Monday, 16 September 2013

Brief Ecstasy (1937)
This little seen 1937 film is finally available on DVD courtesy of Network DVD and Studio Canal.
Produced at Ealing Studios in the period before Michael Balcon took over and elevated the studios to legendary status, Brief Ecstasy is a short but effective study of a doomed love affair. 
Hugh Williams

Linden Travers
Hugh Williams & Linden Travers
With a story that revolves around a couple Jim and Helen (Hugh Williams and Linden Travers) who accidentally meet in café, then fall in only to be separated by fate (and her marriage to an older man, played by Paul Lukas), it’s easy to see Brief Ecstasy as the inspiration for the 1945 classic Brief Encounter. However, Brief Encounter was based on a 1936 Noel Coward play, Still Life, making clear that Brief Ecstasy was not the inspiration it might at first appear to be. That said, the cinematographer on Brief Ecstasy was one Ronald Neame, who went on to produce – yes, you’ve guessed it – Brief Encounter. It tempts me to think that Brief Ecstasy was inspired by Still Life, only for the producers to return the favour by borrowing the title for Brief Encounter.
Anyone who has read this blog before, and has seen the sort of films the authors like, won’t be surprised to know that we consider Brief Ecstasy to be better of the two. This might seem heretical but that’s the way it is. Quite simply, the 1937 film gives a much lustier portrayal of desire whilst Brief Encounter seems, for me at least, rather bland. Linden Travers, as Helen Bernardy, is portrayed in a far more physical manner than Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter.
Although the sensuality is somewhat subdued, it's undeniably there. Jim starts by spilling tea over Helen then mopping at her breast ...
Linden Travers & Hugh Williams
... later the camera lingers on her chest as he zips up her flying suit:
Indeed, the director seems to have an obsession with Travers, in particular her legs. First we see Jim lifting her skirt to wipe spilt tea from her stockings (earning himself a slap in the process).
Linden Travers & Hugh Williams
Then we have Jim staring at her legs as she perches atop a ladder:
Finally, we have the couple flirting over a game of snooker. As Helen leans over to play a shot she raises a leg only for the camera to track lovingly from foot to calf, to thigh, then to bottom – all encased in flimsy silk.

The very intentional sensuality of the shot is far more physical than anything in Brief Encounter. Indeed, the character of Helen Bernardy is simply a far more sexual creature than Celia Johnson’s Laura Jesson.
Now that’s cleared up, we can get back to the film itself.
Jim (Hugh Williams) meets Helen (Linden Travers) by accident in a London café. They spent one wonderful night together in a club before he leaves to return to his home in Ceylon. He proposes to her by telegram but it fails to arrive and she marries an eminent scientist Professor Bernady (played by Paul Lukas). Helen son grows bored of her husband, who ignores his splendidly attired wife after she prepares herself for bed and is fast asleep by the time she leaves the bathroom.

Paul Lukas & Linden Travers
The director uses Professor Bernady's love of slippers – in contrast to her sparkling gowns – to illustrate their age gap and her increasing longing for a more exciting life.
Naturally, Jim returns and their love is rekindled.
Linden Travers & Hugh Williams

Linden Travers & Hugh Williams
The film is one of those often referred to as a ‘Quota Quickie’: in the 1930s there was a legal requirement for cinema chains to show a certain percentage of British made features in order to protect the British film industry from American competition. As such, film companies produced cheap, often rather short, films in order to meet the quotas. Since the budgets were low (with producers being paid by the foot for the product they delivered) there was little room for high production values, meaning many of the films were unexceptional. However, in some notable cases, the lack of budget and the resulting limitations actually gave birth to creativity. In the nightclub scene the audience sees Helen and Jim with the shadows of musicians falling over them. The stark image saved money on screen time for real musicians yet clearly showed their location. Similarly, the shadow of a singer falling over an attentive audience seems more exciting than simply seeing the singer.
Hugh Williams & Linden Travers
In one of the more curious elements of the film, the interior of Professor Bernady’s home is an interesting example of set design. For a British home it appears curiously styled – appearing more like an somewhere in east of central Europe. Whilst he set may have been constructed to reflect Professor Bernady’s roots (assuming that the character is supposed to be Hungarian since he is played by a Hungarian born actor and drinks Hungarian wine) one is tempted to think this was simply a set left over from another production.
Finally, back to the Brief Ecstasy/Brief Encounter connection:
Brief Ecstasy’s Hugh Williams appeared opposite Celia Johnson in a 1936 stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Williams was the father of the actor Simon Williams who married Lucy Fleming, the daughter of Brief Encounter’s Celia Johnson.

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