Saturday, September 10, 2011
The river runs, the round world spins… The day ends. The end begins.
"This and The Red Shoes are the two most beautiful color films ever made." — Martin Scorsese
By Edward Copeland
Scorsese wasn't alone when he expressed that opinion in a short interview he recorded in 2004 for The Criterion Collection edition of Jean Renoir's The River, the first film the French master made in color, which was released 60 years ago today. A short essay called "The Making of The River" by the late Alexander Sesonske accompanies the Criterion DVD. Sesonske, author of Jean Renoir: The French Films 1924-1939 and, at the time of the DVD's release, professor emeritus of film studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, wrote that director Eric Rohmer called The River "the most beautiful color we have ever seen on screen." During the actual filming in India, Renoir and his d.p., nephew Claude Renoir, had to trust their eyes since they lacked Technicolor labs and could only see black-and-white rushes, sending footage to England for processing. According to Sesonske's piece, the answer arrived one day in a cable from London which read, "Technicolor chiefs consider photography of The River the best they have ever had." It's unusual for me to start a tribute to a film discussing what others thought about the cinematography, but while The River has a story to tell as well, its greatness lies first and foremost as a visual feast and the screenshots I have don't do its brilliant look justice. It also has an offscreen tale about how the film came to be that's nearly as interesting as the story on the screen.
Renoir's masterpiece The Rules of the Game opened in 1939 at the peak of his 15 years of superb filmmaking. Surprisingly, upon release in France Rules proved to be hated by both critics and audiences. (I also was surprised to hear Scorsese say on The River DVD that while he likes Rules OK, he can't relate to its characters and always would rather watch The River.) I think Francois Truffaut summed up how The Rules of the Game fits into film history in his book The Films in My Life.
"The Rules of the Game is the credo of film lovers, the film of films, the most despised on its release and the most valued afterward…Along with Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game is certainly the film that sparked the careers of the greatest number of directors. We look at this movie with a strong sense of complicity; I mean that instead of seeing a finished product handed to us to satisfy our curiosity, we feel we are there as the film is made, we almost think that we can see Renoir organize the whole as we watch the film projected."
Given the reaction to Rules and the looming war clouds, Renoir headed to Hollywood. He did not his enjoy brief time there. Why is it that movie industries — usually Hollywood, but it can happen elsewhere such as when Japan turned Akira Kurosawa into a pariah in the late '60s — have this tendency to take film's greatest artists and squander them? It's not an across-the-board policy and sometimes the filmmaker in question gives the industry the finger and finances his movies any way he can such as Robert Altman did, but time and time again they shit on the artists and treasure the hacks. How some of the greats manage to navigate the system and do superb work without compromising themselves too much is a mystery. Anyway, Renoir was not a happy camper in Hollywood even though he managed to make six films between 1941 and 1947 one of which, The Southerner, earned him an Oscar nomination for director. According to Ian Christie, professor of film and media history at Birkbeck College, University of London, who also wrote an article in the Criterion booklet, Renoir surrendered in his fight against RKO over his final American film, 1947's The Woman on the Beach. Around this time, as Renoir himself tells in an introduction on the DVD taken from the Jean Renoir Presents series he made for television for showings of his films in the 1960s, he was reading book reviews in The New Yorker when he read one for the novel The River by Rumer Godden, which the critic described as "one of the best novels written in the English language" so far in the 20th century. Its portrait of an English family living in India fascinated Renoir and he started jotting down notes for a movie version.
Excited by the prospect of making a film again, he took the project to the various Hollywood studios who all told Renoir the same thing: No one wants to see a movie about India unless it has elephants, tigers or Bengal lancers and The River has none of those things. Meanwhile, a very successful florist in Los Angeles named Kenneth McEldowney (he provided the flowers for the first Oscar ceremony as well as the funeral for Jean Harlow, among others) went to a movie preview with his wife, an MGM publicist. She asked what he thought and he told her the movie was "junk." She dared him to do better so he sold his floral business and set out to make a movie of his own. According to Renoir's intro, McEldowney also had talked to financiers who agreed to back him if he ever chose to make a film. McEldowney also was fascinated by India, having been stationed there in the Air Force and fallen in love with the country. In a case of synchronicity, McEldowney was seated on a plane next to the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's prime minister. McEldowney told her of his dream of making a movie in India, but she said Westerners can't seem to depict India accurately. The person who came closest, she said, was Rumer Godden in her novel The River and he should try to acquire the rights. McEldowney flew to London to try to meet Godden, only to learn that Renoir already had optioned the novel. McEldowney offered to produce the film with Renoir directing. Renoir had one demand before he would agree to work with McEldowney: He had to pay for Renoir to fly to India to see if it was feasible to film there because he wouldn't make the movie on studio sets. McEldowney agreed and Renoir fell in love with India and found it perfect for location shooting. The River would be made into a film, Renoir's first in color as well as the first color film shot in India. Getting all the equipment to India sometimes caused delays so during downtimes, Renoir shot silent, documentary-style footage of work along the Bengal River, a tributary of the Ganges. Renoir also insisted on using mostly nonprofessionals in the pivotal roles to give the film an air of authenticity, especially since the film revolves around blossoming adolescent girls (He also had no luck finding name stars to take on the adult roles who were willing to spend several months in India). "For without the stabilizing, conservative presence of a star, The River became an experimental film," Sesonske wrote.
The film begins by showing much of the labor that goes on in the Bengal River as a narrator (June Hillman), who we will later learn is the adult Harriet looking back on her and her family's life there when she was an adolescent, paints the picture of the scene with her words. Her voiceover describes the Bengal River as "one of the holy rivers flowing out of the eternal snows of the Himalayas and into the Bay of Bengali." She says that the river has a life of its own, where people spend the entirety of their lives — being born, living, working and dying. We witness the many Indian workers bringing rolls of a yellow substance to shore and unloading and moving it, almost like an assembly line, toward a plant. The adult Harriet informs us the substance is jute and it's the reason her family lives in India as her father (Esmond Knight) manages the plant that processes the jute. At this point, we see her father moving among the workers (the family's surname is never given) as he stops by a vendor at the bazaar to purchase a kite on his way to his family's home. He ends up taking two. "Father always preferred to take the longer way," she tells us in her look back. As we watch Father pass workers and villagers, he spots a small Indian girl and stops and gives her one of the kites. "Traditions have not changed in thousands of years," the adult Harriet comments, almost with envy.
The adult Harriet tells us about the large size of her family: There's her mother (Nora Swinburne), the teenage Harriet (Patricia Walters), who is a bit older than the rest of her siblings, Elizabeth (Penelope Wilkinson), the sole son Bogey (Richard Foster), Victoria (Cecilia Wood) and the young twins Muffy* (Jane Harris) and Mouse (Jennifer Harris). More growth is on the way as mother is pregnant with another child. When Father returns, he gives the other kite to Bogey, though the boy prefers lizards and turtles to toys. Helping keep Mother from being overwhelmed are servants and especially their Indian nurse Nan (Suprova Mukerjee), who tries to keep order in the house. The adult Harriet describes Nan as their "bridge to life, dragging us from dreams to reality, from reality to dreams." Harriet also attributes to Nan the quality of "filling our heads with romance, preparing our path for love" and we see the beginnings of the writer as young Harriet sits in the grass with a notebook while her older self tells viewers that she was "an ugly duckling waiting to turn into a swan." Outside, keeping a close watch on the children, especially Bogey, is Ram Singh (Sajjan Singh), who the narrator calls "our friend and protector," though his official role is that of gateman. He is a Sikh from the Punjab, she tells us, and once was "a valiant warrior." With a home so crowded with children, our storyteller from the future recalls an estate that always was filled with chatter and laughter, music and songs. Two others who often hang around the family's house are Bogey's best friend, an Indian boy named Kanu (Nimai Barik), and Valerie (Adrienne Corri), who is slightly older than Harriet but comes nearly every day to play anyway because she's an only child and there's no one else close to her age in the area. She's also rich since her father owns the jute press that Harriet's father manages.
This circle of family and friends becomes excited by the arrival of a stranger to the Bengal area. Mr. John (Arthur Shields), an Irish friend of Father's who lives down the road, is welcoming a visit from his American cousin who shares his first name, but is a war veteran (the war is never named) who lost his leg so he's referred to as Captain John (Thomas E. Breen) to avoid confusion. The excessively curious females in the family plus Nan and Valerie peer through the stone pillars of the estate's wall to try to catch a glimpse of the newcomer. Unfortunately, no one gets a good look. Fortune smiles upon them and Harriet's mind works quickest when she sees that Mr. John's daughter Melanie (Radha) has returned from the convent school she was attending. Since she hasn't seen her friend Melanie in a long time, Harriet hops the wall and runs over to greet her — and hopefully meet Captain John while she is there. Mr. John thwarts those plans because he's missed his daughter too much and steals her away too fast for Harriet to get anywhere else. Renoir co-wrote the screenplay with Godden herself, who was quite open to changes he wanted to make to her autobiographical novel. For example, the character of Melanie was invented. As Christie writes, her character was added "to give an Indian other than a servant an authentic voice and presence in the film's central drama," since that was a criticism from many Indians they met including one adviser, a young journalist by the name of Satyajit Ray, who a few years after his work on The River made his directing debut in 1955 with Pather Panchali. It also had a daring aspect because of the suggestion of possible romance between Melanie and the American Captain John which came at a time of heightened anger against race mixing on both sides (Indian and Westerners).
As The River develops, Melanie proves to be the most complex character in the film. When she first returns, she once again sees Anil (Trilak Jetley), the Indian boy she's known since she was a child and always assumed she would marry. However, Melanie suffers from a real identity crisis given her Irish father and her late Indian mother as to where she belongs. It doesn't help that Mr. John sent her to be educated at a Western school and that like Valerie and Harriet, she carries an attraction for the American Captain John. When she first returned home from school, she stayed in her convent clothes, but eventually she reverted to saris. Her father also carries much guilt about his daughter as well, even wondering at one point if she should have been born in the first place. When, at another time, her father comes to tell Melanie that Anil has come to see her Melanie suddenly doesn't want to see him. "I'm trying to be a practical man," Mr. John tells his daughter. "But you aren't practical," she replies. Still appealing for her to go see Anil, her father says, "He can give you so much. I've put you nowhere," referring to the fact that her mixed race pushes her outside the caste system. "Suppose I like to be nowhere," Melanie responds.
All of the pieces have been put in place for the story's main thrust. The more mature Valerie takes an interest in Captain John, who is of course at least a decade older than the oldest of the girls. She tries to be purposely aloof and cruel at times, getting her best friend Harriet to admit that she's starting to "hate her." Harriet still looks like a child, no matter how much she has started to feel the stirrings of womanhood, and tries to entice the American with her poems and storytelling. These all present the opportunity for Renoir, his nephew Claude and the Indian they trained at Technicolor to be their camera operator, Ramananda Sen Gupta, to film sequences remarkable not only for their color, but for their imagery as well. Many great examples come during the section covering Diwali, which also is known as the festival of lights. You see the lit-up faces of Nan and Harriet as they spy on Valerie and Captain John and see the girl smoke her first cigarette. There's also the subtler touch of the captain and Valerie sitting on the foot of some stairs and talk as Captain John keeps brushing away the moths that hover around the girl's face an hair. Before that, there are lots of shots of the various celebrations of the holiday itself, including the lighting of sparklers by all the children including Harriet and Valerie, who at first choose to ignore Captain John's presence in the house. Melanie, still dressed in her convent outfit, stands on the balcony with the adults watching the festivities. The adult Harriet explains that Hindus believe God is everywhere, so God is a river or a tree or even Captain John. Also, though they only believe in one God, they have temples devoted to different parts and in the Diwali section, we watch them honor Kali, the goddess of eternal destruction and creation because, as the adult Harriet tells us, "you can't have creation without destruction." That idea in many ways will prove not only to be the central motif of The River but essential to how Renoir formed and shaped the pieces of what he shot into this marvelous film, which is what he basically had to do. Sesonske wrote in his article on the making of the film, "Back in Hollywood in June 1950, Renoir discovered that the awkwardness of his actors made some footage unusable. Without the possibility of retakes, he began to construct his film in the editing room, first creating a version concentrating on the story of adolescent girls coming of age through their encounter with a romantic stranger." Unfortunately for Renoir, his youngest performers were his least experienced ones, most having none at all and while that story was the key, they alone couldn't carry the film. Again, retakes weren't an option. In his article, Sesonske continued, "Through subsequent versions, Renoir reduced the elements of story and added more and more of his documentary footage, compensating for the loss of dramatic material by adding a commentary to help explain the action and make Captain John acceptable." I guess those equipment delays turned out to be a lucky break after all.
While the young actresses hardly can be called the best film debuts in the world, it's clear even as great as The River remains that the weak link that Renoir needed to overcome in editing was Breen as Captain John. His performance lacks so much in the way of expression and charisma that Renoir really had no choice but to make the film be about falling in love with India because at times it's hard to fathom that one of the girls would develop feelings for Captain John, let alone three. It's really a credit to Renoir's direction of the girls and his staging of the action that it comes off as believable as it does. The only part that came off as genuinely charming or romantic to me is the scene I described earlier where he's gently swatting the moths away from Valerie. The River was the last film Breen ever made out of seven total with the only other notable title being 1949's Battleground directed by William Wellman and starring Van Johnson and earning James Whitmore an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Breen played Doc but it has been a long time since I've seen Battleground, so I don't recall him in it, but I think a seven film career may speak for itself since he lived until the year 2000 and has no other IMDb credits. For playing someone who is supposed to have lost his leg in a war, he reminds me somewhat of Kevin Costner at the opening of Dances With Wolves where we're supposed to believe he's a suicidal Cavalry officer. Perhaps real actors could make that believable. At one point, the adult Harriet says about Captain John, "I didn't realize…that he had no room in his thoughts for the romantic dreams of a silly little girl." With Breen playing Captain John, you can't be sure he has thoughts of any kind.
While that would seem to be a major demerit on The River, its beauty so overcomes one bad performance no matter how central that performance might be. Shields alone almost compensates as Mr. John, not only for his scenes with Melanie but with Captain John as well whether it's when he's explaining to him that "I’m too lazy for the big philosophies so I invent little ones of my own.” Even more interesting are Mr. John's thoughts after everyone has to deal with a surprise tragedy. (SPOILER ALERT) Little Bogey, always fascinated with scaly creatures, found himself particularly enthralled when he watched the performance of a snake charmer with a cobra. One day in the garden, he and his friend Kanu discover a cobra and Bogey tries to charm it with a makeshift flute. Harriet catches them and orders them to go report it immediately as they are supposed to do — she's preoccupied with an injury Captain John suffered and is on her way to take him flowers so she's too busy. Later, in a great montage, Renoir shows all the members of the family and the servants napping — Mother, Elizabeth, Victoria, the twins, Nan, ending with Harriet outside, who sits up with a start. She sees Kanu and he starts running. She chases him, but stops at the pipal tree where lying there, looking as if he's napping like everyone else, is Bogey, killed by the cobra. After the funeral, Mr. John tells Captain John, “We should celebrate that a child died a child. That one escaped. We lock them in our schools, we teach them our stupid taboos, we catch them in our wars, we massacre the innocents. The world is for children. The real world." (END SPOILER)
Perhaps the most memorable sequence in The River actually occurs on land. While Captain John recuperates from a spill he took, he gets the idea that the attraction he feels toward Melanie might be reciprocated. He tells her that he always had the impression that she disliked him, but she tells him the she only dislikes herself and runs out of the home. The American chases after her through the greenery at the same time, from different directions, after having been moping on Harriet's porch Harriet and Valerie both took Nan's suggestion and came to visit Captain John with flowers. They see him making his way through the lusciously green scenery and start their own pursuits, at one point with the three girls literally forming a triangle on the screen as the adult Harriet says they were "suddenly running away from childhood and rushing toward love." The pursuit of would-be lovers reminds one of The Rules of the Game, only this isn't played as farce. Valerie finally catches up with Captain John and snags a kiss, prompting our narrator to note, "It was my first kiss, received by another." The film advances a few months later as Father hands out letters to Valerie, Harriet and Melanie from Captain John, who it seems left a few months ago. As Christie points out quite rightly, "Renoir's films tend to show that not all problems are soluble." Father and Nan get called in from the porch to learn that Mother has had the baby, yet another girl. "Ten minutes ago, she wasn't born," Harriet says. "Tomorrow, we'll be used to her."
Ian Christie also writes that "we know that Rumer Godden liked Renoir's adaptation of The River as much as she disliked Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's version of her earlier novel, Black Narcissus." The greatest contribution made by The River though is how it rejuvenated Jean Renoir after the double whammy of having his native country reject his greatest work and then to get mistreated by Hollywood after that. It inspired him to return to Europe where he had another burst of creativity and produced some more wonderful films. Renoir also got to see The Rules of the Game restored to what he originally intended and recognized as the masterpiece it is. As for Kenneth McEldowney, he never made another film. He'd taken his wife's dare and succeeded, so he felt he had nothing left to prove and went into real estate.
*In English subtitles (and it is an English language film) and various references to cast lists and the characters' names, some spell the one twin as Muffy, others as Muffie.