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The Great Garrick

The Great Garrick

The Great Garrick (1937) is a fictional comedy set around a real person, the 18th-century British actor David Garrick, widely considered one of the greatest of all time. After performing a show at London's Drury Lane Theater, Garrick (Brian Aherne) announces that he has accepted an invitation to appear on the Paris stage for a guest season. He boastfully adds that maybe he will teach the French something about acting. The French theater company gets wind of these comments and, feeling insulted, decides to play a prank to teach Garrick himself a lesson. Arriving in France, he stays at an inn which unbeknownst to him has been completely taken over by the French actors. They stage a "play" all around Garrick, attempting to frighten and embarrass him. Garrick eventually figures out the ploy but decides to play along, and that's when the acting fireworks really begin. Olivia de Havilland arrives as an actual guest of the hotel, but Garrick thinks she's simply another actor and berates her. Ultimately he realizes his mistake, but she has left for Paris and Garrick must try and win her back while playing Don Juan on the Paris stage.

The charming story and overall tone of this movie convey the magic of theater, and beautiful costumes and sets go a long way toward this end. Variety's review lauded the picture, singling out Anton Grot's art direction as some of the best "which the screen has yet shown." But the critic was not so gung-ho on the movie's commercial prospects. "The Great Garrick is a film worth the exacting effort which unquestionably was required in its making. Artistically, first class; commercially, a question mark." Sure enough, the picture flopped, much to Jack Warner's annoyance.

The Great Garrick was directed by James Whale, on loan-out from Universal, and produced by Mervyn LeRoy - or as the credit reads, "personally supervised by Mervyn LeRoy." It was LeRoy's fourth independent production at Warner Brothers. The screenplay was by the Hungarian Ernest Vajda, who had written such film gems as The Love Parade (1929) and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). In a nod to the theatrical nature of the story, his screen credit reads "a play for the screen."

As Garrick, Brian Aherne gives a bravura performance in a role which was written specifically for him. Vajda had originally proposed writing The Great Garrick as a stage play for Aherne, but an amusing chain of events led to a screenplay instead. Aherne recounted in his memoirs that after Vajda pitched him the story in his Beverly Hills living room (acting out all the roles with gusto), Aherne "agreed at once to take the play, and [Vajda] rushed home in great excitement to put it down on paper. Unfortunately, on the way he stopped in at a cocktail party where, after a couple of drinks, he had a fine time retelling the story, with embellishments no doubt, to Mervyn LeRoy. Without hesitation, Mervyn offered to buy it for a movie, and without thinking, Vajda accepted.

"Time went by and he failed to deliver a script to either of us. Mervyn pressed him until finally he produced an outline which bore little relationship to the story we had all enjoyed. It seemed he had forgotten it! We all had to remind him of pieces of his own dialogue. I lost my play, and while Mervyn did manage to make a picture for Warner Brothers, the story was never as good as it had been at the first telling... The picture was to flop at the box office - so badly, in fact, that Jack Warner [said] he never wanted to see me on the lot again. He did, however, in the following year" (when Aherne co-starred in Juarez, 1939).

Of his co-star Olivia de Havilland, Aherne wrote that she was "young and entrancing" and that he threw a party on the set for her twenty-first birthday. "I little thought that I would one day marry her younger sister, Joan Fontaine." Aherne doesn't mention that he actually dated de Havilland briefly before moving on to Joan, whom he married just two years later.

This was 17-year-old Lana Turner's third film appearance. She plays one of the French actors disguised as a barmaid and has three lines of dialogue - and quite a bit of giggling. Mervyn LeRoy took her under his wing and soon brought her along to MGM, where he supervised her burgeoning career. The Great Garrick also marked the screen debut of Albert Dekker (here credited as Albert Van Dekker), soon to become a respected character actor.

Producer: Mervyn LeRoy
Director: James Whale
Screenplay: Ernest Vajda
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Film Editing: Warren Low
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Brian Aherne (David Garrick), Olivia de Havilland (Germaine de la Corbe), Edward Everett Horton (Tubby), Melville Cooper (M. W. Picard), Lionel Atwill (M. Beaumarchais).

by Jeremy Arnold



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