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Very Stagey, But The Material Still Resonates
on December 10, 2002
Robert E. Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning IDIOT'S DELIGHT was one of the great play of Broadway's "golden age of drama" in the 1930s: starring stage greats Lunt and Fontanne, it told a darkly comic tale of a group of people staying at an Alpine hotel--including small-time nightclub performer Harry Van and con-artist and sometime entertainer Irene, the latter passing herself off as a Russian of noble birth--whose largely shallow lives create a ridiculous and often disturbing counterpoint to the world as it edges toward war.
Unfortunately, and although it is fairly faithful the the stage original, the screen version of IDIOT'S DELIGHT is nothing to write home about, and not even starpower saves it; indeed, it proved one of Gable or Shearer's few box office failures. There are several reasons for this, but the overall problem is that the production has the feel of a filmed stage play rather than of a movie; director Clarence Brown fails to endow the production with anything approaching a cinematic quality. The cast is also problematic. Although he delivers a surprisingly effective song-and-dance turn with "Puttin' on the Ritz"--the only musical number he ever performed on screen--Gable is essentially miscast as Harry Van; Norma Shearer, almost unrecognizable in a blonde wig, is relentlessly over the top in her performance as the fake countess; and even the usually reliable Burgess Meredith (along with most of the supporting cast) seems overblown and stagey, as if he were playing to the balcony instead of the camera.
But in spite of these significant drawbacks, the disturbing nature of Sherwood's story still packs enough of a punch for us to recognize how powerful the material itself is, and the vision of fools dancing recklessly on the edge of war has clear resonation today. Still, unless you are die-hard Gable or Shearer fan, you might prefer to catch this one on the late-late show instead of purchasing the expensive and out-of-print tape.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer