Human imperfection and ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’

I know it’s been a bit since I’ve posted. Life and other writing endeavors have gotten in the way. But, now I’m back to discuss a movie I’ve only just discovered. I recently made a trip home to see my parents and my dad sent me back to my L.A. homestead with some new *old* films to watch. Among them was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

The only knowledge I had of this film was the casting. I knew that a young Maggie Smith, aka Professor McGonnagall, was the lead and that Pamela Franklin, aka one of the scary children from The Innocents had a part. I had a certain idea of what this film was going to be before I sat down to watch it and it completely subverted all expectations.

If you’re unfamiliar, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie follows Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith), a thirtysomething teacher at a private girls school in 1930s Scotland. Her teaching methods are unorthodox to be sure, but there’s no doubt, she inspires her students. She talks to them about her own life, the choices she’s made, and the fact that she is currently in her prime…apparently. Strangely though, she doesn’t discuss history and literature much, which is what she’s actually being paid to teach. As always, DRAMA ENSUES.

Here are just a few reasons you should put The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on your watchlist:

The Cast

Before this film, I had only seen Maggie Smith as an older actress. But, she had a long career before she was in Harry Potter or even A Room With a View. At the time she made this film, Smith was virtually unknown. The part of Jean Brodie had been played by Vanessa Redgrave in the stage version.

Smith was around thirty-five when she played Jean Brodie and it’s a completely different Maggie Smith than you’ve seen before. Unlike her professor character in Potter or her chaperon character in Room with a View, Smith is free and wild in this film. She’s sexual and flirtatious and egotistical and charming. Her performance won her a Best Actress Oscar and it was well deserved.

tumblr_ll3rolj1Mj1qzz302o1_500.gif
A bit dramatic, no?

Pamela Franklin, who’ve I talked about before on this blog, is famous really for two performances, her role in The Innocents and for playing Sandy in this film. I was surprised, watching her in this film, at how different she is. The scenes she shares with Robert Stephens I thought were quite scandalous. She’s nude and she looks like such a young girl. However, she was nineteen when she made this film and since this film was made just after the production code ended, this was a specific period where they were trying to see how far they could push the envelope.

Her portrayal is layered and interesting. Sandy is several things, conniving and kind of a bully. She’s curious about her own sexuality. But, she’s the only one of Miss Brodie’s pupils who questions her methods and their validity. It’s a shame Franklin left acting.

tumblr_nwdykndwOv1qhhpdho1_400.gif
Don’t underestimate a girl who wears glasses. 🙂

The other wonderful surprise in this film was getting to see Celia Johnson, who played one of the leads in my favorite film, Brief Encounter, in an older, much different part. In  a way, it was a reverse of my knowing Maggie Smith only as an older actress. I only knew Celia Johnson as a younger actress, so seeing her in this was fascinating. In this film, Celia plays the headmistress of the school, a tough woman who’s skeptical of Miss Brodie. And, as usual, she kills it.

vlcsnap-313643.png
She still looks like she’s thinking a lot though, right?

The Script

The screenplay was written by Jay Presson Allen who also had written the play. It was adapted from the novel by Muriel Spark. I talked about how the film subverted my expectations for the genre and that really comes down to story.

I think what really shocked me was the fact that the character of Jean Brodie was so incredibly flawed and kind of bordering on unlikable. As children, we assume that our teachers have their lives together. Actually, we pretty much apply that principle to any adult. Jean Brodie is, to me, still very immature. She thinks of herself as a savior to her students, as a guide and example for how they should live their adult lives.

We see the effect that the charismatic Jean Brodie has on two students in particular – Mary, played by Jane Carr, a shy, impressionable girl who listens to Brodie dutifully and Sandy, played as I already discussed by Pamela Franklin, who is more skeptical and adventurous and ultimately, strong.

vanity.gif
No fear here!

Because it’s a reminder that perfection is unattainable!

Miss Brodie ultimately is quite immature. Her actions are not of a together person and yet, despite her actions, you do feel sympathy for her when she loses everything. That’s what makes this story so compelling – it’s about real people, people who are imperfect and make mistakes, even when they have the best of intentions.

original.gif
Aka immaturity. HUMANS ARE IMPERFECT. 

Vintage trailer below:

The Prime of Miss Brodie trailer

Gifs and photos property of 20th Century Fox.

Advertisements

An eerie masterpiece: Jack Clayton’s ‘The Innocents’

As I’ve said before, I don’t consider myself a horror movie aficionado. However, over the last few years, I’ve found that my real issue is with the definition of horror itself. When I hear the word, my mind automatically jumps to slasher films and gross out humor. But, those assumptions are unfair to the horror genre which encapsulates so many others. There are fantastic classic horror films and Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents is one of them.

deadbirdgif.gif
Creeped out yet?

I was first introduced to this film at a movie night for a production company I read scripts for. I had never heard of it before and was amazed at the artistry behind the film. It was so detailed and oh-so creepy. I was reminded of it when I recently attended a screening of the upcoming film A Monster Calls at the Cinefamily theater. After the film, J.A. Bayona (the director) talked about the debt he owed to Jack Clayton, how much he was inspired by Clayton’s stylistic choices in The Innocents.

If you’re not familiar, The Innocents takes place in Victorian England and follows Miss Gibbons (Deborah Kerr), a governess who takes a post taking care of two little children in the country. She’s told by the orphans’ uncle (Michael Redgrave) not to bother him with any problems. In her first days with the children, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), appear angelic. However, Miss Gibbons starts seeing people who, to everyone else, aren’t there and we start to wonder: is everyone else crazy or is Miss Gibbons? Of course, drama and creepiness ensues…

Here are just a few reasons The Innocents needs to be added to your Halloween movie marathon:

The Cast

Deborah Kerr is most associated with her roles in the movie-musical, The King and I as well as the classic war drama, From Here To Eternity. She had made by both those films by the time The Innocents came along and it was an entirely different role for her. Kerr said of her her role:

“I played it as if she were perfectly sane – whatever Jack wanted was fine; in my own mind, and following Henry James’ writing in the original story, she was completely sane, but, because in my case the woman was younger and physically attractive – Flora Robson had played her wonderfully on the stage – it was quite possible that she was deeply frustrated, and it added another dimension that the whole thing could have been nurtured in her own imagination.” – Kerr, TCM Article

Kerr carries the film with grace, purity and determination which is exactly why it’s so terrifying. We believe in her so completely.

tumblr_mbg4zxWT1R1r1ad86o2_250.gif
Just watch her eyes! The subtlety in her performance is EVERYTHING.

The children are incredible but honestly, my big thought is what parent would let their child make this film?? I mean really – this is dealing with some pretty mature themes, to say the least.

Martin Stephens was just twelve years old, but had already been in quite a few films, including another horror classic, The Village of the Damned. He had also already been in a film with Deborah Kerr a few years earlier, Count Your Blessings. His performance as Miles is chilling and quite disturbing. He gave up acting in 1966 and ended up becoming an architect, but in the cult film community, he’s still beloved!

Pamela Franklin was eleven (and she could easily have played Eleven in Stranger Things). Unlike Stephens, The Innocents marked Franklin’s feature film debut. She went on to star in other films, most notably The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and another Jack Clayton film, Our Mother’s House. Her glee is what’s most unsettling in The Innocents. While weird shit goes down, she’s jovial! Like Stephens, Franklin ended up retiring from acting in the early 1980’s to have a family.

996ffd11be57b5d2f38279cc97266a45.jpg
Angels? Eh…

Megs Jenkins, a fantastic character actress, is also wonderful as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper who sort of, maybe believes Miss Gibbons.

8726-9474.gif
She wears this confused expression for much of the film…

Also a funny cameo: Michael Redgrave of The Lady Vanishes makes an appearance as the children’s cold uncle. Redgrave only has one scene but he makes an impression and let me just say, he’s a far cry from the charming romantic Gilbert.

14396-9474.gif
To be fair, he’s a few years older than he was in The Lady Vanishes…

The Script

The Innocents was based on an 1898 novella by Henry James called The Turn of the Screw. It’s been adapted several times over the years. It was adapted for the stage in 1950 by William Archibald and Truman Capote wrote the screenplay for The Innocents. Of the project, Capote said:

“When it was offered to me to do it as a film, I said yes instantly, without rereading it…Then I let several weeks go by before I reread it and then I got the shock of my life. Because Henry James had pulled a fantastic trick in this book: it doesn’t stand up anywhere. It has no plot! He’s just pretending this and this and that. It was like the little Dutch boy with his fingers trying to keep the water from flooding out – I kept building up more plot, more characters, more scenes. In the entire book there were only two scenes performable.” – Capote, TCM Article

I think it’s fascinating that a good portion of the plot was made up by Capote. To me, what makes the story so compelling is the ambiguity. By the end of the film, you’re still not sure what’s true and I love that! It’s really, at its heart, a psychological thriller. Story wise, it actually reminded me of films like The Lady Vanishes and So Long at the Fair. Both have our protagonists facing a situation that makes them question their reality and this one, being supernatural, is even more troublesome…

tumblr_nejl9pJhLr1rm7jt9o1_500.gif
This shot haunts me.

The Direction

At the time Jack Clayton made The Innocents, he had only just made his feature directorial debut, Room at the Top. So much of what makes this film a masterpiece is due to Clayton’s direction because the true stars of this film are the performances. The strength of Franklin and Stephens performances had to be the product of great direction.

Additionally, Clayton’s use of sound in this film is worth marveling at! The sounds, at times, seem more important than the visuals – a door slamming shut, the awful cries of a ghost, the children’s laughs…these are the things that kept my heart racing.

tumblr_mc458jOa4M1qz874do2_250.gif
That icy stare though…

The Cinematography

The visuals cannot be understated in this film. Freddie Francis served as the film’s DP. If you don’t know his name, you’ve certainly seen his work in films like The Elephant Man, Cape Fear and The Man in the Moon. Francis had already worked with Clayton on Room at the Top. Francis said of his work in the film:

“…I had quite a lot of freedom, and I was able to influence the style of The Innocents. We worked out all sorts of things before the picture started, including special filters. I still think it was the best photography I’ve ever done – as much as I like Sons and Lovers [1960] I think The Innocents was better, but you rarely get an Academy Award for a film that isn’t successful no matter how good your work on it.” – Francis, TCM Article

giphy.gif
These hallways are terrifying!

The Music

Georges Auric wrote the score of the film, including the original song “O Willow Waly” and it is a huge reason why the film works. Auric also wrote the scores for Roman Holiday, the French version of Beauty and the Beast and The Wages of Fear. It’s fantastically creepy!

It’s unsettling, thought-provoking, and filled with artistry!

This film was not very well received by critics when it was released in 1961. But, as with a lot of films, time has proved it a classic. When you look at the time this film was made and the themes it explored, it’s quite scandalous. Even now, the whole kissing scene between Kerr and Stephens is out there!

What I love about this film is that it keeps you on the edge of your seat and doesn’t give you all the answers. The Innocents is very much left up to the imagination. It engenders discussion and makes you feel something. In the end, what else is cinema’s purpose?

tumblr_mbg4zxWT1R1r1ad86o1_250.gif
Seems like she’s experiencing some genuine terror…

Vintage trailer below:

Feature photo and gifs property of Twentieth Century Fox.