- Autumn Crocus (1934) movie review: Starring Ivor Novello and Fay Compton, Basil Dean’s romantic drama features mostly good performances while providing a wistful glimpse into middle-aged yearning.
Autumn Crocus movie review: Predating the similarly themed Summertime, Ivor Novello’s final film offers a poignant look at middle-aged longing
Can a naive, plain-looking spinster schoolteacher ever find real love in faraway places?
This was a question asked by Shirley Booth in Arthur Laurents’ 1952 play The Time of the Cuckoo; Katharine Hepburn in the 1955 David Lean-directed film version, Summertime; and Elizabeth Allen in the 1965 Richard Rodgers-Steven Sondheim stage musical adaptation, Do I Hear a Waltz?
Can such a woman’s yearning for romance ever be satisfied?
“Yes” and “No,” according to Basil Dean’s fine 1934 film Autumn Crocus, which marked the last big-screen appearance of British stage and screen superstar Ivor Novello.
Eclectic guest list
Adapted by Hollywood’s Dorothy Farnum from a 1931 play by Dodie Smith, Autumn Crocus starts out during the holiday season, when two British schoolteachers decide to spend their vacation together on the Continent.
Bespectacled, soft-hearted Jenny Gray (Fay Compton, reprising her stage role) longs to see the Austrian Alps, but her no-nonsense companion, Edith (Esme Church), wants only to get on with the tour and not linger in any one place.
Eventually, the two women end up at an inn high in the mountains of the Tyrol, where they share the place with an assortment of other guests.
These include a fun-loving German husband and wife (Frederick Ranalow and Mignon O’Doherty); a minister (George Zucco) and his sister (Muriel Aked); a young couple (Jack Hawkins and Diana Beaumont) living together openly “without the convenience of marriage”; and a prim matron (Alice Sandor) who likes to be shocked by them all.
While at the inn, Jenny feels that there is magic in store for her, especially when the innkeeper, Andreas Steiner (Ivor Novello), appears. She is smitten with the idea of romance, and who could better provide that than this youngish, handsome host?
Herr Steiner is charming and deferential toward Jenny, giving her all the attention she has always craved. It’s no surprise that romance soon blossoms, as the two lovers meet each other at every chance they get.
The magic that Jenny was seeking has arrived – or has it?
Love is nearsighted
When Jenny decides that Herr Steiner is the man for her, she removes her spectacles and suddenly becomes … beautiful!
This is a plot device that has always disturbed me. It happens to Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942), as well as other actresses in countless films. It seems to imply that nearsighted people don’t really need to wear their glasses. Or maybe it just symbolizes that love is blind.
Anyhow, time is closing in on Jenny. She is set to leave the inn on the following day, but Herr Steiner persuades her to stay.
But then, on their early morning tryst, Jenny is shaken when he mentions his wife.
Wives don’t have to know
Herr Steiner insists that he had previously introduced her, but Jenny knows that never happened. He then tries to encourage her to stay and be his mistress. “My wife doesn’t have to know,” he pleads.
The agony that Jenny feels is palpable. The bus is scheduled to arrive soon and she doesn’t know what to do.
For a while she decides to follow her heart and stay at the inn. But she is soon counseled by Edith, who is busy packing and getting ready to continue with their travel plans.
This is one of the best scenes in Autumn Crocus, for Esme Church’s Edith is remarkably compassionate in her response to Jenny’s dilemma. She takes Jenny’s hand and explains the status of a mistress, and what would happen if she ended up having a child in this illicit affair.
“Oh, you make it sound so sordid! So ugly! You ruined it for me!” Jenny cries.
What a line of dialogue! It is now Edith who has spoiled the affair, not the unfaithful Herr Steiner.
Ill-fitting Tyrolean shorts
Speaking of Herr Steiner, as pointed out further up, Autumn Crocus was Ivor Novello’s final film.
At first, his Austrian accent bothered me; it sounded phony. But as the Welsh-born Novello continued, I began to accept it, especially since his stage-trained voice has a nice, soothing tone to it. Overall, I liked his characterization while wholeheartedly objecting to his dreadful costume.
That’s because Autumn Crocus features Novello’s ample derrière packed into a pair of tight Tyrolean shorts. I found that distracting – not because Ivor Novello looked good, but because he looked ridiculous. Indeed, I felt embarrassed for him. Were there no full-length mirrors on the set?
As for Fay Compton – like Novello, a stage-trained performer in movies for more than a decade – she does an adequate job as the spinster teacher who trades in a lifelong dream for just a moment of happiness.
Ultimately, Autumn Crocus left me wondering whether Herr Steiner was really just a heartless cad or if his feelings for Jenny were genuine.
Having said that, at the end he does pick up a flower that had dropped out of Jenny’s bouquet. That implies he did somehow care for her.
Producer-director Basil Dean, who ran the Ealing studios at the time and who had priorly directed Autumn Crocus in the West End, must be given credit for moving the story along, with only a few slow-paced moments.
Lastly, I should add that Dean’s assistant director was Carol Reed, who went on to direct such fine films as The Fallen Idol (1948), The Third Man (1949), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), and the Academy Award-winning Oliver! (1968).
Autumn Crocus (1934)
Director: Basil Dean.
Screenplay: Dorothy Farnum.
From the play by Dodie Smith (as C.L. Anthony).
Cast: Ivor Novello. Fay Compton. Muriel Aked. Esme Church. Jack Hawkins. George Zucco. Diana Beaumont. Frederick Ranalow. Mignon O’Doherty. Alice Sandor. Pamela Blake.
“Autumn Crocus (1934) Movie Review” notes
 A prolific Hollywood screenwriter throughout the 1920s and at the dawn of the talkie era, Dorothy Farnum was a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract scenarist ca. 1925–31, working on vehicles for several of the studio’s top stars, notably Greta Garbo (Torrent, The Temptress, The Divine Woman), John Gilbert (Bardelys the Magnificent, Redemption), and Ramon Novarro (The Pagan, Call of the Flesh).
Farnum and Basil Dean collaborated on three British-made titles in the mid-1930s. Besides Autumn Crocus, there were The Constant Nymph (1933), with Brian Aherne in the old Ivor Novello role (in the 1928 silent directed by Adrian Brunel), and Lorna Doone (1934).
Dorothy Farnum died at age 69 in 1970.
“Autumn Crocus Movie” endnotes
Fay Compton and Ivor Novello Autumn Crocus movie image: Ealing Studios, via the British cinema blog Rank and File.
“Autumn Crocus Movie (1934): Stage Legend’s Last” last updated in January 2022.