- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2009

Charles Laughton would be the obvious top choice if one compiled a “What If?” list of inimitable, accomplished actors who directed only one movie in the course of a long career.

In his case, I’m also presuming that a sustained directing career would have been desirable. The movie in question, “The Night of the Hunter,” seemed to have the makings of a classic spinetingler when it was new, in 1955. It has aged well and remains a uniquely compelling and satisfying thriller half a century later.

Moreover, it suggests that Mr. Laughton, though a late starter at 55, might have proved something of a virtuoso behind the camera. The subject matter — an allegorical murder melodrama set in rural America during the Great Depression — was far removed from his most typical vehicles as an acting virtuoso, whether in historical, grotesque or comic roles. Unfortunately, “Night of the Hunter” wasn’t successful enough to encourage prompt encores for Mr. Laughton as a movie director, so he returned to theatrical projects and tailor-made film roles (in “Witness for the Prosecution,” “Spartacus” and “Advise and Consent”) until his death in 1962.

The Laughton beau geste had been anticipated about 12 years earlier by another distinctive English actor, the now somewhat forgotten Clive Brook (1887-1974). A popular leading man of the 1920s and ‘30s, he had embodied ideals of romantic-heroic reticence for Josef von Sternberg in two masterful films, “Underworld” in 1927 and “Shanghai Express” in 1932. Mr. Book also portrayed Sherlock Holmes on two occasions during the same period and epitomized an ideal of upper-class fortitude in “Cavalcade,” the 1933 Oscar-winning film derived from Noel Coward’s play.

A Hollywood fixture for about a decade starting in 1924, Mr. Brook returned to England in the mid-1930s and eased gracefully into middle-aged heroic guises, eventually as senior officer types with the outbreak of World War II. Then, in 1943, he took a seemingly incongruous turn for the facetious by mounting an untimely movie adaptation of a dated theatrical farce, Frederick Lonsdale’s “On Approval,” which had debuted in 1927 but derived from a Lonsdale flop of about 20 years earlier titled “The Follies of the Foolish.”

It amused Mr. Brook, functioning as producer, director, screenwriter and leading man, to backdate the source material by another decade or so. He set the absurd plot, which strands two couples at a Scottish estate in order to sort out their potential compatibility as marital partners, in the 1890s. He also played fast and loose with the text, frequently improving on the playwright’s quips and epigrams by judicious editing and tinkering. A playful, time-warped methodology is evident from the outset, when aerial combat footage is suddenly interrupted by a narrator’s disenchanted voice: “Oh, dear, is this another war picture?”

A second misleading follow-up introduces images of motorcycle races, motorboat races and jitterbugging dancers before the narrator undermines them: “No, this isn’t what we want, either.” What is wanted, he decides, is a return to “Grandmama’s day” and an evocation of what it might be like if she we were attending a play of Naughty Nineties vintage.

At that point, Mr. Brook launches into his re-enactment of “On Approval,” accentuating quick changes of scene and conversational highlights with himself, Beatrice Lillie, Googie Withers and Roland Culver as the principals, costumed by Cecil Beaton with a humorous luxury and sophistication that anticipated his later triumph as a designer on “My Fair Lady.”

In its agreeably ridiculous way, “On Approval” was also envisioned as a wartime morale booster and patriotic affirmation just as sincerely as Noel Coward’s “In Which We Serve” or Laurence Olivier’s production of “Henry V.” The compliment was evidently appreciated at home, although British censors thought the level of innuendo racy enough to merit an “A,” or “adults only,” rating, a precaution that seems exceedingly quaint 65 years later.

Americans also responded positively when “On Approval” was imported early in 1945. At 77 minutes, it doesn’t wear out a deliberately artificial and trifling welcome. Contradicting his own image as a figure of dignity and decorum, Mr. Brook uncorked a fondness for phantasmagoric nonsense, particularly in the concluding episodes that invoke dream states and meddle with Mr. Lonsdale’s matchmaking priorities. It’s as if Clive Brook were recalling some of the tendencies of the Marx Brothers comedies made at Paramount when he was also one of the studio’s contract stars.

In retrospect, “On Approval” has so much in common with the best English film comedies of the postwar years — not just the obvious example, Anthony Asquith’s film version of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but also the early Ealing classics with Alec Guinness such as “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “Kind Hearts and Coronets” — that it’s surprising Mr. Brook remained on the sideline as a humorous resource and elder statesman.

“On Approval” was his first and last movie as a film director. Even his acting appearances on screen dwindled away, despite the fact that his preposterous Duke of Bristol in “On Approval” seems an authoritative impression of a screwball snob.

John Huston did persuade Mr. Brook to come out of retirement to play a small role in “The List of Adrian Messenger” 20 years after “On Approval” was made. But it would appear that imponderable opportunities were lost when the Brook directing career ended prematurely with one credit, at the age of 56, setting an example destined to be repeated by Charles Laughton. Watching their one-shot gems now, you’re persuaded that there had to be more where that came from.

TITLE: “On Approval”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (originally released in 1943 in the United Kingdom, decades before the advent of the film rating system; sexual innuendo within a Victorian social setting)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by Clive Brook. Screenplay by Mr. Brook, based on the 1927 play by Frederick Lonsdale. Cinematography by Claude Friese-Greene. Art direction by Tony Morahan. Costume design by Cecil Beaton. Music by William Alwyn.

RUNNING TIME: 77 minutes

DVD EDITION: Image Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.image- entertainment.com

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