The Scoundrel (1935, Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur)
Consigned for decades now to 16mm hell, the second film by the writer-director team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur is one of the most striking and unusual American films of the 1930s, which is all the more impressive because it’s a studio picture (for Paramount). The Scoundrel is much more than a curio, but there’s a lot that immediately sets it apart: besides the strong pedigree of Hecht and MacArthur (no longer widely remembered as directors), it stars the beloved Noël Coward in his only major Hollywood film role and is driven by both an icily cynical yet convincingly heartfelt story, and an unconventional approach to writing and acting — both strongly believable — that makes it feel quite eerily modern. Swells and flourishes are resisted until one specific moment, and otherwise the film steeps you within a claustrophobic place and in the deep end with difficult, surly personalities, the lead’s most of all. But by the climax, its emotional sweep has moved beyond the simple pleasure one feels at seeing something that genuinely feels “new”; at its best, it offers one of the most sincere and moving, yet unsentimental, visions of personal redemption that we’ve had in cinema. It can make you rethink both the movies and your own life.
Let’s hasten to add, though, that this is not a Capra film or any sort of star-gazing fit of faith in humanity. All of its belief in human goodness is only the most begrudging — the central transformation might best be compared to those of the wayward protagonists in Billy Wilder’s films Ace in the Hole and Sunset Blvd., both movies about nasty people taking advantage of those around them only to experience a rude awakening at their eleventh hour. It’s not likely a coincidence that decades hence, Wilder would remake the film for which The Scoundrel‘s writing team was best known, the hard-hitting, acid-tongued newspaper drama The Front Page. Hecht was well-known for knocking out slick, professional and often quite literary screenplays, but his work with longtime partner Charles MacArthur tended to operate its vindictive magic on characters that weren’t necessarily meant to be likable — were, in fact, rather hard to like. This is precisely why the film’s aggressively-won optimism by the finale is so meaningful.
The film follows a book publisher named Anthony Mallare, a real amoral bastard grousing about “virtue and dullness” whose behavior toward friends, enemies, lovers and general hangers-on is knowingly deplorable. With a flick of the tongue and one decisive moment of slim patience lost, he can destroy a life — and does so, going so far as to betray trusted friendships and romances. But he does so with full, upfront disclosure, expressing his ruthlessness to the young poet Cora Moore (Julie Haydon) before he ruins and humiliates her as well as her former boyfriend, who’d formerly had stars in his eyes and a willingness to punch him out. When asked if he still loves Cora, he unforgettably replies: “That is an ungallant question that women always want answered gallantly.” Mallare deadens everything around him with the help of a group of hard-drinking writers who aren’t so much friends as leeches, who gather daily at his office, leer at the latest sordid episodes of his personal life and trade wisecracks. This motley crew includes, among others, Alexander Woollcott (more or less playing himself!), Martha Sleeper and the great, unforgettably gravelly Lionel Stander. Their idleness and relentless trading of well-crafted insults owes a lot to the Algonquin Round Table, and not just the endlessly repeated popular image thereof, for MacArthur himself belonged to the group and even once shared a flat with Robert Benchley.
The major real-life inspiration for The Scoundrel, though, requires a little more digging. Horace Liveright, founder of the Modern Library, wasn’t exactly William Randolph Hearst, but was another publishing-industry (and theater) figure renowned for his heartlessness. In all his hard drinking and bad business deals came a philandering hardness, fulfilled in the end by his sparsely-attended funeral after an early death. Hecht and MacArthur were keenly aware of the complex history of Liveright (he was Hecht’s editor for a time) and the vast number of people he pissed off, but they also took the time to humanize him in Mallare’s form. As often as not, we’re charmed and delighted by his cunning and sharpness, which gives the film its bite and depth, but not the logical conclusion of his cruelty. Thus the strength of the film is that it conveys the appeal and elegance of a life knowingly lived as closed-off and selfishly as Mallare’s — the indulgence of the “literary elite,” let’s say — but it also is careful to reveal the consequences of his behavior, how his impatience and brutality move beyond sarcasm into heartlessness, and a kind of lonesome, shielded evil. But more loneliness yet is to come.
The casting of Coward as Mallare is deeply inspired. Permitted to rewrite some of his dialogue (some say as payback for Hecht’s adaptation of Design for Living), he’s effortless at selling his character’s full-on callous nature, but also easily renders him an enigmatic and striking enough person that one understands why people gravitate toward and gather around him, even why someone could perform the thankless task of falling in love with him. Such flukes only underline the pain when he lets others down, so that it’s easy to comprehend Cora when she announces after being cast off that she hopes he dies friendless and empty. This is not a film that flinches: when Mallare dies in an air crash soon afterward, her reaction is to laugh and cheer. And that makes sense to us, too.
It’s a bit Twilight Zone, with Hecht and MacArthur sort of writing the rules for that kind of story. The big point of contention with the audience will surely be that the film carefully conceals what kind of story it is until approximately twenty minutes before the end, at which point it sets about reapproaching its lead character in a manner that, while certainly heartfelt and touching, is just as jarring as the similar tonal turnaround in Sullivan’s Travels. The film is much too realistic (philosophically, not metaphysically) to allow Mallare, when he begins wandering the world as an apparition, to become a soft or two-sizes-too-large reformed Grinch. Were he capable of simply maturing, he already would’ve. Instead, his worldview is reconfigured because of an actual change in perspective, when he’s faced with the genuine terror of being wholly unloved. He can make no honest case to anyone that he has truly changed, can appeal to no higher or lower altruism and make his good faith known — but in this incredible frustration, this incredible darkness, he finds that his sole comfort and escape will be the very parts of humanity that he tried to shed from his life: love, kindness, compassion. He can’t truly redeem himself but it’s indicated that a change somehow has overcome him — and he finds a way, a stirringly moving way, to prove it. (An early clue to some hidden nature he’s denied himself is his line: “Tears always make me seem crueler than I really am.”)
So after all this, the film posits something unusual about warmth and forgiveness — it offers little sympathy for the cruelty and cutting, closed-off bitterness it painstakingly documents, but it suggests less a victory for its protagonists that for the underlying empathy of those around him. It achieves its crescendo by so carefully developing its central character, bit by detailed bit, that one cannot help but trust in his final moments in front of us. There’s one moment in particular when Hecht and MacArthur give way, just a little bit, to a sense of the infinite that’s truly startling, when a man is reduced to begging for his final relief against the backdrop of the roaring ocean. Romantic, sure, but also surreal and grand, toying with deeper and more difficult emotions than is typical for Hollywood in this or any era. This film means its emotions to be hard-won, and fully earned, and succeeds more than admirably.
The Scoundrel is a hell of a lot to process, but it’s something special. Considering Coward’s presence, Lee Garmes’ great photography, some of the most cracking and brilliant dialogue I’ve heard in any ’30s film and the generally excellent and almost unnervingly naturalistic performances, it’s astounding that it has become such an obscurity. An impressively ambitious and modern film that attains a genuine sense of loneliness and tragedy should well be celebrated far and wide (I have to wonder what Orson Welles thought of it); instead, this one is well-nigh impossible to find, only available if one reaches into the black-market dregs. If you roll the dice on this one, I promise you’ll have trouble shaking the film — Mallare is an unforgettable character, ice-cold but somehow sympathetic even before he starts to crumble, and that complicated feeling is the mark of truly great characterization, truly superlative storytelling and filmmaking. Considering this in tandem with Dodsworth and Manhattan Melodrama, it’s hard not to feel that the mid-’30s were the golden age for American films that were genuinely made for adults.
[I only have this on a bootleg DVDR. My computer doesn’t like it, so the above screencaps and stills are gathered from around the web, mostly Tumblr. Kinda sucks, but the best I can do.]