Monday, August 4, 2014

The Man Who Lost Himself (1941)

Director: Edward Ludwig                                 Writer: Eddie Moran
Film Score: Hans J. Salter                              Cinematography: Victor Milner
Starring: Kay Francis, Brian Aherne, Henry Stephenson and S.Z. Sakall

Universal, in addition to their monster movies, was also well known for comedy as the studio that made some of the finest films by W.C. Fields and began the film careers of Abbott and Costello. But what are less well known today are their programmer comedies made during World War Two. They’re charming, and many of them feature Kay Francis, who was now a freelance artist after successfully suing Warner Brothers to gain her freedom in 1939. The Man Who Lost Himself is a classic story of switched identities and features one of the best performances of Brian Aherne’s career. The screenplay was loosely based on the novel by H. DeVere Stackpoole, which had been made into a film in 1920 by Selznick Pictures and is now presumed lost. The project had been put together in 1939 by Leslie Howard, as an RKO vehicle featuring himself in the dual role. But once the war started his financial backers in England pulled out and his producer, Lawrence W. Fox, sold the property to Universal.

The film starts in the middle of a storm, with Brian Aherne escaping from a mental institution. He catches a cab to the Savoy Hotel and there he meets . . . Brian Aherne. It seems that he and another man staying at the hotel are lookalikes. Crazy Aherne is waiting for his wife, Kay Francis, to meet him there, and when she arrives with the family lawyer, Henry Stephenson, in tow he instantly gets paranoid and frantic. Hotel Aherne, on the other hand, has just been cheated by his business partner and decides to get drunk, and that gives Crazy Aherne an idea. He takes Hotel Aherne out on the town for a drinking binge and then sends him back to his own house, knowing that when he protests being someone else they’ll simply thing he’s being crazy. Sure enough, when butler S.Z. Sakall wakes him up the next morning and he acts like he doesn’t know where he is, every one of the servants as well as his sister believes he’s gone off the deep end. Crazy Aherne, it turns out, is rich. But unable to take the confusion, Hotel Aherne leaves and accidentally runs into Kay Francis in the street, where she implores him to go back home. Things take a turn for the serious, however, when Hotel Aherne learns that Crazy Aherne has died. Now he can’t go back to his old life and everyone in his new life thinks he’s crazy for saying he’s someone else.

One he makes the decision to go ahead and be Crazy Aherne, Hotel Aherne finds out all kinds of things about the man he’s impersonating. Not only is he a philanderer, but he is being blackmailed for it. Kay Francis doesn’t love him anymore but wants to stay married to him for the money, even though she has her own boyfriend. Aherne, however, finds her charming, and his carefree personality makes her fall in love with him again, something he wasn’t prepared for. As stated earlier, Aherne does a tremendous job in the dual role, though he is only onscreen with himself for a few minutes. But his ability to work in the screwball comedy genre is remarkably good and, despite a weak script, his delivery and comedic timing are able to compensate for it quite well. Kay Francis, looking radiant as always, isn’t given a lot to do here. But her seduction scene, with Aherne trying to squirm away so as not to be forced into bed with her under false pretenses, is her finest moment in the film.

The direction by Universal staffer Edward Ludwig is brisk and never lags, and the special effects by John P. Fulton are even better than those he did for Universal’s horror films. Hans Salter provides the appropriate comedy score, and some of the sound effects in the film are priceless. In all, it’s actually quite an accomplished production, and yet apparently received absolutely no publicity when it was released. The great Henry Stephenson appears in only two scenes, but the memorable S.Z. Sakall is masterful as Aherne’s butler, providing all kinds of comedy relief throughout the film. Playing Francis’s boyfriend is Swedish actor Nils Asther, and in a brief role as a bagman for the blackmailer is Marc Lawrence. Though modern audiences seem to rate the film poorly, it’s difficult to understand why. The acting is broad, to be sure, but that is part and parcel of the screwball genre. And there are plenty of moments when the script delivers some great laughs. The Man Who Lost Himself is definitely a neglected gem and deserves to be rediscovered.

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