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In MGM's silver anniversary year of 1949, the studio produced a dozen adaptations of literary works, all given the high-gloss, "prestige production" treatment. None was glossier than That Forsyte Woman (1949), based on the first book of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga, A Man of Property (1906). The saga follows the lives of a wealthy middle-class Victorian family in the early years of the 20th century, and the first book focuses on the marriage of stuffy, rigid Soames Forsyte and his beautiful wife Irene. Irene marries Soames for security, but cannot love him, and the differences between them lead to tragedy. The story puts Victorian stereotypes under the microscope. But for the stars of That Forsyte Woman, the film was all about breaking stereotypes; for Errol Flynn, onscreen, and for Greer Garson, off screen.
Flynn had been one of Warner Brothers' top stars for a dozen years, a swashbuckler, ladies' man and carouser both on and off screen. But his years of personal excess were beginning to take their toll. And critics and Flynn himself were growing tired of his dashing-rogue screen image. When Flynn was loaned out to MGM for That Forsyte Woman, he was expected to play Soames' bohemian cousin, or the passionate architect who falls in love with Irene. Instead, Flynn insisted on tackling the more complex Soames.
For MGM's grande dame Greer Garson, playing a corseted Victorian lady was no problem. But in real life, Garson was anything but grand. She was warm and merry, with a wicked sense of humor. Garson recalled her first meeting with Flynn: "We greeted each other warily...in an electric atmosphere of mutual apprehension, while gleeful columnists and set-siders waited breathlessly for the predicted clash between MGM's Nice Lady, and Warner Brothers' Bad Boy. It never came." A nervous Flynn had steeled himself for the meeting with several drinks. He shook hands with his co-star, then slapped Garson's bottom and said "Hiya Red!" Garson laughed, and from then on, the laughter never stopped. Both stars were pranksters, and delighted in practical joke one-upsmanship. In one scene, Garson had to pull a dress out of a closet. The cameras rolled, and when she opened the closet, there was Flynn, wearing nothing but a top hat. Garson got even when the two were doing a scene in a carriage. She set up an electric charge under Flynn's seat, and gave him a shock that sent him leaping into the air.
Cast as the senior member of the Forsyte family was veteran character actor Harry Davenport. That Forsyte Woman was his last film. He died in 1949 at age 83, after 77 years as an actor.
Critics' reaction to That Forsyte Woman was tepid, although many of them admired Flynn's portrayal. But most of them found the film stodgy and artificial, and were reduced to reviewing the gorgeousness of the sets and costumes. Like many of MGM's literary adaptations, That Forsyte Woman was a little too reverential to the original novel. But it does provide the opportunity to see a performance by Flynn that flexes those acting muscles that he had, but rarely used.
Director: Compton Bennett
Producer: Leon Gordon
Screenplay: Jan Lustig, Ivan Tors, James B. Williams, Arthur Wimperis, from the novel A Man of Property, by John Galsworthy
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Editor: Fredrick Y. Smith
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett, Valles
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Daniel B. Cathcart, set design by Edwin B. Willis, Jack D. Moore
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Principal Cast: Errol Flynn (Soames Forsyte), Greer Garson (Irene Forsyte), Walter Pidgeon (Young Jolyon Forsyte), Robert Young (Philip Bosinney), Janet Leigh (June Forsyte), Harry Davenport (Old Jolyon Forsyte), Stanley Logan (Swithin Forsyte), Lumsden Hare (Roger Forsyte).
C-113m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri