March 23, 2020
Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Stewart Granger, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley.
To my very pleasant surprise, Warner Archive has given 1954’s Beau Brummell the full treatment with a 4K scan off the original negative for a payoff of such vivid reds and dark blues on its British military uniforms and more that you’d swear the same costumer designed Roy Rogers’ shirts. Because this Eastman Color release has always carried a “print by Technicolor” credit as well, I suspect that the film was always inherently superior to pure Eastman Color MGM titles from the same era (one of my favorite movies of all time — It’s Always Fair Weather — will forever be an eyesore in spots because of cost-cutting Eastman). But even the Brummell print I once recorded off MGM-friendly Turner Classic Movies was, to be generous, no great shakes.
A flop at the time (apparently lead Stewart Granger didn’t even like it), this superbly cast costumer, I’m told, has picked up a cult, which pleases me because I’ve always liked the picture despite its substantial liberties taken with history (don’t they all, or at least most of them?). Granger’s title protagonist, previously played in the silent era by John Barrymore, was and is here a 19th-century army captain of humble background despite his advanced education; he dresses like a fop but is, in fact, so direct and uncompromising in his opinions on virtually every subject that he accrues a lifetime of enemies who further regard him as an opportunist. BB opens the picture by publicly knocking his regimen’s new uniforms — a cheeky move, given that they were designed by a power figure (sort of) who incidentally, really is a fop: Peter Ustinov as George IV, aka the Prince of Wales and frustrated heir to the throne held by his bonkers father George III (Robert Morley). Think of the play or movie of The Madness of King George — and George III’s real-life importance to our own Revolution’s history. In this telling, Brummell’s insubordination nearly gets him busted by IV, but the two then develop an odd and unlikely friendship that’s on-and-off testy, but when all is said and done, lastingly affectionate.
The selling point here for the masses is probably the second-billed participation of Elizabeth Taylor as a “Lady Patricia” — supposedly betrothed to George III’s top political advisor (James Donald as Lord Edwin Mercer) in another one of those instances in which a highly eligible woman opts for dull security over a life of creditors that a reckless spendthrift like Beau will guarantee. This is an issue because although Patricia tries to fight it, the attraction is also there on her part. This is an uncommon Taylor screen experience because she spends the first half of the picture in a silver wig before eventually reverting to the brunette state with which we’re familiar.
Liz notwithstanding, Beau Brummell is foremost a love story between two men, and Ustinov, who’s just spectacularly good here, has notably more screen time than Taylor, even though he’s billed third in a large in-name-only supporting role. Adding to his narrative importance is the fact that he and Beau Granger share something of an empathetic link, in that No. IV longs to wed the widowed Roman Catholic he loves (Rosemary Harris). It’s a union No. III expressly forbids, even though his son openly flaunts the relationship at banquets that seem to be an everyday occurrence (these people know how to live). In real life, IV did get to marry her, but the union wasn’t recognized by the Church. I probably won’t make any friends by saying this, but in A Man for All Seasons (though I love the movie), I always root for Henry VIII over Sir Thomas More because consenting adults of age who want to wed should be allowed to. In other words, butt out.
Of course, in this telling, there’s still III to deal with, and he’s so deranged that he claims his son is an imposter. Morley is as great here as Ustinov even if he does just have a single scene — which he totally nails. Everyone knows III is mad, but his vested-interest colleagues have successfully hushed it up (kind of like Woodrow Wilson times-12). The male acting principals are all memorable here, including the very underrated Granger (when I asked Martin Scorsese in an interview which old-school actors he most regretted not having been able to work with, I believe he listed Granger No. 2 after James Mason and mentioned that he and Granger had had dinner the previous night). BB’s box office underachievement didn’t do his career any good after his rich decade of outdoor adventures and costume dramas (these were falling out of favor). Scaramouche, for one, is a marvelous romp and possibly director George Sidney’s best film, even though I’m also exceptionally fond of The Harvey Girls. I have to think it would be a major Warner Archive candidate.
Beau Brummell ultimately turns morose, which is perhaps inevitable given the army of creditors who show up daily at the door to demand payment for one or another ornate purchase. This probably didn’t help the box office, either, but even here, there are a couple powerful climactic scenes of reconciliation that reveal the men’s true feelings. And it’s really a revelation to see the movie looking this vital and pristine — I guess for the first time since 1954, when MGM couldn’t buy a hit outside of the surprise smash-dom of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.