Yesterday I had the enormous pleasure of seeing the two Dirk Bogarde Hallmark Hall of Fame productions at the Paley Center in New York! Neither show seems to be available on DVD or VHS anywhere else in the known universe (believe me, I have been looking high and low for months!) so I'd been eagerly anticipating the day that I could save up enough money to go to New York and see them.
I decided to watch Blithe Spirit first, since it was the one I was looking forward to more, and I have a hard time with the "save the best for last" theory. It's the story of a writer, Charles Condomine, whose deceased first wife comes back to haunt him after a seance with his second wife goes awry. The psychic was played by an over-the-top, hilarious, Emmy-deserving Ruth Gordon. Dirk Bogarde's character reminded me a lot of (also a writer) Nicholas Whistler, his character in Hot Enough for June. Like Whistler, Condomine seems a rather pulled together fellow until all heck breaks loose and he finds himself in the most unlikely of situations. Dirk approached this role in much the same way, with that endearing frazzled bewilderment and voice-cracking confusion.
The story was written by Noel Coward (score!) so it was dripping with wit and sarcasm. I think Coward is at his best writing dialogue for bickering couples, so it was absolutely delightful to have Coward dialogue for a husband arguing with not one, but two wives!
Clocking in at one hour and 18 minutes, Blithe Spirit was over much too quickly and I wished so badly that I had had the time to play it over again while I was at the museum. (Or take it home on DVD. Come on!!!)
My only complaint about Blithe Spirit is that it would have been even more marvelous if it had been a real movie instead of a tv-movie. To have had a real film crew with real direction and more expensive sets, it could have been an A+ production. Unfortunately, the sets had a very stage-like quality about them, and the camera movement was quite stiff. But really, considering how fabulous Dirk's performance was, how marvelous the story itself is, and how great Ruth Gordon was too, this is really a small technicality.
Next up was Little Moon of Alban. Small disclosure: I'm not a big fan of Julie Harris, and she was the main star of this program. I approached it thinking that maybe she wouldn't be as grating (to me) as she had been in Member of the Wedding, but unfortunately I found her just as annoying in this movie. And she is basically the sole star for the first forty minutes. I really didn't enjoy this one nearly as much as Blithe Spirit, but the opportunity to see a Dirk Bogarde performance that is otherwise not available anywhere else made me overlook my blase feeling towards Harris and the plot.
Little Moon of Alban is the story of an Irish girl who denounces God after her fiance is killed by the English in the Irish rebellion. Despite her obvious doubts, the next thing she does is become a Catholic nurse/nun. (She kept having to explain to people that she wasn't a REAL nun, just a nurse who had taken vows and was dressed exactly like a nun. It was kind of confusing to me, but then I'm not really familiar with Catholic traditions, so maybe it's just me?) Anyway, she becomes a nurse/nun and immediately gets assigned to a hospital for English soldiers. Ouch!
And here (FINALLY!) is where Dirk comes in. Only a few hours before the cease-fire, Dirk and his fellow soldiers are attacked and he is the lone survivor. Barely alive, lying in his hospital bed, he starts an argument with Julie Harris about war, God and belief. Their arguments continue for days as Dirk's condition worsens. Julie keeps trying to get him to believe in God, despite the fact that her own faith is kind of shaky -- something Dirk is definitely aware of. Despite their bickering (or maybe because of it.. you know how movies work) they appear to fall in love and everything comes down to an emergency operation in which even the operating surgeon thinks that there is no hope at all. Unfortunately, you can see the ending coming from a mile away. ANY movie in which a man falls in love with a nun ends with them going their separate ways. Perhaps there might be some modern films that don't work this way, but in everything I've ever seen, this is always the case. It may be sacrilegious of me, but I'm always rooting for them to get together (I'm looking at you, Audrey Hepburn and Peter Finch in A Nun's Story!). In this particular movie, it would have even made sense-- Julie Harris' character didn't actually have a calling to the church, she was basically just seeking asylum from the outside world that had killed her fiance. Discovering a new love that helps her get back into the world would have fit, and wouldn't have been devilish or anything since these nun/nurses get to renew their contracts every year instead of taking one big lifelong vow.
Anyway, Little Moon of Alban was redeemed, for me, by Dirk Bogarde's performance. It was amazing watching this one back to back with Blithe Spirit, because while the first showcased Dirk's enormous talent for comedy, Little Moon was a shining example of his outstanding work in drama. Playing a bitter, agnostic soldier facing his fear of death, Dirk's performance was moving, heartbreaking and - set against a stage-like, cardboard background - real. A fellow Dirk Bogarde fan sent me this review from when it first aired on TV, and I believe "haunting brilliance" describes his performance perfectly!
If you are ever in the New York or Los Angeles area, I highly recommend dropping by The Paley Center to check out these movies (or, if you only have time for one, Blithe Spirit). Admission was kind of tricky, though... typically a $10 general admission ticket gets you one hour in the media room, but both of my programs were almost 1.5 hours long each. You can call ahead of time and request a time extension, or you can purchase $15 research/scholar tickets, which get you as much time in the media room as you need.
I really wish that The Paley Center would start offering their database on DVD. I know they'd probably need to clear it with whoever owns the rights to each program, but it would probably be a bigger money-maker than their admission fees are. If they had offered Blithe Spirit (and, despite my general dissatisfaction with Harris and the plot, Little Moon of Alban because I am, after all, a die-hard Dirk Bogarde fan) for $80 a DVD, I probably would have coughed it up in an instant.