January 24, 2014

Claudette Colbert, Private Worlds

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The reigning Best Actress of Hollywood came back again in 1935, this time with a more serious and weighty picture. I had a raging suspicion prior to my viewing that I wouldn't like Private Worlds. I was right. Hollywood filmmaking was awfully cheesy during this time, and about to get cheesier now that the Production Code was now strictly in place. Thus, if a film of this era were to tackle a heavy social issue, you know that it'll end up a little ridiculous. And Private Worlds is just that--it's a sugar-coated and idealized treatment of mental illness which tries so hard to cram "the mentally ill--they're people too!" message down our throats early on, only to throw all of that out the window in the second half to instead focus on terribly written and forced melodramatic story lines. At the heart of this picture is Claudette Colbert, whom I can only assume managed to get this particular nomination because there was still residual heat left from her recent Oscar-win, and perhaps the industry was still overly besotted by her because of it (sound like anybody we know from this year?).

 photo ScreenShot2014-01-22at82631PM.jpgIt's always a little sad to have just seen an actor absolutely kill it in a film and then be disappointed by her follow-up work. This happened to me with Bette Davis as well, but given that Davis' turn in Dangerous encompassed remnants of her wonderful performance in the previous years' Of Human Bondage, she at least had instances that were a little bit compelling. Colbert on the other hand is given a character that's nowhere near as engaging or as realized as her Ellie Andrews. I enjoyed watching her Dr. Jane Everest as much as I would enjoy watching a pie bake in the oven. In fact, her work here reminded me of Jane Wyman's performance in The Blue Veil quite a bit--both are warm and gentle women haunted by a lost loved one, but both are also completely devoid of any interesting quality that they get lost in the very pictures they're anchoring. Just about every secondary character is more interesting than Claudette Colbert, which is really ridiculous given how she effortlessly oozed appeal in her Oscar-winning performance the year before. Much of this is rooted in how banally written her character is--for instance, in the scene in which Charles Boyer's Dr. Monet demotes Dr. Everest's position on account of her gender, Colbert willingly concedes without hesitation or dispute. For someone who is described a progressive psychiatrist in the plot synopsis, I find the diminishing of her character in lines like "I for one would like to abide by his orders" to be appalling. I'm convinced that Hollywood hated women in 1935--this is the third submissive female in the Best Actress lineup thus far. So gone in this film is any sense of allure in Colbert that was so vivid in It Happened One Night. I had trouble fixating on her presence. The movie itself is so superficial in its preachy tone that it's hard to actually believe Colbert as genuine when she speaks with several mental patients. In fact, it all came off as very faux for me, and her warmth is lacking in authenticity whenever she's around these people whom we're supposed to throw our sentiment at (don't even get me started on how one-dimensional these mental patients are depicted--it's about as accurately representative as any racial stereotype we see in movies of this time). At one point, I asked myself (and Jane): Who cares? What's the point? Why should I care about you?

 photo ScreenShot2014-01-22at83420PM.jpgUltimately I never really got my questions answered. There are three teeny-tiny points in Colbert's performance where I saw potential for something great: the first being the scene in which she reveals to (the annoying) Joan Bennett that the love of her life was killed in the war (her hushed "they shot him" is just great), the second being the scene in which she tries to stop one of the mental patients from beating up Dr. Monet (the only moment where there is panic and life in her voice, though you mostly see the back of her head as this scene unfolds), and the third being the very last few seconds of the film, in which Dr. Monet confesses his love to her and asks her to stay, to which we catch a very brief medium-shot glimpse of her in tears...before the camera pans to a stuffed animal. I understand that Jane is written as respectable and pleasant--Colbert does that just fine--but coasting on a few characteristics doesn't make you human or real, and I'd assume that being human and multifaceted is critical in a picture that's about the plight of the human mind. Ultimately this was a tedious and frustrating film to sit through, starring a wonderful actress whose talents are totally wasted.


  1. I agree, she was rather disappointing in this one.

    1. Disappointing is an understatement! I'm not sure I can find any redeemable qualities about this movie or performance...