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Jean Simmons Films: Great Expectations + Black Narcissus

Jean Simmons Great Expectations Martita Hunt
Jean Simmons in Great Expectations with Martita Hunt.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Jean Simmons is Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month of June. Though never a major box office draw, Simmons either starred or was featured in a number of the most important movies from the 1940s to the 1960s. Among those are Laurence Olivier’s Best Picture Oscar winner Hamlet (1948), Henry Koster’s CinemaScope blockbuster The Robe (1953), Stanley Kubrick’s historical drama Spartacus (1960), and Richard Brooks’ film adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry (1960).

On Tuesday, June 7, TCM will be showing five of Simmons’ early British films: David Lean’s film version of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1946), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece Black Narcissus (1947), Brian Desmond Hurst’s family drama Hungry Hill (1947), Charles Frank’s thriller Uncle Silas (1947), and Anthony Asquith’s psychological World War II drama The Way to the Stars (1945).

I’ve watched Great Expectations twice, but I haven’t been able to warm up to Lean’s movie adaptation despite several pluses, including Finlay Currie’s performance as the prison escapee and Guy Green’s superb black-and-white cinematography. As the young Estella, Simmons seems as out of her element as the three leads: John Mills, Alec Guinness, and Valerie Hobson (as the adult Estella). Anyhow, some consider Great Expectations to be the director’s finest work and the finest film ever made from a Dickens novel. Personally, I much prefer Alberto Cavalcanti’s generally dismissed Nicholas Nickleby.

I’ve heard that author Rumer Godden hated Black Narcissus with a passion. If that’s true, I couldn’t disagree more with Godden’s assessment of the film.

Despite its obviously painted backdrops and at times overheated melodrama (much of the overheating stems from Kathleen Byron’s performance as a sex-starved nun), this Powell-Pressburger effort set in the Himalayas remains one of my favorite movies of the ’40s. Part of the reason is Deborah Kerr’s complex portrayal of a nun who, inwardly at least, questions both her faith and her vows (particularly the one related to chastity). Jean Simmons is weirdly miscast as a local girl, nose ring and all.

I found The Way to the Stars tough going, as neither John Mills nor Michael Redgrave got me interested in their issues. One of these days, I’ll check it out again; it’s been a while. Jean Simmons has a bit part as a singer.

I’ve yet to watch both Hungry Hill, starring Margaret Lockwood, and Uncle Silas, which features master scenery-chewer Katina Paxinou.

Schedule (ET) and synopses from the TCM website:

8:00 PM Great Expectations (1946) A mysterious benefactor finances a young boy’s education. Director: David Lean Cast: John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Bernard Miles. Black and white. 118 mins

10:15 PM Black Narcissus (1947) Nuns founding a convent in the Himalayas are tormented by the area’s exotic beauty. Director: Michael Powell Cast: Deborah Kerr, Sabu, David Farrar. Color. 101 mins

12:15 AM Hungry Hill (1947) Two Irish families feud over a copper mine. Director: Brian Desmond Hurst Cast: Margaret Lockwood, Dennis Price, Cecil Parker. Black and white. 102 mins

2:15 AM Uncle Silas (1947) A young woman’s uncle and governess plot to kill her for her inheritance. Director: Charles Frank Cast: Jean Simmons, Katina Paxinou, Derrick De Marney. Black and white. 103 mins

4:00 AM The Way to the Stars (1945) A young flyer deals with the strains of wartime service and survivors’ guilt during World War II. Director: Anthony Asquith Cast: Michael Redgrave, John Mills, Rosamund John. Black and white. 109 mins

Turner Classic Movies website.

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