Movie still from here; nice review, too.
"I love acting," I gushed. "Why?" they asked.
"Because it's so exciting to become someone else for a little while," I said. "It takes so much passion to get it right." I was about twenty, and had acted in two college productions.
They all exchanged glances. "I shouldn't expect so," one of them said. "Yes, it's just another job, isn't it?" another said. "What do you need passion for?" a third said. "All this method acting. It isn't necessary. Just do your job."
My uncle smiled. "You see the difference between American and British actors. It's very marked, isn't it?"
I thought of that exchange when I saw "The Card," a British comedy starring Alec Guinness, on Netflix this Thanksgiving. The film was made in 1952 when Guinness, known now to most Americans as Obi-Wan Kenobi, was just starting his career. It's a rags-to-riches story of the son of a washerwoman who rises to wealth through his wits, charm, guile, and opportunism (thus the title, a "card" being a one-of-a-kind person).
Guinness is aided considerably by a trio of stunningly beautiful actresses, Valerie Hobson, Glynis Johns, and Petula Clark, the latter going on to megastardom as a pop singer.
Image: My favorite of the three actresses.
The plot is not what captivated me, but the acting. It is not a spoiler to say this comedy is armor-plated against misfortune. Guinness as Denry Machin can do no wrong; you're just waiting to see what his next triumph will be.
So the delight, for me, is in how the actors navigate their roles, injecting humanity and humor that comes not from the situation or even, much of the time, the script, but in how each of them reacts to one another.
Maybe the most important of these scenes concerns one of the less stunningly beautiful players in the drama, Denry's washerwoman mother, played by Veronica Turleigh. After Denry has made a large fortune, he buys his mother a sealskin coat, which is as luxurious, it seems, as a fur stole. Turleigh, a proud, stoic commoner who doesn't go in for her son's ridiculous financial ambitions, tries to play off her happiness at receiving the coat. Clark, as the ingenue Nellie, gushes over it, and Guinness is perfect in his disappointment when Mother masters her wordly desires and decides to put it in mothballs.
Every gesture, tone and mannerism in this scene is spot on. In less accomplished hands, the scene would have just been cheesy. I dare say, many scenes like this one have aspired to such spot-onness and failed.
I wondered how much these actors just went to work on that day they did that scene, and "just did their job." Tremendous.
So see it if you haven't cancelled your Netflicky subscription.
One other thing relating to mythology and pop culture criticism, in the Breakfast with Pandora way: I found this comedy to be quite amazing for 1952, a time in the UK when the British were still recovering from the devastation of World War II. In its optimism the movie is downright American, and in its obliteration of class differences (a defining issue of the British ethos) it just seems extremely, extremely unlikely.
The movie is set in 1911, when class differences were even more marked in the UK than they are today. The beautiful period costumes and the attitudes of the people emphasize that there is a difference between commoners and the upper class, and that Denry, as a kind of trickster god, is magically making that all go away.
Indeed, all that Denry does has that feeling of fairy tale, a Puss-in-Boots type of story, but set in pre-World War I, the unreality of it all is even more marked.
Was it that the British public just needed that type of light, optimistic, magic realist type of story at a very bleak time in their history? If so, then Miss Hobson's last line, the last line of the film, would make perfect sense.
Is there a recurrence of this type of story through British cinema? And how optimistic are other genres of British film? In America, we love resurrection and happy endings, even in drama. Was it always the same in the UK? Or was this just a moment in time?
We continue on. Pass the tea cakes, Pandora.