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Friday Night Spotlight - 100th Anniversary of WWI
Remind Me

British Intelligence

This tiny, speedy wartime chestnut comes to us by way of a play by Anthony Paul Kelly, Three Faces East, first produced for a successful stage run when Kelly was all but 21. He'd already been writing silent movie scenarios for years, including the script for D.W. Griffith's Way Down East (1920), and would die young in 1932. Having his play put on in 1918 while World War I still raged - literally, one day after the conclusion of the Battle of Amiens - makes Kelly something of a pioneer. His quaint little espionage melodrama may have been the first of its kind, on stage or on film, insofar as it hinges on multiple double agentry, the sending and retrieval of secret war messages, and the manufacture of "sleeper" identities that became standard issue text in both spy fiction and spy reality, in the 20th century. Before Kelly, you had "invasion fiction" from the turn of the century, and a few military blackmailing scenarios, but not full-blown espionage skullduggery as we've come to know it.

Kelly's play was shot in Hollywood three times in 15 years, in 1926, 1930 and 1940, and remained remarkably unchanged as a WWI thriller even as Europe and America grew farther from one war and closer to another. The first was a vehicle for forgotten Dutch vamp Jetta Goudal and, in the key role as Valdar the spy-butler, Clive Brook; the second, an early talkie, had Constance Bennett and Erich von Stroheim, and was clearly the most high-profile and lavish of the three. The third, Terry Morse's British Intelligence, is clearly one of those cheap and fast quickies the studios - in this instance, Warner - ground out at the onset of war, as the sheerest propaganda. In all likelihood, the immediate demand for product that corresponded with the public's reality probably prompted Warner to ransack its archive for quickly remakable projects, and that's where Three Faces East waited. Hollywood didn't want to wait for WWII stories to naturally emerge in 1939 and 1940, so they began converting WWI material and simply making the Germans in 1917 rabid Nazis in behavior, if not in uniform. "Someday!" the raving Commandant hollers, "Someday Germany will own the world!"

That didn't seem so campy in 1940. Still, there's a good deal to be said for the comfy, calm, resplendently fake confines, for dramatic purposes in any genre, of the aristocratically appointed English mansion, and that's where most of Kelly's saga takes place. Specifically, the home of the Lord of the Admiralty, where Valdar (in this incarnation, it's Boris Karloff, sporting an elaborate sword-slash facial scar) butlers and where the heroine spy, played by Margaret Lindsay, ventures, in pursuit of secret battle plans and/or the mysterious master spy who's after the battle plans. Frankly, none of the versions of Kelly's play are easy to vet, in terms of exactly which double agent is actually for the Kaiser and which is actually for the Brits, which was doubtless intentional. But in every case, the casting of a savvy but sweet female lead against an unsavory and somewhat creature-ish character actor tells us how things will pan out when it's all said and done. In the meantime, Karloff tries on three different accents as he discloses his "real" allegiances, and we're not sure if Lindsay is in fact officially British, Belgian or German, while of course being perfectly sure all the while.

You pay for your pleasure with the propagandistic cant -- a climactic speech extolling the call to war is spoken directly at 1940 filmgoers -- but the fringe benefits are ample, including tons of archival stock footage, some real, some culled from movies like 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front, leading up to the German strategic bombing of London featuring dreamy steampunk visions, from where we do not know, of zeppelins floating through the clouds. Karloff feels out of place in general, but of course his actorly commitment refuses to weaken; he had the courtly gift of seeming to be invested in his movie moments regardless of the film he's in. (For Karloff, that meant lending dignity to hundreds of roles in undeserving films and TV shows.) But Lindsay, in the lead, is the surprise here, amidst a Mount Rushmore of craggy British supporting-role faces. A lovely brunette almost-star who toiled in Hollywood not quite becoming famous for decades, Iowa-born Lindsay has a disarmingly fetching middle-period Jane Fonda smile and deep husk to her voice, and her mature sexiness and unforced poise are hypnotic. What happened to her? Warner Bros. kept her career at a low boil for most of the '30s, but once she went freelance, even grabbing the female lead in the 1940 version of The House of Seven Gables, she became a B-movie staple, mostly supporting Ralph Bellamy in the Ellery Queen series. Her arc petered out in the '60s with a predictable litany of TV parts, before she retired at 65. Once you've noticed her in Morse's film, you'll be on the lookout for her, popping up in dozens of Golden Age projects, many of which you've probably already seen (G-Men [1935], Dangerous [1935], Jezebel [1938]), but now need to see again. British Intelligence is very much an artifact of its day: hurried, utilitarian, living on borrowed sets and manufactured with ulterior motives in mind, as was so much of America in the early '40s. It's nostalgia that's nostalgic for the '10s, while never shaking the immediate sense of preparing for war in 1940.

By Michael Atkinson



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