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Often placed on lists of respected literary adaptations, Sons and Lovers is Jack Cardiff's first and perhaps best directed movie. The English cinematographer had found international fame through his highly creative and artistic Technicolor camera work in pictures for Gabriel Pascal, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, Henry Hathaway, John Huston, Albert Lewin, Joseph Mankiewicz, King Vidor, Richard Fleischer and Laurence Olivier. According to his autobiography Cardiff also was romantically involved with several of the actresses he photographed, big stars like Sophia Loren.
Producer Jerry Wald was one of Hollywood's top success stories. When only in his early 'twenties he commenced a long list of top Warners hits, yet is most strongly associated with the soapy scandal movie Peyton Place. Produced by Fox and filmed in England, Sons and Lovers is practically a Hollywood Art Picture. Screenwriter Gavin Lambert was an intellectual favorite whose initial directing effort Another Sky led to work with Nicholas Ray. His adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's novel is expert in every sense, and it pushes the limit of what was acceptable on the screen in 1960.
Sons and Lovers is a semi-autobiographical account of D.H. Lawrence's own youth. Lawrence surrogate Paul Morel (American Dean Stockwell) wants to study art, but he comes from a working class mining family. His drawings find space in local exhibition yet his future is uncertain. Paul's boistrous, bitter father Walter (Trevor Howard) is ashamed that he never applied himself and still works as a coal miner; he loses one of his three sons in a subterranean fire. Everyone seems to notice that Walter's wife Gertrude (Wendy Hiller) dotes on Paul, encourages his art and becomes highly jealous whenever he shows an interest in girls. Paul strikes up a fast friendship with farm neighbor Miriam Leivers (Heather Sears) and would like to advance the relationship. But Miriam's severe puritan upbringing causes her to hold back. The rich Henry Hadlock (Ernest Thesiger) comes to Paul's rescue by offering to pay his college tuition in London. Paul finally hears his mother Gertrude's sad story of her lost love for her husband; all that is left seems to be a mutual distrust. Paul decides to forget about London. He stays with his mother and takes a job in the factory of the interesting Mr. Pappleworth (Donald Pleasance). That's where Paul meets Clara Dawes (Mary Ure), an unhappy suffragette long separated from her husband, although he works in the same plant. Paul talks Miriam into having sex, and afterwards declares that it was a mistake, a bad idea. He instead becomes involved with Clara. She takes him home one night and they make love in the early hours of the morning. Back at home, Gertrude's sudden lack of energy develops into a general sickness, and she is soon bedridden. After Clara and Paul sneak away for a holiday at the beach, her ex-husband Baxter (Conrad Phillips) accosts Paul on his way home, with the object of beating him senseless.
Taking place perhaps around 1912, Sons and Lovers purposely looks like an upscale English movie from the 1940s. It was filmed in moody B&W, reportedly in some of the real locations where D.H. Lawrence grew up. The well read, creative and intellectually questioning Paul is a handsome young man, and actually turns heads when shows up on the factory floor. A genuine mama's boy, Paul has already decided that he's God's Gift for the ladies, even if he's modest about it. When the art fancier Hadlock says that he'll get his investment back from Paul, we wonder if he expects sexual favors from the boy. Yet Paul decides to forego art school on other grounds, and the story follows his progress in what was a man's world. Paul is unusually sensitive and curious about relationships. He says that he's searching for an honest sexual experience with a woman, but he still mostly wants sex. A major part of the film's tension comes from this.
The two women in Paul's life are very different. Separated from her husband for a couple of years, Clara Dawes considers herself more or less a divorceé. She knows her own mind and has enough experience to accept Paul or turn him away, without doubting herself. Miriam Leivers has no such defenses. It may appear that Paul is honestly working his way through his feelings, but despite his claims of sincerity it's a terribly manipulative relationship. Paul tells Miriam that they're soul mates and might belong together to get her to overcome her disapproving mother and sleep with him. On the basis of their one disappointing episode, Paul then declares that Miriam is 'too spiritual' and surrendered to him for the wrong reason. She can't win.
Both Cardiff and his cameraman Freddie Francis were top cinematographers, and each ended his career alternating between camerawork and directing. Sons and Lovers has a 'heavy' period look, with dark skies and plenty of rain on the shiny cobblestones. The wind-blown trees behind the titles could have come straight from David Lean's Great Expectations. The clothes look heavy and confining. Gertrude's shabby row house is oppressively small, and Clara's mother's comfy little place is claustrophobic as well. What young man doesn't identify with the scene where the lovers intuitively know when to sneak out of their rooms after the elderly mother is asleep? Cardiff saves his most lyrical camera move for this midnight encounter.
As for sex scenes, this is a 1960 American film, so forget it. After their one experience Miriam and Paul are unhappy and uncomfortable, for different reasons. In their room at the beach, Clara feels great but Paul is already restless. Perhaps it's just beginning to dawn on him that the act hasn't prompted any consciousness-raising miracle. Is he frustrated because he doesn't feel any deeper emotions about Clara?
The acting is uniformly good. Trevor Howard personifies the hurt pride and ingrained shame of Walter, who is always ready to pick a fight with poor Gertrude. He throws her meals against the wall and locks her out of her own house. Walter resorts to bullying because he has no legitimate arguments to offer. He resents Gertrude lavishing attention on Paul, but like her doesn't want the boy going down into the mines. Howard received his only Oscar nomination for this role. His key scene is actually comic. When his other son William (William Lucas) arrives for a Christmas party with his bright wife Louisa (Rosalie Ashley), Walter is taking a bath in the middle of the kitchen. Gertrude and Paul have to drag him, tub and all, into the next room.
The wonderful Wendy Hiller (I Know Where I'm Going!) lets Gertrude Morel remain a problematical character. Gertrude clings to Paul because she has no emotional center to her life. She also doesn't mind using her affection for her son as a club against Walter. She's delighted when Paul's art is hung for the public, but also worries that studies might take him away ("You want to paint girls with their bosoms showing?"). Poor Muriel is a constant target of her criticism. Gertrude disengages from these personal campaigns when she takes sick. The personal tragedy is that she'll accept affection from Paul but not from Walter, even when he's respectful and contrite. She doesn't want him in the room.
D.H. Lawrence's books were of course labeled obscene and associated with the Free Love movement, here represented by the soulful Clara Dawes, an independent working woman who belongs to a suffragette group that doesn't approve of her 'radical' thoughts on sexual freedom. Something like Freedom may be possible in the society pictured but equality and fairness are probably not. Clara is in control of Paul, deciding when their affair begins and when it ends. She seems the truly liberated person in the story, as Paul is still far too egotistical. Stage actress Mary Ure had a spotty film career between her troubled marriages to playwright John Osborne and actor Robert Shaw. The expressive, beautiful blonde is now best known for a small role in the popular Where Eagles Dare, but viewers should keep an eye out for Look Back in Anger and The Luck of Ginger Coffey. She was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for Sons and Lovers.
Heather Sears won plum parts in The Story of Esther Costello and Room at the Top before taking the part of Miriam. We're gratified that Miriam is on her way to London at the end of the show, because otherwise she'd just be Paul's starter girlfriend, a 'safe' hit & run conquest cast aside as when he moves on. After spending his childhood playing adorable, interesting children, Stockwell created a credible mixed-up modern teen in The Careless Years and then a homosexual thrill killer in Compulsion. He embodies Paul of Sons and Lovers quite well, resisting both the belligerent father and his overly protective mother. Stockwell even does a convincing fight scene.
(spoiler) The final scene in Sons and Lovers has always bothered me, as I'm not certain that it is meant to be taken in the spirit in which it is played. Technically it's Dean Stockwell's scene, as he does most of the talking. But what we see is not Lawrence's vaunted sexual honesty, unless honesty means brutal self interest. Paul and Miriam meet in the woods. She's happy that they're now both free. If they go to London together, she's ready to give him anything and everything she can of herself. But Paul instead dumps her to move on to his next self-created adventure. He feeds poor Miriam a 'sensitive' line that rationalizes his desire to end the relationship, says goodbye and leaves. Miriam has no choice but to stand there silently and take what every modern college kid will recognize as a wholly selfish brush-off. I suppose we should be happy that the marvelously warm and caring Miriam is free of this amorous freebooter.
I don't think this scene is wholly successful in that the audience is never encouraged to question Paul's motives, as I have done... his petty crimes come through the text, not the direction. The audience also doesn't realize that the scene is wrapping things up -- when "The End" suddenly appears it's a surprise. One must pay attention in Sons and Lovers to see what's really going on.
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD of Sons and Lovers is a rather good enhanced widescreen transfer of this unique studio film. The image looks a bit dark but appropriately so. I saw no damage to speak of. Although dialogue is always clear, a couple of early reels have 'crunchy' audio -- distorted just enough to notice. I was very happy to hear this clear up quickly. There are no extras.
Considering that it was made by two crack cinematographers, we're surprised to see Sons and Lovers display original-photography problems associated with early CinemaScope pictures -- it clearly wasn't made with the newest lenses. 1 The image field is not flat, and 'straight' lines stretch and bow badly when the camera pans. In many shots closer than a medium close-up, we see CinemaScope mumps occurring plus a few shots where lens adjustments make actors' faces seem out-of-round. Cardiff and Francis were accustomed to exotic formats like Technirama, leading us to speculate that the hand-me-down WarpoScope lenses may have been forced on them.
Mario Nascimbene's music score is suitably lush, if a bit soap-operatic. For some reason, the melody line of the main theme always reminds me of Debbie Reynolds' dippy '50s song Tammy.
Sons and Lovers arrived with a group of Fox Cinema Archives discs. Almost all of the 'Scope titles are pan-scan transfers from masters at least twenty years old, and even some of the older flat titles (B&W and color) are inferior transfers. A few look as if they'd been transferred through a screen door. I wouldn't go for a Fox title unless you've already read a positive review. I found Sons and Lovers to be much better than acceptable -- many of us have never seen this interesting movie in its anamorphic proportions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sons and Lovers rates:
1. When Panavision was introduced in 1957-58, CinemaScope's Bausch & Lomb scrambled to make optical improvements that should have been in the works much, much earlier. The 2nd generation 'Scope lenses were the equal of Panavision, but I believe that many older lenses remained in circulation. For years later some 'Scope movies still exhibit the old optical distortions -- especially in Europe, where I have a feeling that older lenses were 'dumped'. This is only a guess made through observation.
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