Sunday, December 13, 2015

Wings of the Morning (1937)

Director: Harold D. Schuster                         Writer: Thomas J. Geraghty
Film Score: Arthur Benjamin                         Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Starring: Annabella Charpentier, Henry Fonda, Leslie Banks and Stewart Rome

Though this is usually touted as the first British film to be shot in color. Wings of the Morning is almost wholly a 20th Century Fox production that just happened to be filmed in Britain. The casting of Henry Fonda was done as a hedge against the possibility that their star, Annabella, was not a hit with U.S. audiences. The French actress began her work in silent films by appearing in Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon, and made the transition to French sound films shortly after. Henry Fonda only accepted the role for the free trip to England, but it turned out to be a fortuitous decision as a group of American tourists visiting the set included the woman who would eventually become his wife. Though the film was successful upon release, it hasn’t aged well over the years and is primarily remembered for its color photography more than the story. The film was one of the last by veteran studio writer Thomas J. Geraghty who had been working in films since the late teens. He was assisted by another veteran, John Meehan, while the film score was composed by Arthur Benjamin, a Brit by way of Australia, who had worked for Alfred Hitchcock during his British period.

The story begins in Ireland in 1890. Soldiers spy a Gypsy camp and try to run them out, but when they insult Annabella, her father, D.J. Williams, hauls one of them off his mount. Before they can respond, lord of the manor Leslie Banks shows up and shoos them off. It’s then that he sees a magnificent horse that Williams owns and asks to buy it, and winds up being charmed by Annabella, proclaiming that the Gypsies can stay there and spending all his time with her. Eventually, the two get married, but when Banks is killed in a riding accident Annabella is unable to inherit the estate and must leave, even though she’s pregnant with their child. The film them jumps ahead fifty years to Spain and, with the civil war in full swing, Irene Vanbrugh as the older Annabella character returns to Ireland and then sends for her granddaughter, Annabella again. After she arrives--still dressed as a man to aid her escape--she needs to get word to her fiancé that she’s safe, and rides off on a prize Gypsy horse, outracing the ones being trained by Henry Fonda on Banks’ former estate. The property is now owned by Stewart Rome, the cousin of Banks who was still a child when he inherited. At this point the film becomes something like Sylvia Scarlet with Annabella sticking to her male disguise with everyone assuming she’s a young man.

The title comes from the name of the horse that Annabella has inadvertently traded to Fonda, not knowing it is from the line of the horse Banks saw decades earlier. Upon leaving after the death of banks, a fortune-teller told her that it would take four generations for the Gypsy blood to be bred out of her family line and make her heir acceptable to the British nobles. The new Annabella is the third generation, as is the horse. The rest of the story centers on the up and down relationship of Annabella and Fonda, as well as his training the horse to run in the Derby. The film itself is pretty staid, and for the country’s first Technicolor prestige picture it’s also pretty underwhelming. Even with the attempt at a generational story line, as well as drawing on the popularity of the Derby in England, at its center the narrative is not very interesting. It also suffers from the inability to understand Annabelle’s accent most of the time, as well as some of the other uncredited cast members. Still, there is a bit of chemistry between Annabella and Fonda onscreen. In fact, she fell in love with him at the beginning of the shoot and it took all of Fonda’s diplomacy to disentangle himself from her, especially after her husband caught wind of it and headed to England to confront him.

Director Harold D. Schuster was actually brought in to replace Glenn Tryon, who was primarily an actor at that time. He had shot the Derby scenes and some of the Irish estate scenes before arguments with producer Robert Kane resulted in his being fired. Schuster was an editor at Fox and was given his first chance to direct in the film. He was assisted by cinematographer Ray Rennahan, who had already shot the Techicolor Becky Sharp two years earlier. And there are some nice moving camera shots, as well as a plethora of second unit montages of Ireland and London, which do look terrific in color and for many British audiences might even make up for the lackluster story. To pad the film even more, plus add to its drawing power, Irish tenor John McCormack was brought in to sing several numbers. For fans of classic Hollywood films there is another notable appearance in the film. A very recognizable Evelyn Ankers plays a bit part as a party guest. Leslie Banks doesn’t have much of an impact on the film as his character dies early on, but Annabella is surprisingly effective in the later half with Fonda. As for the star, his performance is solid, though there’s very little for him to work with. All in all, Wings of the Morning is definitely a lesser film, notable as an example of early Technicolor but not much else.

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