Our Mother's House (DVD Review)6 Apr, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Dirk Bogarde, Pamela Franklin.
The boozy Brit womanizer top-billed Dirk Bogarde plays here is a textbook definition of a fun-to-watch wastrel, but by the time he shows up almost 40 minutes in to add some welcome buzz to the drama, we’ve already been treated to a compelling-enough setup involving seven siblings forced to take their lives into their own hands. Their bedridden mother has finally turned the corner and died in her bed, and these children (or at least the older ones) immediately sense that the orphanage may not be far away. Perhaps not for nothing does Mark Lester play the cutest of the kids, just a year away from his title role in Carol Reed’s Oscar-winning movie of Oliver!
The director here is Jack Clayton, who didn’t make many all that many films, but two of the ones he did were Room at the Top (which won Simone Signoret the ’59 best actress Oscar) and not long after The Innocents with Deborah Kerr — it the sterling screen version of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw with the performance Kerr is said to have regarded as her personal favorite. The Innocents is a photographic masterpiece in black-and-white (by Freddie Francis), and last year it got Criterion treatment, which, of course, didn’t exactly hinder the visuals with which it was already blessed. Our Mother’s House has always been plagued by the shoddy Metrocolor process atop a lot of dark interior shots, so it begins with something of a dribble disadvantage. But the drama is so strong — and the Georges Delerue score such an acknowledged standout of the day — that the movie can at least be mentioned in a breath with the earlier film. (Clayton’s expensive stab at The Great Gatsby is also good for four or five opening minutes — until the first time Mia Farrow opens her mouth.)
Director aside, the unifier of both projects is actress Pamela Franklin, who remains so memorable as the girl child in The Innocents. By this time, she was maturing, and this is possibly a story component in 1967’s House; two years later, Franklin would be even more developed and a full-fledged sexual factor as one of Maggie Smith’s students in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. As the oldest of the brood here, she ends up being the closest thing to a defender of Bogarde (the children’s long-lost father) when he shows up after a period when the kids have proved to be self-sufficient, thanks to one child’s ability to forge their mother’s signature so that the bank will cash a monthly check. Otherwise, the official “word” to the public is that mom has gone to the seaside to facilitate a cure for her ailment — though it doesn’t take long for Bogarde to learn the truth and begin fantasizing what he could do with the monthly stipend if his grubby hands could grab it. Some of the children immediately peg dad as the four-flusher, but Franklin is attracted to him on a level or levels that may be at least moderately sexual, though even if true, the picture couldn’t make much of it in 1967.
Nor, of course, did the Internet obviously exist when this movie was made — but if it had, one can imagine Bogarde regularly typing the word “chippie” into a Google search. The ratio of frisky women who begin entering the household has a direct relationship with the number of empty bottles that begin showing up in the trash can, and particularly unsavory is his relationship with a low-rent harridan who had been the kids’ babysitter or housekeeper before being told that her services were no longer needed. Carousing aside, all kinds of pesky types keep knocking on the door throughout: teachers, neighbors and the like all sensing that something isn’t “right.”
Clayton’s Innocents experience comes in handy in scenes where the children try to communicate with their dead mother, séance style, though this kind of exercise isn’t going to have much of a shelf life once the more earthbound Bogarde shows up. When he does, this sleeper shifts into a higher gear, though the print here could use a lot of work (I wish Criterion could take a crack because this title would really be in their wheelhouse). What’s more, the Warner Archive jacket surprises by spoiling a key plot point and making the film seem more melodramatic, and thus more commercial, than it is. But speaking purely artistically, MGM may have gone into slow incremental decline beginning with the CinemaScope era — yet even at this point, 2001: A Space Odyssey was still a year away, and studio chief James Aubrey’s blisteringly fast destruction of the studio legacy was still only on the horizon. I, like others, have always shrugged off MGM from this period, but it suddenly registers that in 1967, the Lion gave us this movie, Point Blank and Far From the Madding Crowd — without even counting the wide U.S. release of British Blow-up, which MGM was forced to release via a subsidiary (due to sexually provocative subject matter) beginning with NY-LA engagements in late 1966. Not bad, Leo.