Sunday, March 01, 2009

Script Review – “Mary Rose”

Hello, my friends,

This is the first of two final posts on what may have felt as a never-ending series on the Unproduced Screenplays of Alfred Hitchcock.

Woo hoo! Hehehe...

This was the film Hitch purportedly wanted to make more than any other but the studios always refused. Biographer
Donald Spoto said that Hitch’s failure to make this film was “perhaps the single greatest disappointment of his creative life.” Hitch would say repeatedly in interviews that his contract with Universal allowed him to make any film so long as it cost under $3 million and so long as it wasn't Mary Rose. Of course, this was never verified and probably not true. In truth, the reasons why this didn’t happen are complicated, involving the Tippi Hedren fallout, the failure of Marnie, Hitch’s career crisis, and concerns about audience expectations of Hitch at the time.

In any event, Mary Rose was originally a play by
J.M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame) that Hitch had seen in his youth and loved dearly. In fact, he saw the original production at London’s Haymarket Theatre and was so enraptured by Fay Compton’s performance as Mary Rose that he cast her as the countess in his 1933 film, Waltzes from Vienna. When he was preparing to produce Mary Rose in the early 60’s, he inquired about Compton’s availability (probably to play Mrs. Morland or Mrs. Otery). According to Dan Auiler, during the production of Vertigo, Hitch had sought out from England the play’s original score and sound effects, which he sent to his composer, Bernard Herrmann, for inspiration. (The “call” that prompts Mary Rose's disappearance, which I’ll write about in a bit, was created with bagpipes and “wordless voices” played on a musical saw. Hitch described the sound as “celestial voices, like Debussy's Sirenes.”) Hitch also clung to the rights of the play until 1987 well after his death. He commissioned the only screenplay for Mary Rose (on his own without studio approval and without a greenlight). The script was written by Jay Presson Allen, who wrote the final draft of Marnie. The screenplay can be read here, thanks to Derosa’s Writing with Hitchcock website. (Be warned: the script is a huge 21 MB file.)

Let me just say, when I first went through the script, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The first twenty pages was the most awful, talkative, static scene I’ve ever encountered in a script and never imagined I’d find in any kind of Hitchcock project. It was two people talking in a room, and it went on and on and on... I thought the damn scene would never end. The next scene was more people talking in a room, which went on for another thirty pages or so. This was followed by a visit to a mysterious island in which all they did for yet another 20-30 pages was sit in one spot and talk. And talk. Was Hitch truly serious about this? Everything in this script betrayed his principles of
pure cinema. I could understand Universal’s objections.

But I labored on to the end.

And what I discovered was something at once inexplicable and yet so powerfully moving that I could not get Mary Rose out of my system. In fact, the feelings from the story continue to linger inside of me. So I bought the original play and read it and loved it even more.

The story is very simple, which begins with a man, named Harry (changed to Kenneth in the script) who visits a spooky house that’s for sale. It’s haunted. Harry talks to the keeper of the house, Mrs. Otery, and explains that he used to live there as a child. He points out details he remembers. There’s a hidden little door that leads to another room, but it’s locked. And then he inquires about the ghost stories. Mrs. Otery reluctantly tells him it’s just some scared little woman, nothing to fear. At the end of the first scene, Harry has a spooky encounter with the unseen ghost (oddly missing from the screenplay).

And then we go back in time in a flashback structure to when the house was anew. We meet the parents of Mary Rose, Mr. and Mrs. Morland and a friend of theirs, Mr. Amy. Mr. Morland and Mr. Amy have an ongoing competition about obtaining works of art. The dialogue is playful. Mr. Amy leaves. Mary Rose enters. She's eighteen and wants to marry a middle-aged man named Simon. The Morlands want to talk to Simon alone first. She leaves. In fact, she goes up to the attic to knock on the floor so he’d know she’s nearby and supporting him. (The sheer fun and playfulness of J.M. Barrie’s dialogue is just infectious.) So the parents tell Simon a story about Mary that they felt he should know before marrying her. They took her to an island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides years ago on a vacation. At the time, she was eleven in the play but seven in the script. The name of the island in Gaelic means “The Island That Likes To Be Visited.” Mr. Morland would fish and watch Mary Rose sketch on the island. Well, one day, she disappeared. They looked all over for her. She was gone for thirty days. And on the thirtieth day, she was found again in that same spot and never realized she had been gone. For her, it was as if a few minutes had passed. They never told her what happened. Yet, somehow, Mary Rose had changed a little. Her mother, Mrs. Morland, said, “I have sometimes thought that our girl is curiously young for her age – as if – you know how just a touch of frost may stop the growth of a plant and yet leave it blooming – it has sometimes seemed to me that a cold finger had once touched my Mary Rose.”

Simon responds by saying, “What you are worrying about is just her innocence - which seems a holy thing to me.”

Naturally, Simon is not dissuaded by the story. The parents consent to the marriage. Simon and Mary reunite, celebrate, and Mary mentions taking him to her favorite island in the Hebrides someday.

Cut to a few years later. They’re on the island. They have a 3-year-old son back home named Harry (Kenneth in the script). She talks about how much fun it would be to sit on Harry’s knee one day when he’s older just as she has him sit on hers. They had been ferried to the island by an Irishman named Cameron who has lunch with them. He’s funny. He tells them stories about the island, one of which was the story of Mary Rose’s disappearance that doesn’t quite click with her. As they prepare to leave, Mary Rose disappears once again.

Cut to almost thirty years later. We’re back at the house with the now elderly Morlands and Mr. Amy. They never found Mary Rose and only recently healed from the wounds. Simon comes back to see them. He’s a Captain of a vessel, I believe, in the war (WWI). Harry escaped to sea at the age of twelve and they haven't heard from him since. In the script, he's missing and thought to be taken prisoner in the war.

And then they get the news. They found Mary Rose. In fact, Cameron found her back in the spot where they left her thirty years ago and he’s bringing her home. When she arrives (and I swear this moment leaves me breathless every time I read it), they discover that Mary Rose is still young. And Mary likewise cannot fathom what’s happened to her. She keeps crying for Harry, her son. This reunion between Mary Rose and her family was heavily expanded in the screenplay to great effect. It’s inexplicable what has happened, and yet, I cannot deny the powerful emotions J.M. Barrie so effectively exploited here.

Cut back to Harry with Mrs. Otery in the house now abandoned and for sale and haunted. Harry goes through the tiny door to the other room and discovers that the ghost is, of course, his mother, Mary Rose. They have a conversation that’s so satisfying and so therapeutic on so many levels. It’s one of those conversations you find in drama that you wish would never end as you read it. Harry’s interaction with Mary resolves her ghostly wandering and searching for her long lost son, and she’s freed to go back to the island. The dialogue in this scene was so very playful and tender. At one point, she actually sits on his knee.

Harry: Do you see who I am now?
Mary Rose: Nice man.
Harry: Is that all you know about me?
Mary Rose: Yes.
Harry: I wonder if there was ever a man with a ghost on his knee before.
Mary Rose: (innocently) I don’t know.
Harry: Seems to me you’re feared of being a ghost.
Mary Rose: Yes.
Harry: I dare say, to a timid soul, being a ghost is worse than seeing them.
Mary Rose: Yes.
Harry: Is it lonely being a ghost?
Mary Rose: Yes.
Harry: Do you know any other ghosts?
Mary Rose: (sadly) No.
Harry: Would you like to know other ghosts?
Mary Rose: Yes.
Harry: I can understand that.

And later:

Harry: All I know about [ghosts] for certain is that they are unhappy because they can’t find something, and then once they’ve got the thing they want, they go away happy and never come back.

And thus, in a moment full of effects, Mary Rose returns to the island.

The end.

Isn’t that a strange story? What the hell does it all mean? What does the island represent exactly? Not even Barrie knew. He just imagined it and wrote it. I’d like to delve into the meaning of the play here and then talk about the script in PART TWO on Tuesday.

There’s more than meets the eye with Mary Rose. After reading the script, I had to know everything about this play, and interestingly, the last few years actually brought some revivals of the play, the most popular would probably be the
early 2007 production with Paige Howard (daughter of Ron Howard) at the Vineyard Theatre. I’m grateful because it generated some interesting articles.

Here’s Charles Isherwood
in The New York Times:

Although Barrie wrote many plays, even his popular successes, like “The Admirable Crichton” and “What Every Woman Knows” have been largely relegated to the ranks of the unrevived. After its United States premiere in 1920, “Mary Rose” was seen on Broadway very briefly in 1951. Then, like the rest of Barrie’s stage work (“Peter Pan” spectacularly excepted), it sailed off into the Neverland of theatrical obscurity. Such a fate is somehow apt for this elegantly plotted ghost story, which tells of a spunky British lass who has an odd habit of evaporating and then reappearing. The play is in many ways a more mature and mournful reworking of themes Barrie explored in the tale of the boy who refused to grow up. Time is seen as a quiet despoiler of happiness and innocence, and the lure of another world unblemished by its passing has an irresistible seduction.

Steve Cramer
wrote in The Scotsman:

On the face of it, the story Mary Rose has to tell has little to do with the war; its title character's story occurs before the start of hostilities. As a child about to enter adulthood, she disappears from a Scottish island on which her family are holidaying, only to emerge weeks later with no account of what has transpired. At a second significant juncture, as she enters motherhood, she disappears from the same ill-omened place, only to emerge, eerily, a generation later. What is emphasised about the character is her continual, childish innocence, as if, after her first disappearance, her growth is stunted. Parallels are drawn between 1904's Peter Pan and this character, yet Peter's continuation as a child is an act of choice, while Mary Rose's development is abruptly halted by inexplicable circumstance. The metaphor must have been especially relevant to a 1920 audience.

Here are John Lahr’s comments
in The New Yorker:

“The only ghosts, I believe, who creep into this world, are dead young mothers, returned to see how their children fare,” Barrie wrote. He knew, from experience, that a mother could be both alive and dead. In 1867, when he was six, his thirteen-year-old brother, David, was killed in a skating accident. Barrie’s mother, Margaret, took to her bed and became a ghostly presence, who was both there and not there for her little boy. “Do you mind nothing about me?” Barrie recalled asking her as he sat on her bed, in his idealizing memoir, “Margaret Ogilvy.” To revive his mother, Barrie even dressed up as David and tried to imitate David’s whistle. (He also is said to have stopped growing at the age at which his brother died, and was only five feet tall.) “She lived twenty-nine years after his death,” Barrie wrote of his mother. “But I had not made her forget the bit of her that was dead. . . . In those nine-and-twenty years he was not removed one day farther from her. Many a time she fell asleep speaking to him, and even while she slept her lips moved and she smiled as if he had come back to her, and when she woke he might vanish so suddenly that she started up bewildered and looked about her, and then said slowly ‘My David’s dead.’ ” In life, Barrie could not heal his haunted mother or reclaim her; in “Mary Rose,” written fifteen years after “Peter Pan,” when Barrie was almost sixty, he does both. In the play, Harry (Richard Short), who left home at the age of twelve to go to sea, returns as an adult to release her ghost from its restless tribulation. “Being a ghost is worse than seeing them,” he tells his mother when they confront each other at the finale.

And later, he wrote:

When Harry first returns to the haunted family home, he’s dressed in a First World War uniform; he takes a dagger from his belt and sticks it mysteriously into the floorboards. “It’s not a knife, it’s a visiting card,” he tells the housekeeper, who goes to make him some tea. The knife augurs some kind of battle. While Harry waits for his tea, the play happens; he imagines Mary Rose’s entire story. When her ghost is finally coaxed into view, the knife disappears. Harry, who doesn’t seem at all scared, demands that she return it; she hands it over. There is no contention, no struggle, and, finally, no drama. Barrie didn’t want to face his own aggression in life; he can’t face it in theatre, either. Here, with the empathic power of his imagination, Harry, whose mother never actually recognizes him, nonetheless liberates her from woe and engineers a kind of salvation for them both. The psychological progress—this is commercial entertainment, after all—is strangely painless, a fairy tale of deliverance, mostly Barrie’s own. The last line of this production is Barrie’s final stage direction, “Harry hears nothing but he knows somehow a prayer has been answered”; that prayer was Barrie’s.

Joseph McBride wrote
in Cineaste:

Barrie's style is charmingly fey. But something sinister about Mary Rose's reason for disappearing is briefly suggested by her cryptic response to her father when he asks what frightens her. She replies, "I am most afraid of my daddy." Perversely, this revelation leaves Mr. Morland "rather flattered." It implies that her escape to her "safe place"--safe from growth, sexuality, and the adult responsibilities of marriage and motherhood--is motivated by fear of being dominated or even sexually violated by her father, and perhaps also by fear of her future with her equally paternalistic husband. Along with its overtones of incest, her anxiety suggests the dangerous futility of attempting to preserve childhood innocence beyond natural limits.

The play's great success with British audiences in 1920 has been attributed in part to its psychological timing. Mary Rose opened less than eighteen months after the end of World War I. In the stage version, Mary Rose's son, who has run off to sea at the age of twelve, returns from the war as an Australian soldier. Patrick Chalmers observed that Barrie's "lovely and spiritual conception was staged in the ugly and uneasy period that followed immediately upon" the armistice, bringing "joy and peace and a tear or two to thousands, weary of the War and the War's aftermath, during the years of its run." Audiences took from the play a mystical answer to Rudyard Kipling's cry of national bereavement, "But who shall return us the children?"

And also:

Matte artist Albert Whitlock, whom Hitchcock described in the late 1970s as "by far the finest technician that we have in our business today," had trouble grasping what the director had in mind for Mary Rose. Whitlock remembered doing "a lot of sketches" for the project, calling it "a very moody thing. And I said to him, because he was always very strong on the selling point, 'What's the selling point, Hitch?'" Revealing his need to claim Barrie's story as his own, Hitchcock replied that the film would be sold not as "Hitchcock's Mary Rose" but as "A Ghost Story by Alfred Hitchcock: Mary Rose." "That'll get 'em," Hitchcock declared.

A somewhat more concrete sense of what Hitchcock visualized came in his discussion of the project with Truffaut in their 1967 interview book. Hitchcock described Mary Rose as "a little like a science-fiction story. I still haven't definitely dropped the idea of making it. A few years back it might have seemed that the story would be too irrational for the public. But since then the public's been exposed to these twilight-zone stories, especially on television...

"If I were to make the film, I would put the girl in a dark-gray dress and I would put a neon tube of light inside, around the bottom of the dress, so that the light would only hit the heroine. Whenever she moved, there would be no shadow on the wall, only a blue light. You'd have to create the impression of photographing a presence rather than a body. At times she would appear very small in the image, at times very big. She wouldn't be a solid lump, you see, but rather like a sensation. In this way you lose the feeling of real space and time. You should be feeling that you are in the presence of an ephemeral thing, you see."

"It's a lovely subject," commented Truffaut. "Also a sad one."

"Yes, very sad," Hitchcock agreed. "Because the real theme is: If the dead were to come back, what would you do with them?"

(Click here for Part Two


Anonymous said...

Do you happen to know if in the stage play they use the sound of the musical saw?

All the best,

Saw Lady

Mystery Man said...

Well, apparently, in the ORIGINAL play, they did, but highly doubtful in recent productions.


Joshua James said...

Love this post, dude.

Mystery Man said...

JJ - I thought of you writing this, particularly the "lots of dialogue" aspect. Hehehe...

A number of things surprised me (about myself) with this story. I loved the flashback structure, which I usually hate, and I was quite happy with the lengthy dialogue in the third act. Very rare. Never encountered that before.


Anonymous said...

Well great... now this story lingers inside me...

Salva Rubio said...

So nice- and it seems to me that Ingmar Bergman would also have been a good candidate for directing it.

Anonymous said...

Shame, of the many works of JM Barrie available on the Gutenberg project, Mary Rose isn't one of them. You have me curious to read the original play.

The commentary by John Lahr is particularly fascinating, revelatory. Don't recall getting any of that from "Finding Neverland".

Mystery Man said...

Gabba - Hehehe...

Salva - There's a thought. I suspect, though, that the playfulness of Barrie's dialogue might be lost in Bergman's hands. Heheheh...

Terra - Yeah, I too wondered why it's not available on Project Gutenberg. I wonder if someone still has the rights to it. I had to order it. But it's a small book, real cheap. Could be read in a lunch break, I'm sure.


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