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FLESH AND FANTASY (1943)

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"I’m the least superstitious guy in the world!"
"But you do believe in dreams and fortune-tellers…?"

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Director: Julien Duvivier

Starring: Robert Benchley, David Hoffman, Betty Field, Robert Cummings, Edgar Barrier, Edward G. Robinson, Thomas Mitchell, Anna Lee, Dame May Whitty, Charles Boyer, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Winninger

Screenplay: Ernest Pascal, Samuel Hoffenstein and Ellis St Joseph, based upon stories by Ellis St Joseph, Oscar Wilde and Laszlo Vadnay

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Synopsis: A man, Doakes (Robert Benchley), confides in his friend, Davis (David Hoffman), about an encounter with a fortune-teller and a dream that has disturbed him. Davis shows Doakes a book of strange stories dealing with fate and predestination…. Henrietta (Betty Field), a plain, bitter girl, meets a stranger (Edgar Barrier), who encourages her to don a mask for Mardi Gras night and be one of the crowd. Henrietta encounters Michael (Robert Cummings), an unhappy law student with whom she is desperately in love. As Henrietta strives to convince Michael that his life is not a failure, she finds her own life mysteriously transformed…. At a party given by Lady Pamela Hardwick (Dame May Whitty), psychic Septimus Podgers (Thomas Mitchell) astonishes the guests with his accurate palm-readings. Solicitor Marshall Tyler, though a sceptic, allows Podgers to read his palm. Podgers tells him that the woman he loves loves him too. He then sees something else in Tyler’s hand that he refuses to reveal. Shortly afterwards, Rowena (Anna Lee), the woman Tyler loves, tells him that she is willing to marry him. As Podger’s predictions continue to come true, Tyler becomes obsessed with finding out what else the psychic saw in his hand. Finally, under duress, Podger tells Tyler that he is doomed to commit a murder…. Aerialist Paul Gaspar (Charles Boyer) has a dream in which a beautiful woman wearing unusual earrings watches in horror as he falls to his death. Although denying that he believes in dreams, Gaspar is so disturbed that he freezes in the middle of his high-wire act and is booed off by the crowd. King Lamarr (Charles Winninger), the owner of the circus, tells Gaspar that if he wishes he can revert to a simpler, less dangerous act, and that he has until the troupe reaches New York to make up his mind. On board ship, Gaspar is startled when he sees Joan Stanley (Barbara Stanwyck), who he recognises as the woman in his dream. As the two begin to fall in love, Gaspar again has a prophetic dream….

Comments: This omnibus production is an interesting examination of destiny and free will, and the extent to which human behaviour can be influenced by a – sometimes unacknowledged - belief in the supernatural. The first story, "Mardi Gras", is by far the least of the three. Its underlying theme of the transforming power of love would have been more powerful if it had not been so literally interpreted. Betty Field stars as Henrietta, a plain (that is, Hollywood plain – glasses and an unflattering hairdo) young woman suffering from unrequited love, who is growing increasingly bitter and isolated in the belief that no-one will ever love her. Donning a mask for Mardi Gras, she reveals a depth of loyalty, generosity and selflessness as she devotes herself to cynical law student Michael, on the verge of giving up on life. Michael tells Henrietta that anyone with a soul so beautiful must have a face that is equally beautiful and, predictably, when Henrietta unmasks we find that this is so: she has been transformed into a dazzling beauty. In effect, then, the film supports the view of a self-centred young woman who early on tells Henrietta that no man could ever love anyone with a face like hers. Instead of Henrietta’s "beautiful soul" being all-important, she must be physically beautiful as well. This shallow view of life leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. (For a far more honest and touching approach to this theme, I recommend John Cromwell’s The Enchanted Cottage.) On a more positive note, the Mardi Gras setting is well used, and the story opens on a wonderfully macabre note as a dead man is hauled from the ocean by a crowd of torch-bearing, costume-wearing party-goers.

The second story is the best of the three. This interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s "Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime" wisely stays close to its source as it examines the issue of predestination and human complicity. Is fate ordained for us, or are our lives under our own control? To what extent does human credulity make prophecies self-fulfilling? These issues are intriguingly raised in the story of Marshall Tyler who, initially an unbeliever, slowly becomes convinced of the infallibility of Septimus Podger’s predictions. Obsessed over what Podger may have seen in his hand, Tyler finally hounds the psychic into predicting that he, Tyler, will one day commit a murder. Convinced that he cannot escape his destiny, Tyler decides actively to meet it, believing that by choosing his victim and his method carefully, he can fulfil what he sees as his inevitable fate while having the best chance of avoiding punishment. The tale then takes on a dark comic edge as Tyler systematically sets about making his plans, all the time debating the issue with his alter ego, who appears to him in mirrors and other reflective surfaces to enter into philosophical discussion upon the situation. The story plays itself out to a typically ironic Wilde climax, leaving the questions it has raised unsettlingly unresolved. The co-casting of Edward G. Robinson and Thomas Mitchell works wonderfully well. Robinson’s personality gives a necessary hard edge to the character of Tyler, making his ultimate surrender to the supernatural all the more disturbing. The earthiness of Mitchell’s characterisation of Septimus Podger also adds credibility to the story. It is Podger’s matter-of-factness, as much as his accuracy, that seduces the viewer as well as Tyler. The supporting cast is also excellent: John Ford favourite Anna Lee as the object of Tyler’s affection; Dame May Whitty as Tyler’s chosen victim; and C. Aubrey Smith as an inappropriately venal churchman who unwittingly convinces Tyler that murder isn’t such a bad thing after all.

The final story is the most ambiguous of the three. Like the second, it examines the extent to which belief influences fate. Charles Boyer stars as circus performer Paul Gaspar, who dreams that a woman, played by Barbara Stanwyck, will be present at his death. Although avowedly a sceptic, Gaspar finds his dream impinging upon every aspect of his life. When he meets and falls in love with Joan Stanley, Gaspar is confronted by the problem of whether or not his dream is prophetic. Since it has proved true to the extent of his meeting the woman in question, is his death therefore inevitable too? Can the same dream have more than one interpretation? Appropriately, this tale is told as much through imagery as dialogue. As Paul Gaspar tries desperately to break free of the grip of his own imagination, his mental state is conveyed more and more through dream sequences, lending a suitably hallucinatory edge to the proceedings. Charles Boyer, who co-produced the film, is convincing as a man struggling with his fate, but less so as a professional circus performer. Barbara Stanwyck gives a nice, restrained performance as the woman of Gaspar’s light and dark dreams, who turns out to be hiding a secret of the most earthly kind.

Overall, Flesh And Fantasy is a worthwhile, if uneven, production. While the first story is negligible, the other two raise intriguing questions about human nature and the way in which lives are shaped and altered. While the script is sometimes banal, the actors manage to rise above it and play their parts with conviction. Throughout, the film-makers strive to give their stories a dreamy, surreal atmosphere, and succeed mainly through the efforts of Paul Ivano and Stanley Cortez. The film’s beautiful black and white photography is its main asset, along with (if you’ll pardon the expression) a dream cast. Each of the stories is approximately thirty minutes long, ensuring that none of them really has the chance to wear out its welcome. The framing story, however, is fairly irritating, and sometimes inappropriately facetious. Initially, the film was to consist of four stories. However, the fourth, "Destiny", about the consequences of a murder charge, was removed and expanded into a feature-length film directed by Reginald De Borg.

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