This review is my contribution to the Madeleine Carroll Blogathon being organised by Silver Screenings and Tales of the Easily Distracted – please do visit and read the other postings!
By sheer serendipity, I heard news of the Madeleine Carroll blogathon just after hearing that one of her early British talkies, Fascination, was about to be released on DVD in the UK. How could I resist? Just over an hour long, this melodrama laced with comedy sees Carroll cast as a world-weary actress (she was only 25, but the character seems to be several years older) who tempts a young interior decorator into cheating on his wife. The director was Miles Mander, a British dramatist and actor who had already directed and starred opposite Carroll in silent film The First Born, based on his own play.
Sadly, the film is in pretty bad shape despite BFI restorers’ expertise (it only survives in a damaged nitrate print), and subtitles are provided to help viewers make out the dialogue. Adapted from a stage play, the film does feel stagy at times and some of the dialogue and acting are stilted. Nevertheless, I feel it is worth seeing if you enjoy early talkies, and it is a fascinating example of Carroll’s British film work. The film also gets steadily better as it goes on – the beginning is rather shaky, but later on it ratchets up the tension, as the love triangle takes its toll on everyone concerned.
As well as being one of the earliest roles of Carroll’s currently available for home viewing, the film also offers an early glimpse of two actors who went on to later stardom. Freddie Bartholomew, aged just 7, has a small part in the opening scene, as one of three children playing with trains. This was only his second film, following a part in a short musical, and it’s his earliest role to be available. He has a line or two to speak. Merle Oberon, then 20, is also glimpsed as a Spanish flower girl at a restaurant, one of a series of uncredited bit parts she was playing at the time – she also briefly appears in an early British musical I reviewed recently, For the Love of Mike.
That opening with the children introduces two of the film’s main characters, playmates Vera and Larry, who play out a little scene which foreshadows their relationship as adults – something which often happens in 1920s and 30s films. Here, Larry accidentally hurts Vera during a tiff, but then says he will marry her when they grow up – and gets another child (Bartholomew) to act as the vicar for a mock wedding ceremony. Not surprisingly, it’s noticeable even here that Bartholomew is more natural and speaks his lines more easily than the other children.
The scene then cuts to the adult Vera and Larry, played by Carl Harbord and Dorothy Bartlam. It quickly becomes apparent that their childhood romance has now turned into true love, and the couple are seen romping in the countryside. They decide to marry, and, on top of their vows in church, draw up a list of “Ten Commandments of Marriage”- the main ones being to tell each other everything and avoid neglecting each other.
For the first three years, Mr and Mrs Maitland have no problem in sticking to these new marriage resolutions. But then Larry meets beautiful, older actress Gwenda Farrell (Carroll)… and is soon besotted, neglecting both work and home to spend every possible minute with her. He even spends time romancing her outdoors, just as he did with his wife, as well as visiting restaurants and clubs. Symbolically, he starts to suffer from bad eyesight during his affair, suggesting how he is failing to see things clearly. Carroll is excellent as Gwenda, who is on the rebound after being jilted by her lover and enjoys feeling attractive again. Although she plays up Gwenda’s vampish qualities, draped in beautiful dresses and dragging on a cigarette in a holder, she also manages to give the character some warmth and hint at a vulnerable side.
Carroll has some good scenes together with Gwenda’s comic best friend, Kay (Kay Hammond), who speaks in a lazy drawl and carries a little dog around like a handbag. Kay warns Gwenda not to play with Larry and that she risks ruining his life… but is she playing with him, or is she becoming more involved than she intended?
The plot has a couple of unpredictable twists along the way, as Vera discovers that her husband is cheating on her, and then has to decide what to do next.
This film is one of the latest releases from Network, who are busy releasing hundreds of older films on DVD in the UK/region 2 through their programme The British Film. They have an article about the film and Madeleine Carroll on their website, which includes some clips and stills, and even describes Carroll as “The closest British film ever got to having its own Garbo”. As well as being out on DVD, the film can also be rented via the BFI player website in the UK.