The role that high comedy (or a comedy of manners, if you will) has played in cinema has certainly changed since 1944. For one thing, the notion of genteel society and the various aspects therein that make it ripe for satire have most certainly been rewritten time and again during the inexorable march of time. So, needless to say, what constitutes funny is as different from one era to the next as what may constitute the aforementioned well-mannered society.
This particular notion feels relevant to Clive Brook's incredibly charming 1944 adaptation of Fredrick Lonsdale's play, 'On Approval,' not only because the film itself is nearly 70 years old, but also because in adapting it, Brook made the decision to change the film's setting to the late Victorian era – or the Gay Nineties. This change served to better facilitate modifications in the characters' ages, as well as providing a richer sense of the high comedy the play was reaching for by avoiding such topics as the two World Wars. Thankfully, Brook, a well-known actor at the time who would become a first time director on 'On Approval' would prove to have the right sort of instinct for making such alterations, and the film would go on to be named one of the 10 best films of 1944 by Time Magazine.
But Brook's vision went even further. He began the picture with a witty prologue, making direct reference to the World Wars and the change in societal norms and conventions that would ultimately highlight the altered time period in his film, and to further distinguish the present and the past. The prologue, however, served a larger purpose than to simply inform the viewer of the differences 40-some-odd years had made to the world at large. It would also dictate the kind of comedy Brook (and by extension, Lonsdale) had bestowed upon the picture – a style of comedy that was, perhaps ironically, thoroughly modern. That is to say, several of the comedic elements in the film (many of which were brought to the production by Brook) played around with style, jumping from witty repartee to broader comedy in a heartbeat. Most notably, the prologue ends with Brook in character as George, the 10th Duke of Bristol, breaking the fourth wall to answer for the audience a question put forth by the narrator (played by noted British newsreader E.V.H. Emmett, by the way). Later on in the film, there would be remarkably funny double-dream sequence that was chock-a-block with silly visions and creative ways to induce a surreal atmosphere.
Aside from Brook's contributions as director (a role he would have just this one time), actor and his effort in adapting Lonsdale's work to the screen, 'On Approval' also benefited from having a first-rate cast that included Roland Culver (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), Googie Withers ('The Lady Vanishes') and the fine comedic presence of Beatrice Lillie ('Around the World in Eighty Days'). The result of this confluence of acting talent is a delightful romantic romp that is filled with charismatic actors embroiled in a comedy of manners, despite the complete lack thereof in Brook's 10th Duke of Bristol and Lillie's spoiled, demanding and utterly intimidating Maria Wislack.
The story at hand finds George a tad insolvent; a situation that, from what he tells the narrator, is due to "women", or "big women" after being pressed by the narrator as to the loss of his "big money". His equally penniless friend Richard (Roland Culver) joins him in the pursuit of a good, i.e., wealthy woman – though Richard's quest is motivated solely by his unprofessed love for the widowed Maria. George, meanwhile, has his sights set on the lovely (and much younger) American pickle heiress Helen Hale (Googie Withers), whom he believes is of the right stock to become the Duchess of Bristol.
After one too many glasses of champagne, and at the urging of George, Richard approaches Maria in regard to his feelings. To his surprise, she amenable to the notion their coupling, but with the caveat that they live together for a month at her house in Scotland (Richard, of course, will ferry himself to a hotel at night and back again in the morning), in order to see whether or not a union between the two of them would indeed prove fruitful. As you can no doubt imagine, George soon weasels his way into making the trip with his chum, while Helen somehow finds herself accompanying the trio as well.
What sounds like a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, actually evolves into a blissfully funny trip through the indomitable bad manners despite the principle of noblesse oblige. It is of course, George and Maria whose wealth (former and otherwise) and upbringing place them at odds with the rigidly defined societal norms of upper-class etiquette and romantic protocol. Maria is essentially taking a potential suitor out for a month-long test drive, while George combines his surly disposition with a rancorous wit to put nearly everyone around him ill at ease. Meanwhile, nearly impoverished Richard is at the beck-and-call of his ladylove, enduring verbal barbs and orders uttered without the slightest acknowledgement (or awareness) of their offensiveness. Helen, in the interim, waits on George (in a remarkably funny scene) hand and foot, keeping him unapprised of her growing distaste for his idle, arrogant personality.
'On Approval' is centered on the stolid exteriors of those mired in polite society. But, like its characters, the film has something far livelier and expressive at its core. It is a comedy of manners told in the best way possible: through the actions of those completely lacking them. Brook's work here should be noted for his ability to see the humor in distinctive elements of different, yet invariably linked time periods, and for having the foresight to examine them outright and in an imaginative way. This is a fantastic picture that sets a standard for high comedy to be as seemingly calm and considered as those it is depicting are expected to be, but on the inside there is an uncouth scoundrel just waiting to get out.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'On Approval' comes from the folks at Blackhawk Films and they have put together a very complete, if not definitive presentation of a lovely film. The disc comes in a standard Blu-ray keepcase and has been given a nice intro upon playing that displays some of the stills featured as a supplement. In addition, there is a small booklet featuring and essay by film critic and historian Scott Eyman that details the curious history of the film and Brook's involvement in getting it made.
The 1080p AVC-encoded transfer is taken from the original 35mm film and looks quite remarkable considering its age. It does not appear as though any undue restoration or digital tinkering has been implemented in the transfer, which still has the telltale scratches and dings on certain scenes that inform the viewer of the picture's age, but also represent just how well it has withstood the test of time. Yes, there are certain aspects that could have used the benefits of modern restoration technology, but, thankfully, none of it is a distraction. Instead, all these signifiers of maturation converge to make the presentation more enjoyable.
The actual image on the disc looks quite good. There is a consistent and high level of contrast that gives the black and white image a great deal of depth and resonance throughout the film's runtime. Pictures of this era occasionally have a hazy look to them, but 'On Approval' looks clean and crisp in every scene. Fine detail is as good as one would imagine from the period and there are some very nice examples of texture on display in several of the scenes. Precise facial features are present, and while detail can occasionally be a bit soft, it still looks better than expected.
Overall, 'On Approval' appears to have been transferred with great care in order to present the film in the best possible light. Occasionally, Blu-ray can highlight the negative aspects of from a bygone era, but that doesn't seem to be the case here.
The disc has been given a very nice uncompressed PCM 2.0 track that works quite well for the film by highlighting the crackling dialogue and giving some unexpected life to the music peppered throughout.
As mentioned above, the mix does a great job of handling the dialogue. Voices all sound precise and never pitchy, while the balance between them – regardless of who is raising their voice or keeping a flat tone for comedic effect – is remarkably well done. The most important aspect of the mix is to make sure the actors are understood and subtle variances in their intonation is represented clearly, and this PCM track does so with great aplomb.
Additionally, there are none of the usual signifiers of age on the lossless track. There is no trace of hissing or scratches, which may otherwise overshadow some of the dialogue or music. On that note, the score by William Alwyn comes through brilliantly, but never overwhelms the track by pushing too hard to be heard. There is also a song by Woody Herman ('At the Woodchoppers Ball') that comes through remarkably well on the disc.
Given the film's age, there's not a lot of flash in the sound of 'On Approval' – a fact that likely helped to make this mix sound as good as it does. For the few things that needed to be highlighted, they're all adequately on display here.
'On Approval' is a great film that still packs quite a few comedic punches, despite its age. Both Lonsdale's original play and Brook's adaptation of it work brilliantly as a delightful send up to the sort of British aristocratic world of manners, respectability and decorum that has provided so many genuine laughs in so many different ways. Lindsay Anderson has described the film as "the funniest British light comedy ever made," and after watching it, there're plenty of reasons to see why. Moreover, the people at Blackhawk Films have put together a great edition of the film that features a very nice image, good sound and an interesting array of special features. This one comes recommended.