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 101 min. / Street Date March 8, 2005 / 14.95
Starring David Niven, Teresa Wright, Evelyn Keyes, Farley Granger, Jayne Meadows, Leo G. Carroll
Cinematography Gregg Toland
Art Direction George Jenkins
Film Editor Daniel Mandell
Original Music Hugo Friedhofer
Written by John Patrick from the novel Take Three Tenses by Rumer Godden
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Directed by Irving Reis

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Enchantment is a bittersweet romance similar to the ones David O. Selznick made in the late forties with Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten. The multigenerational story spans fifty years and has not one but two sets of lovers threatened by fate. There's nothing particularly wrong with the capable cast, but the story never reaches the depth of feeling it seems to be going for. Even with an able assist from cameraman Gregg Toland, director Irving Reis doesn't give the movie the lift it needs.

Synopsis:

When her parents die in an accident, young Lark Ingoldsby (Gigi Perreau, later Teresa Wright) is brought into the Dane household and told she will be raised as one of the children. But the jealous eldest daughter Selina (Jayne Meadows) forever conspires against Lark, seeking to keep her disadvantaged and unhappy. When Lark grows up she's attracted to her 'brother' Roland (David Niven), but Selina and army duties ruin with their romance. A generation later, the Dane house is about to be destroyed when Roland returns, wistfully melancholic over his long lost Lark; then two youthful relations show up, the wounded flyer Pax Masterson (Farley Granger) and Grizel Dane (Evelyn Keyes), both from America. Will they make the same mistake Roland and Lark did?

Adapted from a book called Take Three Tenses and filmed under the title A Fugue in Time, Enchantment interweaves two parallel stories happening perhaps 50 years apart. A once-fashionable London house opens the show by speaking in a familiar "what tales these walls could tell" mode. David Niven's retired General wants to sit and reflect over his bad romantic luck sometime back before WW1; in the middle of WW2 he's joined by Evelyn Keyes, the niece of some Canadian relative and now a wartime military chauffeur. The film splits its time between Keyes' promising relationship with Farley Granger's flyer, and Niven's memories of growing up with Teresa Wright, falling in love with her, and then losing her.

What may have seemed a visual novelty in 1948 is the film's way of switching back and forth between past and present, sometimes within one shot. Old Niven (Rollo) sits in a sofa and closes his eyes in 1940, and the camera pans to the right to present Teresa Wright (Lark) coming down the stairs in 1908, almost like a ghost.

But to state the plain facts, Enchantment isn't all that enchanting. Rollo and Lark's romance is doomed from the start thanks to the intervention of the unpleasant Selina, played by Jayne Meadows as a one-note Medusa. If this were a Bette Davis film, hers would be the starring role and the movie would be a tragedy about a horrible woman who ruined the lives of everyone around her, The Little English Foxes, or something. But we instead watch as Selina commits terrible social crimes of presumption and persecution. People frown and fret and sometimes object but nobody thinks to do anything sane like put a muzzle on her. As we're hip to Selina's cheap tricks all along (belittling Lark, interfering with Rollo's career) this lack of action just makes Rollo and Lark appear to be weak. The crucial moment of the picture has Selina volunteering Rollo for a five-year mission to Afghanistan, without even consulting with him first! Her obvious purpose is to scuttle their relationship. Rollo and Lark never stand up to Selina's outrageous affrontery. All she need do is say some sharp words to Lark when Rollo's back is turned, and the lovers are separated forever.

Again, a more sensitive script and direction might have done something with this; Merchant-Ivory made a cottage industry out of stories in which lives are blighted by social forces that impede honest feelings between people. But their films never seem lazy or contrived, as Enchantment does. Niven is better than okay and Wright is luminous, but they live under a cloud of doom that's not enjoyable to watch. Enchantment lacks hope for its characters.

In the present tense, Evelyn Keyes and Farley Granger are far too obvious as potential lovers. We easily guess that the older and wiser Rollo will inspire Keyes' romantic commitment before time, fate and the war can separate them. Enchantment needs a happy ending after the misery of the past, and it doesn't care that what might was right for Rollo in 1909 might be a disastrous decision for two mixed-up kids in the London blitz. Keyes and Granger are less inspiring than their earlier counterparts, mainly because Granger has little depth; a pencil moustache does not a dashing pilot make. The bittersweet ending brings in a frantic bit of action and a couple of ironies involving a bridge and some German bombs. But we haven't been transported to that "movie romance" place we want to go.

Fans of this kind of movie come into the theater already seeking romantic fantasies. They'll settle for awkward or forced love stories if they have to, and all they need is some encouragement. Pictures like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Portrait of Jennie both play similar tricks with time and use 'convenient' fantasy contrivances. But they are eager to engage the viewer in the idea that romance is magical, even when mysterious or tragic. The lovers in both films end up alone, but do not become bitter. Both pictures also manage a sense of humor. In Enchantment all we have is the Curse of Selina.

Screenwriter John Patrick did some excellent work (The Hasty Heart, Some Came Running) but I'm assuming that Enchantment was more compelling in book form. The book original (Take Three Tenses) is by Rumer Godden, author of Black Narcissus and The River. I don't know when it was written or who influenced who, but the story has strong similarities with that of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Both are about retired Army officers in WW2 remembering a frustrated love in the past, while keeping company with a young Women's Auxilliary driver. In both films, the woman in the past romance is married to a romantic foreigner before the hero can act. At the end of each we're asked to contemplate a bomb ruin in London. The Powell/Pressburger film is only partly a romance and follows no set genre guideline, but it elicits a world of emotions beyond the frustrating story told here.


MGM's DVD of Enchantment is in almost perfect shape; it's probably safe to say that the original elements haven't been touched in 57 years except to make a few 16mm negatives for television. Picture and sound are fine. The trailer pushes the romance angle along with the names of Goldwyn's stars. MGM's cover illustration completely misrepresents the movie by showing smiling lovers embracing in front of a sunny building.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Enchantment rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 29, 2005





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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