The Forbidden Street
(1949), recently released on DVD from the 20th Century Fox archives, makes the British noir list, and with its gothic overtones this is certainly a film with a very definite set of peculiarities. Some of the film’s notable points are to be found in the fact that the director, Jean Negulesco
, and the two main stars, Dana Andrews
and Maureen O’Hara
, unilaterally rejected the film, and so it remains that The Forbidden Street
aka Britannia Mews
, based on a novel by Margery Sharp, goes down in film history as a title the major players involved with the project would rather forget. In his autobiography, Things I Did … and Things I Think I Did Director
Jean Negulesco called the film “a disaster. Insane casting. The critics murdered us.” Maureen O’Hara wasn’t much more generous. In her autobiography , Tis Herself, she called The Forbidden Street
, the “least memorable” film of her career. Britannia Mews was cut by Richard Best in England and The Forbidden Street
was cut in Hollywood by Robert L. Simpson, and as a result the two versions are apparently quite different. Maureen O’Hara argued that the only reason anyone would watch the film would be to see Dana Andrews in a dual role and Dame Sybil Thorndyke as a gin-addicted blackmailing old hag. As for Dana Andrews, author James McKay, author of Dana Andrews: The Face of Noir
, calls The Forbidden Street
, the “most unusual film” of this iconic actor’s career.
The Forbidden Street
begins with a voice over from Maureen O’Hara who plays the adult Adelaide Culver. She explains her lifelong obsession with a slum area called Britannia Mews which is an alley located behind her family’s home on Albion Place. There’s a short snippet depicting Adelaide as a charming tiny tot who accepts her cousin Alice’s dare to enter the Mews. The scene establishes Adelaide’s willfulness--a character trait that comes into full force in adulthood.
Then we see Adelaide (Maureen O’Hara) in adulthood and her cousin Alice (Anne Butchart) as the two young women take art lessons from an impoverished Henry Lambert (Dana Andrews) who lives in the Mews and occupies the family’s former coach-house—now empty as the family ‘gave up’ their carriage. There’s a little unseemly man hungriness about Adelaide’s fixation on the drawing master, and for his part, Mr. Lambert engages in no small amount of flattery towards the young, talentless ladies he teaches.
Problems begin when Lambert shows up to teach Adelaide and Alice even though he’s received a note cancelling the lesson. Alice is ill, and so he’s there alone with Adelaide who somewhat incongruously answers the door herself in the unexplained absence of any servants. Lambert has chosen to ignore the note, and pretends he didn’t receive it. He’s there because he needs the money, and a conversation with Adelaide regarding her lack of talent leads her to threaten to tell her father to cancel the drawing lessons. An excellent camera shot of Lambert’s face allows the viewer to register his note of panic at the prospect of the loss of income, and then he smoothly resorts to his old flattery. Adelaide concludes that Lambert purposely came to see her knowing that she would be alone, and Lambert fuels this error. Adelaide, taking charge, rapidly stampedes Lambert into marriage against her parents’ wishes, and Lambert, who’s already exhibited his drunkenness, weakly goes along with Adelaide’s plans after she reveals that she has a hundred pounds a year to live on.
Then we see the newlyweds living in the Mews, a foul, fetid and sordid slum, and Adelaide who views Lambert as a “great artist,” is busy scrubbing floors in the couple’s two rooms above the coachhouse. Lambert’s studio is directly below in the coachhouse itself, and it’s here that he’s supposed to create a masterpiece--a painting fit for submission to The Royal Academy of Arts. In the meantime, he’s stopped teaching, and he spends his adulterous days, surrounded by bottles, in a drunken stupor. Rousted by a nagging, bitter Adelaide, he seeks refuge, and sympathy, from the Red Lion, located oh-so-conveniently right across the street.
An accident places Adelaide into the grasping hands of the poxy, squinty-eyed, rag-and-bone collector, Mrs Munsey, also known as “the sow,” played with delicious esprit by Dame Sybil Thorndyke
. Blackmailed into remaining in the Mews and unable to join her family in the glories of the Surrey countryside, Adelaide sinks into coarseness and finds oblivion in cheap gin. She’s hitting the skids, sporting dark rings around her eyes, and stumblingly drunk when a new man enters her life. Enter Gilbert Lauderdale (also played by Dana Andrews)—a married, one-time barrister, actor now homeless clerk turned drunken bum, a “nasty little sponger” who stumbles out of the Red Lion and into Adelaide’s life….
The entrance of Lauderdale marks a bizarre turn in the plot with a 180 degree turn away from the film’s dark tones and noir elements. Here’s Adelaide, morphed into a crude vicious fishwife who falls for the second drunken bum in her life who happens to look identical to her first husband. The woman doesn’t miss a beat and invites Lauderdale to move in. It’s impossible not to predict doom--especially when we see Lauderdale brutishly bitch slap poor old Mrs. Munsey back and forth across the face.
The casting of Dana Andrews in both roles as Henry Lambert and Gilbert Lauderdale, was apparently, a mere cost-cutting measure of the part of 20th century Fox. But given that both men are drunken losers with a shady past, this casting serves to highlight and accentuate Adelaide’s poor judgment. Dana Andrews as Henry Lambert is dubbed and given a British accent, and it also looks as though his face has been darkened with rather severe make-up. The implausibility of the two men in Adelaide’s life looking identical is smooched over by the one-liner given glibly by Gilbert Lauderdale after he’s thrown out of the Red Lion and lands—more or less—on Adelaide’s doorstep:
“I’m always reminding people of someone else.”
On the subject of accents, there’s no explanation given why the child Adelaide is British while the adult Adelaide is Irish or why her Cambridge-bound brother, obviously brought up in the same household sounds like Little Lord Fauntleroy. Then why does Gilbert Lauderdale sound British (dubbed) and exactly like Henry Lambert in his initial scenes before shifting into his own voice without any explanation? But these are just some of the details rather untidily thrown out there by the film for the viewer to deal with. There are also plot gaps thrown out with no explanation: what deep dark secret does Lambert hide from his days in Paris? Why does he look panicked and shifty-eyed when Adelaide mentions Paris or those puppets he’s fussing eternally in the coachhouse? What is an artist doing with puppets anyway? Why are Adelaide’s bustles so exaggerated when compared to the other costumes in the film? Madness, madness, I say.
These questions are never answered, and in his memoir, I’ll Hate Myself in the Morning, scriptwriter Ring Lardner Jr. mentions that he finished the screenplay while in Washington to attend the HUAC hearings, and that upon his return he gave the script to the producer who was in a “hurry” to finish the picture. Perhaps this explains the huge inconsistencies in the details--such as accents, and the vast gaps in plot. The Forbidden Street
, incidentally, was the last script Lardner, one of the Hollywood Ten, finished before being fired from his 2,000 dollar a week job at Fox.
By the time the film concludes, we realize that the mysterious puppets that Henry Lambert obsesses about are central to the plot. The film’s very first scene gives a nice slice of foreshadowing as a Punch and Judy booth is carried into Britannia Mews. Later, we see this same, decidedly the worse for wear, booth re-enter the Mews and it’s also parked there in the open at one point. The subject of Punch and Judy even enters an argument between Adelaide and her husband. Since Punch and Judy shows are frequently centered on violent domestic squabbles, it’s easy to extrapolate that Adelaide and Henry’s married life is a living, tawdry embodiment of the violent and now terribly politically incorrect puppet show.
In spite of The Forbidden Street
’s many flaws, the splendid cinematography by Georges Périnal
is both the film’s defining genius and its most cohesive element. The opening scene which depicts Adelaide as a small child watching the activities of the Mews mirrors a child watching a puppet show with the window framing the Mews distinctly apart and making the squalid alley seems unreal and disconnected from Adelaide’s affluent and cosseted life. There’s also a scene of tiny tot Adelaide facing down her nursemaid as she exits the Mews. Note a handful of immobile, obedient Victorian children who resemble puppets. Also Adelaide’s two room dwelling with its slanted roof forces Henry/Gilbert to stoop, and the cinematography and camera angles of these scenes emphasize that Adelaide and Henry/Gilbert appear to be oversized and living in a miniaturized dollhouse. This amplifies the thought that Adelaide is trapped and her fairy-tale marriage has morphed into a hideous reality, and that these tortured characters are at the mercy of societal elements—mere puppets with no freedom of their own.
Written by Guy Savage
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