Friday, May 27, 2016

OVP: Young Bess (1953)

Film: Young Bess (1953)
Stars: Jean Simmons, Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, Charles Laughton
Director: George Sidney
Oscar History: 2 nomination (Best Art Direction, Costume Design)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

I doubt I will ever be able to get through a Jean Simmons movie, ever, and not think "man does she look like Vivien Leigh."  I mean, it's remarkable, isn't it?  It's like Tom Hardy and Logan-Marshall Green crazy.  That's literally the first thing I thought as Young Bess began, but then my mind pivoted to how strange Golden Age biopics are, particularly in the way that they try to encompass all of the grandeur of history with the very staid, G-rated mores of what was required onscreen at the time.  Young Bess is a bit of a piffle, and probably would have been better off had they not relied so heavily on history and just made up a story, but there it is and as a result we get a dated, rather dull look at the early life of Queen Elizabeth.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film starts where it eventually ends, on the day that a young Princess Elizabeth (Simmons) finds out that she is to be the Queen of England, but the film quickly recedes into flashback, where we see Elizabeth as a child next to her rather ridiculous father King Henry VIII (Laughton, because of course Charles Laughton plays this role again), and we get a lot of foreshadowing with Henry intermittently hating his daughter and thinking her the greatest thing ever.  In one of the more ridiculous scenes of the film, Henry watches his daughter as he's dying and suddenly has an epiphany that she is his "true successor," which seems to jive with history, well, not, at all, as Henry VIII was a famously chauvinistic monarch who couldn't possibly have seen anyone other than Edward as his rightful heir.

Like any good Classical Hollywood film, the movie is centered primarily on a love triangle, this time between Princess Elizabeth, her paramour Thomas Seymour (Granger), and the woman he truly loves, Elizabeth's former stepmother Catherine Parr (Kerr).  It's actually slightly interesting earlier on in the love triangle because our prime heroine doesn't seem to be the love of Seymour's life-he's clearly more in love with Catherine, and seems to only caddishly be interested in the young princess in hopes of perhaps utilizing his power over her should she become queen (side point-considering she was second inline and they rarely mention that Edward, who is a spritely lad in the film is sick, how likely was it that Elizabeth would become queen to the point that literally everyone talked about it).  However, Hollywood can't have such a thing and as the film progresses he turns out to equally love her too, and is cleared of his roguish behavior when Catherine Parr dies, and he is free to seek Elizabeth, but it's too late, as he is executed by his jealous brother, who does so in the name of the sickly boy king.  The film progresses with Elizabeth, defiant, becoming queen after the deaths of her two siblings, and standing tall and proud on a balcony, knowing she's fulfilled her destiny but lost her great love.

The film's silliness is not necessarily a match for its costume work, which is actually quite good and was Oscar-nominated.  Legendary designer Walter Plunkett (who at this point had already done both Gone with the Wind and Singin' in the Rain) finds a lot of excuses to gown up both of his leading ladies, but the work is impeccable and has an eye for detailing-I loved the way that Jean Simmons wears her dress in the final scene, as if she's forcing it to stand upright (though I suspect the costume designers had a say there), and the Tudor green dress was a particular favorite (you can see it here), as it's both ugly and incredibly detailed, something you might not notice until looking at the movie for a while, but that is perhaps the way a complicated queen would dress.  The film isn't as inspired in some of the supporting roles (dressing Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard as promiscuous is hardly thinking outside the box), but overall it's rather strong work.  The art direction is good, but nearly as uniform as we see a lot of the same empty castle and very little detailing into drawing rooms or trying to transform much outside of every other castle you see in a movie-there's nothing distinctive or sticking out in the way that warrants a lot of attention, and it borders on being a default nominee if we're being honest.

Those are my thoughts on this 1953 movie-what about yours?  If you've seen Young Bess, were you laughing a bit at how silly the treatment of history was, or were you swept up in the epic love triangle?  For those that haven't, are you frequently struck by the similarity between Simmons and Leigh?  And do you think Charles Laughton just kept playing Henry VIII for the food?  Share your thoughts below!

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