Cabin Fever Film Festival: ESCAPE (1940)

In Uncategorized on April 18, 2020 at 3:10 am
We watched a perfect hunker down oldie last night: Mervyn Leroy’s ‘Escape’ (1940), the same year this underrated, journeyman Hollywood director did the beautiful Vivien Leigh ‘Waterloo Bridge.’
This was also the first film I ever saw of my favorite movie star, Norma Shearer, when I was a freshman at USC in Los Angeles, one afternoon on TV, KTLA 5. I was more than a little trepidatious, for I had been obsessed with photos of her in movie books, largely purchase for a song through the Nostalgia Book Club, during the 1930s-mad 1970s, as well as Daniel Blum’s Pictorial History of the talkies and another historical survey written by DeWitt Bodeen.  After that, I became aware of sellers in LA and NY who sold movie stills and through them – for nothing, really, like $2.50 a pop even – I acquired a spate of original photos of her, with that face that intrigued me more than anyone else. The kind, gay men who ran these stores – Mark Ricci of NY’s MemoryShop, Kenneth G. Lawrence in LA, et al. – must have taken pity on this crazy 12-year-old in Hawaii with his weekly money orders requesting original Norma stills, and completely sight unseen, would select the perfect doubleweight 11×14 of, say,  her posing with Adrian in his MGM salon, and in years of collecting, really on spec  when i think about it now, I was never disappointed by what would arrive in our mailbox, which was at the bottom of a hilly driveway to our house on the back slopes of Diamond Head, with me making the walk to it in the always mercilessly beating sun. When I’d trudged back up to the house, inside, my eyes would be temporarily dazzled by sunspots as I’d tear open the package, and vision would return as I’d find myself gazing, awestruck, at, say, a specially produced MGM 16×20 double-weight portrait of her in her Marie Antoinette wedding gown, striking one of those ridiculously campy but ever so  ridiculously right poses, I came to refer as ‘typical Norma.’
John Kobal once wrote that where other stars had eyes, Norma had a profile. And her eyes were not only admittedly small, one of them was lazy, causing Cecil Beaton, observing her as a bridesmaid at the wedding of Bessie Love he attended in 1930, to write that she crept to the altar, looking chiseled from marble, and intriguingly blind. Her lips were thin, which she overlipsticked to an illusion of perfection, her face surmounted by a luxurious wealth of really beautiful hair. All of this, that oversized big head shared by many of the era’s greatest stars – Crawford, Swanson, Colbert – was surmounted on an uncannily thin, swanlike neck which Beaton, again, said almost looked too stalk-like to support all that weight. She was a mere five feet but, despite thick legs, her body was so perfectly proportioned – with fabulous shoulders – and her basic elan so formidable that she was able to carry off Adrian’s most elaborate and outrageous confections.
The portraits of her by Clarence Bull and, especially Hurrell, sensually lit to kill, made her an icon of idealized beauty, and, the visual Marie Antoinette. I devoured every book about her I could, scanned the nascent movie docs that would pop up on TV, like ‘Dear Mr. Gable” for sightings of her. But until that afternoon in front of the TV in L.A., i had never even heard the voice of the diva on which I had spent every penny of ready cash and so many hours of research.
It took forever for her to make her entrance in ESCAPE, and it’s really no biggie. She was just sitting in a wintery park, suddenly emitting that voice, which I love now, but then struck me as strangely secco and more than a little affected. The film was definitely not one of her over-the-top glam vehicles, a plot-heavy anti-Nazi propaganda effort, and she was subdued in every way, in it, from performance to the soberly elegant, dignified wardrobe (no trademark Norma’s Nightgown here, which was what Adrian called the bias-cut white satin sheaths she’d demand for every modern dress movie she made). On the whole, it was really kind of an unsatisfying non-NORMA experience, really, to me then and I know I’d have to see more to judge whether my obsessive diva-pick had been the right one (instead of Colbert or Katharine Hepburn).
It’s funny how time passes, and your taste develops, because now, having seen her entire, quite marvelous oeuvre and still mesmerized by her look and style, more than any other movie star, she remains my favorite one (to clarify: Vivien Leigh is my favorite movie ACTRESS). And you know what? ESCAPE just may be my favorite of her films. The very subdued quality I found pallid originally, seems quite beautiful and resonant underacting to me today, her dignified look is classic – no one wore a coronet braid or chignon than this pint-sized Grecian goddess from Montreal -utterly timeless and incredibly flattering (and it includes some personally owned Valentina gowns snuck in among the Adrians). And her final scene, which was actually shot by George Cukor (logically enough) not LeRoy, is absolutely electrifying, with a power only matched in her career by her bravura one-take reading of the potion monologue in ROMEO & JULIET.
watch it here

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