TRUDY RING ~ Posted July 10th, 2016
Ronald Colman, he of the mellifluous voice (not to mention incredibly good looks), usually played fine, upstanding, thoroughly moral men. OK, he did win a late-career Oscar by playing a murderer (in “A Double Life”), but mostly he portrayed men of unassailable character. If he deserted his wife, it was because he had amnesia and had forgotten her ( “Random Harvest”; if he drank a bit too much, it was because the woman he loved was married to another man and he ended up doing the far, far better thing and sacrificing his own life to save that man from the guillotine ( “A Tale of Two Cities”). In 1932’s “CYNARA”, however, he plays an upstanding man who slips off his pedestal and pays a price for it — although, this being a pre-Code release, there’s at least a possibility he’ll be forgiven.
The story is told in flashback. Jim Warlock (interesting name!), Colman’s character, is explaining to his wife, Clemency (Kay Francis), how he came to be unfaithful to her. Jim was once a rising London barrister with an impeccable reputation, both personally and professionally. But when Clemency leaves him alone for several weeks, taking her younger sister to Venice to get the sister away from an inappropriate lover, Jim succumbs to temptation. Out on the town with his friend John Tring (another interesting name, especially to this writer), he meets a young woman named Doris Lee. He resisted her that night, but not when they meet again a bit later. The movie doesn’t make Jim’s motivation all that clear; Doris, played by an obscure actress named Florine McKinney, is reasonably attractive, but no more so than Jim’s wife. She is rather clingy, though, and becomes almost pathologically so; perhaps he just finds it hard to say no to her. Or maybe Jim just wants to prove he’s not such a stuffed shirt as other people think he is. The aging roué Tring (Henry Stephenson) doesn’t hold marital fidelity in great esteem, and Clemency’s sister, who has the unlikely name of Garla, teases Jim about having broad shoulders and a narrow mind. Another possibility: The film’s a cautionary tale not to leave your husband alone if he looks and sounds like Ronald Colman.
Anyway, Jim and Doris have their affair, and when Clemency returns, he sets out to break it off. And things go very, very badly, as they tend to do in such cases. (No spoilers here.) Jim’s London legal career is over, and he’s about to set sail to start anew in South Africa. One question remains: Will Clemency live up to her name?
The movie’s quite entertaining, and Colman is always worth watching. Stephenson and Francis are very good too. And she wears some fabulous costumes ~ not for nothing was she known as a clotheshorse. Some of the attitudes are extremely dated ~ whether Jim was Doris’s first lover is a question of key importance ~ but some are rather refreshing.
“Cynara” was based on a novel that was based on a play, but to classic film lovers, the more important writing credit was that the screenplay was by Frances Marion, the great pioneering woman scenarist, in collaboration with the lesser-known Lynn Starling. The film was directed by King Vidor and has music by Alfred Newman, with the Irving Berlin song “Blue Skies” thrown in. It came out of Sam Goldwyn’s production company, as he had Colman under contract at the time.
A note on the title: It comes from a poem by Ernest Dowson, a 19th-century English bard who lived fast and died young. One of the lines from the poem, addressed to a lost love, is “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.” That line appears on-screen as the film begins. Dowson was actually quite the source for writers and filmmakers. Another line from “Cynara”, the poem, is “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind.” Yes, that inspired Margaret Mitchell. Another Dowson poem, which has a long Latin title, refers to “the days of wine and roses.” And it’s that poem we hear Waldo Lydecker reading over the radio, by “electronic transcription,” toward the end of “Laura”.
But I digress. The bottom line is that “Cynara” is an interesting pre-Code entry greatly enhanced by the presence of Ronald Colman. It’s not easy to find. I first saw it about 20 years ago, on TCM or perhaps even AMC, and TCM shows it every so often. To refresh my memory for this post, I ordered the DVD from the Film Collectors Society of America. You can find Cynara and other rarities at www.thefilmcsa.com. And after you watch it, if you’re like me, you’ll see and hear Mr. Colman in your dreams.
Articles on the Dowson poems cited: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2011/mar/14/non-sum-qualis-cynarae-dowson
Scenes from “Cynara”
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