Well...I think he was a little weirder than this.... 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, the 1942 Fox biopic starring gorgeous Linda Darnell (I'm feeling faint...), John Shepperd (later better known as Shepperd Strudwick--explain that one to me), Virginia Gilmore, Jane Darwell, Mary Howard, Frank Conroy, and Henry Morgan (annoying as hell here). One of Brian Foy's typically lush-looking-but-actually-quite-cheap B-programmers, and only running a scant 68 minutes, The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe could easily pass as one of those "historical interest" short subjects that the majors churned out during this period: stock biopic conventions with good sets and costumes, filled in with standard romantic complications and speedy montages to sweep away the years, and topped off with as little regard for the truth as possible. As history, forget it (and why should you expect fidelity in a Hollywood biopic in the first place?). As entertainment, though...forget it. No extras for this okay-looking black-and-white transfer.
According to Hollywood "historians" Samuel Hoffenstein (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera, Laura), Tom Reed (Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Spoilers), and Arthur Caesar (Three Faces East, Manhattan Melodrama), in 1811, little orphaned Edgar Poe (Skippy Wanders) is taken in--but not adopted--by kindly, rich Frances Allan (Mary Howard), a beautiful Richmond, Virginia matron who had befriended Edgar's penniless actress mother. Frances' husband, the stern, forbidding John Allan (Frank Conroy), is skeptical of adopting a disreputable "child of actors," a distinct feeling of dislike he imparts to the boy that intensifies as increasingly defiant Edgar (Freddie Mercer) grows up. At war with his jealous father, who resents his wife's all-consuming affection for the boy, 18-year-old Edgar (John Shepperd, glacially boring, and comically miscast as a tortured artist) now prepares himself for college at The University of Virginia. Sustained by his love for Elmira Royster (Virginia Gilmore), Edgar lives hand-to-mouth at school, due to his father's refusal to send enough money, a policy that encourages Edgar to gamble beyond his meager means. Returning home to obtain more money, with kindly advice from University founder, Thomas Jefferson (Gilbert Emery), Edgar discovers not only that his father won't give him any more funds unless he returns home to study law, but also that Elmira, who never answered any of his college letters, is marrying someone else. Defiant, Edgar leaves home to become a writer, and discovers exactly how much money writers made back then (and now): nothing (amen to that, Eddie). Having deliberately failed at West Point when military life doesn't suit him (I'll bet the post-Pearl Harbor audiences loved that one), Edgar has no other place to go but back to his home town of Richmond, where he looks up an aunt on his birth mother's side: Mariah Clemm (Jane Darwell). Welcomed there with ready affection, Edgar discovers his sultry first cousin Virginia is all grown up (I'll say), and quickly marries her (stunning, ill-fated Linda Darnell, thrown unwillingly into another "B" as payback from horny, hard-up Darryl F. Zanuck). And that love affair is the last happy thing to happen in poor Edgar Allan Poe's short, troubled life....
I'm certainly no authority or expert on Poe or his works, but even a cursory look at his biography will readily point out the liberties taken with his history in The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe: his brother and sister are nowhere to be found here; no demonstration of martinet John Allan's initial kindness and even spoiling of his foster child Edgar is shown; no mention of Poe's highly successful stint in the military prior to his ill-fated West Point appointment is made (the timeline of which they subsequently alter here); the two-year timeline between the publication of The Raven and his wife's death is compressed into one night, and perhaps most glaringly (and not at all surprising), not a peep is made of his first cousin being only 13 years old when he married her. Mile markers of Poe's biography are on display here, often in jumbled order, with just the tiniest hints of the true context of their situations hovering around the edges; however, the bulk of his life and work is polished down to a dull sheen that glosses over anything potentially interesting. In short, I wouldn't recommend anyone using The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe for research on a term paper.
But then again...who would be dumb enough to do that? As I've written many times before when reviewing Hollywood biopics, I couldn't care less if they play fast and loose with the facts. The only thing a classical Hollywood biopic needs to do for me, is entertain me. If I happen to be up on the subject matter, I can acknowledge that it's useless as history, but that doesn't mean my pleasure is diminished if it's a diverting piece of fiction (and if I don't already know the subject's true history...I'll still assume most of the movie is made-up). Of course, if the moviemaker has a nefarious agenda to their fiction, then those inventions create stickier wickets for the viewer (you know who I mean...). No one involved with The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, though, seems to be involved in some kind of dastardly mission to whitewash the author for personal or political reasons. All cuts and ameliorations and simplifications here come at the behest of a studio system that eliminated complexity in such low-budget endeavors to more easily satisfy, to the studio's mind, an undemanding audience, and to more easily facilitate the factory-like manufacture of the product itself. No, the only true historical crime committed in The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe is the moviemakers taking a fascinating and compelling personality and artist such as Poe, and turning him into a generic eunuch, a figure largely devoid of any interest.
By all biographical accounts, Poe led a life filled with severe emotional conflict, tribulations involving self-identification (the loss of his mother and his subsequent foster status), crippling grief (the deaths of both his mothers and his young wife), professional strife (little remuneration for his work, and his many battles with other literary figures), and personal weakness (his alcoholism), that no doubt enhanced (or reflected?) his dreamy, nightmarish prose and poetry. Where, then, is any of that in the numbingly prosaic The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe? Aside from the standard boilerplate conflicts involving his unloving foster father, his lost love with Elmira, and his found love with Virginia, where's the drama that's unique to this historical figure? We never get a sense here of what it took to become the Poe that wrote The Raven and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. We never get a sense of his greatness as an artist, what made him special, or what distinguished his works. Nothing. The Poe of The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe could just as well be the world's greatest greeting card writer from all that we can gather from this tepid little movie.
Anxious to avoid the many unseemly elements to his personality and biography, the moviemakers instead treat us to cliched childhood melodrama that's more Dickens than Poe, and cliched romantic melodrama that was standard issue for seemingly every Hollywood biopic made from this era. If we can't know why he writes, and if we can't even get a sense of what he writes, can't we at least see the excesses? One or two very mild drunk scenes don't explain why he drank; instead, precious screen time is wasted on quite a few scenes where he laments international copyright law--granted, an important element of his actual biography...but hardly the stuff of scintillating cinema (if I may be so bold as to emulate his frequent alliteration). We don't even get to hear one of his pieces unbroken; in the poorly-designed finale, when Poe is attempting a midnight sale of The Raven in order to buy food and medicine for his dying wife (an utter fabrication, by the way), Poe reads The Raven to some unimpressed printers, while the movie's editor cuts back and forth to Darnell dying by inches, in the process breaking up the poem's recitation. In the one final moment where this piddling little exercise might have briefly shined by at least the reflected glory of Poe's words, The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe can't even respect the very thing that qualifies its subject worthy of movie biography. And that leaves, in the end, nothing much to recommend it.
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.