The Narrow Corner is a great example of what draws me to classic movies, especially those from the pre-code era. It recently aired on TCM as part of their celebration of Ralph Bellamy films during August 2011's Summer Under the Stars. I recorded it, ignorant of what I now had and selected it to watch more or less randomly over dozens of other films I've recorded and have yet to watch. Right away the credits alerted me that The Narrow Corner is based on a work by W. Somerset Maugham, and so I knew I had a winner.
For those unfamiliar with Maugham, he was a titan of fiction during the first half of the twentieth century, producing an incredible number of books over an active career that lasted about 60 years. A master of the novel and short story, plays and essays alike, he's the creative force behind several major films adapted from his work during his lifetime: Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, The Razor's Edge, The Letter, and, yes, The Narrow Corner, were all adapted from Maugham.
I've read a lot of Maugham, most of it 15-20 years ago, but there was just so much that it would have practically become a lifetime occupation to read it all. Set in Maugham's favorite locale, the South Seas, The Narrow Corner felt familiar, but it'd been so long since I'd sat down with anything by Maugham that I couldn't recall if I'd read it or not. Most of my Maugham has been stored away, so I found myself climbing amongst boxes and finally stumbling upon my horde of Maugham inside the final box. It was all there, every other title mentioned above and several more, but no copy of The Narrow Corner. Disappointing, but I imagine Amazon will deliver the used copy I ordered by Monday.
The Narrow Corner is a brutal film at sea which tries to be beautiful on land, much of that beauty wrapped up in the character of Louise, played by Patricia Ellis. While the Warner Brothers' film sets The Narrow Corner in Maugham's beloved South Seas, beyond the occasional palm tree the location is indistinguishable from any other beach setting. The film tries to capture the bond formed between Fred (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) and Eric (Ralph Bellamy), but director Alfred E. Greene rushes things along at such a clip that the viewer doesn't feel the bond as much as he's explained it by Fairbanks. While this is a major weakness of the pace that I can only imagine is much more carefully drawn by Maugham in his own words, this breakneck pace is also, as usual for Warner's during the period, one of the major charms of the film.
The Narrow Corner may well serve as a good bellwether to determine just how much you'll enjoy most of Warner's pre-code output. The Narrow Corner has it all, the good and the bad, beginning with too many potentially interesting characters tossed into a 70-minute stew for us to care about many or most of them. The catalog of sin includes sex and drug abuse, along with some of the typical racism of the period embodied by the black crew of the ship and Willie Fung's indecipherable dialogue, plus in-story references to slaving which surely would have prickled the ears of some sensitive 1930's filmgoers.
Some of the characters, such as Louise's father, played by Reginald Owen, cry out for greater development. Owen's character is interesting with a memorable hobby and without even reading The Narrow Corner I can tell Maugham did much, much more with him. The fact that he's played by such a familiar and friendly face in Owen only adds to the expectation and eventual disappointment. It may have been best for the film to have dropped the character altogether.
The story races, the romance races and we almost immediately discover that Ellis' innocent little Louise doesn't want to remain all that virtuous with Doug, Jr. on the scene. The tension is heightened on land by heavy winds that seem to spell out coming trouble whenever they gust. The action at sea is fierce and the storm scenes will make you wonder if anyone really got hurt during the filming. That's a lot of water being dumped over our contract players!
The acting is strong, despite some of Fairbanks' histrionics, with fine performances especially from Arthur Hohl as the dyspeptic Captain Nichols and Dudley Digges as the philosophical Doctor Saunders. I kept waiting for Digges to turn nasty, especially right after I had watched him repeat what he did in The Mayor of Hell (1933) to Richard Barthelmess in Massacre (1934), but despite a murky past and a heavy opium habit, he remains somewhat virtuous, though very cynical, in The Narrow Corner.
The best performance in The Narrow Corner was that of the Dane, Eric, played by Ralph Bellamy, complete with Danish accent. I'm not a huge Bellamy fan finding him even blander than I'm usually supposed to, but he adapts such a realistic accent in The Narrow Corner that I went searching expecting to find that he was a first generation American born to Danish parents (he was not). Bellamy's dialogue is the only thing that takes its time in The Narrow Corner as Eric, dull as all the Bellamy characters that follow him, commands the room whenever he speaks.
Patricia Ellis is also very good here. While she's mostly called upon to look good, which she certainly does, her immediate attraction to Fairbanks' Fred is so strong that we know Bellamy is going to have a rough time keeping any of her affection. Ellis is all sex here and I found this heavy breathing version of her much more enjoyable than some of her sweet girls found in other thirties films. Fred didn't have a chance.
I continue to waver on Doug Fairbanks, Jr. I absolutely cannot stand him in one of the pre-code era's greatest films, Little Caesar (1931), and when I refer to his histrionics above it was Fred's excited states that recalled to mind his lousy Joe Massara of Caesar. But Fairbanks, Jr. is growing on me, really gaining ground after I saw him in Union Depot (1932) and The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933), and his Fred Blake of The Narrow Corner reminded much more of those down and out characters. The unfortunate part for Fairbanks, Jr. in The Narrow Corner is that his Fred Blake, by virtue of being the main character, suffers most from that fast pace, leaving him to tell a few things I'd have rather been shown. Fairbanks' best scenes come not with Ellis, but with Bellamy, as he does manage to show us how much he cares for Eric before The Narrow Corner explodes towards its ending.
The Narrow Corner is all about setting and character, again, a good deal of which is squandered due to budget. The story itself is basic:
A shady deal is made between a powerful representative (Sidney Toler) and the Captain (Hohl) to carry a mysterious character (Fairbanks, Jr. as Fred) at sea for a time, until unspecified things blow over. Fred is touchy about contact with others ramping up the idea that whatever deed he has committed is quite serious. The Doctor (Digges), a rare white man amongst the many small islands of the Pacific, joins them and after battling a ferocious storm they wind up anchoring on a sparsely populated island where Fred forgets much of his trouble for the sake of potential romance with the young innocent (Ellis) he meets there. Fred forms a quick bond with Eric (Bellamy) on the island, but conflict soon arises when Eric reveals that he has a secret engagement to the girl, Louise. Fred does his best to avoid Louise, but she proves irresistible and Fred soon has a new problem on his hands.
Fred, as Doctor Saunders remarks at one point, is too young to know much of anything about life yet. He not only learns lessons from the Doctor, but the despised Captain imparts wisdom to him through necessity at sea when he abandons Fred to steer the ship through a terrible storm so he can casually sip liquor below deck. Fred is bewildered that the Captain would abandon his post in the most trying of times but as the Captain tells him on his way out, the travail will either put him "out of his misery, or make a man out of you."
Fred awakes the next morning a new man who believes "if it's coming to you it'll come and that's that." The Doctor remarks that he thought he noticed a change come over Fred and advises him that sometimes when an unexpected misfortune disrupts one's life the resulting chaos may in fact be a stroke of luck which makes life exciting and breaks up the previously hum-drum path.
Doctor Saunders has seemingly seen and done it all himself. He comments, "Life is short. Nature is hostile. And man is ridiculous." Fred can't bring himself around to the Doctor's jaded thoughts, and he struggles to believe that "life is fair," which the doctor tells him is "asking for more than life can give." Exasperated with the Doctor's viewpoint Fred asks if there's nothing he believes in, to which Doctor Saunders replies "the world consists of me, my thoughts, and my feelings. Everything else is mere fancy."
As the wind rages through The Narrow Corner, Fred is left to decide if he can forgive himself, get on with life, and take what he wants.
Andre Sennwald in his original period New York Times review starts slow praising The Narrow Corner as "a picture that is good enough for a dull week" but he then goes on to crow about almost every aspect of the film, save Warner's "distorting the comparatively slight part of the girl." But on the whole Sennwald remarked that The Narrow Corner "repeated many of the most enjoyable epigrams out of Mr. Maugham's novel," and he distributed praise to performers Digges, Fairbanks, Jr., Bellamy, and Hohl.
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The Narrow Corner Facts:
- Originally published by Maugham in serialized installments inside Hearst's International Cosmopolitan Magazine, October-December 1932 issues
- Remade in 1936 as Isle of Fury starring Humphrey Bogart, Margaret Lindsay and Donald Woods - YouTube Trailer
The Narrow Corner Elsewhere:
There isn't a lot of available information on Patricia Ellis, who died in 1970, apparently long before anyone would have thought to quiz her on her 1930's screen career. A couple of the best online sources of biographical information that I found were on Allure and Classic Cinema Gold. Enjoy!