The films on Sunday’s double feature share an odd history. Destiny was originally intended to be the first installment of an anthology film (also known as omnibus or package films) called For All We Know (eventually retitled Flesh and Fantasy), directed by Julien Duvivier. Duvivier, a major figure in French cinema, had previously made an anthology film in 1942 called Tales of Manhattan starring Charles Boyer. That film contained six episodes* involving a cursed black formal tailcoat and how it affects the people who wear it.
The execs at Universal liked the anthology idea, but wanted something darker than Tales of Manhattan, something a bit more surreal. They got what they asked for, but didn’t know what to do with it. As part of Duvivier’s original idea, the end of the 28-minute “Destiny” sequence was to flow seamlessly into the film’s next episode, but Universal had different ideas.
Muller asked the audience to try to imagine the story without Universal’s tampering. In the original story, a pair of on-the-run robbers (Alan Curtis and Frank Fenton) split up to avoid capture. The Curtis character finds solace at a secluded farmhouse where a blind girl (Gloria Jean) and her father (Frank Craven) live. The robber discovers that the girl has some very strange abilities. Universal decided to frame the story, adding about an additional half hour to what Duvivier had already shot, turning the episode into a 64-minute “B” picture. Screenwriter Roy Chanslor wrote the additional scenes, which were directed by Reginald LeBorg.
The results are disastrous. The continuity errors are laughable, sometimes painfully so. Gloria Jean doesn’t even look like the same actress in the add-on scenes. The supplemental parts of the film are so obviously tacked on, you’ll find yourself laughing (or maybe crying).
Far more damaging than an embarrassment of continuity, the film also devastated at least two people connected with it. Duvivier went back to France, where he experienced further disappointment after WWII with his 1946 film Panique, panned by both critics and audiences. Success returned to Duvivier, but by the mid-1950s, the director was the whipping boy of the French New Wave, representing everything about cinema the movement was rebelling against. But Muller proudly stated, “I think Duvivier is a genius. So did Renoir and Welles.” I’d say that’s pretty good company to be in.
Gloria Jean’s career also suffered as a direct result of Destiny. Jean (who gives one of the finest, most authentic performances of a blind person in all of cinema) was a singer/actress making the transition from youth to adult roles and was being groomed by Universal to replace Deanna Durbin. You can only imagine what Jean must’ve hoped for, sharing screen credit with such greats as Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson and Charles Boyer, but when Universal yanked her episode out of Flesh and Fantasy, relegating it to a “B” picture, her dreams were crushed. (As of this writing, Jean is still with us at age 91. I would love to hear her story.)
The three episodes of Flesh and Fantasy, however, do not disappoint. In the film’s first segment, a homely woman named Henrietta (Betty Field) secretly loves a law student named Michael (Robert Cummings), never daring to let her feeling become known to him. During Mardi Gras, a strange shopkeeper (Edgar Barrier) gives her a mask of beauty that she must return before midnight.
In the second, a lawyer named Tyler (Edward G. Robinson) is skeptical of the abilities of a local palmist named Podgers (Thomas Mitchell) until one of the palmist’s predictions comes true.
The final act finds Charles Boyer as the Great Gaspar, a high-wire artist haunted by dreams of falling during his act. In these dreams, Gaspar always encounters a strange woman (Barbara Stanwyck) he’s never met. He fears that meeting her will spell his doom.
Muller also provided a bit of encouragement, commenting that Universal could very possibly restore the entire film to Duvivier’s original vision if the director’s notes can be found. Let’s hope they find them. What a treasure that would be…
Next: Conflict. Jealousy. Can you really have one without the other?
*The released version of the film contains only five episodes. The sixth – featuring W.C. Fields, Phil Slivers and Margaret Dumont – was deleted due to what the producers considered an excessive running time.
Photos: Noir City, Movie Poster Scans Archive, Film Comment, Cinapse, Film Fanatic, AlloCiné, SIFF, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema