A disclaimer right off the bat: The only known complete print of this film is currently housed in the UCLA Film Archive, and seeing as I am currently not in California to where I can schedule a viewing, I was forced to rely on unorthodox means to view this one; there somehow exist bootleg DVDs of a VHS rip of the film, albeit without the last reel (the last ten minutes or so), and it is this bootleg copy circulating around the internet that was given to me via Chip of TipsFromChip that enabled me to view the film, though it was technically only about 90% of it. Still, thanks go to Chip for this rarity.
Since there existed only one copy of East Lynne, the only hearsay I could find on what the film was actually like was very sparse. From what I did manage to dig up, though, I was under the impression that this was to be a melodrama of the highest order, a touch of Seventh Heaven set in a much more aristocratic setting. I was a good fifteen minutes into the film when this preconception popped up in my head once more, and I realized that it wasn’t quite as on the mark as I’d expected it to be when I started the film. The best metaphor I could figure on what East Lynne was actually like was this: a touch of Rebecca, a dash of Merchant Ivory, and just a hint of Gone With the Wind, stirred together in a container of melodrama that bleeds a bit of the container’s flavor into the mix as well, and you have East Lynne. It seemed fitting to have a metaphor to represent East Lynne comprising of dashes and hints, as opposed to full servings of substance and influence, as that’s ultimately what East Lynne amounts to: dashes and hints of more to come.
Ann Harding is Isabel, a young socialite who, at the start of the film, marries Robert Carlyle, a man of somewhat lessened political and popular establishment than Isabel’s family class. This comes to haunt her in the form of Robert’s sister, who immediately upon meeting Isabel begins trying to turn Robert against his new wife. Ultimately, after an unfortunate night of misunderstanding (or a legitimate act of unfaithfulness; it’s never explicitly stated which), the sister wins out, and Isabel begins trying to live her life anew as a scandalously-divorced mother, while trying desperately to get back into her infant son’s life after she is unable to leave the Carlyle house with him that night. When I did my usual bit of research into the film and saw that wonderful, magical word: “melodrama”, I was immediately on my guard with East Lynne, especially more so with how rare it is. Imagine to my surprise, then, that when I started the film, aside from feeling apprehensive when the film started with a wedding, I was actually enjoying what was going on. It was, to me, thanks to the film keeping everything squarely in the film’s setting that I found even the melodramatic bits tended to work more often than not. Sure, the film’s plot could be considered Hollywood even by generous standards, but in the golden age of Hollywood, the story for this one does fit right in with the screenwriting sensibilities of the times. It was a little sad that I was only able to see one copy of this film, as had a better copy existed, I might’ve had a better handle on the film’s cinematography, which in the print I saw was very muddled, not doing much to differentiate the blacks from the whites, and thus appearing very mottled, almost smeared onto the screen. It would’ve been nice to see the film the way it was intended to be seen, just for the interest in the film’s use of black-and-white, if indeed it does so. Also, for being a bootleg copy of the only known print of this film, the sound quality was eerily good, to the point that I began to wonder if the team at UCLA or otherwise had overdubbed the dialogue on the print, because surely the actual surviving copy couldn’t have this great quality of sound. If not, and this is the real audio accompanying the film, bonus points for that.
This was good. What’s more, it was more than good; it was enjoyable. A lot of my expectations about this one stemmed from the fact that it is very nearly a lost film, and thus shouldn’t really have all that much merit, or otherwise more would’ve been done to preserve and keep this film for future generations… or so I would think. But it does have merit; it did get nominated for Best Picture, after all, and the muddy quality of the print aside, I can actually see why. If indeed I am able to wrangle up enough of a career that sees me move out west to California, and I ever get the chance to see this one in full at the UCLA Archive, I think I actually will take that chance; the print cuts out at the climax of the film, and I would actually be interested in seeing how it ends. That I, and others, are at the moment unable to, coupled with the admittedly melodramatic and stuffy dialogue, is really the only knock I have against the film. But, until then, I’ll take what this does have to give me, at least.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10