Ivor Novello last movie: ‘Autumn Crocus’
Can a naive, plain-looking, spinster school teacher ever find real love in faraway places? This was a question asked by Shirley Booth in Arthur Laurents’ 1952 stage play The Time of the Cuckoo; Katharine Hepburn in the 1955 David Lean-directed film version, Summertime (1955); and Elizabeth Allen in the 1965 Richard Rodgers-Steven Sondheim 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 (Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger).
‘Magic’ in the Austrian Alps
Autumn Crocus starts out during the holiday season, when two British schoolteachers decide to spend their vacation together on the Continent. Soft-hearted Jenny Grey (Fay Compton) 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, they end up as guests at an inn high in the mountains of Austria.
While there, the two ladies 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 lady (Alice Sandor) who likes to be shocked by them all.
At the inn, Jenny immediately feels like there is magic in store for her, especially when the innkeeper, Herr Steiner (Ivor Novello), appears. She is smitten with the idea of romance, and who could better provide that than this young, 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 develops, 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 near-sighted
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 on their early morning tryst, Jenny is shaken when he mentions his wife!
‘My wife doesn’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 quite 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 tender and 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.
Tight Tyrolean shorts for Welsh-born, Austrian-accented Ivor Novello
Autumn Crocus was Ivor Novello’s final film. At first, his Austrian accent bothered me. I thought it sounded phony. But as the Welsh-born Novello continued, I began to accept it, especially since his speaking voice has a nice, soothing tone to it. Overall, I liked his performance while really objecting to his dreadful costume.
That’s because in Autumn Crocus Novello’s ample derrière is packed into a pair of tight, ill-fitting, Tyrolean shorts. I found that distracting – not because Ivor Novello looked good, but because he looked ridiculous. In fact, I felt embarrassed for him. Were there no full-length mirrors on the set?
As for Fay Compton, she does an adequate job in her role as the spinster teacher who trades in a lifelong dream for just a moment of happiness.
‘Autumn Crocus’ romance and moral lessons
The theme of Autumn Crocus, adapted by Basil Dean and Hollywood’s Dorothy Farnum from a play by Dodie Smith, revolves around issues of morality – European style.* Yes, men can be married and have a mistress on the side. Consenting adults can do whatever they wish, but the notion of “keeping it a secret” from one’s wife is what is considered immoral.
Ultimately, Autumn Crocus left me wondering if Herr Steiner was really just a heartless cad, or if his feelings for Jenny were indeed genuine. Having said that, he does have a scene at the end in which he picks 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 staged Autumn Crocus at the West End, must be given credit for moving the story along, with only a few moments of tedium. 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).
* Dorothy Farnum was formerly a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer screenwriter, whose credits include star vehicles for John Gilbert (Bardelys the Magnificent, Redemption), Greta Garbo (The Torrent, The Temptress, The Divine Woman), and Ramon Novarro (The Pagan, Call of the Flesh).
Autumn Crocus (1934).
Director: Basil Dean.
Screenplay: Basil Dean and Dorothy Farnum. From Dodie Smith’s play.
Cast: Ivor Novello. Fay Compton. Muriel Aked. Esme Church. Jack Hawkins. George Zucco. Frederick Ranalow. Mignon O’Doherty. Diana Beaumont. Alyce Sandor (as Alice Sandor). Gertrude Gould. Pamela Blake.
Image of Fay Compton and Ivor Novello in his last film, Autumn Crocus: Ealing Studios, via the British cinema blog Rank and File.
Ivor Novello image via the BBC.
Image of Ivor Novello embracing Fay Compton in Autumn Crocus: Ealing Studios, via Wikipedia.