Monday, September 14, 2009

Design for Living and Cavalcade (Noel Coward)

I recently watched the film Design for Living and I loved it.  I heard that it was different from the original play, so I decided to seek that out.  I've done a lot of thinking about the difference between books and film versions of the book; haven't ever thought much about the difference between theatrical and film versions of a script.

Design for Living is a interesting example, in that the play and the film are quite different from each other, but in my opinion, both very good.  (It's also interesting to note that the play premiered in January 1933, and the film came out that same year.  That seems very fast by today's terms, especially considering that the script was 99% rewritten.)  The play is much more compressed in terms of place and time . . . for example, we don't get to see the first meeting of the main characters, we only hear them talk about it (which is, obviously, not as interesting as actually seeing it.)

Design for Living is about a menage à trois between two men and a woman.  The major difference between stage and screen is the relationship between the men.  In the play, they're allowed to say that they love each other as much as they each love the woman.  Of course, that sort of thing was not allowed in a film.  As it turns out, reducing the importance of the male relationship moves the woman to center stage; and in the film version she's allowed to talk about herself more.  (Well, she talks quite a bit in the original script too, but there she's mostly criticizing herself for "cheating" on one man or the other.)  In the film, she points out that men are allowed to play the field before they get married.  She then delivers the immortal line, "A woman gets to try on a hundred hats before she picks one."  But when it comes to marriage, which is much more important than hats, she's not allowed to sample the merchandise before buying.

Noel Coward wrote this play as a vehicle for himself and his friends, actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.  I don't know just how close their friendship was, but Coward remarked in his memoirs that an early version of the play had them all sitting in one bed for the duration.  "This, however, was hilariously discarded, after Alfred had suggested a few stage directions which if followed faithfully, would undoubtedly have landed all three of us in gaol."

One last note about Design for Living:  The female lead is named Gilda.  The well-known film of 1946, called Gilda, is also about a love triangle.  Although in Design for Living the woman's name is pronounced "Jill-da" and in the other film it's pronounced the other way.

Cavalcade was in the same volume as Design for Living, so I read it.  I don't believe there is anything funny about it at all.  The first act is set in England, 1899, when a woman's husband is going off to the Boer War.  She's very afraid for him, but remarks that at least her two young sons will never have to go to war.  Fast-forward fifteen years, when of course one of her sons goes off to fight in World War I, and eventually dies.

The other has already drowned on the Titanic, for good measure.  Actually, we see him and his wife, on a ship, on their honeymoon, talking about how happy they are.  Then the lady moves her cloak and we see the name of the ship.  Was Coward the inventor of this scene?  It's been done many times, I know that.

Possibly Cavalcade was not seen as an anti-war play when it came out, but it definitely seems like one to me now.  The 1930's are actually one of my favorite decades, for literature and film (maybe not so much the visual arts.)  Some of my favorite writers flourished then, and, being favorites of mine, none of them were very keen on war. Of course, most of them didn't know there was another big one coming up.  But they gathered their rosebuds while they might.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Classic Star Trek: "Where No Man Has Gone Before"

I've been watching some of the original Star Trek episodes, surprised by how enjoyable they are.  Old science fiction shows don't always age well . . . modern people complain about cheesy effects, the technology is usually laughable -- in short, what was cutting-edge then looks silly today.

But there are some things that don't change:  the importance of character psychology, dramatic conflict, and a sense of adventure.  Even back then, some people knew how to write good scripts, and some people knew how to act.

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" was the second of two pilot episodes. It stars Kirk and Spock, although the well-known cast had not yet been completely assembled and the costumes are different.  The plot involves an old friend of Kirk's (Gary Mitchell) who gets zapped by some mysterious ray (never actually explained) and develops super powers.

There is one very neat scene, in which Kirk comes to visit Mitchell in sickbay after he gets zapped.  Mitchell reminisces about their days at Starfleet Academy, when Kirk ("Lt." Kirk then) was a very demanding instructor and Mitchell was a rather lazy student.  In order to distract Kirk from his teaching duties, Mitchell sends a woman to seduce him.  He boasts, "I told her exactly what she had to do."  Kirk says "You set that up?  I almost married her!"

This scene accomplishes two important things: it tells us how long, and how intimately, Mitchell and Kirk have known each other; and it suggests that Mitchell has always been a little manipulative.  It's never spelled out, but obviously, if you think about it, these new abilities have given him the power to do more of what he's always enjoyed:  playing games with people, tricking them, generally interfering with their lives. It's not really true that he was changed into a different person.  Classic Trek isn't known for its subtlety . . . but it is there. That scene is very well done.

Another interesting thing about this episode is that it takes ESP (psychic powers) for granted.  Starfleet apparently tests people for "esper" skills, and we're told that Mitchell got a very high score.  Only in the 1960's could such a thing be seriously discussed and included in a science fiction show.

From what I've seen so far, classic Trek is an odd combination of optimism and paranoia.  The optimism is expressed in the bright color scheme and bright lighting, as well as the multiracial cast and the implication that humans are no longer at war with each other.  The paranoia is found in the fact that, as far as I can recall, most episodes of TOS involve encountering some entity with superhuman powers and destroying it.  There are a few exceptions, but for the most part we learn that the universe is full of hostile creatures and humans are plucky little heroes who succeed against all odds, rather like Hobbits.  (Mitchell becomes evil because he is no longer human.  Except, of course, he is.) 

On the one hand, the show argues that power corrupts.  On the other hand, our heroes are always justified in using whatever power they have in whatever way they see fit, because they are the Good Guys.  Everybody else is either misguided or downright evil.  Kirk pays lip service to the Prime Directive of non-interference, but really, how often does he abide by it?  Is he actually capable of visiting a planet and saying, "Well, I disapprove of the way these people live their lives, but I can't do anything about it.  Prime Directive!  End of episode!"  No.

It's also interesting that Kirk constantly praises the value of emotion; or rather, Spock's complete reliance on logic gives him the opportunity to praise emotion.  To what extent does this undercut Kirk's masculinity?  I was impressed by how often Kirk seems to be acting from the heart.  And of course, the episodes are structured so that he usually has to destroy the baddie of the week in order to save his crew.  How very nurturing of him.