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The Great Garrick

The Great Garrick

By Colin Williamson • March 5th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Warner Bros. Pictures

Original release: October 30th, 1937
Running time: 89 minutes

Director: James Whale
Writers: Ernest Vajda, Rowland Leigh, Ernest Vajda

Cast: Brian Aherne, Olivia de Havilland

The Great Garrick

There’s little debate as to whether or not James Whale was a great director. His present day reputation rests firmly upon the four horror films that he made for Universal in the early 1930’s: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). Yet even so called “fans” of Whale’s work have rarely seen any films beyond these four. Strangely enough, even professional critics rarely acknowledge that Whale worked outside the vault of horror films even though the vast majority of his filmography doesn’t fit into that genre. His relegation to the crypt seems particularly disturbing when one takes into consideration that in 1937 he directed a little film called The Great Garrick which may well be the best film he ever directed.

The film’s plot goes as follows: David Garrick (Brian Aherne), widely regarded as England’s foremost living actor, is invited to Paris to serve as a guest actor for The Comédie-Française, the world’s greatest theatre. During his curtain call after a performance of Hamlet, Garrick informs the audience of his intention to relocate to Paris. They react angrily and one patron yells out that Garrick “should teach the French how to act.” Demonstrating his prowess as a thespian nonpareil, Garrick manages to exit triumphantly to cheers of “teach the French, teach the French!” Unfortunately for Garrick, the playwright of The Comédie-Française is present at the performance and upon his return to Paris he furiously describes the recent scene to the assembled company members.

The Comédie-Française decides to frighten Garrick into returning to England rather than simply recalling the invitation. They rent a roadside inn for 24 hours, knowing that Garrick and his servant plan on staying there for the night. The entire inn will become the theatre of The Comédie-Française, with members of the company portraying the customers, waiters, blacksmiths, and the innkeeper. Unbeknownst to the actors of The Comédie-Française, Garrick is somewhat aware of their plot (he knows they have something planned at the inn but isn’t sure exactly what) through the covert assistance of the company’s prompter Jean Cabot. Cabot once acted with David Garrick, retains a very high opinion of him, and believes that Garrick never actually said he planned to “teach the French” (which he didn’t).

The Great Garrick

With this foreknowledge and because of his own experience as an actor, Garrick quickly surmises everyone at the inn is an actor (and also by how over-the-top everyone seems), but everything changes when a woman, Germaine Dupont, (Olivia de Havilland) on the run from her father arrives. Although the innkeeper/president of the company attempts to turn her away, Garrick graciously offers her his room, believing it to simply be a “cue” of sorts that the other actors expect him to fulfill. Garrick and the woman hit it off right away. As Garrick believes this mysterious lady is only playing a part, he acts in an extremely confident manner without any fear of rejection. After falling in love with Garrick, she reveals herself to be a countess while Garrick, despite being in love with her as well, still believes she’s only a second-rate actress.

Eventually Garrick tires of the Comédie-Française’s various attempts to frighten him and after scaring them into thinking that they have accidentally caused his death, Garrick reveals that he’s still alive and has been aware of their plot the entire time. He confesses that he was honoured by their invitation and maintains that he didn’t vow to “teach the French.” The company, of course, apologizes for their actions and urges Garrick to continue on to Paris. He accepts and then goes to the countess’ room and harshly criticizes “her performance,” remarking that he was only acting as well. This infuriates the countess who leaves the hotel then and there.

Later in Paris while performing Don Juan, Garrick feels remorse for his perhaps unjust criticism of the countess. He questions the company’s president about the identity of this actress, only to learn, of course, that she wasn’t a member of the company. Garrick realizes she’d legitimately been in love with him, and that he loved her as well. Absolutely distraught, he refuses to go on, and goes out to tell the The Great Garrickaudience that he cannot perform. He sees the countess is in the audience, as well as Jean Cabot. Cabot reveals he’d encountered the countess on the road to Paris after she fled the inn, and he explained to her the peculiar situation that Garrick had found himself in. Garrick receives her forgiveness and then gives an excellent performance in the play and the film ends.

Whereas in James Whale’s previous horror films, much of what made them exceptional was their distinctive visual style, dark humour, and delightfully exaggerated performances, this film achieves greatness through more conventional, but just as enjoyable means. The Great Garrick really excels on three fronts, the screenplay, the performances, and the economy of each scene. The screenplay for this film is almost perfect, filled with tons of witty dialogue delivered by a host of memorable characters. Even more impressive is how very likeable each character is written — you never find yourself angry at any one character with the key exception of Garrick when he attacks the countess over her “bad acting.” That’s just dramatic irony being used to great effect.

Aiding and abetting this wonderful screenplay is the perfect cast; every actor absolutely nails each line accomplishing exactly what I imagine Whale wanted them to do. This film is unlike Whale’s horror pieces where one character chews up the scenery and dominates the proceedings (e.g. Dr. Pretorious in Bride Of The Great GarrickFrankenstein). In The Great Garrick every actor does a marvellous job and is extremely memorable but it never feels like the film is trying to cram all these characters down our throats. Brian Aherne (as the titular Garrick) in particular does a remarkable job as he anchors the film and straddles the line of playing an extremely arrogant yet likeable character. He always manages to convey Garrick’s softer side without seeming clichéd or forced, fleshing out his character’s likeability, which is essential to appreciating the movie.

Olivia de Havilland plays what is by far the most boring character in the film, but despite having all the worst lines she provides a glimpse of the actress she would soon become (she was only 21 when this film was made) as she sparkles in her romantic scenes, and elevates her character from an annoyance to one that is essential. Her chemistry with Aherne is subtle yet alluring, and is just one of many examples in this film of an actor playing their part just right, while another actress in de Havilland’s role might well have ruined the film.

Finally, the economy of scene in this film is terrific. This film has near perfect pacing and never feels rushed or bloated despite covering a large amount of material in a scant eighty-nine minutes. Everything unfolds in the exact amount of time necessary, and when the end credits roll you have no idea how much time you just spent in front of the screen. The Great Garrick is one of the great underappreciated films, by one of the great underappreciated directors of all time.

Colin Williamson

Colin Williamson

Colin has been a dedicated cinephile for many years now and finds nothing more rewarding than discovering and experiencing a terrific film. Colin has no explicit criteria as to what makes something a great film, but finds that he often values the image more than anything else when it comes to his favorite movies, but of course there are exceptions.

Some of Colin’s favorite films include The Night Of The Hunter, Tabu, Chimes At Midnight, Pierrot Le Fou, Solaris, and The Big Combo.

Colin also writes for and is the editor in chief of the film website thereisnomoon.com and you can follow him on twitter (appropriately enough) @thereisnomoon.

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