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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Male and Female (1919) - "Swept Away" crossed with "Gilligan's Island"

This is an ambitious film of J.M. Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton." Barrie wrote "Peter Pan" and a number of other works that examined social relationships and how people got along in unconventional situations. This film is a faithful adaptation of the novel, which concerns an aristocratic family and their servants who are marooned on an island, with the butler Crichton (played by Thomas Meighan) becoming the master over the aristocrats, including the lovely 20-year-old Gloria Swanson as Lady Lasenby.

The actors and actresses in this film are fabulous, very attractive and human. The characterizations, direction and cinematography still hold up amazingly well, and a few scenes, such as the shipwreck and those with the lion, stand out. Throughout, there is amusing commentary on timeless human nature - the actors communicate more with a glance or a smile than some modern actors do with a page of dialog. Check out the grimace the girl fanning the "king" gives when he's not looking, and the flirty smile by the maid looking for a new job.

There are the usual Hollywood conventions. You just have to wait for the otherwise totally unnecessary Biblical fantasy scene for some clothes to come off, the moment for which I'm sure many moviegoers back then were waiting patiently (hey, they had paid their nickel, they were entitled to see a little skin!). This scene proves that the bikini was invented long before the 1950s. Barrie was very much against censorship, so he no doubt approved. The scene supposedly shows that the roles of these folks have reversed course more than once in past lives, but that seems sheer contrivance to me.

I particularly liked how one fellow wore a blindingly white suit throughout and after the shipwreck without it ever getting the least bit mussed - ah, Hollywood! The scenery is magnificent and there are fabulous shots of the (California?) unspoiled coastline, no doubt long since degraded by advancing civilization.

My main criticism is that the subtitles hit us over the head too often with "Today's moral lesson to be learned," endlessly repeating a variety of "what makes a man king is solely his circumstances" quotes. I did find some of the subtitles amusing in a droll, overly didactic way ("These beauties condition their faces, but must learn to face conditions"), but please, I get the point! The plot also seems a bit formulaic, but, of course, this version came first and was probably considered highly inventive at the time.

If you look closely, you'll see prototypes of The Skipper, Gilligan, Mary Anne and the rest. It was fun trying to match these characters with later versions, see which were combined or eliminated, etc. A fascinating film that you can plainly see was a model for later, less ambitious efforts that also had their unique merits.

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