Off the Usual Path
Posted by Dirck on 1 February, 2013
Because I’m not away over this particular lunch hour, I’m not showing a film. I am, however, talking about one which I would have yesterday had sense not gone from my fingers. A couple of nights ago, TCM showed Over the Moon, a film starring Merle Oberon and a Rex Harrison so young as to have almost no distinguishing features. I found it an interesting departure from a lot of films of its sort and age, and I want to get my thoughts about it somewhat crystallized.
If one glances briefly at a synopsis of it, it seems a fairly standard rags-to-riches tale: a young woman in a reduced state is on the verge of marrying a young doctor who is probably about to make his way in life when the death of her grandfather (her parents are gone before the start of the picture) dumps a huge mining fortune on her– in modern terms, roughly 1.5 billion dollars. This unsettles her life, disrupts her relationship, and sees her leading a dissolute life of high antics before settling down and mending bridges with her former beau. The usual thing, right?
Well, not really, but before I get into the how of its departure from the pattern, I want to speculate on the why. Over the Moon was “post-Code”; it appeared somewhat after the makers of film in Hollywood began actually bending to so-called Hayes Code, which was an attempt to keep films from upsetting the morals everyone had sort of loosened in the 1920s anyway. However, Over the Moon is not a Hollywood production, and so the Hayes Code meant little to it. It was made in England, and suffered under the despotism of the British Board of Film Censors, which had always had the power to not only rate but outright ban a film. This office was dead against the supernatural, but either it didn’t care too much about the way unspeakably rich people disported, Alexander Korda knew exactly who to pay off, or… well, maybe they saw some what I saw in it, and let is go about its business, but if that’s the case, they’re a rather more complex bunch than one might have given them credit for. It may be that having held such power from the very beginning rendered the Board a little more considerate in its application, while the Breen Office was drunk on the power it had technically held but been unable to wield. I’m probably making up stories in this regard, but if the internet is for anything, it’s for rampant speculation pretending to be scholarship.
I want to dispense briefly with Rex Harrison’s character. In short, he’s an idiot. He has a very standard notion of offering his intended all sorts of “One day we’ll do something fun” dreams, and to a certain extent is working to bring them to life, but when she suddenly has the means to do all they could wish, including funding the medical research he’s just sold his practice to underwrite, he stomps off in a huff which is fuelled by his own unwillingness to be a kept man and his assumption that she’s going to undergo dramatic transformation under the effect of the money. We’ll get back to him later, but he doesn’t figure in the film a whole lot until the end and I don’t want to give him more air time than he’s due.
The main character is Jane Benson, who is not quite twenty and has been living on roughly tuppence a month with a crowd of apparently unpaid servants in a dismal manor in the Yorkshire moors. When her ship comes in, she declares that her style of life to date was likely inflicted upon her by her benefactor in hopes in creating as miserly a soul as himself, and she’s not having any of it– she’s going to have fun with her wealth, and farewell thrift. That is in a lot of films the start of a spiral of some sort, or perhaps a roller coaster, but this is where Over the Moon separates itself from the rest. Jane certainly lives up to her declaration, and with the departure of her fiance she is surrounded only by parasitic semi-relatives (“nearly fifth cousins!”), cads and gigolos. However, while her clothes are certainly more splendid, her trappings more gaudy, and her daily affairs less concerned with getting the ironing done, the core of who she is appears to undergo no change whatever.
Observe: the gigolos are strung along, but she keeps them in opposition, and so long as they are in conflict with each other, they are only in such contact with her as she allows. When a fellow heir to untold wealth appears, one who has always known riches and feels hollow from it, she doesn’t instantly toss aside the whole pile and go back to Dour Manor. Neither does she give up her aspirations of convincing Doctor Stupid to rejoin her when the rich fellow suggests that, as the only person in England who can match her wealth, he’s the only possible mate who would understand her “plight” and not try to use her for her wealth. The closest she comes to contrition is agreeing to an economy-class vacation with Dr. Stupid to convince him that she is unchanged in her important aspects, but all this does is make clear what is already reasonably obvious.
Returing to Dr. Stupid for a moment– he landed at a spa/clinic in Switzerland which apparently specialized in lucreotomy and radical wallet reduction, where his main employment is taking the pulses of manifestly healthy young women and inducing swooning. The offer of employment and the swooning are both a result of the mystique which grows up around a man who walks away from Jane Benson. While, as I say, the film doesn’t follow him too much, when Jane decides it’s time for her to go to the mountain rather than waiting for it to come to her, she discovers that the Legion of Swooning Lasses have had no more effect upon him than the League of Creepy Lotharios has had upon her. He’s still all of what he was when last they met, although perhaps a more accomplished skier. The one effect of his time at the clinic seems to be to have educated him in what authentically shallow rich dinks are like, as he’s now willing to give Jane the chance he couldn’t consider immediately after her enrichment.
That difference of awareness being the only real change wrought in either of the central characters means that the underlying the story is a message of the durability and perhaps elasticity of moral fibre. The durability lies in the resistance to unforgivable temptations in both Jane and Dr. Stupid, and it’s hard to say whether he’s more proven than she; after all, she only had to put off a couple of obvious gold-diggers and a chap who’s merely rather nice and about as wealthy, while he was defending against a veritable horde of well-heeled snow bunnies.
The elasticity is all in Jane, though, because while she does put off the gigolos, she also is true to her vow to have as much fun as a bottomless wallet will support; she goes to as wild a party as high-society London in 1937 could offer, she allows a certain amount of pawing by the aforementioned scoundrels, and she gets what we’re meant to believe is monumentally drunk, and yet at no point does she become a fallen woman even though this all happens to an orphan still short of her twentieth birthday. I can’t think of a picture out of the US that allows that sort of liberty-taking, and it has me thinking a little about the way in which protection of public morality was approached on either English-speaking side of the Atlantic. I also wonder if the “good people don’t need to be made to be good” content was in some ways a response to the rise of Fascism over the previous decade, a way of living which definitely founds itself in “do as you’re told.”
It’s a little conventional at the start and end, but I recommend a look at it for all that comes between the conventionality. One might also ponder the remarkably un-closeted gay fellow who is shanghaied into hosting the big party; it’s a caricature that will probably offend many, but there’s no question that he is stark raving gay, yet no come-uppance for being so develops and his valet seems to approve entirely.
Now, before I leave off, I should mention that I’ve got an external conscience set up for this month of correspondence we’ve entered upon; I’ve not been entirely given to film critique, and I’m told “well begun is half done” although I think in this case it’s more “14 February is half done.”