Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review: The Light That Failed (1939)

As another example of a film that seems to slip through the cracks among so many produced in the mega movie year of 1939, The Light That Failed is a dramatic gem. Made at Paramount, it featured distinguished actor Ronald Colman, whose appearance in the film continued his recent string of historical costume dramas which included The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and If I Were King (1938).
The failing light of the title was caused by blindness and the blindness caused by a blow to the head of the films' main character Dick Heldar (Colman) during a military skirmish in the Sudan in the late 19th century. The Light That Failed tells of painter/soldier Heldar whose battle wound blindness doesn't show itself until several years later, after the artist has established his reputation and gained creative fame in London. Riding the laurels of his first successful works, Heldar begins to paint popular prettified pictures depicting his time in the Sudan, regal, bloodless paintings for British periodicals. His faithful friend and fellow fighter on the foreign battlefield, Torpenhow (Walter Huston), insists that he stop wasting his talent and get back into the painting game with some serious work. Torpenhow soon introduces Heldar to callous cockney streetwalker Bessie (Ida Lupino) whom he finds faint from starvation out in the gutter. The painter sees in her gaunt, dark desperation, the inspiration he needs to paint his masterpiece, "Melancholia." It is during this process that he realizes he is going blind. Can he finish the work which could immortalize him in time?

Based on a novel by Rudyard Kipling, it was one of several Kipling inspired films made in the late 1930's including Wee Willie Winkie and Captains Courageous (both 1937) and Gunga Din, also made in 1939. Kipling's works were male driven and full of adventure. Accordingly, The Light That Failed was produced and directed by the macho man's man William Wellman, who excelled at male dominated films. But be not fooled, the films strong female was no shrinking violet. Ida Lupino, like Ronald Colman, was British born. She came to Hollywood in 1934, but it wasn't until this film that she burst upon the scene and the following year, she would begin her long tenure at Warner Brothers, where she would make her cinematic mark. Not a glamorous role by any means, Ida's Bessie chews up the scenery and steal every scene she's in. By contrast, the other female lead, Muriel Angelus, who plays Heldar's childhood love as an adult, is both bland and forgettable.

A true professional, Walter Huston consistently gave excellent performances throughout his career. As Torpenhow, his sense of compassion and camaraderie toward his friend is touching and thoroughly believable. As he thrusts his foot through a newly finished painting for which his artistic friend will receive a pretty penny but is creatively beneath him, we know we are witnessing "tough love." Finally, the always debonair Ronald Colman is suave as the doomed artist. Colman played his affliction with much panache, not pity, no Dark Victory here!

The Light That Failed is not Ronald Colman's best film nor his most memorable, but when taking motion picture inventory of 1939, it needs to be on the honorable mention list. In comparison, it holds up just as well if not better than some of the better known, more easily accessible movies of that illustrious year.

11 comments:

  1. Sounds fantastic! I love Ida Lupino and have never heard of this film. Thanks!

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  2. Sounds great Rupert. I haven't heard of this one and you know how much I love Ronald in anything. I have to look out for this one. Great review as always!

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  3. WOW! This is a prime example of why I love this blog--shining a spotlight on films you love that don't get attention. Besides which I can see others are now inspired to watch it. It has been years since I myself saw this one & but there are some very emotional moments in this movie that I still recall vividly. So glad you left certain points out of your synopsis. New viewers will appreciate that a lot!

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  4. Oh, a Wellman film I hadn't heard of! Sounds awfully interesting. Great review!

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  5. I had no idea that Ida Lupino was british.
    Did you by chance see My Son Jack on PBS a few months back? It was a film about Kipling and his son who fought in WWI.

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  6. I really like the sound of this one, a film I'd never heard of which sounds fantastic from your description - I want to see more of both Ida Lupino and Ronald Colman so this sounds like a must. Did you know that Kipling himself was almost blind? I must track down a copy! Thanks, Rupert. Judy

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  7. Rupert, like previous respondents, I am incredulous that I have never heard of this movie! I am going to Netflix right now to see if they have it. Wonderful review!

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  8. I love love Ronald Coleman, and No I have seen this flick.
    thank you Rupert.

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  9. I haven't seen it but I will. Thanks. Very nice review.

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  10. Growing up in Southern California in the sixties and seventies, one of the local L.A. stations had an afternoon movie hosted by a man named Ben Hunter (the Ben Hunter matinee). Watching the films he hosted introduced me to many classic films for the first time, including this one,which I probably haven't seen since that time. I remember liking it though.

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