August 14, 2015

Ruth Chatterton, Sarah and Son


I’m sure that Ruth Chatterton didn’t walk into shooting for Sarah and Son aiming to create one of the most jarring performances ever nominated for Best Actress. In fact, I’m pretty sure she came into it all with a firm understanding of what she wanted to accomplish. And it’s hard to deny her forward-thinking tactic of giving her immigrant Sarah Storm a heavy accent which gradually becomes more and more English-fluent as the film progresses through time. But when it all comes down to it, Chatterton was a very old-school actress; hers is a style of acting that’s plagued with antiquated movements and ways of speaking. When you take this and add the usual schmaltzy/awfully written screenplay that was a staple of practically all early sound films, and then add a method-minded heavy accent as a cherry on top, you are destined to get a performance that might have initially been cutting-edge back in the day…but through the annals of time has morphed into a disaster.  This very strategy was what led to Paul Muni’s work in Black Fury, but Chatterton’s work is the real OG. Watching this performance, I tried to give Chatterton’s accent a benefit of the doubt, but then she’ll recite a line with her voice will be so high, her elocution so bizarre and unfitting (for a dutch woman), and the line will have been so stupid, that there’s no possibly way you can watch the film from an immersed spectator’s point of view; instead, you are subjected to becoming a critic to every type of inconsistency that pops up in the film. With a voice that sounds like the inspiration for Alex Borstein’s Miss Swan, Chatterton deliberately botches her own English (“I think it is not true maybe!”) in the hopes of hitting utmost authenticity. And it’s this very godforsaken accent that fucks up this performance; you might have a heavy moment, such as Sarah finding out that her sister has died, and instead of it being a moment of weight, Chatterton’s hysteria makes it sound completely atrocious. There are times in which Chatterton will speak in the film, and it’ll look as though she’s never acted in her entire life—instead, it looks as though she’s making some sort of strange parody of melodrama, bugging her eyes out on a number of occasions to stare off at something before uttering out a ridiculously operatic line (“Oh God! Don’t you know I am your mother? Your very own mother? Hold me close! Put your arm around me!”). It's all a very affected and self-aware, and is a disaster in every sense of the word. 

Thank you Calum Reed for making Sarah and Son available!

1 comment:

  1. Never saw it, it's not at YouTube, but I'm gonna take your word for it and not seek it. In fact, if I've lived this long without seeing any Chatterton work that damages my esteem for Fran Dodsworth, I'm happy to keep things that way.