Friday, August 21, 2020

For Richard Burton Fans

He was an extraordinary actor. When he didn't allow the excesses of stardom to dim his talents and wisdom of script choices sometimes, Richard Burton graced the screen with several terrific performances. By the time the celebrated Welsh actor with the magnificent voice starred with Edith Evans in the screen adaptation of LOOK BACK IN ANGER (1959), he was a Hollywood star who had a couple of big screen clunkers and a couple of Oscar nominations under his belt. He'd been appearing onstage in London, wowing critics and audiences, when he was discovered with the help of two high profile fans who'd seen him -- Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Richard Burton came to America to screen test for Fox's 1952 costume drama, MY COUSIN RACHEL. Starring as the mysterious and alluring Rachel in the Daphne du Maurier story was two-time Best Actress Oscar winner, Olivia de Havilland. For his Hollywood debut, Richard Burton earned himself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. For his performance as Fox's 1953 Biblical epic, THE ROBE, he was an Oscar nominee in the Best Actor category. After that, movies like the overblown ALEXANDER THE GREAT (1956) and the soggy SEA WIFE (1957) co-starring Joan Collins as a shipwrecked nun didn't make box office history. However, a great Hollywood romance and some great scripts were only a few years away for him. Great scripts such as BECKET, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and, or course, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? co-starring Elizabeth Taylor, then Mrs. Richard Burton. 
In between the box office bombs and the sizzling romance with Elizabeth Taylor was LOOK BACK IN ANGER based on the popular and landmark John Osborne British play of the same name. It ushered in the era of "the angry young man" in British plays and films. Burton pounced on the opportunity to play Jimmy Porter, the angry young working class musician. Edith Evans played Mrs. Tanner, the maternal lady who can make him smile and drop his anger for a moment.
For the two actors, the 1959 film was a reunion. At the beginning of his film career, in Great Britain, they played mother and son in the 1949 drama, THE LAST DAYS OF DOLWYN. He's not the star of the film. A few names appear onscreen in the opening credits before we see his. The two top stars are Edith Evans and Emlyn Williams. Williams not only starred in the film, he directed it and wrote the screenplay. His previous work as a writer is known to fans of classic Hollywood films. Two of his plays -- the psychological thriller, NIGHT MUST FALL, and the dedicated schoolteacher drama, THE CORN IS GREEN, were both made into good, Oscar-nominated Hollywood films. 1937's NIGHT MUST FALL starred Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. 1945's THE CORN IS GREEN starred Bette Davis.

THE LAST DAYS OF DOLWYN is a tale of revenge and a mother's love. Williams plays the angry businessman who returns to the little village in Wales he left 20 years earlier when he was about 12. He was a poor kid, in a low-income Christian village, who was ridiculed for stealing. He never forgot or forgave some kids for laughing at him when he was caught. Now it's 1892 and he's been a successful businessman working for a water company in London. The haughty man returns to the Welsh village with the intent of buying the town out and making it seem like a great opportunity.

The movie opens with a modern-day scene. People stand on a bridge and read a plaque on a stone overlooking a great body of water. Out of the water, poking up, we see a church steeple. The plaque tells us about the great Dolwyn flooding. Two lives were lost. Only one body was retrieved.

Water from the company has to be distributed. Corporate heads know the water could be distributed around the village. However, Mr. Davis connives his way into handling the account in a rather clandestine way. The conniving Mr. Davis says "Money can buy anything -- and I've got it." He also says "I'm settling an account with the village." Smiling, he gathers the villagers and tells them that, in the name of progress, they will all get money to relocate to Liverpool where they can have better homes and jobs waiting for them in that more sophisticated city. All they have to do is take the money and go over the mountain to the other side. When he reveals the "progress" that will take place, the village clergyman replies "Dolwyn will be drowned."

And it will be. The village will be no more. That's Mr. Davis' evil plan of revenge.

Merri (Edith Evans) is a simple, Christian woman with two grown sons. She constantly reads her Bible. She doesn't push her views on anyone. She just reads her Bible, applies good Christian principles to her own life and she's the caretaker of the town church. She keeps it dusted, tidy and orderly for services.  She's a loving mother who loves the simple life of her village. Her son, Gareth, has lived in Liverpool and he's home for a visit. He too loves his village. Gareth (Richard Burton) is a sweet young man who will find romance during his stay at home.

Ironically, the one thing that keeps mean Mr. Davis from buying the village is a document Gareth finds in his mother's possession. She didn't even realize she had it but it carries great weight with the London corporate heads. It can save the village from being flooded and allow the families to stay in their homes. Merri challenges Mr. Davis.

It's fascinating to see early Richard Burton in this role. He was Welsh. In THE LAST DAYS OF DOLWYN he plays a villager in North Wales and he speaks Welsh. To hear him speak some of that language, to see him trim and smooth-faced with his voice at a higher octave, to see him energetically running happily through the fields of his village is quite lovely.
The kindness and unselfishness of Merri makes mean Mr. Davis even angrier. His hunger for revenge makes him a crazed man who gets into a brawl with Gareth. Merri will be forced to make a decision she never expected she'd have to make in her lifetime.
Edith Evans -- wow. What a performance. Emlyn Williams is perfectly evil as Mr. Davis and young, unspoiled Richard Burton is a joy to watch. How does the village of Dolwyn get flooded? You must see for yourself. If you can find THE LAST DAYS OF DOLWYN, take the 95 minutes to give it a look. It's good.



4 comments:

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