The closest British film ever got to having its own Garbo, Madeleine Carroll continues to fascinate viewers nearly ninety years after her cinematic debut. Lazy journalism has reinforced and perpetuated the cinematic myth that she was purely a Hitchcock creation (springing fully formed into the limelight courtesy of smash-hit drama The 39 Steps), but nothing is further from the truth.
By the time she worked with Hitchcock, Carroll had been successfully acting in films for seven years, her early body of work coinciding with an incredibly exciting period in film history – the transition from silent film to sound. Though she had notable successes both in Britain (Atlantic, The Dictator) and Hollywood (The General Died at Dawn, The Prisoner of Zenda), her idiosyncratic entry into films (via a beauty competition), peripatetic body of work and all-but-abandonment of her career following her sister's death during the Blitz have ensured that her career is reduced time and again to just a namecheck for The 39 Steps, which – while certainly a worthy epitaph – is a disservice nonetheless.
By 1931, Carroll had successfully made the transition from support player to lead actor, and her role in Fascination as Gwenda Farrell – a jaded actress on the rebound – is arguably one of her best. Ostensibly the "bad girl" in a tale of marital infidelity, her warm, vulnerable performance – especially so in her scenes with Dorothy Bartlam (as "good girl" Vera) – shows just how good she could be with the right material. A significant degree of the credit for this successful character interplay can be laid at the door of director Miles Mander.
Acting in British films since 1920, within a decade Mander had expanded his activities and had become an accomplished playwright, scriptwriter, dialogue polisher and director. He had scored a major hit in 1928, writing, directing and starring in The First Born – based on his own play and starring opposite Madeleine Carroll. He followed this up with an adaptation of another of his plays – The Woman Between, trade-shown in January 1931 – and then went straight into Fascination, which was shot at BIP's Elstree studios for Regina Films and trade-shown a few months later, in July 1931. Mander's obvious skill is in coaxing appealing performances out of all his actors – from the three leads, through supporting actors (special mention for Kay Hammond as Gwenda's airhead girlfriend) and even down to the walk-ons – the grievously disappointed drunken toff, for instance, is a classic bit of comedy business. Unfortunately, Mander directed only three more films before concentrating wholly on acting, carving out a lucrative niche during his final working years as an in-demand character actor.
From a technical point of view the film is rough around the edges, but there's a noticeable Warhol/Factory-style energy inherent in both the direction and performances which carries things through. Its script (courtesy of BIP stalwart Victor Kendall) tries gamely to transcend its theatrical origins, creating a film which gives a good kicking to the cherished prejudice that all pre-war British films are either low-rent quota fodder or high-minded, middle-class frippery. It also presents a final act so devastatingly modern in its interpersonal relationships that it beggars belief that this film is actually just over fifteen years shy of celebrating its centenary.
Despite going on general release across the country, only one copy of Fascination is known to exist – a 35mm print held at the bfi in its original nitrate format. Being an original exhibition print, continuous cinema projection during its theatrical run has resulted in missing frames, tears and general film damage throughout. The soundtrack is in a similar condition and, though restored as much as possible, subtitles have been created specifically for this DVD release as an aid to the viewing experience. Transferred in 2014 courtesy of a grant from the bfi's Unlocking Film Heritage fund, Fascination is one of those joyous (re)discoveries which definitively fills a gap in our knowledge of early British talkies whilst opening our eyes to how daring such films could be in the right hands. Despite its technical shortcomings, this is a film worth watching. Directed by multi-talented writer, director and actor Miles Mander, Fascination stars a luminous Madeleine Carroll heading up a strong cast in this light-hearted, emotionally engaging drama from the early 1930s.
Childhood sweethearts Vera and Larry Maitland have been happily married for several years. When Larry encounters vampish actress Gwenda Farrell, however, he lets himself be led astray... and when Vera finds out the truth, her solution is a novel one!
Fascination is presented here in a brand-new transfer from the only remaining copy of the film known to exist - a nitrate print. Though it has gone through a restoration process viewers will notice a drop in quality compared to other films in this range.
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