Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Brother and the Curate: The Hollywood Bronte Family

Last night, I watched Devotion, the 1946 Warner Brothers biopic of the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne--and their brother Branwell, and their father's curate, Mr. Arthur Nichols. The names and the setting of the movie are mostly accurate, but much of the biography is not, of course. I still found it an interesting movie, however, mostly because of the performances of Olivia de Havilland as Charlotte and of Ida Lupino as Emily. The actress (Nancy Coleman) who played Anne Bronte resembled the portrait painted by Branwell, but she is a secondary character.

Charlotte, as portrayed by de Havilland, is almost wilfully unaware of her errors and follies: forcing Emily to go to Brussels; falling in love with Monsieur Heger, the married headmaster of that school; her ambitious drive for literary fame is overwhelming; she consistently errs in interpreting the actions of her father's curate, Mr. Arthur Nicholls (Paul Henreid)--and generally, she does not know what is really going on! De Havilland plays this unself-aware heroine so well that the viewer wants to read her the riot act!

Emily is the real lead in the movie, at least as the trailer, linked above, indicates--she is the real genius, the true lover, the one devoted to her brother's best interests (knowing that London will be too tempting for him), in love with the curate, misunderstood by Charlotte; able to see Charlotte's folly--drawn to the moors, dreaming of death (or Heathcliff?).

In typical Hollywood fashion, the accents vary wildly. Lupino was born in England and de Havilland in Japan of British parents, but Paul Henreid's Austro-Hungarian accent is unremarked and unexplained. As the Reverend Mr. Patrick Bronte's curate, he seems very well off, with an elegant wardrobe--he is depicted as doing good works in the parish, visiting the poor and the sick, but one of his most constant efforts is getting the drunken Branwell home from the pub or the party. Those efforts earn him only animosity from Charlotte--and from Emily at first. The Reverend Mr. Patrick Bronte, played by Montagu Love, is always in his study, preparing a sermon. We never see the inside of Reverend Bronte's church.

Arthur Kennedy as Branwell Bronte is a convincing drunk, although it's not very clear why his sisters are so devoted to him because he is so mocking of their efforts and even of their sacrifices for him. The film completely ignores the fantasy world the sisters and brother developed, nor does it depict the poverty, want, and death the family struggled with--the sisters did not become governess to earn extra money! . Still, it was a fascinating movie to watch for the sake of the two lead actresses, Lupino and de Havilland.

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