Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.

*****

  • Film & Year: East Lynne (1931)
  • Standing: Nominee for Best Picture of 1930/31
  • Type: Drama
  • Other AA Nominations: None
  • Other AA Wins: None
  • Director: Frank Lloyd
  • Studio/Producer: Fox Film Corporation
  • Cast: Ann Harding, Conrad Nagel, Clive Brook, Cecilia Loftus
  • Production Notes: Based on the book by Mrs. Henry Wood (Ellen Wood)Adapted for the screen by Tom Barry and Bradley King, Cinematography by John F. Seitz, Costumes by Sophie Wachner, Art Direction by Joseph Urban, Music by Richard Fall
  • Viewing Order: 16 / 270
east lynne.jpg
Photo taken from IMDb.com

Summary & Viewing Experience:

Lady Isabel (Ann Harding) follows her new husband, solicitor Carlyle (Conrad Nagel), to his East Lynne estate and is given a rather chilly welcome by his sister, Cornelia (Cecilia Loftus), the lady of the house. Cornelia’s introduction is so similar (visually and otherwise) to that of Mrs. Danvers in Selznick and Hitchock’s version of Rebeccaa few years later (and indeed the characters and their relationship to the female protagonist also run parallel to a point), that one is forced to wonder how influenced they were by this film. Romantic and youthful Lady Isabel is disappointed to realize that her husband and his sister are stodgy and set in their ways and no fun is to be had at East Lynne.

3 years later and the Carlyles now have a son, but life is just as dull for the stifled Isabella. When an old suitor, Captain Levison (Clive Brook), comes to visit, a misunderstanding leads to Isabel being rejected by her husband and ejected from the home and the life of her beloved son. Divorced and cast out of society, Isabel reconnects with the smarmy Levison and lives it up in Paris while Carlyle, back at East Lynne, remarries an old family friend, Barbara Hare. Following an avalanche of tragic events, Isabel returns to East Lynne…

East Lynne reminds me of a soapier and more soul crushing version of The Divorcee. Ann Harding’s performance (a mix of stage theatrics and naturalness with a dash of fire) reminds me a bit of Norma Shearer’s in that film and at times she even physically resembles her, despite the period costumes. Ann Harding had a patrician, but tragic way about her as an actress that suited Lady Isabel perfectly. While I don’t believe it merited an actual win, it’s sort of hard to believe that Harding’s performance didn’t earn her a Best Actress nomination. In fact, the only award that East Lynne was even up for this year was Best Picture (it did not win).

The book of the same title was written by Ellen Wood (as ‘Mrs. Henry Wood”) in 1861 and was a sensation for its naughty and intricate plot. With this being a pre-code film, I was hopeful that none of the salaciousness of the novel would be left out. I was disappointed in that. There was in actuality, quite a bit that was left out and altered. In the book, Isabel is the one who chooses to leave her husband and son after she develops feelings for the rake Levison while also suspecting that Carlyle is having a romance with family friend Barbara. She later regrets her decision, after being impregnated and shunned by Levison, who refuses to marry her (all of this is left out of the film). While in the book, she is a woman who makes a mistake and pays for it tenfold, in the film, Isabel is undoubtedly a solely sympathetic victim.

I admit, I had never heard of East Lynne (the book or film) before this challenge, which I find rather amazing now in hindsight considering my love of gothic novels and period melodramas and considering that the novel was adapted for film and TV as many times as it was (in the double digits).

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Clive Brook and Ann Harding in East Lynne, photo credit: The Sedalia Democrat, March 30, 1931

Behind the Scenes:

At the time she made East Lynne, Ann Harding had a small child and would soon be going through a much publicized divorce and custody battle of her own, somewhat like her character Lady Isabel.

Why was it nominated for Best Picture?

Much was made out of the combination of artistic talents that contributed to the film, especially the music by composer Richard Fall and the set design by Joseph Urban, though neither would end up being nominated for Academy Awards.

How does it hold up today?

While period melodramas have never really gone out of vogue, this film is undeniably dated by way of acting style and presentation. Statistically, though, it’s pretty hard to tell either way if it holds up or not because many modern viewers have yet to see it. IMDB shows a measly 95 reviews and Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t even have enough for a rating.

  • IMDb = 6.8 out of 10
  • Rotten Tomatoes = N/A

Would this be my pick for 1930/31’s Best Picture?

Probably not. Had the film stuck a bit closer to the book and given us a heroine not quite so syrupy, maybe, but as it is it felt almost drained of blood. Not a bad film, but not quite a good one either.

*My full 1930/31 ranking will be updated after all films from the year are watched