Cast & Crew
British writer Geoffrey Wolfe recalls the first time he met the infamous painter Charles Strickland: Strickland, a married stockbroker, seems to be a commonplace person, who inexplicably leaves his wife, abandons his children, and moves to Paris to pursue his lifelong dream of being an artist. On Mrs. Strickland's behalf, Geoffrey visits Strickland in his rundown apartment in Paris, but is unable to convince the egotist to return to England. Several years after Strickland's divorce, Geoffrey visits another artist friend in Paris, Dutchman Dirk Stroeve, and meets Blanche, Dirk's new wife. Dirk, a sweet-natured but uninspired artist, avows that Strickland is a genius, despite the fact that Strickland continually insults him. Geoffrey soon finds that Strickland is completely destitute but shows no interest in selling or exhibiting his brilliant work. At Christmas-time, Dirk brings Strickland to his home to convalesce from pneumonia, despite the protests of Blanche, who feels threatened by the arrogant artist. Blanche becomes a devoted nurse, however, and although Strickland is ungrateful, she leaves her husband for him when he recovers. Strickland, who is only interested in her as a model, soon deserts her. Blanche commits suicide, and while devastated by the circumstances, Dirk is so moved by Strickland's talent that he invites him to return to Holland with him. Strickland unkindly rejects his offer, but gives him a painting of Blanche as a gift. Many years later, Geoffrey goes to Tahiti, where the artist had moved from Paris, to further research the book he is now writing about Strickland. Geoffrey learns from a talkative British local about Strickland's final years: In Tahiti, Strickland marries a young island native named Ata at the urging of jovial matchmaker, hotel proprietress Tiara Johnson. Having at last found sincere happiness with Ata, Strickland is stricken with leprosy. Ata insists on remaining by his side through the debilitating illness, although she is stoned by ignorant locals who fear that the disease will spread. Two years later, Dr. Coutras, the physician who initially diagnosed Strickland returns because he has heard that Strickland is dying. Coutras arrives after Strickland's death, but sees the painter's final works, which he later describes as sublime, lovely and cruel masterpieces, some painted by Strickland after he had gone blind. Ata, overcome by grief, fulfills her husband's dying wish that she burn the hut in which his paintings are contained, and the last of his genius disappears forever.
David L. Loew
John F. Seitz
F. Paul Sylos
Richard L. Van Enger
The Moon and Sixpence
Maugham's book, published in 1919, takes a familiar Maughamian form: the author posits himself as a distant narrator, limning the arc of the contentious central character's life as it is observed in swatches and recollections of people who knew him. This first-person voice is personified by Herbert Marshall, who appeared in four other Maugham adaptations, including two versions of The Letter (1929 & 1940) and, as Maugham himself, in The Razor's Edge (1946), another film that pieces together the story of an off-the-grid anti-social seeker. In The Moon and Sixpence he's merely a Maughamian novelist meeting the acquaintance of one Charles Strickland (George Sanders), a bland London stockbroker who, just like the Gallic Gauguin, suddenly dumps his family in a single misanthropic flourish, in order to reinvent his life as a painter. Marshall's buttoned-down observer is asked to intervene, and so the two men begin a testy relationship, in London and Paris, marked by the inquisitive writer's shocked middle-class values as they're assaulted by Strickland's callous, misogynistic, completely self-absorbed "beast" persona, which itself leads to various suicides and degradations, and eventually steers him toward the tropics, where an asocial white man can be left alone to make art among the sexually available natives.
Lewin's 1942 film adaptation is hardly explicit about much of this, of course, but it is more explicit about it than you'd imagine (Lewin had to produce the film himself, and its low budget is evident). Sexual abuse and exploitation are so close under the surface it seems to make some of the actors uncomfortable. It's a lean film that tries to honor its high-falutin' source novel but at the same time has uncomfortable thematic meat in its teeth. The story, after all, pits Art vs. Society, elitist nihilism vs. civilized community, and in the end, just as in life, the fight is a strange and disquieting draw, as Strickland's cosmic lout finds heaven in Tahiti and then pays for his aesthetic triumphs with a dark twist of fate, heralded by the appearance of infamous Hollywood acromegaly victim Rondo Hatton as a village leper.
Maugham may have been the most mainstream and popular British novelist of the 20th century, but he was clearly fascinated with characters who discard lives and priorities like his and march to the edge of oblivion. For his sake, Lewin had a similar yen, as exhibited in the six films he directed, including The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) - an obsession with transgression, with violating accepted norms in pursuit of a higher ideal or truer state. In his most famous films, including Sixpence, that translated into portraits of crazy, wholesale, God-defying decadence, leaving you to wonder if Lewin was in fact the one Hollywood director who could have, or would have, adapted Sade. These films don't just present open warfare on human kindness and decency, they lavishly endorse it. Lewin remains something of an unsung auteur, and earned his way inside the machine, having worked his way up in the '20s from script boy to screenwriter to, in the '30s, Irving Thalberg's right-hand man and one of the key producers at MGM during that booming-movietown decade. In effect, Lewin was a power broker who, come the '40s, wanted to pursue his own visions, and with Sixpence he finally carved out his opportunity. You can see Lewin's perverse love for Strickland's heedless all-for-art egomania, for which the character literally throws away everything he has and will ever have, palpitate in virtually every scene, rhyming with Maugham's ultra-civilized inquiry, as if the two of them were visitors at a zoo, watching a content and conscienceless gorilla do what it must, without thought for consequences.
Sanders seems miscast as Strickland at first, during the character's "dull" phase - how could Sanders ever be mistaken for a cipher? Lewin skirts around this by allowing Maugham's Marshall-intoned narration to dominate the film - entire scenes transpire without dialogue, just the Maughamian voice contextualizing the action for us. Lewin and Maugham were both conscious of the self-consciousness - when Marshall's fussy scribe asks Strickland to see his paintings because they may parse out clues to the artist's infuriating character, Strickland replies, with perfect Sanders incisiveness, "You must write pretty bad novels." Lewin's best movies, in fact, are all heavily narrated, by hyperliterate cynics looking back on people and incidents they're still very far from understanding. There's very little "now" in Lewin, but a great deal of the mysterious, maddening "then."
Largely thanks to having fallen into a rights abyss as an independent feature, The Moon and Sixpence has been unavailable in any form for decades, and was only occasionally shown on TV in the '60s and '70s in crummy prints. The new restoration brings back Lewin's unusual color scheme - when the narrative transitions to Tahiti, the film's black-&-white photography gets tinted amber, and the last reel explodes into full-on Technicolor, as Strickland's giant, Gauguinesque paintings are revealed. Lewin pulled a similar stunt in Dorian Gray three years later, when that tale's pivotal canvas is revealed in startling color, and there's no underestimating the sorcerous allure that painting had on Lewin, who pivoted each of his philosophically loaded films on the evasive transcendence of art. In each film, the pursuit of the sublime translates to tragedy, death and, worst-of-all, soullessness, prices only the graced few must pay.
Producer: David L. Loew
Director: Albert Lewin
Screenplay: W. Somerset Maugham (novel); Albert Lewin
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Art Direction: F. Paul Sylos
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Film Editing: Richard L. Van Enger
Cast: George Sanders (Charles Strickland), Herbert Marshall (Geoffrey Wolfe), Doris Dudley (Blanche Stroeve), Eric Blore (Capt. Nichols), Albert Bassermann (Dr. Coutras), Florence Bates (Tiare Johnson), Steve Geray (Dirk Stroeve), Elena Verdugo (Ata).
BW and C-89m.
by Michael Atkinson
The Moon and Sixpence
The Moon And Sixpence - The Moon and Sixpence on DVD
For quality, VCI's DVD of this public domain (?) orphan leaves a lot to be desired. The movie is so seldom shown, however, that this may be a good opportunity for Lewin fans to catch up with it.
Synopsis: Writer Geoffrey Wolfe (Herbert Marshall) takes a personal interest when Englishman Charles Strickland (George Sanders) deserts his wife and runs away to Paris. He finds Strickland struggling to become a painter; the previously unassuming man has now disavowed his ties to everything but his art. Fellow artist and friend Dirk Stroeve (Steven Geray) supports Strickland's genius even though the man is abusive and eventually walks away with Dirk's wife, Blanche (Doris Dudley). Geoffrey is repulsed by Strickland's lack of basic decency but remains fascinated after he sees the man's work, which indeed inspires thoughts of genius. After a number of years Geoffrey tracks Charles to Tahiti and hears from three local witnesses (Eric Blore, Florence Bates, Albert Basserman) the story of the artist's strange adventure in paradise.
Writing movies about artistic geniuses is a known filmic trap. How many pictures have tried to pass off unimpressive paintings or forgettable composed music as the work of a genius? Albert Lewin's sensitive adaptation of Somerset Maugham's 1919 book tells the story of a difficult artist who bears only a superficial resemblance to the life of Paul Gauguin, the famous painter who journeyed to the South Seas.
Lewin's unlikable main character is presented through second-hand testimony and Citizen Kane- like expository flashbacks. Herbert Marshall literally played Somerset Maugham in 1947's The Razor's Edge and here serves the exact same function as an equally thoughtful writer-narrator. Geoffrey Wolfe seeks out the elusive Charles Strickland first as a favor to a friend and visits him again out of curiosity. By the time he tracks down Strickland to a tiny island, we have to figure that the artist has become a major theme for him.
The theme Lewin handles best is the relationship of Artist to Society. Unlike Howard Roarke in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Strickland wants to prove nothing to anyone but himself and paints as an inward quest for the truth. He shuns society but doesn't see himself as better than it. Thinking this attitude a disguise for an exaggerated ego, Wolfe chides Strickland by suggesting that he wants to shut himself off in a room and never show his paintings to anyone. That literally becomes the truth. Geoffrey sees no connection between the innocuous stockbroker he first meets and the antisocial artist he eventually becomes, but they are indeed the same - each seeks isolation to pursue a private obsession.
Lewin does many things exactly right: we never see Strickland's paintings until the end of the film and have only the reactions of others to judge them by. The use of the book's narration and second-hand witnesses plays well enough, and George Sanders is excellent as the driven and sometimes infuriating Strickland. Sanders was quick to develop into a specialist in aloof and frequently villainous characters, haughty sophisticates quick to chill a room with a sneer or an insult. Lewin uses Sanders' cool disdain to keep him emotionally distant. We spend most of the movie disapproving of everything Strickland does and waiting for him to get his comeuppance.
Maugham makes Charles Strickland pay for his sins rather harshly. Lewin reinforces an anachronistic (even for 1919) vision of leprosy as a death sentence. When The Moon and Sixpence was released in 1943, I wonder how many wives and girlfriends thought their soldiers in the Pacific theater were going to be turned into unsightly monsters - Lewin uses noted acromegalic actor Rondo Hatton as a pitiful 'unclean' beggar. The implication is that leprosy (aka Hansen's Disease) is a punishment for Strickland's abhorrent personal philosophy.
The Moon and Sixpence begins and ends with moralizing text scrolls, perhaps indicating that the Breen censorship office was alerted to the film's inconclusive attitude - the text provides a condemnation of Strickland that the film itself doesn't offer.
London, Paris and Papeete are all stage constructions augmented with stock shots. Lewin and cameraman John Seitz create interesting but closed little worlds where we never quite believe that anything is happening off screen. Along with an excellent supporting cast, the claustrophobia helps us enter into the film's character exploration. Familiar actor Stephen Geray (Frenchy in Howard Hawks' The Big Sky) is the main standout as Strickland's constitutional opposite, a soft-hearted fellow destined to be hurt by relationships.
Albert Basserman (Foreign Correspondent) has an unusually proactive role as a doctor of the islands and Elena Verdugo (House of Frankenstein) switches from her usual sultry Gypsy roles to play a dusky tropical naïf: devoted, unspoiled and fully made up by Max Factor. Doris Dudley is low-key as Dirk Stroeve's weak-willed spouse. The always-good Florence Bates (the obnoxious radio lady in A Letter to Three Wives) anchors the Tahitian sequence with her turn as a lusty matchmaker. Familiar butlers Robert Grieg and Eric Blore are in to lighten the mood.
As for George Sanders, Lewin would give him perfect roles in his two next movies as a cad and a sinister manipulator. Only Joseph Mankiewicz would use Sanders better, in his classic All About Eve.
Albert Lewin's films were known for their symbolic imagery and flamboyant design ideas. Jack Cardiff's delirious color photography is the best thing in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman but Lewin used Technicolor inserts in all of his previous B&W features for shock value and sheer novelty. The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami is as seldom shown as The Moon and Sixpence, but the conclusion of Lewin's The Portrait of Dorian Gray is well-remembered for its terrifying color close-up of the gore-ridden haunted painting. In Sixpence the screen cuts to Technicolor for a few seconds as Charles Strickland's final masterpiece goes up in flames. It's the only time we get a clear look at his work.
VCI's DVD of The Moon and Sixpence cheats us out of that spectacle, for even though the box text lists the film as "B&W/Color" the print offered stays in B&W. This show is yet another United Artists release for which good elements have disappeared forever, and VCI's battered but intact source may be as good as can be found. A few early scenes have grossly bad contrast. Faces are devoid of detail and in one shot a newspaper 'disappears' into a white wall behind it. The transfer element may be several dupe generations away from a release print kept from circulation because of printing flaws. It's easy to spot where the film was supposed to change to Technicolor -- the contrast jumps about 200%.
On the positive side, the audio track is unusually clear for a film resurrected from a surviving print. The dialogue is easy to understand and Dimitri Tiomkin's Oscar®-nominated score is a reasonably good listen.
VCI's extras are text bios on Lewin, Sanders and Marshall. The packaging apparently uses United Artists' original poster art, which couldn't have been chosen to attract a class audience -- the tagline is "Women are Strange Little Beasts!"
A gallery of coming attractions for other VCI product presents a perfect trailer for Edgar G. Ulmer's Hannibal, an epic in Widescreen and color that still looks as if it were shot on a shoestring.
For more information about The Moon and Sixpence, visit VCI Entertainment. To order The Moon and Sixpence, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
The Moon And Sixpence - The Moon and Sixpence on DVD
The film opens with the following prologue: "This is the story of Charles Strickland, the painter, whose career has created so much discussion. It is not our purpose to defend him." Although the print viewed was in black and white, original release prints began in black and white, graduated to sepia, and then changed to Technicolor for the final scenes showing "Dr. Coutras" discovering "Strickland's" paintings. Opening credits included the following: "Technical Advice and Dances by Devi Dja and her Bali-Java Dancers," and "Adapted and Directed by Albert Lewin."
News items and information in the MPAA/PCA Files at the AMPAS Library reveal that after its publication in 1919, various production companies considered producing a film based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence, which was loosely based on the life of nineteenth-century artist Paul Gauguin, who was renowned for his colorful paintings of Tahitian life.
Among those interested at various times in producing the story were Warner Bros., which purchased the rights to the novel in 1919 and anticipated casting Edward G. Robinson in the lead; director Harry Lachman, who planned to produce the film in France with Andre Daven as producer, Marcel Achard as writer and Jean Gabin in the lead role; Universal Pictures; David O. Selznick while he was at M-G-M; and RKO-Radio Pictures. The PCA continually rejected the novel as material for a screenplay because of the "manner in which the subject of adultery is justified and condoned" and because of the main character's illicit "attitude toward his marriage and the conventions of society." In 1941, David L. Loew and Albert Lewin purchased the screen rights to the novel from M-G-M and proposed a treatment of the story which "will be told by a narrator, who will be the voice for morality and will condemn the hero's various derelictions. Mr. Lewin also plans to indicate that the wife divorces Strickland and that he marries the native girl in Tahiti. The adulterous relationship with Mrs. Stroeve in the middle of the story will be treated with the proper compensating moral values, including Mrs. Stroeve's death by suicide, as punishment. In the end, the hero will die of leprosy, as in the book." By January 1942, the screenplay was approved by the PCA, although certain alterations were made.
In February 1942, author W. Somerset Maugham sent Albert Lewin a letter lauding his interpretation of the novel: "I consider it a brilliant piece of work. Your treatment seems to me not only ingenious but highly original, and if it results in a successful picture, I believe you achieve something very like a revolution in the picture industry for having produced a highly adult piece of work and adhered very honestly to the theme of the story. I cannot imagine that a novel could be adapted in a better way."
Despite the filmmakers' and PCA's attempts to make the story morally acceptable, the PCA received a letter from the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency which exclaimed that "this picture antecedent to revisions left the over-all impression of the justification of the immoral acts of the main character....Also in this film there is another matter of grave concern which veritably clamors for explanation. The picture contains shots of the paintings of nude and semi-nude figures." The PCA responded by noting that the print viewed by the Legion of Decency included two alterations that were apparently made after the film was approved by the PCA. These changes included a foreword in which "occurs the expression 'we do not condemn him'"; and the deletion of a monologue in which Herbert Marshall's character makes a moral condemnation of "Strickland." The PCA nonetheless defended the film to the Legion, stating that "the sins are definitely and affirmatively shown to be wrong," and that the paintings were not offensive because "they are crude drawings of primitive men and women, painted by an artist who was blind, or half blind, and whose mind, quite clearly, was impaired."
A Hollywood Reporter news item indicates that Loew and Lewin initially considered Paul Muni for the lead, and had plans for Talbot Jennings to write the adaptation, but Jennings' illness prevented this. According to an article in Life, Paul Gauguin's son Emile threatened to sue United Artists if any of his father's works were used in the film. United Artists therefore enlisted Dolya Goutman to create the paintings seen in the film. The picture marked Albert Lewin's directorial debut. Some modern critics have pointed to the role of Strickland as George Sanders' best performance. Dimitri Tiomkin was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture) for the film. In 1951 and 1959, NBC-TV presented televised versions of The Moon and Sixpence, based on Maugham's novel. The 1959 production featured Laurence Olivier in his television debut heading an all-star cast.