Film review: Flesh and Fantasy (1943)

Flesh and Fantasy 1

 

Director: Julien Duvivier. Screenwriters: Ernest Pascal, Samuel Hoffenstein, Ellis St. Joseph, based on stories by Ellis St. Joseph, Oscar Wilde and László Vadnay. Starring. Edward G. Robinson, Charles Boyer, Barbara Stanwyck, Betty Field, Robert Cummings, Thomas Mitchell, Charles Winninger, Dame May Whitty, C. Aubrey Smith, Anna Lee, Robert Benchley, Edgar Barrier, David Hoffman.

Two men (Hoffman, Benchley) discuss premonitions and fortunetelling, which leads into the three stories of the film. 1: an ugly girl (Lee) is given a magical mask that makes people think she’s beautiful, 2: a man (Robinson) is told by a fortune teller (Mitchell) that he will commit a murder, and 3: a high wire artist (Boyer) dreams that he falls during his act, the fall being witnessed by a woman (Stanwyck).

What the hell is this supposed to be? A supernatural film for a “sophisticated” audience? If so, the filmmakers should have taken a look at what Val Lewton was doing at RKO at the time, because Duvivier can pile on all the “weirdly” dressed extras and irrelevant, overdone locations he wants, he’s still unable to pull this disparate set of tales together into a functioning film.

The framing device with Benchley and Hoffman was tacked on after what was to be the first episode was cut from the film (it was later extended to feature length as Destiny 1944), and it’s entirely pointless, so let’s leave that to one side. The story about the ugly girl in the mask is overly romantic tripe which doesn’t set up, much less follow, any internal logic to its supernatural element. The episode isn’t helped by the fact that Betty Field is ugly to the same extent that the Frankenstein Monster is pretty; couldn’t Universal at least have had Jack Pierce put a lumpy nose on her or something? The Boyer-Stanwyck story is so mindbogglingly inane that I get the feeling someone realised the only way to make this tedious romance interesting was to stick some premonitory mumbo jumbo in there. Didn’t work, did it?

This leaves the second story, based on “Lord Saville’s Crime” by Oscar Wilde. It’s a good tale, well acted and staged, featuring some imaginative visual effects in the sequences where Robinson is having conversations with himself. This fine piece of cinema has to be dug out from the greasy, unappetizing mess that is the rest of the film, but it’s worth sitting through the surrounding crap in order to get to it.

Production values were showered on Flesh and Fantasy for some reason, which is annoying when you think of all the quality low budget films Universal was making at the same time and which deserved and could have used the money that was instead wasted here on throngs of needless extras and vast sets that the camera just pans through for the sole purpose of making the movie look expensive. But sometimes justice is served: not many people have heard of Flesh and Fantasy, and it doesn’t appear to have been a hit even when it came out. Too bad, though, that the Robinson episode wasn’t given the Destiny treatment ­– it’s the one part that deserves to be seen, and could easily have been expanded into a full film.

Rating: 5 of 10, its average misleadingly increased by the 7 of 10 “Lord Saville’s Crime” episode. (Episode 1: 3 of 10, episode 3: 4 of 10.)

Flesh and Fantasy 2

Flesh and Fantasy 3

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