Tuesday, August 5, 2014

THE FLAME WITHIN (1935)

Psychiatry. Unrequited love. Emotional adultery. Clown costumes. The Flame Within is a veritable textbook of classic movie genres. 

Dr. Mary White, apparently confusing her occupation of psychiatrist for relationship counselor, is treating Linda Bolton for suicidal tendencies, and Linda's fiance Jack Kerry for alcoholism. Now there's a fun couple! The good news: Linda and Jack are eventually cured. The bad news: Jack and Dr. White fall in love. Ha! Better get out those razor blades, Linda!



Paging Dr. Bozo, paging Dr. Bozo...
Writer/director Edmund Goulding appears to have consulted Symbolism for Dummies when putting together The Flame Within. Mary White's name recalls both the name of Jesus' mother and the color of purity. Dr. Gordon Phillips, the man hopelessly in love with her, dresses as an especially sad-eyed clown at a costume ball. Jack Kerry, who sobers up to become an inventor, develops an inflatable airline seat, symbolic of the kind of plot device that actors were paid to deliver with a straight face.

Advice for the man on the make:
get rid of the costume before you put the
moves on a woman.
Despite its soap opera aura, The Flame Within features some fascinatingly progressive notions, not the least of which is a woman who prefers her profession over marriage. In fact, Dr. White alarmingly considers psychiatry "a religion," perhaps allowing her to take a tax exemption. For doubtful patients like Jack Kerry, however, she refers to herself as a "nerve specialist." Make up your mind, lady!

Pining in the background for Dr. White is the older Dr. Phillips, who appears to have taken the Hippocratic oath from Hippocrates himself.  Perhaps most startling for its time, Dr. White is herself several years older than her object of lust, Jack Kerry. Unintended laugh alert: somebody refers to him as John Kerry, another fellow with a penchant of collecting rich, older women.

Director Edmund Goulding, Louis Hayward
and Ann Harding (Dr. Mary White) look
for a greater ecstasy than themselves,
and fail.
Seeing that The Flame Within was a product of 1935 Hollywood, all this refreshing progressiveness flies out the window in the last reel. Having returned from a trip to Europe, Kerry wants to dump Linda for Dr. White, who's equally in love with him. But Dr. White, taking that psychiatry-as-religion jazz seriously, advises him that doing something good for someone who needs him -- like staying with the wife whom he doesn't love -- will provide a "greater ecstasy" than his own happiness. 

While there might be an argument to be made for that schlocky slice of philosophy, most people would reply Buuuuuuullshit. I mean, tell that to Louis Hayward, the actor playing Kerry, who was married twice, all the while carrying on a long-term affair with Noel Coward. Tell that to anyone involved in the making this movie. That "greater ecstasy" routine was just a sop to both the censors and the saps in the audience who were living lives that couldn't compare to those they saw in glossy, upscale M-G-M pictures like this.

Most disappointingly is The Flame Within's final moment, when Dr. White decides to take her own advice, and announce that she's going to give up her profession. What will you do, her wannabe-paramour Dr. Phillips asks. Turning to him soulfully, she whispers, "You tell me." While their colleague Dr. Frazier smiles approvingly at their sudden engagement, the lesson for women is to marry a guy you don't love only because he needs you. Just for laughs, somebody please run this movie for Gloria Steinem.

"Can you treat my daughter
once she comes of age?"
It's appropriate Linda Bolton -- who tries to commit suicide a second time by jumping out of Dr. White's window --  is played by Maureen O'Sullivan. During one of the two costume ball scenes, she wears a blonde wig -- and, for a moment, becomes the spitting image of her equally-nutty daughter Mia Farrow, who's had, um, relationship issues of her own. Until her final moment onscreen, O'Sullivan's character is quite unlikeable throughout The Flame Within, making you wish she'd successfully jump out the window for a change.



What keeps The Flame Within worth watching is Ann Harding as Dr. White. Unlike her drag-queen contemporaries Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Harding doesn't indulge in histrionics. Her subtle, empathetic performance is so different from everyone else's that at times she appears to have come from several decades in the future. No wonder she's been pretty much forgotten -- there's nothing to parody. 

Harding, too, might have been more self-aware than the character she plays. Finally succumbing to Dr. Phillips' amorous entreaties, the expression on her face is anything but ecstasy, probably unnoticed by audiences 80 years ago, leaving one with an uneasy feeling as the movie fades out. There's plenty of drama in The Flame Within, alright, but not all of it intended.

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