Summary of Discussion on Busman’s Honeymoon

 

 

Our discussion of Busman’s Honeymoon covered genre – especially different aspects of melodrama; adaptation; the notion of authorship; and casting.

The film credits both Dorothy L Sayers’ 1937 novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, and Sayers’ and Muriel St Clare Byrne’s 1936 play of the same name. But we primarily discussed the film in relation to Sayers’ novel. This is partly because our theme for this term is adaptations of detective novels written by women. There is also a practical reason: the play is far less known today, and more difficult to access, than the novel. The two authors of the play nonetheless raise interesting questions about authorship which I return to towards the end of this post.

 

We discussed the titles of the novel and the film. ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’ suggests a mix of genres. The similar term ‘Busman’s Holiday’ refers to a vacation spent performing similar tasks to one’s ‘day job’. Lord Peter Wimsey investigates crime and Harriet Vane writes detective novels. We can therefore anticipate that their married bliss (significantly they are on honeymoon – implying romance – rather than on holiday) will be interrupted by crime. This is indicated more strongly in the subtitle to Sayers’ novel: ‘a love story with detective interruptions’. The title of the film on its US release, Haunted Honeymoon, is less explicit than the film’s UK title, perhaps the phrase is less well-known in the US. It still suggests that something unusual will occur during Peter and Harriet’s honeymoon in their new home.

We began our discussion on genre by commenting on this genre hybridity in more detail. The film’s genres are more equal than in the novel, which after all places primacy on a love story which is ‘interrupted’ by detection. The film switches between romance and detection more readily. Peter and Harriet’s jokey banter as they agree to stop investigating and writing about crime is juxtaposed with the crime itself. In this, the film more closely resembles the play’s subtitle (‘A Detective Comedy in Three Acts’) than the novel’s. The novel and the film begin with a focus on Lord Peter Wimsey (Robert Montgomery) and Harriet (Constance Cummings). But the film more quickly incorporates the crime by depicting the victim Noakes (Roy Emerton) and his relations with those around him. The film paints Noakes as an unpleasant man, with various people in the village shown to have motive for removing him. Noakes’ niece, Miss Agnes Twitterton (Joan Kemp-Welch), is revealed to be his heir, and in want of money in order to keep her fiancé, Frank Crutchley (Robert Newton). Frank has an additional monetary motive – Noakes owes him £10. The village policeman Constable Sellon (James Carney) also has a financial reason as Noakes is blackmailing him. Cleaning lady Mrs Ruddle (Louise Hampton) is another person who has been threatened by Noakes; he caught her stealing some of his fuel. Sure enough, Noakes is then knocked unconscious, presumably killed. This greatly contrasts with the novel as Noakes is only spoken of since we are introduced to the suspects once Peter and Harriet arrive at their new house.

We noticed that the film’s foregrounding of the crime also increased aspects of melodrama – especially male melodrama. Mystery is inherent in films which focus on detectives, and Violence is also often implied if the plot involves a murder. The film’s setting up of several suspects, each of whom is filmed creeping around the village and having unpleasant interactions with the victim, amplifies the mystery and means that the violence is enacted on screen. The chase aspect is also present. Again, this is emphasised in the film in comparison to the novel. In the latter when the policeman suspect, Constable Sellon, goes missing this is for a very short period of time. His discovery by a sergeant is only revealed to the reader in retrospect – perhaps partly because Peter is not involved. The film not only shows the chase, but, as with Noakes’ murder, the lead up to it. It inserts a car crash between a lorry and Lord Peter’s car in the centre of the village which is inadvertently caused by Constable Sellon. Constable Sellon flees the scene and the cinematography revels in the Devonshire landscape to picture policemen hunting their colleague. This is oddly anti-climactic as the audience does not necessarily think Constable Sellon is the guilty party; indeed, when Peter catches up with the fugitive he reveals that he does not believe in Constable Sellon’s guilt either. The chase scenes reminded us of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935). But they play a far less central role in Busman’s Honeymoon and are shorter in duration than in either The 39 Steps or last time’s screening, Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (1938). (see our discussion here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2020/01/21/summary-of-discussion-on-young-and-innocent/) This perhaps comments on the ability of film to show rather than tell. While novels are of course not limited to telling, and can ‘show’ via description of the characters’ behaviour and though dialogue, the visual image can be more vivid.

As was the case during our discussion of Young and Innocent, we noticed elements of more traditional melodrama in Busman’s Honeymoon – suffering women. This is less of a focus in Busman’s Honeymoon than the male melodrama, since the suffering mostly relates to supporting characters. However, the suffering, like the aspects of male melodrama, also seems emphasised in the film in comparison to the novel. While the novel delays revelations about Noakes’ murder, and Miss Twitterton’s and Frank’s relationship, the film divulges this information sooner. This means that we are aware of Miss Twitterton’s shabby treatment at Frank’s hands (including his cheating on her with Polly (Googie Withers)) for a longer period. Miss Twitterton also relives her suffering as she relates what has happened to her to Peter and Harriet when they visit her house. Miss Twitterton’s distress, while acute, is short-lived – she soon pulls herself together. This was also the case when she was, understandably, affected at the finding of her Uncle’s body.

The film’s other main instance of high emotion relates to Harriet, after the murder has been committed but before it has been discovered. The morning after Peter and Harriet’s wedding night we hear a loud shot. Harriet rushes out of the house, terrified, and screaming for Peter. The matter is soon neutralised, and even turned comical; the shooter is revealed to be the local reverend Simon Goodacre (Aubrey Mallalieu), and the victim not Peter, but a stoat. This is an invention of the film, as the novel introduces the clergyman in a more traditional manner.

Harriet’s brief moment of suffering caused us to reflect on the fact that the film also has some gothic tropes. The house in which the murder has been committed is one bought for new bride Harriet by her wealthy husband Peter. This brings together both the old dark house often present as a setting in gothic narratives, and the idea of the unwise hasty marriage. The novel begins with a flurry of letters between various people, including members of Peter’s family, which comment on his and Harriet’s surprise recent elopement. These reveal that the pair did have a big church wedding planned, but that they decided on a smaller, more private, gathering. While the last-minute change of venue has caused consternation to some, it is made clear that Peter and Harriet have known each other for a long time. Those familiar with Sayers’ previous Wimsey novels would know that Peter and Harriet met several years earlier (in the 5th Wimsey novel, Strong Poison, published in 1930) when he defended her on a charge of murder against her live-in-lover. Harriet also appears, alongside Wimsey, in the 7th, Have His Carcase (1932) and the 10th , Gaudy Night (1935), novels of the series.

By contrast, the film introduces us to Peter and Harriet prior to their wedding. The film fleetingly pictures a society announcement of the upcoming wedding, noting that it is ‘long-awaited’. In the opening scene, Peter and Harriet are carrying out an inventory of wedding gifts, which include numerous, very gothic-looking, candelabras. Their relationship seems jokey but is not as obviously of such long-standing as in the novels. We do not see the wedding (this seems to occur at the time Noakes’ murder is taking place on screen), but we do glimpse Harriet trying on her wedding dress. Significantly, this is a traditional white gown. A letter from Peter’s sister-in-law, Helen, cattily comments that Harriet had the ‘sense and the propriety’ not to wear ‘white satin and orange blossom’ due to her scandalous past. We thought that the film therefore portrayed Harriet as less experienced, especially as there is no mention of her previous lover. While this is unsurprising, due to what was considered to be in good taste in the mass medium of film at the time, it can also be seen to position her more closely to the heroine of gothic narratives.

While we mostly compared the film to the novel to illuminate the former’s genre, especially melodrama, we also commented on the basic mechanics of the murder plot and representations of characters. Unlike Young and Innocent, Busman’s Honeymoon retained the same murderer and motive as its source novel. Frank killed Noakes for financial motives. We especially noted that the film stuck rigidly to Frank’s ingenious fake alibi. Frank set up a heavy plant pot, attached by wire to the radio cabinet; this struck Noakes when he opened the lid, as was his habit, at 9pm – a time at which Frank made sure he was seen elsewhere.

The film was very faithful to the novel in this respect, and most of the changes which heightened elements of melodrama simply moved aspects from later, to earlier, in the narrative. Moments at which the film diverged more strongly from the novel had a bigger impact on the characters, especially Harriet. In addition to small alterations which emphasise Harriet’s links to the gothic heroine, other elements give her less independence. Harriet’s means of earning her own income – writing detective novels – are denied to her in the film as she and Peter agree to both give up detecting. This affects Harriet more because Peter is very wealthy, and his work unpaid, while she will be dependent on him for money. In the novel, however, Harriet tells a journalist that she will continue writing; furthermore, she reveals that Peter is supportive of her stance: ‘he certainly doesn’t object- in fact I think he entirely approves’. The nature of Harriet’s work is also disparaged in the film. During the wedding gift inventory scene Harriet comments that Peter’s family thinks her novels are ‘junk’. This is not something Sayers states in the novel – perhaps because she herself is a female writer of detective fiction.

This returns us to consideration of authorship. Authorship is already a complex matter in films as they are the product of several collaborators – director, screenwriters, actors, camera operators, costume designers etc. This is intensified when the film is an adaptation. The authorship of Busman’s Honeymoon is especially convoluted. The film credits Sayers’ novel and Sayers and St Clare Byrne’s play. In addition, it lists that its screenplay was written by Monckton Hoffe, Angus MacPhail and Harold Goldman. But Sayers’ is probably the name we most recognise today. This was even the case at the time of the film’s release – via her 10 previous Wimsey novels and her co-writing of the play.

We can usefully compare the authorship of Busman’s Honeymoon to Young and Innocent. This too was a collaborative effort, but director Alfred Hitchcock’s input is probably most foregrounded in the present day. Hitchcock was well-known by the time of Young and Innocent’s release, though he had yet to achieve his almost mythic place in film. By contrast, its source, Josephine Tey’s novel A Shilling for Candles was only the second in her Alan Grant detective series. We can speculate that the fact that the public was less attached to Tey’s novel may have been part of the reason it was feely adapted – only the first half of the novel appears on screen, and her central detective Alan Grant was mostly absent. After all, the title had to be changed because this no longer made sense as a reference to the murderer’s motive as both of these had been altered.

 

Brief consideration of Busman’s Honeymoon’s director is also necessary. The film’s production is complicated. While the American Richard Thorpe began shooting the film in the UK in August 1939, the outbreak of World War II meant that this was soon suspended. Arthur B Woods, a less known British director, took over when production resumed in March 1940. Although Woods gained acclaim for his noirish They Drive by Night (1938), nearly half of the 27 films he had directed from the start of his career (in 1933) are missing, presumed lost. The reasons for the number of films produced by particular directors, and why some of their films are still extant while others vanish, is of course multifaceted. But in way of comparison, all 10 of the films Hitchcock directed between 1933 and 1940 are still in existence. Woods was also denied the opportunity to cement his reputation as he was killed in action in 1944 while flying with the Royal Air Force.

 

 

We also commented on the impact the film’s casting of actors had on the film. We were surprised that that two US stars played the quintessentially English characters. Cummings was most familiar to us as Rex Harrison’s second wife in David Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1945). Montgomery had a long career, but we mostly associated him with high-class characters, such as in Robert Z Leonard’s The Divorcee (1930). Just prior to Busman’s Honeymoon, Montgomery starred in Richard Thorpe’s Earl of Chicago (1940). Montgomery’s character in this film starts off as a gangster. But on the death of his English uncle, he inherits an Earldom and a butler and is propelled into the higher echelons of English society. Montgomery had previously appeared, as the Irish Danny opposite Rosalind Russell’s Olivia, in Thorpe’s 1937 US film version of Emlyn Williams’ play Night Must Fall. While Busman’s Honeymoon is a British film it, like Night Must Fall, casts Americans as non-American characters, but retains British actors in supporting roles.

 

We especially appreciated Sir Seymour Hicks’ performance as the devoted butler Bunter, alongside Robert Newton and Frank Pettingell. Hicks was connected to melodrama through his long-running association with Charles Dickens’ character Scrooge. Meanwhile, Newton and Pettingell both starred in Thorold Dickinson’s UK version of the melodrama Gaslight the same year that Busman’s Honeymoon was released. The connection of these actors to melodrama, and dramatic acting, heightened Montgomery (Peter) and Cummings’ (Harriet) separation from them. We related these to both class differences (the American Montgomery and Cummings play the only upper-class characters) and the film’s genre hybridity (detective comedy and drama).

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Summary of Discussion on Uncle Silas

We immediately noticed a markedGaslight UK difference between this UK production and the US gothic films we have recently screened. While Rebecca and Notorious were polished, Uncle Silas’ theatricality reminded us of the ‘blood and thunder’ present in the UK version of Gaslight. (See our previous discussion of the latter here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/04/05/summary-of-discussion-on-gaslight/)

Katina PaxinouIt was also noticeable that neither film really integrated its comedic aspects. In Gaslight much of the comedy was provided by Frank Pettingell’s slightly bumbling policeman. By contrast, Uncle Silas’ criminals – especially the French governess so vividly played by Katina Paxinou – were the main comedy figures. This undercut much of the potential suspense as nefarious plans were threatened by the criminals’ own incompetence.

Comedy was not restricted to the film’s criminals though, since the set piece of Kathryn’s Cousin Monica’s Christmas party poked fun at the upper classes. This was especially jarring as a key section centred on the difficulty of getting a message to Kathryn about her Uncle Silas’ illness. We might have expected this to provide some suspense. There was only confusion, however, with the communication difficulty resting on the fact party-goers were unable to spread messages without the help of their servants.

uncle silas avant gardeFurther confusion for the audience occurred in an extended sequence in which Kathryn was drugged and seemingly accompanied to Dover by her French governess. This too combined drama and comedy. The speed of the train travel well conveyed the high stakes of the situation, but the danger was dismissed by repeated instances of comedy. All the characters were suddenly jolted into action, spoke incessantly, and then fell asleep on at least two occasions. Some of the experimental avant-garde techniques used to convey Kathryn’s drugged state (fuzzy focus etc) were also incongruous when compared to the film as a whole.

kathrynThe heroine Kathryn also caused concern. Unlike the criminals she was not a comic figure. But her extreme naivety led to her displaying incompetence similar to that of the other characters. Although it was clear to the audience that her Uncle had a financial motive to want her dead, Kathryn refused to believe this of him. This was even the case after she accidently stumbled across the evidence of his attempts to forge her signature, which led to his subsequent violent relapse of illness. Kathryn was not a courageous spy like Alicia in Notorious, nor was she the quieter but still curious second Mrs de Winter of Rebecca. As a heroine we found her difficult to invest in. While this may be connected to an attempt to display the character’s British reserve, it became less than credible as the film progressed.

A point of similarity across UK (Uncle Silas) and US productions (e.g. Rebecca,Uncle silas house Notorious) was the presence of gothic houses. Uncle Silas began in the large mansion she shared with her father. The action, and Kathryn, soon moved to the dilapidated estate of her Uncle Silas. The distressed state of the latter’s abode was conveyed by direct contrast with another house – Cousin Monica’s provides the backdrop for a lavish Christmas party.

simmons dressThis comparison in the state of residences formed part of the reason for Kathryn’s visit to her cousin. While Kathryn was certainly at liberty to travel to her cousin’s (she had no suspicion of her Uncle’s intentions and was unlikely to pass on a message) the purpose of her visit within the narrative was unclear. It seemed to slow down the action. We also thought the reason might be linked to romance: the visit allowed her to renew acquaintance with a young man she was fond of. It also provided viewers with a sort of ‘makeover scene’ which frequently occurs in romantic films; Kathryn stood in front of a mirror wearing an old dress before twirling and magically donning a beautiful new one. This concern with romance also links the UK and US gothic films we have screened – and indeed to film more generally.

As ever, do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on The Dark Mirror

Unsurprisingly quite a lot of our discussion on The Dark Mirror (1946) focused on the Doubling aspect. This was commented on in several ways:  in terms of psychology, technology, Olivia de Havilland’s –performance(s), costume, doubling in terms of our comparing to other films/narratives about the Double, and finally the fact that despite the centrality of the Double in terms of the twin sisters de Havilland plays, the power in the narrative rests with two authoritarian male characters: the police detective (Thomas Mitchell) and the psychologist (Lew Ayres).

 We commented that the psychological theme of the film was established very early on – during the opening credits which played over a background of different Rorschach tests, or ink blot, pictures. This particular test, which is also present in the film’s narrative, especially commented on the theme of the double in terms of its owndark Mirror opening mirroring. It was noted that the particular pictures chosen also seemed to particularly relate to the twin theme central to the film’s narrative since some of the blots appeared to resemble wombs. The doubling theme is elaborated on in relation to the Rorschach test when both Ruth and Terry (both played by de Havilland) are seen to undergo this psychological test soon after one another, but with very different results.

The film’s use of technology while the two characters de Havilland plays appear simultaneously on the screen was praised, with only a few lighting differences obviously discernible. De Havilland’s performance(s) also aided the seamlessness. It was almost possible to forget that the actress played both parts, despite the fact the twins are identical.  Character differences were evident from the start – Ruth’s timidity was contrasted to Terry’s confidence. De Havilland’s playing of these early scenes was nuanced enough to indicate Ruth and Terry’s distinct personalities, without exaggerating them. As time progressed and Terry’s ‘evil’ nature was revealed de Havilland’s facial expressions in particular became more manic. It is impressive that de Havilland also managed to convey Ruth’s apparent descent into madness with a different touch. Terry was tricking her sister into believing she herself had gone insane. ruth going madDe Havilland’s performance as Ruth therefore included expressions of bewilderment and fear in contrast to Terry’s planned and controlled scheming.

Costume also played an interesting role in aiding the audience’s attempt to differentiate the twins. The fact that no-one in the narrative is meant to know that there is more than one twin (the twins share a job selling magazines at a stand) explains some of their identical outfits.  It seems unlikely, however, that they would necessarily need to wear identical clothes at the same time. We also wondered why the twins shared a job.  Perhaps this has a practical application since one twin has, after all, we presume,Ruth and Terry identical clothes but different characters committed murder and might need to be fairly closely observed by the other.  Perhaps it also comments on a deeper psychological attachment. It is also the case that the twins wore the same clothes outside of work, even donning identical nightgowns. The identical costumes tailed off as the film progressed and by end evil Terry is seen all in black and innocent Ruth in a white top.

It is telling that one of the few physical ways the twins can be differentiated is by the use of jewellery. Both own a necklace with their name featured prominently, as well as initial brooches. When Terry is impersonating Ruth, it is even seen that Ruth (and presumably Terry) owns a compact mirror with her initial engraved on it. This was particularly noticed by the group as Terry removed it from her handbag after the Doctor had started to make clear he knew her real identity.  This was a very suspenseful moment – signalled, as was the case throughout the film – with dramatic music. In fact some of us thought Terry was about to brandish a gun. The necklaces, brooches and compact mirrors are items which can all be grouped under the term ‘women’s accoutrements’. Such accessories are sometimes sold, at times in connection with film stars, as ways of individuating oneself. The fact that this ‘female’ item, particularly one used to reflect on one’s appearance, is very significant. This is in terms of commenting on the theme of the double, but also because it is a replacement for the expected item – the arguably ‘male’ gun.

We noted a couple of aspects which we have previously discussed in terms of melodrama. The film’s dramatic music – and the fact that Terry uses a concealed music box to convince Ruth that the latter is going mad with auditory hallucinations – was noted. We also expressed views on the comic elements present in the film. These, usually related to the detective, seemed to sit uncomfortably with the seriousness of the film’s subject matter. They can be related to the presence of the comic subplot in some theatrical dramas – Gaslight UKas evidenced in our read-through of the Melville Brothers’  A Girl’s Cross Roads (1903). More specifically, a connection can be made between Mitchell’s detective and the one played by Frank Pettingell in Thorold Dickinson’s British film version of Gaslight (1940). Interestingly this is another narrative about a relative (a husband in this case) trying to send a woman mad.

Finally we discussed the fact that while the film provided a great showcase for de Havilland and her dual performances, the men in the narrative were afforded far more power. This is seen in the ‘active’ occupations of both the detective and the psychologist. Furthermore this is directed towards proving the guilt of the twin who has killed, Terry, the least passive of the twins. By the end of the film we presume Terry will be institutionalised, while Ruth has been safely domesticated in a romance with the psychologist.

Dark Mirror Mitchell Ayres

Do, as ever,  log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk, to add your thoughts.

Gaslight (1940) Showing at the Gulbenkian Cinema on 9th of Feb

Posted by Sarah

The third film in the Gulbenkian Cinema’s Gothic Season – Thorold Dickinson’s Gaslight (1940) – will screen on Sunday the 9th of Feb at 3pm.

Gaslight UK

The Gulbenkian Cinema’s description of the film:

Thorold Dickinson | UK | 1940 | 82mins | Anton Walbrook, Diana Wynyard, Frank  Pettingell, Robert Newton

A powerful Gothic melodrama of domestic sadism and  psychological suspense, now presented in a sparkling digital restoration. Not  to be confused with George Cukor’s film of the same name – the second  adaptation of novelist/dramatist Patrick Hamilton’s play, and more well-known  until now, as MGM famously tried to suppress the competition – this suspenseful,  stylish classic from Thorold Dickinson (The  Queen of Spades) is an absolute treat.

Diana Wynyard  and Anton Walbrook are Bella and Paul, the young couple settling into a new  house when Bella begins to lose things and becomes fearful when the gaslights  go dim in the middle of the night and she hears footsteps above her head. Fer  husband begins to question her judgement, and Bella herself begins to feel that  her sanity is slipping away. But there is a deception in play – and the key is  in the history of the house itself.

“Walbrook [gives] a brilliant, seething performance” David Thomson, The Guardian

“Sadism propels Thorold Dickinson’s exquisite Victorian  thriller of 1940” Graham Fuller, Artsdesk.com

For more information and to book your ticket please go to:

http://www.thegulbenkian.co.uk/events/cinema/2014/February/2014-02-gaslight.html

Posts on the Melodrama Research Group’s discussion on this film and the Hollywood remake:

https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/03/14/melodrama-screening-20th-march-jarman-7-5-7-pm/

https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/03/26/melodrama-screening-and-discussion-3rd-april-jarman-7-5-7pm/

https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/04/05/summary-of-discussion-on-gaslight/

https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/04/05/gaslight-links/