Saturday, October 17, 2009

Elephant Walk

"Elephant Walk" (William Dieterle, 1954) There are days...and movies...where you just want to say "this is just really bad," and be done with it. On to the next show with hope and a fresh perspective and a renewed realization of just how good cinema can be by seeing its failings.

Elephant Walk" was a "programmer." A fiction property with clamored-for stars and an exotic location (Ceylon, now Sri Lanka) that probably made it to the top of a double-bill (when so many classic films were always relegated to the red-headed step-child "second feature"). Translating it to cinema, though, takes whatever might have been of value in the details, and splays out its derivative nature 100 feet across. This one's basically "Rebecca" crossed with "Moby-Dick"--an ingenue, Ruth (the glowing Elizabeth Taylor, newly mature) marries a rich businessman and travels with him to his estate (Manderley in "Rebecca," "Elephant Walk," here) where the new locale and the strange customs and a mysterious past make her an outsider when she should be at her happiest. And the Maxim DeWinter of this story is a cad; John Wiley (Peter Finch, who sounds eerily Burton-esque on occasion) runs an imperial tea facility, and the estate sits smack-dab in the middle of an elephant trail to a migratory watering hole. The elephants are pissed about it, of course and, led by a particularly aggressive bull, make regular attempts to cross through the property, always pushed away by the Ceylonese servants keeping "Elephant Walk" running. John is Ahab here, his obsession with the bull tearing away the veneer of civility that Ruth fell in love with. And "Elephant Walk" has all the spacious sterility of a James Bond villain's lair.

To cement the "
Rebecca" ties, there is a vaguely threatening servant (Abraham Sofaer) who objects to the new mistress butting into things, and there's a locked room that she is not allowed to enter. Ruth, however, is more of a spit-fire than "Rebecca's" shrinking violet, and soon there are purple-tinged daggers flying from her eyes.

Oh, and toss in a little of "
The Painted Veil," as well. One of Wiley's workers, Dick Carver (Dana Andrews) is attracted to the new Mrs. Wiley, to the point where she seeks him out as an alternative to her cold husband. As if that isn't enough conflict with the stampeding elephants and the stampeding hormones, there's a cholera epidemic and a crop-threatening delay in the monsoon season, leaving everyone high and dry.

There's plenty of photographic evidence that Finch and Andrews made the trip to Ceylon, but it's evident that
Taylor never set foot outside of Los Angeles, fully a third of her performance being performed by doubles for the long shots and the stunts*—the latter comes to the fore with the inevitable laying waste of "Elephant Walk" elephants. The sequences of Taylor's double being chased around the sets, and shoved around on ornate staircases, by trained pachyderms has a high camp zeal that dissolves all the drama in fits of delirious giggles.** Maybe it was the cholera speaking.

* One should always research the history of a film before writing about it, but for a sorry strip of celluloid like this, research might evoke a bile-blocking sympathy not unlike the elephant-walls surrounding John Wylie's nature-defying manor. My bad. Here's the story: The reason Taylor is never seen in Ceylon is that Vivien Leigh was playing the role. Although it was shaped and initially cast for Taylor, a pregnancy forced her out of of the role, and Leigh started the filming in Ceylon, but bowed out due to her bi-polar disorder (and that's her in some of the long shots) as well as a rumored affair-gone-badly with Finch. That might have been avoided if the original casting had kicked in: Laurence Olivier as Wylie ("Rebecca" again...Olivier played Maxim DeWinter in Hitchcock's film) who was still attached to the film when Leigh was cast—a natural for the married thespians—but Olivier dropped out due to a scheduling conflict.

** According to the Wikipedia article on it, Leonard Maltin makes one of his rare slams of a movie reviewing "Elephant Walk:" "Pachyderm stampede climax comes none too soon."

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