This remake of Warners’ 1924 John Barrymore feature gives us Elizabeth Taylor in the Mary Astor role, Stewart Granger as the fashion dandy of the Restoration Period, and a scene-stealing Peter Ustinov as a lonely, needy Prince of Wales. The history is still weak, but it at least doesn’t turn Brummell into a typical swashbuckler. Compensating are English actors that can get any script up on its feet, and Liz Taylor’s blue-violet eyes. And the Oswald Morris cinematography improves greatly on the MGM house style.
Warner Archive Collection
1954 / Color / 1:75 widescreen / 113 min. / Street Date March 10, 2020 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Stewart Granger, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley, James Donald, James Hayter, Rosemary Harris, Paul Rogers, Noel Willman, Peter Dyneley, Peter Bull, Finlay Currie, David Peel.
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Film Editor: Frank Clarke
Art Direction: Alfred Junge
Original Music: Richard Addinsell
Written by Karl Tunberg from a play by Clyde Fitch
Produced by Sam Zimbalist
Directed by Curtis Bernhard
MGM in 1954 had its progressive productions, to be sure, but the studio’s mainstream output kept on favoring costume dramas and stuffy remakes, as if every year were a repeat of 1938. John Houseman had slipped Marlon Brando in the side door for Julius Caesar, but it could be claimed that the fading studio’s busiest star was Stewart Granger, from 1950’s King Solomon’s Mines forward. Granger made two pictures a year for MGM until 1958, when he, Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse filmed their final contract pictures.
Beau Brummell is one of many movies MGM outsourced to England at this time. They saved money but also had the benefit of fine English craftsmen and the country’s excellent selection of character actors. MGM may have kept filming costume epics also because of the talent they had under contract. Granger was prime swashbuckler material. It’s possible that Peter Ustinov was cast because he was contracted for a second picture after Quo Vadis. Who knows what kind of contract Elizabeth Taylor had at this time, but the studio was billing her with every actor in sight — Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Lamas, Van Johnson, etc. She had already worked MGM in England at least once, for MGM’s superior Robert Taylor picture Ivanhoe (Now there’s a prime candidate for Blu-ray).
The fictional George Bryan Brummell of the Clyde Fitch play (1890) was cleaned up somewhat from reality. We meet Beau (Stewart Granger) when he’s an officer in the Tenth Royal Hussars, a personal unit of George IV, the Prince of Wales (Peter Ustinov). Beau dares to criticize uniforms personally designed by the Prince, and is so outspoken and impertinent that the Prince throws him out of the elite squad. Rather than move out for combat duty, Beau resigns his commission. Accompanied only by his faithful servant Mortimer (James Hayter), he takes up public speaking, further criticizing the Prince and his policies. Instead of being punished, Beau convinces the Prince that he can be his best friend and advisor, helping the presumptive next sovereign to appear strong against his political foe William Pitt (Paul Rogers). Although King George III (Robert Morley) is sequestered as a madman, Pitt and others keep his condition a secret and rule in his stead. Who knows when the Prince will ascend to the throne? Beau continues to live on credit, hoping to be granted a noble title when the Prince comes into his own.
Meanwhile, Beau advises the Prince not to do anything rash concerning his Catholic mistress, Mrs. Fitzherbert (Rosemary Harris), who like Beau, faces an uncertain future. Pitt rules her out, insisting that the Prince marry a German princess for diplomatic reasons. Another close advisor to the Prince is Lord Edwin Mercer (James Donald), who is engaged to the lovely Lady Patricia (Elizabeth Taylor). The dashing Beau Brummel threatens to upset that applecart as well, as he falls instantly in love with Lady Patricia. She’s mutually attracted, but insists that she’ll go through with her secure marriage.
Beau finally advises the Prince to have his father declared incompetent, so that he can assume the role of Regent and take control of the government (and marry Mrs. Fitzherbert). It’s a sharp plan that would give Beau an earldom and allow him to pay his debts, but history goes in a different direction.
I suppose that we can be grateful that this story of Beau Brummell isn’t distorted with saber duels, assassination attempts, or court intrigues with spies from the Napoleonic opposition. The real Beau Brummell makes an interesting central figure, but not a particularly heroic one. He sounds like the original social climber. He was indeed a major influence on fashion, changing what appear to be highly codified trends for school uniforms and eventually dress standards in fashionable society… in fact, that seems to be his only real contribution. We understand that Beau boldly breaks the fashion of powdering one’s hair with flour. The movie also shows him daring to pluck away Lady Patricia’s earrings in public, saying they’re unnecessary. Beau’s effrontery is taken as a compliment, when one would think that Patricia’s consort Edwin would be required to challenge Beau to a duel to save face.
Another fashion change we see is when Beau introduces stove-pipe pants, to replace knee britches and stockings. But Brummell’s fashion innovations are not given special emphasis — we see no montages of London switching over to his simplified fashion ideas, based on the concept of bespoke.
Actually, the play is determined to downplay the frippery and foppery, to give Beau Brummell a more masculine spin. The real Brummell was not a talented horseman or swordsman. He resigned his commission not as a point of honor, but because his unit was going to move to Manchester, a locale he considered too unfashionable. Even more to the point, the play and movie’s romances are entirely made up. Instead of a close friendship that might be construed as homosexual, the play makes Brummell a ‘lifestyle advisor and mentor’ to the Prince, who responds like a puppy dog because Beau is the one person he can trust. It is interesting that this pair of publicity stills present the Prince and Lady Patricia identically when posing with Beau. ( just above ↑ left and right )
Beau doesn’t overcompensate with acts of male hooliganism; arrogance and a willingness to affront titled aristocrats is his chosen form of aggression. He doesn’t play the field with the ladies, but his amorous pursuit of Lady Patricia serves as more evidence of a straight hetero inclination.
Beau Brummell is one of those movies where the main character is always keeping his creditors at bay with excuses and lies. Frankly, my sympathies are with the unpaid tailor and landlord. Brummell was able to live on credit by using his ‘connectedness’ to intimidate vendors. He had only a limited inheritance from his father; we’re told that he got into trouble by believing his own BS, and living like the wealthy noblemen with whom he associated. Stewart Granger’s Beau is insistent that he’s blunt with others to defend his pride and dignity. In the famous real-life incident, Beau throws away his future by insulting the Prince in public, at a formal ball: “Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?” Brummell’s biographers seem to think that Beau was just too accustomed to getting away with social affronts, and took his impudence one insult too far.
The most inaccurate element of the film is its invention of a final meeting between the old friends Beau and his Prince, that never happened. It’s by no means the most fictionalized account of history ever filmed, but Beau Brummell has little to teach us about the real historical trend-setter.
To its credit, Beau Brummell has a really good look, which I will dare to attribute to cameraman Oswald Morris (Beat the Devil), costumer Elizabeth Haffenden (So Long at the Fair) and perhaps designer Alfred Junge (Black Narcissus). Morris all but bathes Liz Taylor in flattering light, and he manages to make the high-key photography of interiors look rich and sumptuous. Several exteriors, including one with an entire regiment under inspection, seem to have been filmed in heavy fog — I guess England’s notorious gloomy weather can’t always be avoided. The episode most like an action scene is a party riding to hounds; it’s sort of a pro forma affair, with Patricia and Beau ending up together for some smooching in a quiet glade. Although a dissolve is involved, I think we can rule out anything more scandalous — it doesn’t look as if they could dress themselves without the aid of servants.
Director Curtis Bernhardt had a busy German career but made his Hollywood reputation filming vehicles for Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford — decent melodramas, if no classics. Beau Brummell looks like it was directed from a standard shot list, with no visual flourishes or style applied. The performances are very smooth, which was perhaps where Bernhard excels — nothing in the show clunks acting-wise, and the screenplay performs better than it reads.
Stewart Granger and Liz Taylor are good looking and beautifully costumed, but no great chemistry develops between them. I’m sure it’s Ms. Taylor who will sell the most Blu-rays, as her role is a parade of attractive gowns, nicely filmed by Oswald Morris. Peter Ustinov has a real part to play this time, and makes the Prince of Wales seem weak and sweet, rather than weak and gay. Robert Morley does King George up proper, waxing paranoid and even smacking a footman on the head with a candlestick (In the parlor? With Colonel Mustard?). The King behaves as expected, and tries to throttle his son the Prince, but even that can’t make a charge of insanity stick.
Further down the cast list, we get excellent playing by real troupers. James Donald ( above ↑ middle ) plays Lady Patricia’s intended very carefully, making Edwin neither a lout nor an idiot. James Hayter is just okay, doing duty as a grateful lackey. For some reason I frequently confuse Paul Rogers ( above ↑ right ) with Leo Genn; he’s a smart cookie as the Parliamentary honcho that blocks the Prince’s every plan.
Genre hounds will be interested to see favorite Noel Willman as Lord Byron, written into the play to provide another supercilious prig with whom Beau Brummel can speak on equal terms ( above ↑ left ). Peter Dyneley and Peter Bull are here as well, with walk-ons, and David Oxley and David Peel are said to be spot-able as footmen and glorified extras.
That leaves a special delight, the sweet Rosemary Harris, a famed star of London and Broadway. I know her exclusively from late-career roles playing grandmothers, as in the mini-series Holocaust and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. She’s also May Parker to Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, in the Spiderman franchise that began in 2002. Here in Beau Brummell she fills a glamorous role quite well, never appearing out-matched sharing the screen in numerous two-shots with Liz Taylor. Although Mrs. Fitzhugh doesn’t have many lines, Ms. Harris always makes her presence felt.
For a costume drama with no action, suspense, treachery or other extreme conflict, the history-challenged Beau Brummell ambles by thanks to star power, quality performances and visual beauty. We’re glad that the WAC is continuing to give notable older library titles the boost to Blu-ray.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Beau Brummell looks splendid. Filmed in Eastmancolor with prints made in IB Technicolor (to keep the London Tech plant going?), it always looks good and often much more than that. The picture doesn’t seem to have faded; the entire show looks far better than the sample images from the web I was able to find. The audio is listed as 2.0 stereo.
The one extra is an original trailer, which uses the ‘greatest picture ever made’ hard sell title crawl that MGM trotted out for most everything except lowbrow comedies. The clinches between Taylor and Granger are what sells this picture, and the trailer pushes the romance angle as hard as it can.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 5, 2020
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson