Hollywood Gothic, Part I: My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Don't drink the tea, Philip! It's worse than gas!

The latest release from Twilight Time, My Cousin Rachel [M] (1952), is a gothic drama I’ve never heard of – which is theoretically impossible for me, because I grew up watching a ridiculous amount of classic films on TVOntario, courtesy of the late Elwy Yost, and among the myriad studios whose vintage works were played and replaced on Canada’s premiere public broadcasting station, I loved Fox the most.

Still do, simply because they seemed less concerned with propagating an image of ‘more stars than there are in Heaven’ as MGM did, and went for gritty dramas that sometimes tackled social issues. (I do admit a special warm & fuzzy feeling for RKO, because after the Fox logo, RKO’s blinky-blinky radio tower on a spinning planet Earth is for me the second best logo ever designed. I don’t know why, but I like it.)

If Fox was busy currying any corporate image, it was as a smart studio with total vertical integration that extended into technological gear, of which CinemaScope was their biggest achievement (even though it was designed to rival the Cinerama brand).

If Rachel supports anything film fans already know, it’s that Fox’s in-house cameramen were amazing gifted, because Rachel is typical of the immense detailing packed into static and moving shots. Static or in motion, every window, candle, tree, hung painting, or big actor nose is there to ensure rich composition, which those weaned on widescreen colour films may think never existed in the once-standard world of 1.33:1 black & white cinematography.

Fox’s Prince of Foxes (1949) and The Song of Bernadette (1943) are similar examples of stellar lighting and design, but Rachel’s inherent gothic tones means the ornamentation within sets and the sets themselves are designed to convey a mood of ongoing eeriness, which is appropriate since it’s a film about a young snot (Richard Burton, in his U.S. film debut) who falls for the woman he believes killed his cousin.

Burton, point of fact, is captured early in his career before he would develop Burtonisms – those moments of emotionally phony grandstanding where the actor’s head is cocked back, the eyes roll, and as magnificent as his voice was, it bellowed too loud, as if to flow with the stiff arm gestures that followed, and the actor side-stepping to show deep emotional frustration because his character IS IN TORMENT.

We’ve seen it before, and one suspects it may have been extant in 1952, but perhaps director Henry Koster (No Highway in the Sky [M]) knew the film would crash if Burton went into his stock box of thespian indulgences, so he kept him in line.

Or maybe Burton knew his performance had to remain within a tight emotional range, so he kept things mellow (from a Burtonian perspective).

I’m not wholly fond of the gothic melodrama because I often find myself muttering ‘Oh for God’s sake,’ but there is a peculiar mood within Rachel, aided by a wild nightmarish sequence when Burton’s character suffers from a bad pot of herbal tea (“tisane”) which one suspects the character probably drank as a test to see whether lovely Rachel really loved snotty Philip.

In any event, the review is up, and coming shortly is a batch of soundtrack reviews and news.

And one small request on behalf of fellow Torontonians: Warner Bros. is screening their 8K (!) restoration of Ben-Hur at the New York Film Festival this week, so after the festival circuit, Please Bring It to the Lightbox, because even if you’re wary of the film’s monstrous running time and steeped fifties religious declarations, seeing the chariot race on a true big screen is a one-of-a-kind experience.

I caught an old print at the Eglington (prior to its shameful closure), and it’s a remarkable feat of filmmaking. Yeah, there’s the sublime Mikos Roza score, but panting horses the size of a low-rise apartment building running around a giant circus maximus is awesome.

P.S. : has anyone noticed the peculiar graphic design similarities between the Film Society of Lincoln Center and TIFF? Same colour scheme and use of rectangles, same rotating main image, and same level of frustration in trying to find out what’s playing, and when.

At least TIFF’s Search window is in plain view, but seriously – Why not design your own website that distinguishes you from a rival? TIFF’s site has been somewhat revamped since the end of the film festival, but it’s minimal mode is even more frustrating, and solves none of the problems that drive members and TIFF staff bonkers.

OCAD and George Brown have students that can help you…

Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com ( Main Site / Mobile Site )


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