Throughout the late 1930s, and well into the 1950s, MGM had a great affinity for period costume melodrama. Part of the studio's enthusiasm for turning great literary masterworks into a living tableau on film had to do with L.B. Mayer's idea of maintaining artistic prestige. But more to the point, it was a way for Hollywood's Raja to hold his master craftsmen and artisans up to the rest of the world while politely thumbing his nose at his competition. Frankly, throughout the first two decades of the talkies, there was no competition in Hollywood or elsewhere for this sort of consistent striving for grandeur. MGM had a magic all its own. Its back lots, capturing the essence of virtually every European and Asian landscape known to man, were second to none as was the studio's immense and ever expanding roster of star talent. Hence the costume epic, with its myriad of extras and gargantuan set pieces seemed tailor-made for the MGM treatment.
All of MGM's riches are evident in Victor Saville's production of Green Dolphin Street (1947); a lumbering would-be costume epic that, even in all its resplendent wonderment, tragically does not come together as it should. The film's chief weakness is its meandering screenplay by Samson Raphaelson (based on Elizabeth Goudge's sprawling novel) that spends far too much time developing the first third of the novel's pretext, before quickly scampering through a series of elephantine - but decidedly disjointed - vignettes (an earthquake, a flood, a cannibal attack, etc.). Casting is another hurdle not entirely or successfully overcome. Green Dolphin Street stars Lana Turner as Marianne Patourel, the haughty young daughter of Sophie (Gladys Cooper) and Octavius (Edmund Gwenn). Sophie was once madly in love with Dr. Edmond Ozanne (Frank Morgan). But his youthful carousing soured their chances for a life together. Now, after a period of self-imposed exile the good doctor has returned to the small French hamlet with his son, William (the painfully wooden and emotionally unappealing Richard Hart).
Marianne and her sister, Marguerite (Donna Reed) pay a call on the Ozannes. And although Marianne is quite captivated by William she dismisses him quite boldly, incurring his temporary wrath. One thing is for certain. Marguerite is in love with William at first sight, but completely unable to usurp or rival her sister's verbalization of her own emotions. Marguerite allows Marianne (who is obtuse to her sister's passions) to pursue William. Marianne even convinces her father to finance William's career as a maritime officer in his majesty's navy, then pushes William to accept his commission. William does as he is told, particularly after a tete a tete with Captain O'Hara (Reginald Owen) the commander of 'The Green Dolphin' - a sea faring vessel that makes regular trips to New Zealand. Meanwhile, in another part of town Timothy Haslam (Van Heflin) has his eye on Marianne for his own, even though he has already begun an affair with Corrine (Ramsay Ames). After Corrine's brother wounds Haslam in a knife fight he is patched together by the sympathetic doctor and ushered onto the Green Dolphin to avoid incarceration for the brawl.
William sails with his regiment to the Orient. But once on foreign soil he is quickly drugged by a Chinese coolie (Tetsu Komai) and his enterprising daughter (Lila Leeds) who steals all his money before leaving him badly beaten on the docks. As William's own ship has sailed without him he is now considered a deserter to the crown. He cannot return home. Nevertheless, Captain O'Hara comes to William's aid. O'Hara takes William to New Zealand where he becomes reacquainted with the exiled Haslam, now a successful trader, running a lucrative lumber mill. William and Haslam gradually become good friends and business partners. After a night of carousing, William inadvertently writes for Marianne's (not Marguerite) hand in marriage.
The defiant Marianne, thirsty for travel, excitement and William's companionship above all else sails to New Zealand, leaving Marguerite heartbroken back in France. Confessing her love of Edmond to her husband and daughter Sophie dies peacefully at home and a broken hearted Octavius takes his own life. These are dark days for Marguerite, who finally comes to seek spiritual guidance from Mother Superior (Dame May Whitty) and the sisters of a nearby convent. In New Zealand Marianne and William are married. Although Haslam is as ever in love with her, he contains his emotions and keep them secret from both William and Marianne. The couple has a daughter, Veronica (Gigi Perreau). During these years William and Haslam's lumber mills thrive. But a devastating earthquake and catastrophic flood put a period to their venture. Retreating further inland Haslam, William, Marianne and Veronica find themselves at the center of a tribal war that nearly costs them their lives. Haslam manages to finagle their release from captivity and certain death. Not long afterward, the friends migrate to a Dutch colony where they thrive as sheep farmers.
Marianne diligently works to gain a pardon from the Royal Navy for William; then suggests that it is time for all of them to go home. But the years have withered Haslam's desire to retire to France. He elects to stay behind. After bittersweet farewells William and his family return to France and move into Marianne's ancestral home. Unfortunately, Marianne discovers a letter William wrote a long time ago to Marguerite that professes his undying love for her. Believing that her entire marriage has been a lie, Marianne falls into a dark and bitter depression, one that is quelled when Marguerite confides in her that she no longer desires William for herself, but has instead decided to become a nun.
Green Dolphin Street makes valiant strides and many attempts to become an epic on par with Gone With The Wind (the original trailer for the film even suggests as much). But the film suffers from too much scenery and not enough business to keep the entire enterprise afloat. At 141 minutes it does its best to condense Goudge's weighty novel into a manageable screenplay, yet fails to attend to the more poignant bits of business between characters that might have made this story of love and sacrifice live beyond the footlights. As I mentioned before, the script is only half the problem. The other half is in the casting - or miscasting, I should say. Although Green Dolphin Street's roster contains stellar performers who have all proven themselves more than worthy of their craft elsewhere, each is an ill fit for the characters they play in this particular film.
Lana Turner is too brittle as the headstrong Marianne; too much vinegar in her veins to ever be believed as a woman of passion for anyone but herself. Her haughty and overly exaggerated mannerisms bury the lugubrious Richard Hart, whose performance is both mediocre and utterly void of any sort of romantic spark. Van Heflin and Donna Reed are cardboard cut outs, characters so one dimensional that they are wholly absent of sustaining our attention or garnering our praise. The film cannot be discounted altogether. Green Dolphin Street does have its pluses - chiefly in George J. Folsey's starkly beautiful cinematography and Cedric Gibbons/Malcolm Brown's first rate art direction. A. Arnold Gillespie's special effects are equally impressive. His earthquake and flood sequences are realistic and utterly terrifying to behold.
Still, Bronislau Kaper's score does not particularly serve the intimacy of the story. In fact, it seems too melodramatic and over the top - incomprehensibly swelling to a garish clash of symbols and strings at even the slightest hint of either a kiss or a tragedy on the horizon. Walter Plunkett's costumes are lavishly tailored, but tend to swamp their female protagonists under yards of skirt and crinolines. In the final analysis, Green Dolphin Street is a gargantuan undertaking that is unable to sustain its status as an epic. It's big and bold and given the MGM class 'A' treatment from top to bottom. But the results are more middling than mesmerizing.
The same cannot be said for Warner's Archive MOD DVD. The efforts put forth on this remastering effort yield a rich and varied B&W image with strong tonality. The gray scale has been superbly rendered. Certain scenes have a slightly 'thick' characteristic, but on the whole this presentation winningly preserves the gorgeous cinematography with minimal age related artifacts peppered throughout. There is no edge enhancement or other digital anomalies to speak of. The audio is mono and I must say something seems slightly off between the balancing of dialogue and music. The dialogue is soft but audible while the music explodes at varying intervals with bombast quite uncharacteristic for a film of this vintage. Hiss and pop are kept to a minimum but the discrepancies between loud and soft is odd. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)