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Moon and Sixpence [1942 film]

by Albert Lewin (Director/Screenwriter)

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The Moon and Sixpence (1942)

George Sanders – Charles Strickland
Herbert Marshall – Geoffrey Wolfe

Steven Geray – Dirk Stroeve
Doris Dudley – Blanche Stroeve
Eric Blore – Capt. Sandy Nichols
Albert Bassermann – Dr. Coutras
Florence Bates – Tiare Johnson
Elena Verdugo – Ata

Screenplay by Albert Lewin, based on the novel (1919) by W. Somerset Maugham
Directed by Albert Lewin

Black and white. 89 min.


If Maugham’s novel is among your favourites, it is probably good advice to forget it before seeing this movie. The original is quite a bit watered down. The tone is mostly light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek, not least because of yet another jaunty score by that smashing mediocrity Dimitri Tiomkin. Most hilarious of all are the self-righteous proclamations that precede and conclude the picture. This is not an attempt to defend Charles Strickland, we are told solemnly in the beginning, lest we succumb to the temptation of feeling some pity for the cad. “Neither the skill of his brush nor the beauty of his canvas”, we are told in the end, “could hide the ugliness of his life, an ugliness which finally destroyed him.” You bet!

And yet, the plot and the characters are preserved better than I expected. To be sure, much of their intensity and substance is politely omitted. But the basic outlines are here. Even the narrative structure is retained, roaming from London and Paris to Tahiti and presenting the story from several points of view, mostly through the eyes of a compassionate observer who happens to be a novelist (nameless in the novel, here one Geoffrey Wolfe). Strickland is toned down, of course, but his misanthropy and misogyny (as the popular wisdom goes) are largely intact. He treats Stroeve and Blanche with utter callousness and lectures about love as a disease and women as empty-headed manipulators of men. Some of this stuff sounds pretty bold for 1942. Also, I must say I am delighted that, if the IMDb trivia is accurate, the script took in the censors who apparently didn’t know their French.

Two of the finest British actors from their generation – from any generation – make the movie a lot better than it would have been otherwise. George Sanders manages to invest Strickland with quiet intensity despite the script. Note how he delivers the crucial line “I’ve got to paint”. He is careful not to overact Strickland’s caddishness, either. He even pulls off the slushy romance with Ata. This is fine acting indeed, perceptive without being pretentious. Sanders cannot improve the screenplay, but he does minimise its deficiencies. Herbert Marshall as the first-person narrator makes a fine dress rehearsal for “Mr Maugham” four years later. He was one of the most experienced Maughamians on the screen and it’s only fair that he should have played (a character based on) the author himself twice. The Marshall-Sanders scenes in the beginning are the purest form of delectation. Much of their dialogue, like the rest including the voiceover narrative, is lifted from the novel.

Excepting Doris Dudley’s wooden excuse for acting, the supporting cast is almost as fine as the leads. Neither Florence Bates nor Elena Verdugo looks even remotely Tahitian, but both are excellent, especially Bates whose humongous presence and hilarious face cannot hide Tiare’s innate sensuality. Eric Blore and Albert Bassermann acquit themselves with distinction in small but important parts that add some missing pieces to the Strickland puzzle. Steven Geray is perhaps the greatest supporting star as the absurdly good-natured Dirk Stroeve, one of those “unlucky persons whose most sincere emotions are ridiculous”, as Maugham memorably described him.

The movie was obviously shot very much in studio and on a modest budget, but Albert Lewin does a nice directorial job without trying to impress you. He simply tells the story, a little slow and talky in places, but very entertaining on the whole. The visual side has its own kind of beauty. Uniquely, most of the movie is in black and white, but the Tahitian scenes are in sepia and in the finale – the only time we do see Strickland’s work – there are several scenes in colour. I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s weird, but quite effective.

All in all, this forgotten, independently produced movie ought to be better known. Whatever faults it might have, it retains more of Maugham’s spirit than some famous adaptations like The Painted Veil (1934) and Of Human Bondage (1934), to say nothing of travesties that used Maugham’s name in vain like Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) and The Razor’s Edge (1984). I would love to see the 1959 version of The Moon and Sixpence, with no less than Laurence Olivier as Strickland and quite a promising cast otherwise, but this totally obscure TV movie seems to be unobtainable. ( )
  Waldstein | Apr 1, 2020 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Lewin, AlbertDirector/Screenwriterprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dudley, Dorissecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Marshall, Herbertsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Maugham, W. SomersetOriginal storysecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sanders, Georgesecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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