Friday, 4 February 2011

The Canterville Ghost (1986)

Based on an Oscar Wilde novella, there have been at least eleven film versions of the tale, mainly as television movies, each of which tended to revise the original story to the period when the film was made and none of which were scrupuously true to Wilde. I have the three best-known versions in my collection: the original studio production from 1944 and the TVMs from 1986 (under the microscope today) and from 1996. The last of these arrived by default as part of a giveaway collection, but actually has much to recommend it, insofar as it is the most faithful rendering and boasts a sympathetic lead performance from Patrick Stewart.

It is also the lead turns in the first two films which warrant their ownership, despite any failings they may have. The 1944 movie stars the incomparable Charles Laughton as Sir Simon de Canterville and I would happily watch him in just about anything (even with Abbott and Costello). Unfortunately the basic story was turned into some sort of Hollywood wartime propaganda with a squad of American GIs (including Robert Young, Mike Mazurki, and Rags Ragland) being billeted at the haunted English castle, actually owned by the six-year old Margaret O'Brien. Together she and Young (who turns out to be a de Canterville descendent) must perform an act of bravery to release Laughton's spirited ghost from the charge of cowardice which has doomed him for some three hundred years. I've not viewed this film for a while, but know in my heart of hearts that Laughton's performance would more than compensate for any potential tweeness.

As for the 1986 film, its saving grace and the reason for its place on my shelves is the presence of Sir John Gielgud as the mischevious, sonorously-voiced, and ultimately very sad ghost. His impish behaviour and his skill with a bit of throwaway dialogue outweigh the sappiness of the rest. An American family composed of husband and de Canterville descendent Ted Wass (who will forever be Danny in "Soap" to me), his new wife Andrea Marcovicci, and daughter Alyssa Milano (who progressed from television movies to an assortment of soft eroticism later on) come to live at the castle. If they can put up with the ghost's pranks for a fixed period of time, something that no one else in the family has been able to do, they can take possession -- and promptly flog the place to some upstart hotel developers who want to turn it into a 'quaint inn' for tourists. The 13-year old Milano is actually quite likeable here as she bonds with Gielgud's tormented ghost (having been doomed for killing his wife) and encourages him to continue his antics, in the hope of scaring away her hated new stepmother. More use is made of special effects (and in the later TVM) than in the first version; Gielgud's bodyless head on a silver platter spectacularly disrupting a dinner party provides particularly good fun, as do other bits of silly business technically less possible back in the 40s.

Undoubtedly, it is Gielgud who really makes this film cherishable. The English supporting cast is OK but the 1996 support outshines them, apart from possibly Lila Kaye as the hard-done housekeeper. As mentioned above, Milano does well as the unscareable youngster and I certainly preferred her age-appropriate turn to Neve Campbell's in 1996 (23 at the time, playing a teenager). However, with all three of movies, there would be little of lasting interest were it not for the three sparkling and memorable Canterville ghosties.
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