Tuesday, October 29, 2013

WHOM THE GODS DESTROY (1934)

Many successful businessmen want to make the road in life easier for their children. John Forrester, the lead character in Whom the Gods Destroy, is no different. A theatrical impresario who would have made David Merrick look like an usher, Forrester works day by day to make his son, Jack, a great playwright. But get this -- John Forrester is dead! And yet, he isn't. However... wait, let's back up a bit.

John Forrester is sailing on an ocean liner that collides with an abandoned ship. Bravely (stupidly?) offering up his life jacket to a woman he doesn't know, Forrester has a panic attack when the images of his wife and five year-old son appear before him. Naturally, this gives him the impetus to grab an abandoned fur coat, pass himself off as a woman and make his way onto a lifeboat. And don't tell me you wouldn't do the same thing, guys, even if you didn't have hallucinations of your wife and kid. 

As if.

By the time Forrester quietly makes it back to New York, he discovers that he's been hailed as a hero for sacrificing his life in order to save another's. Fearful of being found out as a phony, he changes his identity, grows a beard, and works at a diner for five years, then at a puppet theatre for another twelve. (Drowning at sea or working at a puppet theatre for over a decade -- which sounds like a worse fate to you?) Meanwhile, the now-grown son Jack quits college in order to follow in his father's footsteps by writing, producing and directing a Broadway show. Only the difference is, Jack's play sucks, big time. Forrester introduces himself to Jack as a friend of his father, and urges him to try again. Summoning all his talent, Forrester helps to shape Jack's new play into a triumph, never once revealing his real identity. Like anyone in the theatre would ever refuse credit for anything.

You can tell he's a Communist;
he's got a cool haircut and hipster overcoat.
Whom the Gods Destroy attempts to cram something of an epic story in its 70-minute running time, going off in several different directions before settling into the father-and-son thread. The shipboard scenes promise an interesting subplot featuring an Eastern European refugee, Peter Korotoff, who spits on Forrester in disgust. "You are a capitalist!" Korotoff exclaims (like Forrester didn't know already). "Men of money should be destroyed!" Forrester laughs it off, observing, "Some day we'll read a news item about him saying he's been hanged." Ah ha, I thought, we're going to see the commie swinging from a noose at the climax! Well, no. When he's later prevented by Forrester from escaping the sinking ship with the women and children, Korotoff pulls a knife on him, only to be shot by the Captain. His whole purpose, then, is to provide the cruel irony of Forrester successfully pulling off the same stunt. Commies and capitalists, they're all the same.

That's no lady!
The question any right-thinking person would have at this point is Who the heck would confuse this guy for a woman, even with a fur coat pulled up to his nose? If his ample girth wouldn't have been enough of a tip-off, surely his haircut, tuxedo pants and dress shoes should have been a dead giveaway. Only when carried off the lifeboat in a small Irish village is Forrester found out. Slapped around by the angry townsfolk, Forrester is condemned as a coward. Personally, I thought it was a pretty clever ruse that went unappreciated by these hicks, but that's the New Yorker in me. Only one villager cares for the sickly Forrester, restoring him to health over the next several months. Together, they cook up a fancy tale explaining how Forrester survived the sinking, thus allowing him to return home with his head held high and his gut still hanging low.

Ah ha, I thought once again. Forrester is going to be treated to a hero's welcome by family and strangers alike, only to look nervously over his shoulder for any witnesses during the next six reels!

No, this is definitely not a headline
he wants to see.
And again, I was proven wrong. Once Forrester gets a look at the plaque outside his theatre proclaiming his alleged shipboard sacrifice, his mind goes into zany-montage mode as he realizes what would happen if the truth were to come out. Stumbling around in the rain -- you knew it would be raining, right? -- and mumbling to himself, Forrester is picked up by a cop and taken to court, where the judge throws him in the pokey for, well, stumbling around in the rain and mumbling to himself. If that was a crime, I'd have served a life sentence by now.

Keep it up, laughing boy, see how
funny things are when the reviews
come out.
And here's where the story really falls apart. John Forrester has been made out to be the biggest thing on Broadway outside of Sophie Tucker's ass. Playwright, director, producer. His plays run at the John Forrester Theatre. The concession stand probably sells Forrester Gummi Bears. Yet no one recognizes him when returns to New York! From that point on, my heartstrings were plucked without success, thanks to that enormous plot hole. All there was left to revel in was the sight of Jack Forrester -- played by Robert Young -- getting the smirk wiped off his smug face when his play bombs on opening night.


Well, one person eventually recognizes Forrester -- his wife, Margaret, to whom Jack insists on introducing on the opening night of his second, successful play. While Jack goes out for Champagne, John and Margaret reunite for the first time in almost two decades. In a genuinely touching moment, they reignite the love they once shared, while Margaret desperately tries to understand her husband's motives. John convinces her that their son must never know the truth, yet promises to see her from time to time "for the few years we have left." 

Ol' Sparky, circa 1934.
At that point, Whom the Gods Destroy abruptly came to an end, awkwardly cutting to the 1950s Columbia Pictures logo rather than its 1934 incarnation seen at the beginning. Something smelled rotten in Burbank, so a little investigation was in order. I discovered that apparently all of the prints of Whom the Gods Destroy currently in circulation leave out the scene that originally followed afterwards: John, suitcase in hand, sneaking away from his family forever, believing that any kind of a relationship with his wife is impossible under the circumstances. Thus I was deprived of an unhappy ending for which I was craving. Maybe if Columbia Pictures made the complete Whom the Gods Destroy available legally instead of forcing screwballs like me to troll the "grey market" for my fix, we wouldn't be disappointed by someone's scissor-happy hackwork. 

The title for its Swedish
release translated as
The Great Disaster,
leaving it wide open for
wisecracks galore.
As with other pre-code movies on this blog -- Why Men Fight, Guilty as Hell, The Sin of Nora Moran -- I was attracted to Whom the Gods Destroy initially due to its unusual title, perhaps expecting some pseudo-spiritual melodrama. I suppose it's rather churlish to expect greatness from what turned out to be nothing more than a big fat soap opera with a Broadway angle. And, as with soap operas in general, realism isn't what its creators were going after. But by no means is Whom the Gods Destroy a bad movie. The sinking of the ship is appropriately terrifying, featuring all-too realistic panic and, as with Forrester's later scene in New York, a surprisingly lengthy montage. Walter Connolly's performance as Forrester is emotionally believable even when the story isn't. (Even less believable is that the portly actor was only 47 years old at the time.) As usual, Robert Young is Robert Young, which isn't necessarily the worst thing. 

Pulling the
Big deal -- you can still see the strings!
strings -- of the marionettes -- are the Yale Puppeteers, a theatrical troupe established in 1922 by graduates from, of course, the University of Michigan. (This was apparently before truth-in-advertising laws went into effect.) Extra points are awarded to legendary character actor Akim Tamiroff in his brief but semi-pivotal role as the Commie. 
And just to show how Broadway has changed over the years, the curtain-closing scene of Jack's successful play consists of the lead character blowing her brains out on a church altar. I don't see a play like that opening in Broadway's Disneyfied world any time soon. Bring on the marionettes, boys!

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