Flesh and Fantasy (1943) Flesh and Fantasy (1943) **½

     I wonder sometimes why it was only in the horror genre that the concept of anthology movies really took root. Not that anthology films are unheard of elsewhere, but they’re rare enough that it’s challenging to think of non-horror examples, unless maybe you want to count sketch comedies like And Now for Something Completely Different and Amazon Women on the Moon. And even when anthology movies fall outside of the horror genre, they have a marked tendency at least to approach the horror mood. Take Flesh and Fantasy, for example. This tripartite meditation on destiny has little interest in scaring the audience per se, and the Universal Studios marketing department took great pains to differentiate it from the likes of Captive Wild Woman and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Nevertheless, it flirts constantly with the uncanny, to the degree that it plays rather like a B-plus episode of “The Twilight Zone” bracketed by two C-minus ones, held together by a framing story that doesn’t work nearly hard enough to establish the overarching theme.

     An affluent twerp named Doakes (Robert Benchley, best known in this era for a decade-long succession of parody “educational” shorts in which he presents how-to lectures that nobody should follow) arrives at his clubhouse in a state of high agitation. As he explains to an even twerpier fellow called Davis (David Hoffman, of The Beast with Five Fingers and The Creeper), he had his fortune told the other day, and was assured that he was fated to do a certain thing. Last night, though, Doakes dreamed very vividly and specifically about not doing the same thing. It doesn’t really matter (and Doakes never specifies) what the act in question might be. The point is that it’s a binary, do-or-do-not proposition, yet he’s now received two diametrically contrary auguries about it. The nature of the situation is such that one of those prophecies will come true, but Doakes can see no basis for determining ahead of time which it will be. He’s no more superstitious than the next guy, but the whole thing is weird and confounding. I don’t know what Doakes was hoping to achieve by letting Davis in on his predicament; I’m quite certain, though, that he didn’t intend for the other man to pull a book down off of the clubhouse shelves so as to read ostensibly relevant short stories to him…

     The first tale plays dirty indeed by beginning with an unidentified man’s drowned body being dragged from a New Orleans bog by a band of devils, ghosts, and skeletons, only to reveal that the supernatural creatures are all just Mardi Gras revelers, and that the corpse has nothing to do with anything. (In fact, this sequence is the fossilized remnant of a whole fourth segment, which was deleted from Flesh and Fantasy in order to expand it into a feature film unto itself, under the title Destiny.) This story is instead about a seamstress called Henrietta (Betty Field), who pines for a law student by the name of Michael (Robert Cummings). Alas for Henrietta, Michael doesn’t even know she’s alive— which might actually be just as well for her, since she’s both ugly and kind of a bitch. In case I need to spell this out, Henrietta’s “ugliness” is brought about solely by outfitting Betty Field with unflattering makeup, and by lighting her starkly from below at all times, so that her features cast exaggerated shadows in all the wrong directions. The bitchiness, on the other hand, is more or less real— albeit not unjustified, if we may take the entitled shithead with whom Henrietta is dealing when we meet her as representative of her clientele as a whole. Either way, we’re asked repeatedly to treat it as a question of vast philosophical interest whether the seamstress’s sour disposition is a reaction to her physical ugliness, or whether her outward uggo is just the inward one manifesting itself in visible form. And tonight that question will be put to the test, because two hours before the stroke of twelve, a weirdly benign Mephistophelian figure (Edgar Barrier, from A Game of Death and Princess of the Nile) appears to Henrietta with an offer she’s too dense to recognize as magical. The strange man leads her to a costume shop, where he lends her an eerily lifelike mask depicting a face as beautiful as she always wished to be. With it, Henrietta can spend the final hours before the onset of Lent wooing Michael, uninhibited by her actual appearance…

     The second story is an extremely loose retelling of Oscar Wilde’s “Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime.” In this version, however, Lord Arthur Saville himself is replaced by American expat attorney Marshall Tyler, because not one fucking person on Earth was going to buy Edward G. Robinson (of Soylent Green and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes) as Lord anything. We meet Tyler enduring something very close to his idea of Hell: a party at the home of ditzy old Lady Pamela Hardwick (Dame May Whitty, from Night Must Fall and The Thirteenth Chair), where palm-reader Septimus Podgers (The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Thomas Mitchell) is the guest of honor and the principal entertainment alike. Podgers seems at first to be having an off night. He predicts success in romance for Tyler and a message from her husband for a certain Mrs. Carrington (Doris Lloyd, from A Study in Scarlet and The Black Doll), even though Marshall knows perfectly well that the love of his life, Rowena (Anna Lee, of The Man Who Lived Twice and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), is engaged to somebody else, while everybody knows that Mrs. Carrington’s husband disappeared two years ago while exploring Antarctica. But then Rowena (also a guest at Lady Pamela’s party) breaks it off with her fiancé to pursue Marshall instead, and the radio program playing in the background is interrupted by breaking news that the Carrington party has been discovered alive and rescued after a seemingly impossible two-year ordeal in the vicinity of the South Pole.

     The trouble is, the breakthrough with Rowena wasn’t the only thing Podgers saw in Tyler’s future, but he was strangely reluctant to talk about what else was revealed to him at the party. After seeing two wildly unlikely predictions come true in rapid succession, Tyler is understandably hot to learn about the other thing, and goes to visit the cheiromancer at home. Podgers remains evasive, but the combination of a blusteringly bad attitude and a large sum of money eventually enables Tyler to drag out of him the information that the lines on Marshall’s palm foretell murder— not his own, you understand, but a murder that Tyler himself is fated to commit. The fortune-teller will go no further into detail, and Tyler, aghast though he is, claims not to believe it anyway.

     The more he ponders the matter, though the more convinced Tyler becomes that he cannot escape the destiny laid before him. And if he can’t escape it, maybe the thing to do is to embrace it instead, so as to get the unpleasantness out of the way as soon as possible. Whom to kill, though, and how? Tyler doesn’t have any enemies to eliminate, and even if he did, eliminating enemies is a really good way to attract official attention. The ideal victim would be someone he doesn’t even know— and if he could somehow guarantee that the stranger in question would be one of the world’s surplus humans (the sort whom that disagreeable Austrian chap with the silly moustache would call a “useless eater”), Marshall could even trick his conscience into thinking that he was doing good. Hmm… Someone not too close to him, with their whole life behind them, who’s too daffy and foolish and unserious to make any future contributions that the world will ever miss? Sounds rather like Lady Pamela Hardwick, now that Tyler really thinks about it— and if ever there were a numpty who could be tricked into eating poison, she’d definitely be the one…

     The third and final tale concerns Paul Gaspar (Charles Boyer, from Gaslight and the Francophone version of F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer), a circus aerialist known as “the Drunken Gentleman of the Tightrope.” That means he performs his highwire act while stumbling and reeling as if he were three days into a lost weekend; it’s honestly a pretty neat innovation on the old premise (and Con Colleano, the Austrian acrobat who serves as Boyer’s stunt double, deserves a standing ovation). But while taking a nap prior to going on for the last night of the circus’s London engagement, Gaspar has a nightmare about falling to his death in the middle of the show. Oddly, what most sticks in his mind afterward is the face of a woman in the audience, who locks eyes with him on the way down, screaming throughout his descent. The dream so unnerves Paul that he is unable to perform the climax of his act, in which he “falls” from one wire only to land safely on another strung ten feet below. The proprietor of the circus, King Lamarr (Charles Winninger), is remarkably understanding about the whole thing, but then a dead star never did anyone in his business any good. Lamarr even suggests that Gaspar could retire the “Drunken Gentleman of the Tightrope” shtick when the circus reopens in the United States in a few weeks.

     It’s on the first day of the transatlantic voyage that Gaspar spots Joan Stanley (Barbara Stanwick, from The Man with a Cloak and The House that Would Not Die) among his fellow passengers. She’s very pretty, with the elegance of substantial wealth, but what makes her so riveting to Paul is that she looks exactly like the screaming spectator in his falling dream. Many men in his position would want nothing to do with Joan for that very reason, but one doesn’t become a famous tightrope-walker by shying away from peril. Paul makes a beeline for the eerily familiar stranger, explaining the peculiar source of his interest in her, and peppering her with questions about her activities in the hope of pinning down where he might have seen her before to file her face away in his subconscious memory. At first, Joan dismisses Gaspar as just a very creative pickup artist, but she changes her tune a bit when he mentions the earrings. The woman in Paul’s dream wore diamond-studded earrings in the form of tiny lyres, and although Joan recently acquired just such a pair, she has never yet worn them. Even if Gaspar had seen her before, in other words, he couldn’t have seen the jewelry that he describes so exactly from his nightmare. And once she starts hearing him out, it comes to light that Joan and Paul have been almost crossing paths all over the world for years now. Either she’d arrive somewhere just as Gaspar was leaving, or vice-versa, almost as if some mysterious higher power were attempting to arrange their meeting.

     The pair quickly fall into a romance after that, albeit with rather different sets of assumptions as to its potential. So far as Joan is concerned, the affair with Paul is purely recreational, and will not survive their vessel’s arrival in port. Gaspar, for his part, is in capital-L Love, and has half a mind to ask for Joan’s hand in marriage. Soon after he realizes that, however, a strange encounter with a man who claims to recognize Joan under a different name provokes a second dream with the same aura of prophecy as the one that brought the couple together in the first place. This dream seems to foretell misfortune for Joan rather than Paul himself, arriving in the form of two police detectives who corner her at the American debut of the King Lamarr circus, and haul her off in handcuffs; the cops seem to know Joan by the same name as the fellow on the ship that afternoon. What to make of these two grim portents, though? Are they meant to reveal two alternate possible futures? Or could they be concurrent instead? More importantly, are Paul’s dreams warning him of what might happen if some obscure action is or is not taken? Or are they harbingers of inevitable, inescapable doom?

     Like Nelson Muntz once said about David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, I can think of two things wrong with the title Flesh and Fantasy. I grant you that no movie actually deserving of that title could have been made in 1940’s Hollywood, but attaching it to this one in particular renders the phrase utterly meaningless. That matters, because I suspect that if the film had been entitled Destiny instead— that is, if the parent production rather than the spinoff had gotten custody of that title— the filmmakers might have found it easier to keep track of what they were doing from one segment to the next. In an anthology movie like this one, organized around a philosophical theme, the various segments ought either to make a cumulatively coherent case for one particular interpretation, or else to exemplify individually a range of clearly demarcated rival readings. Otherwise, what’s the point of making an anthology of it? Consider, by way of example, a roughly contemporary anthology flick with concerns similar to this one’s, the Ealing Studio’s Dead of Night. Although that movie’s main theme is encounters with the inexplicable in a very general sense, its several stories all feed into a recurring nightmare in which a character from the framing sequences is finally revealed to be trapped. Not only does Dead of Night thus link each segment to the issue of fate, but it also stakes out a position on the matter: destiny is real, at least for the purposes of the film itself, and that’s horrifying. Flesh and Fantasy has no such clarity of vision or intent. Instead, one segment after another asks anew whether destiny really exists as an outside force distinguishable from both human will and random happenstance, only to end with a bemused shrug. And incredibly, it does that even in the one story involving unambiguously supernatural powers and entities!

     It should surprise nobody, then, that that one overtly supernatural segment is by far the weakest from a narrative point of view. Critically, the Mardi Gras story seems fundamentally confused about where it’s even attempting to locate destiny. To begin with, the chicken-or-egg question of Henrietta’s inward and outward ugliness is a non-starter, because our eyes immediately answer it for us: whatever deformity the cockeyed lighting on Betty Field’s face is supposed to represent, she certainly didn’t acquire it simply by being a pill. Then the tale’s ostensible premise is short-circuited a second time by the bullshit assumption that outward, physical beauty is, at least for a woman, the only kind that matters. Neither dialogue nor narration ever comes right out and says that, but it’s inescapably implied by the mechanism that Mask Weirdo proposes to facilitate Henrietta’s courtship of Michael, and then confirmed when the seamstress removes her enchanted mask at the end to reveal that her real face has been transfigured to match the false one. If Henrietta’s face is all that counts, then it doesn’t fucking matter which aspect of her was ugly first, now does it? And if the causality of fate can be reversed, even if only by magic, can we even really call that fate anymore? Then on top of all that, the Mardi Gras tale tangles up the source of Henrietta’s ugliness with an entirely unrelated message about the nature of love, in which the screenwriters’ prescription sounds suspiciously like unilateral emotional disarmament against every dickhead and predator who comes down the pike. The first story ekes out what redemption it can through sheer visual artistry; for all its faults, it’s the best-looking section of a film that looks great from beginning to end, in much the same way that Universal’s horror films had in the first half of the previous decade. Even that praise comes with an asterisk, though, because the single most impressive sequence is the one that was shot for the detached fourth story.

     The other semi-dud segment— the one about Paul Gaspar’s fortune-telling dreams— is at least more coherent, insofar as the specter of fate looms over every bit of it in immediately recognizable ways. Again, though, it annoyingly evades its own questions. One of Gaspar’s subconscious prophecies comes something like true, while the other does not, unless perhaps we’re prepared to torture a commonplace metaphor to the breaking point: Paul “falls” in love with Joan. That leaves us with the same coin-toss odds that Doakes finds so vexing in the framing story, adding nothing new to the equation. And it ultimately leaves this story with no more to say about the other time when destiny may have shown its hand— the central couple’s uncanny meeting— than, “Yeah, that sure was weird, huh?” A feature-length treatment of the same material could get away with that. So could the closer of a three-part anthology whose first two segments had come down firmly on opposite sides of the issue. But Flesh and Fantasy badly needed a “put up or shut up” moment, yet Paul and Joan’s story takes visible pains not to provide one. Those who find greater interest than I do in watching imaginary people fall in love might get more out of this segment than I did, but for me, its primary virtue is that it isn’t actively obnoxious.

     For Flesh and Fantasy as a whole, though, the primary virtue is “Marshall Tyler Esq.’s Crime.” One might surmise as much just from the promotional campaign that Realart Pictures gave Flesh and Fantasy when they reissued it on lease from Universal in the early 1950’s. The Realart ads barely acknowledge that the rest of the film exists! Although it certainly doesn’t end here, the superiority of this tale over the others begins with it having an answer (albeit pointedly not a straight answer) to the movie’s central question: Is destiny real? Depends on what you mean by “destiny.” What we have here, at bottom, is the story of a man tricking himself into fulfilling, by his own conscious actions, a prophecy which he never wanted to believe in the first place. And what’s more, his impetus for doing so is an unwanted insight into his own inner nature, to which he was brought simply by hearing his supposed future foretold. Marshall Tyler accepts the fate laid out before him by Septimus Podgers because he recognizes, once the idea is planted in his head, that murdering someone is exactly the sort of thing he would do if given sufficient reason. And the story’s subtle but effective horror lies in how he subsequently argues himself down from sufficient reason to no reason at all. Note, by the way, that I mean “argues” altogether literally. The most dramatic scenes in the segment (indeed, the most dramatic scenes in all of Flesh and Fantasy) have Tyler debating heatedly with his reflection over the precise nature of the crime that he’s planning to commit. Edward G. Robinson is perhaps the last actor on Earth whom I’d have chosen to headline an Oscar Wilde adaptation, but he’s nothing short of brilliant in these scenes, playing opposite himself as the devil on his own left shoulder. If any of you were wondering, after the previous three paragraphs, why I rate Flesh and Fantasy as highly as I do, it’s mostly because this story genuinely does overshadow the others almost as heavily as the reissue advertising would have it.



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