The Rake's Progress
The story begins during World War II as Vivian and his fellow tank mates rumble through enemy territory. Coming up to a bend in the road they come under attack. Bombs blow up on the road around them and bullets pierce the armor. After escape, they come to a bridge and have to decide whether to go ahead or confirm first whether or not it's been mined. Kenway, trusted and admired by his men, tells them to go ahead and kisses a pin for luck. As the camera closes in on the bridge below them, the shot cuts to a newspaper indicating the playboy Vivian is missing. Then another cut to his former lover, Jennifer Calthorp (Margaret Johnston), who sees the headline and flashes back on Vivian's life.
This takes us to 1918 and the celebration of the Armistice at the end of World War I. Vivian's just a boy and a couple of returning soldiers take to him at the revelries. They tell him it's the working stiffs who make the difference, the fighters like themselves, and give him a pin, the same seen inside the tank, telling him to always think of them through his life of privilege. And he does. As the action skips ahead to his days at Oxford, we see Vivian scaling the Martyr's Memorial and placing a chamber pot atop it. After he's found out, he's sent down (expelled) and he's on his own. His father, a Tory MP, is disappointed yet understanding but his aunt has other plans. He gets sent to South America to work at a coffee plantation for his uncle but spends all his time being as disruptive as he can until, finally, he's given the boot from there, too.
This forces him back home again where he must decide whether to look for another job or simply spend his time drinking and carousing. The choice is easy but the consequences are not as the rest of the movie puts Vivian in one awful situation of his own making after another. The end seems preordained since this is told in flashback and yet, what leads up to that end involves questionable moral choices on Vivian's part that were in danger of putting an audience off back in 1945.
Coming out of the greatest horror of the 20th century, World War II, it was unknown how an audience would react to a selfish, thoughtless rake like Vivian simply going through his life with no repercussions. It was because of this that the loose basis of the story, the 18th century series of paintings by William Hogarth, was abandoned in spirit. In that series, the rake ends up in ruin, committed to an asylum. The decision was made to present the film as flashback so that no matter what adventures Vivian has along the way, the audience would at least know that by the end he was bravely serving his country.
Rex Harrison was widely known for being a bit of rake in real life so his performance here is considered one of the most autobiographical of his career. He had already made a splash in Major Barbara and Night Train to Munich in 1940 and 1941 and by 1945 with this film and Blithe Spirit, he became a major star. Between his first hits and this film, he had divorced his first wife (he was married six times) and married Lilli Palmer, who plays his wife in the film. In a strange case of happenstance, Lilli's character Rikki attempts suicide when she is rejected in marriage by Vivian. In real life, Carole Landis committed suicide while having an affair with Harrison while he was married to Lilli.
The Rake's Progress was written and directed by Sidney Gilliat and co-written by Frank Launder. The two had worked together before including two cinema classics, The Lady Vanishes (1938) and its unofficial follow-up, Night Train to Munich, the latter starring Rex Harrison. It was a great team up, one that worked extremely well on both occasions. On the second occasion, however, Rex Harrison gave one of the great performances of his career. After The Rake's Progress Rex Harrison himself would progress unabated, on stage and screen, for the next 45 years, leaving a legacy behind rarely matched by another actor of his generation.
By Greg Ferrara