Having procured a DVD of John Cromwell’s 1934 film version of The Fountain (from Spain of all places, under the title Un amor proibido and with Castilian sound or subtitles alongside the English), I watched it on a hot and sunny summer afternoon in France. I tried to forget what I had read about it, and to watch it with only the book at the back of my mind.
First impressions: Ann Harding really was remarkably beautiful, and much better in motion than in stills. Every now and then there is a trace of America in her accent (she was American, with the real name of Dorothy Gatley), but only a trace, and her diction is clear and lovely. Brian Aherne has the looks for Alison, especially in the early part of the film (the excellent scenes in the fort), and even looks a little bit like the young Morgan. Paul Lukas is a remarkable Rupert von Narwitz, very much in control of his scenes. Of the supporting roles, by far the best is the fine Danish actor Jean Hersholt as a gruff, powerful and kindly Baron van Leyden; and the very young (still in her first year of films) Sara Haden, looking startlingly like Emily Dickinson, drips convincing venom as Susie.
Going beyond these impressions leads one to interpretations and to directing; and it’s hard to know how much of the former came from the latter. Ann Harding’s Julie is, for much of the film, a much sadder and more powerful woman than Morgan’s winsome, apparently flighty but deeply romantic girl. Aherne’s Alison, convincing in the fort, becomes a wisp and a moon-calf as soon as he meets Julie, and never manages to recover. This is a pity, for he needs strength and maturity to play up to Lukas’s splendid Narwitz, and Cromwell clearly did not encourage him to find it. The only fault I could find with Lukas’s portrayal was probably, again, the director’s: his Narwitz, but for an empty sleeve, looks in fine physical form and very far from the ghastly, ghostly gassed wreck the novel presents (Laurent Terzieff would have done the part magnificently).
The main decisions, in the case of an adaptation from such a marked and at the time famous novel, are of course the director’s. Cromwell’s directing on the whole is better than it might have been (the fort scenes and the tennis match with its Jutland report), but it succumbs to two huge and in the end fatal temptations. The first is to suppress virtually all of Alison’s spiritual preoccupations: in doing so, Cromwell leaves Aherne none of Alison’s maturity and power to work with, which after all were what had always attracted Julie to him. Secondly, Cromwell alters the crucial scene of Narwitz’s death by having only Julie present: he appears to have flinched from Morgan’s very bold concept of having him, in effect, betrothe Julie and Lewis as his dying act.
I will admit that I had been nervous of watching this film, partly because of the stills I’d seen (see Production Photography in the Gallery section), but found it much more enjoyable than I had expected. And it should send those of us who have seen it back to the book with fresh thoughts.
"He directed Tom Sawyer (1930) starring Jackie Coogan in the title role; Sinclair Lewis's Ann Vickers (1933) starring Irene Dunne, Walter Huston,Conrad Nagel, Bruce Cabot, and Edna May Oliver; and Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1934) starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, andFrances Dee.
The latter two movies were at RKO and both had censorship trouble. In the novel by Lewis, Ann Vickers is a birth control advocate and reformer who has an extramarital affair. The screenplay was finally approved by the Production Code when the studio agreed to make Vickers an unmarried woman at the time of her affair, thus eliminating the issue of adultery. The screenplay for Maugham's Of Human Bondage was unacceptable because the prostitute, Mildred Rogers (played by Davis), whom the club-footed medical student, Philip Carey (played by Howard), falls in love with, comes down with syphilis. Will Hays's office demanded that Mildred be made a waitress who comes down with TB, and that she be married to Carey's friend she cheats on him with. RKO agreed to everything to keep from having to pay a $25,000 fine."
Note that the Maugham was in the same year as The Fountain . . .