A 1942 adaptation of A.J. Cronin’s first novel, Hatter’s Castle, strips away multiple characters and subplots, thus streamlining the film into melodrama. The material, however, is still ripe for social commentary:
James Brodie (Robert Newton) is a successful hatter, but a tyrant; a man who alienates family and villagers on the Firth of Clyde. He creates a small empire tolerated solely because of his financial success; he allows locals to infer the aristocratic pedigree that he projects from his recently constructed castle. When Brodie’s business ventures crumble, his vicious behavior leads to comeuppance.
The premise is rich with the social themes of the Industrial Revolution often associated with Charles Dickens, but Hatter’s Castle devotes more energy to an audience-friendly romantic subplot between Brodie’s daughter, Mary (Deborah Kerr), and a physician, Dr. Renwick (James Mason).
The romance is actually a triangle, with ne’er-do-well Brodie employee Dennis (deliciously portrayed by Emlyn Williams) as its third player.
As Mary and the kind doctor flirt, Dennis aims to manipulate the virginal young woman in a bid for fortune. When Mary becomes pregnant with Dennis’ child (following a strongly implied rape), the shame of pregnancy coincides with a dramatic implosion of the Brodie fortune.
The actions of Dennis and the doctor towards Mary conform to melodramatic structure, as the film shifts its attention back to the patriarch Brodie, the demise of his family and his own spectacular fall.
The atmospheric production was shot at Denham Studios by director Lance Comfort with light gothic touches and even dashes of humor. Hatter’s Castle never achieves the balance of similar productions during the 1940s (namely, the David Lean adaptations of Dickens’ Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, each of which also excise large portions of source material, yet retain strong thematic elements). Nonetheless, Comfort’s film version is entertaining if ultimately perfunctory.
The performances are commendable, though Robert Newton leaves no Victorian piece of set decoration unchewed as the patriarch Brodie (the role screams for Charles Laughton).
Early screen appearances of James Mason and Deborah Kerr are noteworthy. With several years of supporting work in British productions to his name, Mason was at the cusp of stardom in 1942, though he has little to do in Hatter’s Castle.
Kerr was only a year away from her breakthrough in Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and delivers a characteristically intelligent and genuine performance.
As a loathsome cad, however, Emlyn Williams energizes the film with a nasty but controlled interpretation of deceit.
© Doug Johnson
Hatter’s Castle (1942). Director: Lance Comfort. Screenplay: Rodney Ackland; from A.J. Cronin’s novel. Cast: Robert Newton, Deborah Kerr, James Mason, Emlyn Williams, Henry Oscar, Enid Stamp-Taylor.