Friday, May 4, 2012

The Moon and Sixpence

Herbert Marshall and George Sanders
in The Moon and Sixpence

After agonizing over Michelangelo’s ecstasy, let’s take a look at one film about art that gets it right.

In 1942, director Albert Lewin (1894-1968) made a film version of William Somerset Maugham’s 1919 masterpiece, The Moon and Sixpence.  An art collector and aesthete, Maugham was fascinated by both art history and the then-contemporary art world.  He had long wanted to write about the painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), but the novelist held sway over the historian, and Maugham wrote a highly fictionalize version.  In Maugham’s novel the painter, called Charles Strickland instead of Gauguin, is a middle-aged English stockbroker who leaves his wife and goes to Paris to become a painter.  He knows nothing of painters or painting, but something inside of him demands an artistic outlet.

After starving in a garret and learning his craft, he is befriended by a Dutch painter, Dirk Stroeve, who is convinced Strickland is a genius.  Stroeve nurses Strickland out of a long and dangerous illness, and is repaid for his kindness when his wife wants to run away with Strickland.  When he later jilts Mrs. Stroeve, she kills herself, another victim of Strickland’s artistic obsession.

Strickland eventually moves to Tahiti, where he lives with a native woman for many years before succumbing to leprosy.  He has painted the walls of his simple home with countless symbolic images, finding his artistic voice through an appreciation of the culture and customs of the primitive people he befriended.  His native wife, respecting his last wish, burns the house to the ground.

Though unnamed, the narrator is Maugham himself, and he becomes involved in the Stickland household through his friendship with the first Mrs. Strickland.  He also meets with Strickland in Paris, and later tracks down the story of Strickland’s fate in Tahiti while traveling the world himself.  

The genius of Maugham’s structure is that The Moon and Sixpence is really about two artists, Strickland and the narrator.  Both are creators and each has an individual aesthetic vision.  The major difference is that the narrator is passive – he watches life unfold around him and draws his art from it.  He may sometimes take a part in an event, but often from behind a mask, or a remove of indifference.  Strickland, on the other hand, is the protagonist of his own life – affecting lives around him for good and evil through a rapacious self-involvement.  Though the tale never becomes a confrontation between the two artists – either of talents or of temperament – the disparity between the two of them is instructive.

It would be impossible to think of a more appropriate writer and director for the film version than Albert Lewin, who was head MGM’s script development department under the legendary Irving Thalberg.  Moon is Lewin’s first film as a director; he would only direct five more.  He wrote all of them, producing several himself.  As a filmmaker, Lewin was also an aesthete – his films are all remarkably literary and subtle, filled with delicate grace notes and a sense of refinement. 

Moon and Sixpence the film remains very faithful to its source material, and is further bolstered by two remarkable performances.  Herbert Marshall (1890-1966) here named Geoffrey Wolfe, the Maugham stand-in, is superb.  Marshall started his career as a suave leading man, and graduated into playing benign uncles, sympathetic older men and writers.  (He would play Maugham again in The Razor’s Edge in 1946.)  Marshall had a gentle affect mixed with a sense of refined distance – a wonderful choice for Maugham/Wolfe.  It is obvious that anyone would confide in him, but his essential aloofness would keep him the perpetual voyeur. 

Strickland is played by the magnificent George Sanders (1906-1972), in what would be one of his first starring roles in a big-budget A film. Sanders would become Lewin’s secret weapon, starring in three of his six films (the others being The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Private Affairs of Bel Ami in 1945 and 1947, respectively).  Sanders is one of the most fascinating leading men from Hollywood’s Golden Era: he was not classically handsome, nor athletic, nor even particularly likeable.  However, he had a remarkable voice, by turns honeyed and sardonic.  Cynicism and sardonic irony often were his cinematic calling cards, and he spent many years as Hollywood’s favorite cad.  Strickland is something of a change for Sanders – there is a brutal, overbearing quality to the part, which Sanders, with his large physicality, captures wonderfully, but it provides little opportunity for his signature brand of silken villainy.  He would kill himself in Barcelona, Spain, in his 65th year.  His suicide note said that he was bored.

Steven Gerey (1904-1973) is quite marvelous as the mousey painter Stroeve, and Albert Bassermann (1867-1952), immortal thanks to his work with Hichcock and his role in The Red Shoes (1948), provides strong support as the doctor who treats Stickland at the end of his life.

The Moon and Sixpence is a difficult film for cineastes.  It is readily available on DVD, but the end sequence, where the camera lingers lovingly on the wall paintings of Strickland’s jungle home, were shot in Technicolor, and most prints are in murky, washed-out black and white.  However, George Eastman House struck a restored print complete with the Technicolor sequences which later aired on the indispensable Turner Classic Movies.

The Moon and Sixpence is one of the essential movies about artists – a subject that we’ll address again in the future.  If you ever have the opportunity, by all means catch it – even if it means seeking out the inferior DVD print.

So why does the film version of The Moon and Sixpence “get it right?”  Because the search for art is always the search for something transcendent, and more beautiful within us.  Often this search leaves devastation and ruin in its wake, as is the case with Strickland, or to an emotional and social detachment, as it does with Wolfe.  No quest is without its price, and The Moon and Sixpence shows that sometimes the coin comes very dear.

The title?  Maugham had written both that if you look at the ground for a sixpence, you miss the moon, and that if you looked only at the moon, you missed the sixpence at your feet.  As with much art – your personal point of view will drive your interpretation.

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