[The following is the Skeins' contribution to the Classic Movies Blog Association's Classic Films of 1939 Blogathon, which runs from May 15th to May 17th. The inspiration behind this blogathon came from ClassicBecky of ClassicBecky's Brain Food and Page of My Love of Old Hollywood. For a list of the participants and all the movies to be reviewed, the CMBA has a list available here.]
"We must love one another or die..." ~ September 1, 1939 by W.H. Auden
Seven decades since 1939, the glow from the films released that year still inspires admiration. As the world faced the advent of World War II in September, audiences flocked to see the Romances, Gangsters, Westerns, Adventures, Musicals and Comedies that dominated the screen in a series of imaginative and masterful movies such as Love Affair, Stagecoach, Gunga Din, The Wizard of Oz, and Ninotchka, among others. With such a surfeit of creativity to choose from in these beautifully crafted films, dominated by the overwhelming Gone With the Wind, how could a small movie about the events in one fictional family compete with all that glamour?
We Are Not Alone was a Warner Brothers film that slipped into theaters two days after Thanksgiving and just three weeks before the blockbuster GWTW opened in New York. Not surprisingly, it was lost in the shuffle, despite opening at the high profile Radio City Music Hall, though I'm not sure if that cavernous theater was the ideal locale for such an intimate story. Today this little-known, flawed, but engrossing movie still awaits re-discovery by audiences. Not available on VHS or DVD commercially, this film is occasionally broadcast on TCM. In order to examine We Are Not Alone, plot details will be discussed below, so please expect some spoilers.
|Above: Paul Muni in We Are Not Alone (1939).|
Muni's doctor is a vaguely whimsical figure, pedaling around his parochial world, almost another "Mr. Chips," a man whose life seems to be happening to him while he woolgathers. Between patients, who include an inebriated lower class crone and his own wife, he proceeds dreamily, going about his business on his bicycle and amusing his beloved son and playing his violin in his spare time. His air of vagueness becomes most acute when he interacts with his taller, more assertive wife, who dictates to her family while quoting her Archdeacon brother's pronouncements as though they were gospel. The tenderness in Newcombe blooms in the presence of his son, and when he encounters a lost girl in need of protection.
Muni's character endures a tense domestic life that becomes more complex when he treats a waifish young Austrian dancer appearing with a third rate troupe in a regional theater. Leni Krafft (Jane Bryan), who has attempted suicide after falling and hurting herself, exudes a forlorn but infectious gaiety, responding warmly to any kindness extended to her. Touched by her lonely situation, the doctor tries to coax her back to life by offering her a position as a governess to his young son, Gerald (Raymond Severn). The boy's life has been overshadowed by his domineering mother, Jessica (Flora Robson), whose continual criticism of the sensitive boy has left the under-sized child high-strung and nervous. Young Gerald responds instinctively to the playful, sweet-tempered girl and the change in his father since she came to stay in their home.
|Above: Jane Bryan with Paul Muni in We Are Not Alone (1939).|
Unfortunately, for all, the young woman's presence in her household aggravates her naturally suspicious nature. When Jessica Newcombe learns of Leni's theatrical background, her sense of propriety is offended. She prepares to send her son to stay with a relative, an Archdeacon in the church, until Leni is "removed from the household." In an ironic twist, as the anxious boy learns that he will be separated from his new friend and his understanding father, he knocks over a bottle of his mother's aspirin by accident, smashing it. Afraid that he will be chided for his clumsiness when his mother discovers his mistake, the overwrought child transfers the spilled pills into another bottle, unaware that it already contains strong sleeping pills.
|Above: Jane Bryan and Flora Robson in We Are Not Alone (1939).|
Ultimately, when war between Britain and Germany is declared in July, 1914, the Austrian girl faces imprisonment as an enemy alien since she is a native of one of the Central Powers countries. The doctor, appalled to see people he has known all his life suddenly turning on their neighbors of Germanic descent, hastily tries to take Leni to a train that would carry her to a boat going away from English shores, but they are eventually intercepted by the police. Tragically, Jessica Newcombe, when suffering from a headache, has taken the pills in the bottle. Thanks in part to prejudice against the Austrian girl whipped up by wartime hatred, the doctor and the governess are accused of conducting an affair and murdering his wife so that they can be together. The film, which takes its time building to this pivotal moment, avoids sentimental melodrama throughout the sometimes talky script. All the characters are remarkably articulate, though they are not always aware of their real feelings, an aspect of the film underpinned by the effective restraint of each member of the cast.
This restraint is especially welcome in the beautifully nuanced, understated work of Paul Muni in this film, since he is sometimes an actor who could fall into a hamminess that makes him difficult to watch for modern viewers. The actor, whose reputation in the '30s and '40s classified him as one of the few seriously respected figures in movies, wears a mustache for his role of the provincial doctor, but in large part he is much more effective here without any of the cumbersome makeup he donned in other roles. The sometimes fustian manner that Muni adopted when playing great men of science, letters and history such as Pasteur, Zola and Juarez is also happily absent, as the actor gives one of his most direct, naturalistic performances playing a man whose self-discovery undoes him even as he frees himself from all the pettiness he has lived with for so long. Muni, who would leave Warner Brothers after making this movie, was one of the few actors in that period who had script approval. This role was one he would always cite as his favorite part in films.
When producer Henry Blanke first presented the notoriously picky Muni with the script in its draft state, the actor dismissed the treatment with the comment, "It's chicken shit," as he returned it with disgust. After allowing James Hilton, who had recently signed a three year contract with the studio, to go to work on the screenplay with veteran scenarist Milton Krims, Muni was heartened by the results, commenting "Ah! Now--chicken salad!" Ultimately, the literate script that was translated to film could be interpreted on several levels: as a personal tragedy or as an allegory for the situation that society faced in 1939, just as it did in 1914.
|Above: James Hilton at work on the script for We Are Not Alone (1939).|
|Above: Flora Robson as Jessica Newcombe in We Are Not Alone (1939).|
The brilliant character actress, who would be offered a seven year contract by Warner Brothers that she would refuse, had appeared in British films, gracing several prestigious Alexander Korda films such as Fire Over England, playing a fiery and intelligent Elizabeth I, as she would later do in Warner's The Sea Hawk as part of a three picture deal with the studio. Incredibly, Robson eventually played George Raft's mother in the crime flick, Invisible Stripes, as part of this agreement, even though she was one year younger than Raft. "I'm the sort who never looked young," she explained, "and it was quite obvious I would not be successful until I was past 30." (She was 36 and 37 during the filming of Invisible Stripes and We Are Not Alone).
With her plain features and wolfish blue eyes that could easily change from tenderness to venomous, Robson understood that she was not to be a star in films, though she found more leading and supporting roles on stage, which gave her more scope and satisfaction. "The people in Hollywood," she discovered, "find it very difficult to understand the English actor's off-hand attitude towards the film industry." While she was eager to return to Britain, the dearth of theater offers she encountered there led her to consider work in the film capital again, leading to this film. The actress was also actively pursuing stage roles, and made her critically hailed Broadway debut in Ladies in Retirement* in 1940, shortly after completing filming of We Are Not Alone.
|Above: Flora Robson & Paul Muni in We Are Not Alone (1936).|
Her previous American film role had been in the well-received Wuthering Heights (1939), playing the part of the housekeeper, Ellen. It is her voice that narrates the story, blending her character's compassion and insight into Heathcliff and Cathy's tormented lives into the film's narrative. That experience, which she described as "not pleasant," impressed her with the status consciousness and stratification dividing leading and supporting players as well as the crews in Hollywood. Most distressing of all, when trying to enter the Goldwyn lot when scheduled to film, Robson had been refused entry more than once by guards who assumed that the ordinary looking woman in front of him was a "gatecrasher." Just prior to accepting the role of Paul Muni's wife in We Are Not Alone, Robson had turned down an offer to play Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) due to her desire to avoid being typecast as a domestic in the future. The actress would regret her choice ultimately, since, as she recalled, "Mr. Hitchcock never called again." While she regretted that missed opportunity, Flora cited Muni as her favorite co-star on film, (she named Robert Donat as her finest partner on stage).
|Paul Muni with Raymond Severn in We Are Not Alone (1939).|
|Jane Bryan in We Are Not Alone (1939).|
The petite Miss Haas, whose innocent, gamine charm as a performer had enhanced numerous German films and some British productions seemed an ideal choice for the part of the vulnerable Viennese girl. After living in Hollywood for three years without working after leaving Europe to escape Nazism, the actress had been under contract to everyone from Harry Cohn to Ernst Lubitsch, living in a kind of creative limbo while waiting for a project--any project--to come to fruition. Approved by Warner Brothers, Haas actually played the role of Leni for two weeks, though the emotional demands of the part reportedly led to a nervous breakdown.** In a bind at this stage, and searching for a quick study who could hold her own opposite Muni while affecting an Austrian accent; it was Bette Davis who recommended her friend and cast mate from four films (Marked Woman, Kid Galahad, The Sisters and The Old Maid). When asked one time if she believed that the neophyte Jane Bryan could handle an emotional role, Davis was quoted as saying that "Last time I played with her, I had to hide her face in a pillow to keep her from stealing my scenes."
|Jane Bryan with Paul Muni in We Are Not Alone (1939).|
Fortunately for Bryan, she was also sensitively directed by Goulding, allowing her to give a shimmering performance, expressing her character's fears, warmth and deepening emotions throughout the film with her lithe movements and gentle voice. During the production, Bryan grew in the part that earned her notices that described her contribution to the film as "a surprise and a delight." Her character gradually becomes the center of the Newcombe home as she appears to warm herself before the affection she receives from Gerald and Newcombe. In her later scenes, during the murder trial that she and the doctor endure, you can see her shrinking back into herself as the case is built against her and her employer. When the Crown Counsel (Henry Daniell, who is superb and merciless as the prosecutor), bellows at Muni in the dock, "Do you or do you not love Leni Krafft?" every word seems like a blow to her trembling spirit. Yet, when Newcombe pauses, repeating "Do I...love Leni?" you realize that this is the first moment he and Leni have faced this unspoken fact. His face reflects his sudden realization. He appears to have had an inner weight lifted, and his face becoming suffused with emotion as he answers, "Why...I hadn't thought of it...but of course I love her." It is a remarkably moving yet simple moment as he finally understands his previously inarticulate feeling for Leni, tacitly shared between them as he damns them both further by telling the essential truth.
|Paul Muni being cross-examined by Henry Daniell in We Are Not Alone (1939).|
|Jane Bryan off-camera in 1939.|
Despite the critical recognition and a studio buildup in high gear, during 1939, Jane was increasingly doubtful about what path she should take in the future after falling in love with industrialist Justin Dart. When her mentor Bette Davis was informed of the young woman's dilemma, she firmly advised the shy, reticent and self-critical girl to marry and forget the movies as a pursuit. Jane Bryan became Mrs. Dart on December 31, 1939, abandoning her career on the screen. Warner Brothers, in a particularly graceless moment toward an erstwhile employee who was breaking her contract, issued a statement to the press that the union would not last. They remained together for the next 45 years, parting when Dart died in 1984. Bryan never really looked back, describing her life as "one of adventure", though she disliked public speaking. "I am very shy. I think the shyness is caused by my being inarticulate. And I'm plagued by a lack of self-confidence." Despite her diffidence, Bryan did later describe something of her experiences while making this movie. Filming, which had begun in July, 1939, extended into September. By that time, the cast, featuring several English subjects, kept a radio just off the set in order to follow unfolding events following the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1st, 1939. "There was a very tense atmosphere on the set, Jane recalled. "We'd finish doing a scene that was set at the start of the First World War, then, after [Goulding] called "Cut!," go over to the radio and listen to the current war news from Europe, which paralleled the film we were doing."
When We Are Not Alone was acquired by Warner's shortly after publication of the novel in 1937, newspapers first announced that the film would be directed by Michael Curtiz, though Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel, The Razor's Edge, Nightmare Alley) was eventually given the task to direct, in the same year that he oversaw Dark Victory and The Old Maid, both with the reigning doyenne of the screen, Bette Davis. Strangely, today people often refer to these and other movies such as The Dawn Patrol (1938) crafted by Eddie Goulding as "a Bette Davis picture," or an "Errol Flynn movie," with little notice taken of this seamless craftsman. Given the sometimes less than perfect scripts he was given to direct, his professionalism and talent for tastefully crafting potentially sentimental or melodramatic material into hauntingly effective films proved invaluable throughout his career.
|Paul Muni with Alan Napier in We Are Not Alone (1939).|
The impact of this movie resonated for me long after seeing this film. When reading the lines below from British-born poet W. H. Auden's "September 1, 1939,"*** the language seemed to echo this film's somber message, written to mark the start of another world war: "Faces along the bar/ Cling to their average day/ The lights must never go out, /The music must always play, /All the conventions conspire/ To make this fort assume/ The furniture of home; /Lest we should see where we are, /Lost in a haunted wood, /Children afraid of the night /Who have never been happy or good."
The Trailer for We Are Not Alone:
* Edward Percy and Reginald Denham's Broadway hit, Ladies in Retirement ran from March to August in 1940, earning Flora Robson stellar reviews for her portrayal of a woman who murders her employer to ensure that her mentally disturbed sisters kept a roof over their heads. The actress, who hoped to be considered for the film when the rights were purchased by Columbia Pictures, was reportedly crushed when her role was taken by a youthful powerhouse, Ida Lupino, who was brilliant in the part.
**Dolly Haas recovered from her breakdown, going on to a long theatrical career with only occasional film and television appearances. A good account of her career and private life can be found here.
***The full text of Auden's "September 1, 1939" can be seen here.
An earlier post found here on this blog reviews the film adaptation of James Hilton's Knight Without Armour (1937).
Babington, Bruce, British Stars and Stardom: from Alma Taylor to Sean Connery, Manchester University Press, 2001.
Cinema: The New Pictures, Time Magazine, Dec. 4, 1939.
Jane Bryan Obituary, The Independent, May 22, 2009.
Kennedy, Matthew, Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory, University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
Movies: Jane Bryan, Life Magazine, Nov. 27, 1939.
Nugent, Frank S., Paul Muni and Jane Bryan in We Are Not Alone, The New York Times, Dec. 1, 1939.
Nissen, Axil, Actresses of a Certain Character, McFarland, 2006.
Sellmer, Robert, Super Druggist Dart, Life Magazine, Aug. 5, 1946.