THE BOOTLEG FILES: “MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA”

This week in The Bootleg Files, we take a look at an infamous Americanized Greek tragedy. No, it is not the films of Nia Vardalos – it is the 1947 version of “Mourning Becomes Electra.”

“Mourning Becomes Electra” is based on the 1931 drama by Eugene O’Neill, who was arguably America’s greatest playwright. Strangely, O’Neill’s plays always felt stiff and stagy when adapted to the screen. Even the best of the O’Neill-inspired films were cinematically lacking, but they inevitably became classics due solely to the bravura performances therein (Greta Garbo in “Anna Christie,” Paul Robeson in “The Emperor Jones,” the ensemble casts of “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “The Iceman Cometh”).

“Mourning Becomes Electra” was not a great play to begin with. In adapting Aeschylus’ “Oresteia” trilogy into a 19th century New England environment, O’Neill wound up with a six-hour trilogy which was among the heaviest plays ever staged on Broadway. The idea of bringing this mammoth and, admittedly, lumbering work to the screen seemed like a foolhardy endeavor. Unfortunately for moviegoers everywhere, there was a surplus of fools willing to push ahead with this endeavor.

The film version of “Mourning Becomes Electra” boiled the O’Neill text down to a three-hour running time. While it offered a more commercially viable alternative than the original six hours, it was still uncommonly long for a non-epic motion picture (most of the film is centered in a mansion).

The crux of the story remained intact: the Mannon family is in turmoil when the patriarch, Brigadier General Ezra Mannon, returns home in poor health from the Civil War. His wife Christine, who always loathed him, has been carrying on an affair with the dashing sea captain Adam Brant. Their daughter Lavinia, whose devotion to her father borders on incestuous, discovers her mother’s infidelity and is fueled by twin passions: her long-simmering hatred of her mother and her own unrequited love for the handsome sea captain. Then there is Orin Mannon, the son of Ezra and Christine, who comes home with his own war injuries. When Ezra dies suddenly, Lavinia and Orin conspire the bring revenge against their mother by murdering her lover. Rather than bring closure, this only creates more bloody complications.

Clearly there is a great story in here, but sadly “Mourning Becomes Electra” went haywire thanks in large part to its casting. The central character of Lavinia was played by Rosalind Russell in what is clearly among the worst performances of the 1940s. Russell was never a subtle actress, but her overkill worked wonders primarily in larger-than-life comedies (“His Girl Friday,” “Auntie Mame”). As Lavinia, Russell plumbs the character’s turmoil and comes up with sawdust melodrama acting: intense glaring, fists clutching her heart, screaming in lieu of speaking and a perpetual sneer. At 40 years old, she was also two decades too old for the role (she actually looks much older on screen). Rather than coming across as a troubled young woman, she appears more like a deranged middle-aged woman. Her scenes with Katina Paxinou, who plays her mother, are extremely awkward since Paxinou was seven years her senior in real life and the women seemed more like sisters than mother and child.

Paxinou’s presence is equally problematic. The only possible reason the Greek actress was cast here was because the role of Christine was originally played on Broadway by the great Russian star Alla Nazimova and it was assumed someone with a funny accent had to fill the slot. Paxinou was no slouch in the overacting department (her performance as the fiery Spanish partisan in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” won her an Oscar), but here she is so stiff that it appears rigor mortis is taking over. The searing fury of O’Neill’s dialogue is lost in her thick, icy line readings. Rather than inspire scalding emotions by those around her, she seems to encourage overacting by castmates who feel a void in her presence.

And the overacting is not in short supply: the normally reliable Raymond Massey has the funniest death scene imaginble as Ezra Mannon. He often seems unable to keep a straight face in this film. English actor Michael Redgrave was inexplicably imported to play Orin Mannon. His attempts at a New England accent keep failing and his broad portrayal of the sensitive son makes him seem like a big sissy. Another English actor, Leo Genn, keeps his real life accent to play Adam Brant, but his manners are so polite and dignified that it is impossible to imagine him as a briny 19th century sea captain. Kirk Douglas shows up as Lavinia’s suitor, but his sunny and eager-to-please demeanor seems way out of place in this gloomy tragedy – you feel as if he wandered over from the set of “Our Town” by accident.

Director Dudley Nichols absurdly kept the film within the confines of the Mannon mansion for most of the film, obviously a tribute to the O’Neill stage version. The few scenes outside of the home clearly show painted backgrounds rather than genuine locations. The result is “Mourning Becomes Electra” feels like a filmed play rather than a motion picture. And at a three hour running time with the worst acting imaginable, it feels more like three days.

RKO released “Mourning Becomes Electra” as a roadshow attraction and the result was a box office catastrophe. Even Oscar nominations for Redgrave and Russell failed to quell the disaster. The studio quickly cut the film to 105 minutes, which made a thorough mess of the narrative. Those who bothered to show up to see it were confused with what they were watching. A two hour version was later offered, but it made no difference. For the British release, the film played at 159 minutes. Despite the various versions, “Mourning Becomes Electra” lost $3 million for the studio.

“Mourning Becomes Electra” passed into Hollywood legend thanks to Rosalind Russell’s Oscar nomination. She was inexplicably pegged to win Best Actress and she actually stood up at the Oscar ceremony during the announcing of the category’s winner. The winner, however, was Loretta Young for “The Farmer’s Daughter,” a light comedy that Russell turned down to do “Mourning Becomes Electra.” Fredric March, who announced the category, reportedly began to state Russell’s name before declaring Young’s victory.

Over the years, the various versions of “Mourning Becomes Electra” have turned up on television. It was even the subject of a joke on “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” (an episode where Bullwinkle faced a booby trap linked to a million-volt surprise was called “Morning Becomes Electrocuted”). But for no obvious reason, the film was never released on home video. A deal was nearly announced in the late 1990s for a long-overdue home video debut, but it fell through at the last minute. Why it has been kept out of home entertainment channels is a mystery, although there may be a problem in clearing the rights to the O’Neill work. The bootleg versions that are available come from the various TV broadcasts (which themselves seem to derive from less-than-prime 16mm prints rather than crisply restored prints).

“Mourning Becomes Electra” was later remade in its six hour entirety as a PBS mini-series in the late 1970s. There is even an opera version of the text. But no matter how you spin it, this is a damn heavy and depressing work. In comparison, maybe Nia Vardalos’ bumbling films aren’t all that bad!

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on September 10, 2004 in Features by
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