Although memorable roles still awaited--including a romance for the ages in Random Harvest and an Oscar for A Double Life--1939 marked a turning point in Colman's career. He made fewer films in the 1940s and appeared content to let other actors assume the mantle of romantic hero. What better way to make such a transition than as the melancholy artist hero of Rudyard Kipling's first novel The Light That Failed?
William Wellman's film version begins in England in 1865 with a sweet prologue in which childhood sweethearts Dick and Maisie decide to become artists when they grow up. When Dick learns of Maisie's pending departure, the two youngsters pledge to always love one another.
While walking one Sunday afternoon, Dick encounters Maisie, who is struggling to achieve any kind of success as an artist. They gegin to meet weekly to discuss art and Dick quickly realizes he has never stopped loving her. However, when he expresses his feelings to Maisie, she decides to leave for Paris. Although she values their friendship (and his artistic advice), she is dedicated to her artistic career.
At the same time, Dick loses his zest for painting, sometimes altering his original artistic vision simply to make his work more commercially viable. He becomes interested in painting again when he meets Bessie, a barmaid romantically involved with Torp. With Bessie as his model, Dick begins to paint again, though his work still lacks passion. It's only when he learns of an impending tragedy that he is able to channel his loneliness--and grief over losing Maisie--into his artistic masterpiece.
|Dick cradling Binky in his arms.|
|Ida Lupino as Bessie.|
Director William Wellman once said: "The best director is the director whose handprints are not on the film." Indeed, Wellman always adapted his visual style to fit his films. In this case, The Light That Failed comes across as a rather stagy affair, with many scenes taking place in Dick's apartment/studio. That approach is certainly consistent with Dick's introspection, but leaves the viewer with the impression of having watched a stage play. Still, it works well in some scenes, such as when Dick receives bad news in a doctor's office, with a clock ticking loudly in the background, reminding Dick (and us) that time has already started running out.
The 1939 Colman version isn't a great film, but it's a very good one that provides an ideal opportunity to watch a wonderful actor in a juicy role. Yet, while The Light That Failed, as a whole, almost achieves classic status, it falls just short. Its flaws are encapsulated in the closing scene. On the surface, it's a moving display of gallantry and freedom. However, as one ponders the ending, it's also a depressing testament to one who has given up on life.
Click here to check out the the awesome reviews written by my fellow CMBA members as part of the Classic Movies of 1939 Blogathon!