I suppose with On Approval (1944) I was expecting some sort of Noël Coward-type, dryly witty drawing room comedy. Partly it is just that, but it's also almost indescribably anarchic at times, like the screwiest of screwball comedies, and there are also purely cinematic sight gags harkening back to Buster Keaton in his prime. It reminds me a lot of several of writer-director Preston Sturges's films, particularly The Palm Beach Story (1942), which has a similar structure and plot, and which is also particularly insane. Mostly though On Approval is a difficult film to describe because it's so one-of-a-kind.
The picture, an adaptation of a 1927 Fred Lonsdale farce, began shooting with another director. Star Clive Brook wasn't satisfied with the results and completely took over the production as producer-writer-director as well as star. It's not clear how much, if any, of the original footage was retained, but it was at least extensively reshot. Among the disc's extras are intriguing stills from an elaborate but completely reworked final scene, which co-star Googie Withers also discusses in a video interview that's included as an extra feature.
The film is a real anomaly. Brook, who never wrote or directed any other films before or after this, had been a huge star in American movies of the 1920s and early-1930s (he famously played Sherlock Holmes several times) but by 1944 his star status had dimmed somewhat. On Approval was effectively his last film as a leading man. His co-star, Beatrice Lillie, considered one of the greatest comediennes of the British and American stages, nevertheless made only a handful of films, about half a dozen, and several of those were cameo appearances. The movie is greatly admired by those who've seen it - the packaging quotes director Lindsay Anderson, who calls it, "the funniest British light comedy ever made" - but it's not famous. I'd not seen the play or the 1930 film version, and was only vaguely aware of this adaptation.
The fine Blu-ray of On Approval arrives courtesy B2MP. Silent film preservationist and historian David Shepard's name appears on this 1996-copyrighted restoration and his Blackhawk Films is also credited. The film appears to have been produced independently and originally distributed in the United Kingdom by Eagle-Lion, the J. Arthur Rank-owned organization.
The 1927 play was contemporary but the 1944 film version moves the setting back to late-Victorian era (though it looks more Edwardian to me). The movie itself begins with a wild, hilarious prologue contrasting wartime and especially late-pre-war British newsreel footage (with dialogue read by newsreel narrator E.V.H. Emmett, then familiar to British audiences) with staged footage from "grandmama's time," a simpler, more innocent era. The effect is something like the prologue to The Magnificent Ambersons reimagined by Robert Benchley.
The main story follows two impoverished gentlemen, George, the 10th Duke of Bristol (Clive Brook) and his friend Richard Halton (Roland Culver), and their efforts to marry into money, namely wealthy, 41-year-old widow Maria (pronounced "Ma-rye-ah") Wislack (Beatrice Lille) and her much younger American friend, Helen Hale (Googie Withers).
Richard, pursing Maria, is invited to her island mansion in Scotland for a one-month trial marriage. Every evening he's expected to row back to the mainland and spend his nights at the local inn but, even so, the conservative Scottish servants refuse to be a party to such a scandalous arrangement and quit en masse.
Claiming the only hotel full up both Richard and George, joined by Helen, all eventually spend the entire month together on the island estates by themselves. Richard makes a valiant effort to prove his worth to Maria but she behaves abominably, already treating him like a hen-pecked husband. George, with designs on Helen, takes advantage of her warmth and generosity, ordering her about like a servant.
The picture is packed with highly quotable dialogue: "She's not crying because I said she was forty-one. She's crying because she is forty-one"; Maria: "George, there's a man in my room!" George: "Why?" The wit is not only sophisticated but also packed with the kind of double-entendres almost impossible to imagine in a 1944 Hollywood film. And yet, reportedly, just one line of dialogue was cut for the American release. (The liner notes don't identify it, alas.)
Structurally, the film resembles The Palm Beach Story in myriad ways. In that film two people similarly down on their luck become entangled with a two rich but highly eccentric people, with whom they stay at their Palm Beach mansion. In this case the two down on their luck are a married couple and the rich pair are a brother and sister, but the story follows a similar course. Both The Palm Beach Story and On Approval open with wildly chaotic prologues and conclude with equally audacious, unpredictable wrap-ups. Yet they're different enough that they'd sure make a great double-bill.
Brook, according to the diplomatic Withers, was a difficult man to work with but undeniably a great star. She acknowledges that he and Culver, and Lillie for that matter, were all probably a bit too old for their characters. (Brook was 57, Culver 44, and Lillie was pushing 50, playing 41. Withers, by contrast was just 27. Both Brook and Culver are obviously wearing hairpieces.) Indeed, I'd known Roland Culver almost exclusively for his later movies and TV appearances, in which he specialized playing ancient, bald, often disagreeable authority figures. Beatrice Lillie is quite funny in On Approval, but her overbearing character is not representative of her vast appeal as a comedienne. And yet in spite it all, everyone is totally delightful in the film.
Video & Audio
One wonders if not for David Shepard's efforts if On Approval would have survived at all. It probably wouldn't exist in as good a form as it does here, certainly. The film has minor damage here and there but overall this is a fine presentation, with strong blacks, good contrast and excellent 1080p detail throughout. The audio, uncompressed PCM mono 2.0 (English only, no subtitles) is also fine and the disc is Region A encoded.
Supplements include a pleasant, warm interview (by Kevin Brownlow, heard just off-camera) with Googie Withers, who died in 2011 at 94. There's also an excellent audio commentary by Jeffrey Vance and a (high-def) still gallery that includes the aforementioned images from the original, ultimately aborted ending.
One of this year's delightful surprises, On Approval is not to be missed. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.