Men are Not Gods
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The title of Men Are Not Gods, a 1936 British drama set in the lively world of the London theater, comes from a line in Shakespeare's Othello. That's the play that pulls newspaper secretary Ann Williams (Miriam Hopkins) into the orbit of married stage stars Barbara Halson (Gertrude Lawrence) and Edmund Davey (Sebastian Shaw), the stars of said play. Moved by the plea of Barbara to hold an opening night review for the sake of her husband, a fine actor who had an off night, Ann alters the notice by her boss (Frederick Skeates), the paper's theater critic and old-school defender of art and tradition and lands in a romantic triangle, torn between her affection for Barbara and her obsession with Edmund.
The Hungarian-born director and producer Alexander Korda was fast becoming the most successful filmmaker in Britain. He formed London Films in 1932 and made his reputation as the director of handsome and popular historical dramas. In 1936 he built Denham Studios and produced his greatest slate of films to date, including Rembrandt, which he personally directed, Things to Come, and The Man Who Could Work Miracles. His ambitions demanded he cut back on directing and he handed the directorial reins of Men Are Not Gods off to Austrian-born director Walter Reisch, who began as an assistant for Korda in Vienna in the early 1920s and had arrived in Britain in the mid-1930s along with the flood of artists fleeing Nazi Europe.
He brought Hollywood star Miriam Hopkins for the lead, coming off an Academy Award-nominated turn in Rouben Mamoulian's Becky Sharp (1935). Hopkins isn't quite as mercurial and rapid-fire as she is in her great American screwball appearances, but by British standards she is a firecracker, bringing just a hint of sassiness to the spunky American secretary in a grand old British newspaper.
Gertrude Lawrence never broke through to movie stardom but she was one of the most celebrated stage actresses of her generation, which made her perfect casting for the role of Barbara, Desdemona to Edmund's Othello. Sebastian Shaw plays Davey in the Barrymore mode onstage, all grand gestures and emphatic declaiming of lines in that familiar screen tradition of indicating great stage performances, but off he's more like Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise (1932), the suave continental charmer who uses poetry and theater to seduce the object of his affections.
Fourth billed, playing an energetic young obituary writer carrying a torch for Ann, is a young actor overflowing with personality in a role that begs to be bigger. Korda had just signed Rex Harrison to a lucrative film contract on the strength of his stage work. Harrison had been in movies before, taking parts in a few low-budget "quota quickies," which in many ways were the British film industry's version of the American B-movie, but this was his first chance at a prestige production. "It wasn't, for Korda, too large a gamble," Harrison recalls in his autobiography, "for me it meant a guaranteed income, a marvelous relief at the time." Men Are Not Gods was his first picture under the contract and he took a supporting role, billed below the three stars of the love triangle. He played the role with a jump in his step, a collegiate sense of humor, and a boyish but sincere excitement. His roles only got bigger after this.
Korda imported another Hollywood talent for this production: cinematographer Charles Rosher, who won the Oscar® (with Karl Struss) for shooting Sunrise (1927) and was nominated for The Affairs of Cellini (1934). Working with Korda's brother, the great production designer Vincent Korda, they gave the film a handsome look to compete with the bigger-budget productions coming from Hollywood.
Austrian-born director Walter Reisch had been a busy screenwriter and sometime director in Germany before he made his English language directorial debut with Men Are Not Gods, which he also co-wrote. In his autobiography, Harrison recalls Reisch as "a very intense German," but his work onscreen is just the opposite, filled with smart dialogue, adult situations, and worldly sophistication, and directed with a deft touch and momentum that gives a hint of screwball energy to the romantic drama. It was his only British film before he continued to American and he couldn't have planned a better Hollywood audition piece. He only directed a handful of features but as a screenwriter he worked on close to a hundred films, including the Oscar®-nominated screenplays for Ninotchka (1939) and Gaslight (1944), and he took home an Academy Award for his work on the script for Titanic (1953). The roots of his American career reach back to Korda and Men Are Not Gods.
By Sean Axmaker
"Alexander Korda: The Man Who Could Work Miracles," Karol Kulick. Arlington House Publishers, 1975.
"Rex: An Autobiography," Rex Harrison. William Morrow and Co., 1974.