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A Place of One's Own

A Place of One's Own(1945)

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teaser A Place of One's Own (1945)

Based on the novel by Sir Osbert Sitwell, brother of renowned author Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell, A Place of One's Own (1945) is an atmospheric ghost story set in the Edwardian era that marked the directorial debut of Bernard Knowles and reunited the stars of The Man in Grey (1943) James Mason and Margaret Lockwood. The latter title, a gothic melodrama, had been a hit for Gainsborough Pictures, so the studio surmissed that Sitwell's supernatural chiller would have a similar popular appeal. The casting, however, was much more offbeat with the young James Mason, a matinee idol at the time, playing Mr. Smedhurst, a middle age businessman settling into retirement. He hires Annette (Margaret Lockwood) as a female companion for his wife Emilie (Barbara Mullen) at their newly purchased country home but shortly after her arrival there, Annette begins hearing strange voices and noticing odd occurrences.

Unlike The Man in Grey, there is no romantic involvement between the Mason and Lockwood characters. Despite star billing, in fact, Mason functions as more of a supporting character in this eerie tale which revolves around the slow possession of Annette by the ghost of the former owner, a woman who was murdered by her servants for her inheritance. While there is a romantic subplot Annette is courted by the earnest Dr. Selbie (played by Dennis Price) the emphasis is on the young woman's physical and mental deterioration as the house begins to sap her energy and will to live. No medical treatment seems to work or revive her and in desperation Mr. Smedhurst tries to locate Dr. Marsham, the physician who had attended the original owner of the house forty years before and whose name was called out by the delirious Annette.

Like a much more sedate version of The Uninvited (1944), A Place of One's Own is probably too genteel and elegant in its storytelling to appeal to seasoned horror fans. There are no special effects of spectral images or poltergeist activity. Instead the supernatural happenings are restricted to half-heard whispers, cold spots in rooms or Annette being possessed as she plays the piano and channels a favorite song of the previously murdered tenant. There is also much dry humor and an uncritical depiction of the English social class system in its treatment of the Smedhursts, their friends, neighbors and servants.

The film was not a financial success for Gainsborough Pictures and James Mason considered it a flop, writing in his memoirs, "...the blame must be shared by myself and R.J. Minney [the producer] and Bernard Knowles, the director. Knowles deserved his share because he had never got over Citizen Kane [1941] and still thought that it was a shortcut to success if one had the actors play immensely long sequences without any intercutting or covering shots. In Citizen Kane the director could afford to do this because Herman Mankiewicz had revised one strong situation after another. Knowles was not the only one to misapply the technique. The great Hitchcock fumbled with it twice (Under Capricorn [1949] and Rope [1948])."

The film's unpopular reception, however, probably had more to do with miscasting than anything else. Mason admitted, "When I read the script...not only did I enthuse but I even asked that I might be permitted to play the role of the elderly retiree in the story, Mr. Smedhurst. And this is where Minney and I earned our share of the blame. He said yes. Of course it could have turned out a failure even if the most suitable actor in the world had played that part. But the reactions of the top brass at the studio did nothing to allay my own feeling of guilt for having volunteered my services. In any case it was not that I was incapable of turning my hand to a character part, it was just that I had amassed what I always realized was an absurd degree of popularity, and the fan population wanted me to appear only as some heroic young lady-killer; or better-still, ladybasher. I was receiving now an enormous fan mail, much of which I read. And there were frighteningly large numbers who, having seen me play mean roles on the screen, assumed that I was equally mean in my private life. I am sure that I have many tiresome habits but beating up women does not happen to be one of them." The box office hits The Night Has Eyes (1942) and The Man in Grey were partly to blame for establishing this distinctive screen persona for Mason.

A Place of One's Own, on the other hand, casts Mason as a courteous, pragmatic upper class gentleman whose handsome face is buried under layers of not-very-convincing old age makeup. It was a role that was bound to disappoint his female fans and by today's standards, it also provides evidence that Mason could overact and be quite a ham if left to his own devices.

All things considered, A Place of One's Own might not qualify as one of the best supernatural thrillers in British cinema history - Dead of Night (1945) is generally regarded as the high water mark standard but it has its odd charms and diversions. Among them are Margaret Lockwood's beauty and elegance, a spooky cameo appearance by Ernest Thesiger (best known for his eccentric performances in James Whale's The Old Dark House[1932] and Bride of Frankenstein [1935]) and the curiosity value of the barely 36-year-old Mason in an unlikely and almost unrecognizable character role.

Producer: R.J. Minney
Director: Bernard Knowles
Screenplay: Brock Williams; Osbert Sitwell (novel)
Cinematography: Stephen Dade
Art Direction: John Elphick
Music: Hubert Bath
Film Editing: Charles Knott
Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Annette Allenby), James Mason (Mr. Henry Smedhurst), Barbara Mullen (Mrs. Emilie Smedhurst), Dennis Price (Dr. Robert Selbie), Helen Haye (Mrs. Florence Manning-Tutthorn), Michael Shepley (Major Alistair Manning-Tutthorn), Dulcie Gray (Sarah, the Maid), Moore Marriott (George, the Gardener), O.B. Clarence (Perkins), Helen Goss (Rosie, the Barmaid), Edie Martin (The Cook), Gus McNaughton (Police Constable Hargreaves), Muriel George (Nurse), John Turnbull (Sir Roland Jervis), Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Richard Marsham), Henry B. Longhurst (Inspector Barlowe), Clarence Wright (Brighouse), Aubrey Mallalieu (Canon Mowbray).
BW-93m.

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
Before I Forget by James Mason
Odd Man Out: James Mason by
IMDB

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