When I was in undergrad, I discovered the existence of Secret Agent. I was on a thirties Hitchcock kick and a Maugham kick. The idea of a Hitchcock Maugham adaptation? Should be something. At the time–sixteen years ago–Secret Agent was a major disappointment. I’ve still got an interest in Maugham adaptations, but I don’t expect much.
I worked up the Stop Button’s Quartets theme based a Google-facilitated discovery of a “Quartet film series.” Calling it a film series is a bit of a stretch–starting in 1948, Antony Darnborough produced three W. Somerset Maugham “anthology” films. Quartet, Trio, and Encore. I had a slight awareness of Quartet and Trio existing; I knew they were British, black and white, possibly acclaimed at the time of their release. I didn’t know they were anthologies of Maugham short stories.
Quartet has four stories, Trio and Encore both have three. Maugham introduced each of the stories; title card, with director credited; the same unseen, uncredited narrator (in all three pictures) starts reading the source short story.
The films were well-received, both by audience and critic. Though original production company Gainsborough Pictures only hung around for the first “sequel,” Trio, with another company–Two Cities Films–doing the second, Encore. It’s a shame Two Cities Films didn’t do all three, as Encore is easily the best of the bunch. It also has better screenwriters.
In none of the three films is it clear if “host” W. Somerset Maugham has actually seen the film segments. He doesn’t come off well. He’s awkward and disinterested in the film medium. The introductions range from pointless to discouraging.
Quartet has four directors–Ralph Smart, Harold French, Arthur Crabtree, and Ken Annakin–and one screenwriter, R.C. Sherriff. The stories involve, respectively, a Continental seductress exploiting a young British man, a rich kid who just wants to play the piano, a man whose new bride doesn’t like his kite enthusiasm, and a retired army man who discovers his wife writes explicit poetry.
At least two of the stories–first and third–have a framing device, which might work fine in prose, but just needlessly crowds the segments with characters here. Three of the four directors amble clumsily through their segments, doing nothing for Quartet as a visual narrative and even less for their actors. Annakin, in the last segment, finally shows something more than rote competence–it’s almost enough to turn the film around, or at least bring it above water.
It’s not, of course, because there’s only so much one part of an anthology picture can do to make up for the rest of it, but Annakin’s effort is a good one. The other three just make it seem like Maugham stories shouldn’t be adapted into short films.
The first sequel, Trio, reduces the story adaptations by one. Three stories, not four. Ninety minutes, not two hours. Unfortunately, the adaptations don’t get equal time. The first two stories, directed by Ken Annakin, are gentle comedies. The third story, directed by Harold French, is a lengthy melodrama better suited for feature-length expansion, not being forced into an anthology.
The stories in Trio are about a fired church verger’s small business success, an annoying cruise liner passenger, and life in a tuberculosis sanatorium.
The screenplay this time comes from Maugham (himself), R.C. Sheriff, and Noel Langley. Oddly, even though Maugham has more involvement, his introductions to each of the stories gets cut. All three times, the music and narration come up before Maugham has finished talking about these stories’ adaptations, which again it seems like he definitely hasn’t seen.
There’s a lot of good acting in Trio and a lot of good direction (from Annakin mostly). But the film lacks any bite–the relative cuteness of the first two segments don’t soothe the third’s hopeless melodrama, it just plunges Trio further into blandness.
Then, shockingly, after two disappointing entries, the Quartet series ends on a high point with Encore. It’s from a different production company, Two Cities Films, it’s got an entirely different set of screenwriters–T.E.B. Clarke, Arthur Macrae, and Eric Ambler–and it’s got two new directors for a couple of the segments, Pat Jackson and Anthony Pelissier. Harold French is back again to direct the last story.
Encore’s got the best scripts too. Best scripts and best concepts. The first story is about a lazy brother exploiting a successful one, the second is another cruise liner story (and Encore’s weak spot), with the finale being a high dive performer’s martial troubles.
Lots of great acting, lots of good direction. Even French, who previously had problems with his direction, comes through on his entry. Encore just has a better feel to it, mostly thanks to the screenwriters, but also the directors. It doesn’t feel constrained like the previous two.
So three movies in the Quartet film series, three posts for The Stop Button. Only Quartets is a monthly scheduling theme, posted every Friday, meaning I needed one more title. And I’ve been wanting to see The Moon and Sixpence for a long, long time. George Sanders in a Maugham adaptation? What could be better.
Sadly, many things could be better. The Moon and Sixpence is underwritten–by its director, Albert Lewin–which leaves Sanders and lead Herbert Marshall (playing a Maugham analogue, something Marshall would do more directly in The Razor’s Edge a few years later) with very little to do. The parts are just too thin; Marshall and Sanders can imply all the depth they want, but if Lewin isn’t going to acknowledge it, it doesn’t do any good.
Moon and Sixpence isn’t an easy novel to adapt–it’s a period piece, there are multiple locations in multiple countries, it would do well with a big budget. And Lewin doesn’t have one. There’s an even more fundamental issue. The source novel is loosely based on real-life painter Gauguin and Marshall’s Maugham analogue is the guy who wrote that novel. There are literary things at play, along with some grown-up, Hayes Code unfriendly content; Lewin tries to be faithful but he’s too obtuse. There’s nothing to bring it to a different medium, not even the simplest things. When Lewin finally does get around the showcasing what film can do, it’s way too late to do any good. It’d be more of a disappointment if Lewin ever exhibited any competency.
So another middling Maugham adaptation.
As of 2017, there have been over a hundred Maugham adaptions to film and television–fifty-eight film adaptations during Maugham’s lifetime, two television series dedicated to adapting just his stories–and when a Maugham adaptation is good, it tends to be real good. It’s unfortunate the Quartet series didn’t work out better. It’s unfortunate The Moon and Sixpence didn’t pan out. But they were a fine kick-off to the Stop Button’s Quartets scheduling theme.
At least I got middling Maugham movies done early.