The comedy sensation of 1945, 1946, and 1947! Warner Bros.' Archive Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Escape Me Never, the 1947 romantic drama from the Brothers' Warner, based on a book and play by Margaret Kennedy, and starring Errol Flynn, Ida Lupino, Eleanor Parker, Gig Young, Reginald Denny, Isobel Elsom, Albert Basserman, and Ludwig Stossel. A woefully dim-witted, often ludicrous remake of the well-received 1935 adaptation starring Elisabeth Bergner, this version of Escape Me Never was a notorious flop for all involved, signaling the end of Flynn's chances at Warner to break out of his swashbuckling strait-jacket, as well as sending contract player Lupino off the WB lot on a thoroughly sour note...of her own making. Luckily, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold is around to hit all the right notes for Escape Me Never's lush, impossibly romantic score--one of his best, and also his last for Warners. An original trailer for Escape Me Never is included in this just-okay black and white fullscreen transfer.
Venice, Italy, 1900. Weakling would-be composer/piano key pounder Caryl Dubrok (the reliable anonymous Gig Young), the son of a now-deceased famous composer, has somehow caught the eye of wealthy British socialite Fenella MacLean (Eleanor Parker, looking impossibly beautiful...with absolutely nothing to do here), whose parents (Reginald Denny, Isobel Elsom) are living in a fabulous palace on the canal--a palace that is open to tourists and school trips during certain days. One day, single mother and street urchin Gemma Smith (Ida Lupino), dressed as a school girl, is caught in Fenella's room and is brought to the MacLeans. The unrepentant little chiseler explains she steals for her baby, Piccolo (I'm not making that up)...as well as for the composer, Dubrok, with whom she lives--a revelation that makes the outraged MacLeans, a wounded Fenella in particular, high-tail it for the Dolomites. Of course it's not Caryl that lives with Gemma, but rather his ne'er-do-well brother, Sebastian (Errol Flynn), a dirty, drunken "free spirit" who plays the concertina and dreams of composing like daddy...inbetween screwing anything in a skirt (but not,
we're carefully told by the Code we discover, Gemma). Convincing Caryl to pursue Fenella, Sebastian accompanies him to the Dolomites, reluctantly taking along Gemma and Piccolo. Catching up with Fenella, Sebastian of course hits on her and strikes pay dirt with the shallow socialite, causing the love-sick Gemma to lash out at Sebastian...before sleeping with him. Marriage follows, and then tragedy, as everyone tries to hash out who's going to sleep with Sebastian before his ballet, Primavera (I'm not making this up) debuts.
From what I could gather, the original 1935 movie version of Escape Me Never, which resulted in an Best Actress Oscar nomination for German actress Elisabeth Bergner, was based on Margaret Kennedy's novel and subsequent play, The Fool of the Family, a sequel to her highly successful novel and play, The Constant Nymph, where the Sanger family's saga was first introduced in 1930. When The Constant Nymph was successfully filmed by Warners in 1943 (a big hit with Charles Boyer and Oscar-nominated Joan Fontaine), Warners decided to go back to the well, of sorts, by having Nymph's producer, Henry Blanke, rework Nymph's literary sequel, Escape Me Never, by remaking the 1935 movie version of Escape Me Never. Got that? Good, because it's the only thing that makes sense in this unintentionally amusing dud--a feeling that was obviously shared by Jack Warner and the suits at the WB. After a lengthy pre-production, while Warner mulled over putting an increasingly ill-tempered, complaining Flynn into a project outside of his normal bailiwick, Flynn and an equally feisty Lupino (recently released from one of her umpteenth suspensions) began filming Escape Me Never in mid-November, 1945, overseen by studio director Peter Godfrey (Christmas in Connecticut, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, The Woman in White), from a script by Thames Williamson (Cheyenne, The Last Bandit), with an uncredited assist by Lenore J. Coffee (Beyond the Forest, Sudden Fear). Production wrapped at the end of January, 1946...and then Warner took one look at the finished project and quietly put it on a shelf for almost two years, before finally releasing it in late November, 1947. Big city critics savaged Escape Me Never, while fans of Flynn--the numbers of which had fallen even further from 1945 to 1947--failed to come out in sufficient force to earn back the movie's cost (let alone cover the additional interest charges and other overheads associated with holding the movie back for almost two years).
Unlike some other reviewers with low tolerance (or outright contempt) for "women's weepies, " I enjoy a good two hankie melodrama--particularly with actors like Flynn, Lupino, and Parker (Young's another story...)--and I respect the conventions of the genre. But no matter how far backwards I bend for Escape Me Never, there's no way I can recommend it as either a professionally calculated and executed romancer, like its predecessor, the smooth, lush The Constant Nymph...or as a meller so overripe and exaggerated as to be amusing (here comes a word I hate...) camp, such as scripter Coffee's deliriously enjoyable Beyond the Forest. There's so much that's wrong with Escape Me Never, right down to its DNA, that it's difficult to know where to begin picking it apart. And yet, any movie fan who knows their stuff from this time period will instantly get that sinking feeling that the whole production is somehow off here, such are the compromises in scripting, direction, and particularly the performances.
First and foremost, for one of these weepers to work, you the viewer have to actually like one of the characters enough to root for them, hoping they'll overcome their romantic, monetary, and societal obstacles--while of course vicariously enjoying their suffering prior to the satisfactory finale. In Escape Me Never, that character should be Ida Lupino's, and yet, she's wholly unbelievable (and often downright inexplicable) in terms of her motivations and drives. Blaming Escape Me Never's fractured, thin script is a good place to start for this predicament, but Lupino's surreally awful turn deserves equal blame (and while we're at it, how about director Peter Godfrey's inability to both keep this mess coherent, and to guide decent performances out of these good actors). When Lupino's character is first introduced to us, Gemma gives her life story to the MacLeans, while wise, old Professor Albert Basserman watches with a slight smile and a practiced eye of amused skepticism. The effect on the viewer is one of distrust: she's stringing these people along to avoid getting pinched by the cops. And yet...we later learn that her highly improbably story is true. We could have gotten behind Gemma if she was a little liar, looking to lam it (because of course she'd have a heart of gold underneath), and we could have sympathized with her if she appeared traumatized and chastened to tell her true story to the MacLeans. But how are we supposed to receive Lupino's take on this, which crazily mixes the two? Why is she acting like she's scamming the MacLeans...when she's not? And how would that feigned attitude of shifty-eyed criminality and con artistry get her off the hook for stealing (when she first hits the screen, and hitches up her britches like a Venetian version of Leo Gorcey, looking for some place to hawk one, the effect is unintentionally hilarious)? All throughout the movie her character does and says things that make no sense, and yet we're asked to identify and sympathize with her plight, while Lupino, alternately weeping and waspish, does nothing to rise above the script and gain our consideration and compassion.
Most importantly, her character's uncontrollable connection to Flynn's composer--central to the story making any sense--seems entirely without merit. Again, it's not a case of script or performer; they're both at fault here: Flynn's introduction of his character is somehow modeled to turn off even the most ardent admirer of irresponsible, commitment-shy, sexually promiscuous melodramatic fantasy lover figures. When first shown, Flynn is a lout: dirty, drunk, laying around the apartment while Lupino is out stealing for him, and actually yelling at her crying baby to shut up. How's that sound, ladies? What could Lupino possibly see in this wastrel, who laughs and sneers at good guy widower and family man Dino (Anthony Caruso) when he offers marriage and security for Lupino, or who tells his brother Young to "knock some sense" into Parker ("Being a woman, she'll love you all the more [for it], "), or who wants to ditch Lupino on their exciting trip? This is a guy who took in a single mother out of purely altruistic intentions, since Lupino makes sure the Code is obeyed by telling us Flynn never touched her? And when he does get jealous of Lupino's threat to marry Caruso, he grudgingly agrees to let her come along on the trip...if she puts the kid in an orphanage. Or takes him along. Or whatever.
Of course if you counter that those unreliable, cruel lovers are part and parcel of these kinds of melodrama--indeed that they're crucial to them--I would agree. But critically, the viewer has to believe there's a small, redeemable nugget of such a cad's heart to allow the viewer the proxy pleasure of projecting themselves into his sadistic romanticism. Shockingly, though, Errol Flynn seems incapable of delivering that hope here. Where's the reckless, dangerous, and yet sensitive charm to pull off this thin line of disgust and desire? I can't think of another actor who used his own personal charm to such central advantage to his career than Flynn (and that includes pro charmers like Cary Grant and Clark Gable). But here, in Escape Me Never, we're simply repulsed by his character creation (his idea of a romantic reconciliation with Lupino? He puts her in a choke hold). The script makes him out to be an inveterate skirt chaser and opportunist who's such a user that he even blows off Lupino's dying baby because there's backstage trouble at his ballet. I'm not sure what actor could pull off that mercenary of a character and still have female viewers panting after him, but in 1945, it wasn't Flynn. A good five years past his prime in terms of box office popularity, Flynn here is already showing the signs of the various ailments he suffered, many due to his rowdy lifestyle (heart problems, morphine and heroin addiction, tuberculosis, malaria, and depending on what month it was, V.D.). He looks pasty and sweaty and vaguely ill and above all hugely uncomfortable, not only physically (if you listen very carefully, he's slurring his words, ever so slightly, in a few scenes, while looking a bit unsteady in others) but mentally, too (stress from constant criticism of his lack of military service during the war--which the public didn't know was based on his 4F physical classification--his rape trial that did negatively impact his popularity with women ticket buyers, despite the oft-repeated assertion that it didn't, as well as the reviewers beating him up over his forays into "straight" acting, didn't help).
Whenever fans of Flynn discuss him--he was a swashbuckling idol of mine when I watched and re-watched all his classics on Bill Kennedy's movie show--there always seems to be a tendency, fed by his galvanic likeability, to make excuses for his non-adventure film acting: Jack Warner never gave him a chance; his serious vehicles, like Escape Me Never, were inferior; etc.. Perhaps. But whatever his problems in Escape Me Never--script, personal, career--he's incapable of ultimately making Sebastian either a dangerous fantasy lover, or a reformed, sympathetic, loyal lover. Coupled with Lupino's erratic, rather fantastic (and not in the sense that word is usually used today) performance, Flynn's unappealing turn is just another indication of how deeply wrong Escape Me Never comes over. Of course you can just close your eyes and listen to the music. Isn't that the cliched response reviewers throw up when the movie stinks but the soundtrack's great? Temporary, self-imposed blindness would help in this case, particularly when you see how laughably cheap the production is here (I get that the studios were still in war restriction mode, but when Flynn--in lederhosen, no less--almost walks into a painted backdrop wall on the 10' x 10' Dolomite mock-up set, I hit the floor). And certainly Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score for Escape Me Never is superlative, with a rich, complex structure of various competing and intertwining themes that only serve to make you lament how he ditched screen composing precisely because it was laid over crap like Escape Me Never. Unfortunately, you can't just close your eyes and concentrate on his music (I recommend The Sea Hawk: The Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, with Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra for that--and get the original analog records, not the digitally "squared-off" CDs), because the absolutely god-awful dialogue keeps intruding, delivered by actors who either didn't understand how bad those words truly were (I refuse to believe that), or who did, and just didn't care (there you go...). When Lupino, in the delicious throes of self-disgust and rampant lust (is there a better combination?), tries to fend off Flynn's creepy, almost-violent seduction (he keeps yanking her uncomfortably back to him), she cries, "Oh! If I could only tell you how much I despise you! Loving you is the most awful thing that has every happened to me! " And when it looks like her destructive parries are in danger of working, the cosmically turned-on Lupino desperately pulls guilty Flynn back with, "But I didn't want a better man...I just want you!" the effect is quite remarkably hysterical--a brief respite of grotesque, paralyzing camp that doesn't come close to off-setting Escape Me Never's off-putting whole.
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for Escape Me Never is acceptable, with some contrast issues here and there, okay blacks, a fair-to-good sharp image (image detail range the same), and the expected number of screen anomalies.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track has so low-level hiss, but that's to be expected. No subtitles or closed-captions.
An original trailer for Escape Me Never is included here.
A remarkable achievement: almost every single element doesn't work. Escape Me Never sat on a shelf for almost two full years before Jack Warner reluctantly released it to disappointing box office and mostly shattering reviews. Well, almost seventy years later...it ain't no misunderstood "lost classic," that's for sure. Unfortunately, the mistakes are so stultifying that you can't even enjoy Escape Me Never as camp. I would say check it out for Korngold's rapturous score...but you can get that at the library, and you don't have to watch and listen to good actors Flynn or Lupino or Parker make fools of themselves (Gig Young does here what he always does: that self-effacing good boy shtick that forever pegged him as a real loser in Hollywood). Skip Escape Me Never.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.