by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Henry Hathaway
Cast: Gary Cooper, Ann Harding, Ida Lupino
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: No rating

PLOT: A successful architect who longs for the love of his childhood friend is delighted to discover that the Duchess who just hired him is in fact his long-lost beloved.  This being melodrama, there is of course much more to the story.


Peter Ibbetson plays like a long-lost Dickens novel, full of melodramatic flourishes and convenient plot contrivances designed to play the audience like a grand piano.  Is it shameless?  Yes.  Is it maudlin?  Yes.  Do I normally like movies like this?  No.  But there is something about this film and its story that got around my defenses and into my heart and soul.  I’ll try to elaborate on that as much as I can, but I don’t know how well I’m going to do.  Good luck.

The story opens, as the title card helpfully explains, in the middle of the last century, which would make it somewhere around the 1850s.  Somewhere in a well-heeled French countryside, two children from neighboring British families play and quarrel with each other, Mimsey and Gogo.  (I am not making that up, though why parents felt the need to inflict those names on their children is utterly beyond me.)  Gogo, the boy, cruelly teases the girl, Mimsey, who nevertheless gives as good as she gets.  Unfortunately, Gogo’s mother dies after a long illness, and when a distant uncle arrives to take Gogo back to England, he realizes he doesn’t want to leave his precious Mimsey.  Together they try to run away and hide, but it’s no use.  The sight of poor Mimsey weeping in the branches of a tree as Gogo is finally taken away was one of the scenes that started to chip away at my armor of cynicism.

Time passes, and Gogo changes his name to Peter and takes his mother’s last name, Ibbetson.  He becomes a successful architect and a valuable asset for his employer.  (In a very Dickensian touch, Peter’s employer is blind…wholly unnecessary to the plot, but that specificity makes it feel even more realistic amid all the other melodrama.)  Peter is successful, yes, but he is unhappy.  He is a bachelor, and when a very pretty girl more or less hits on him at a museum back in France, he takes her for a drink as a matter of courtesy, not out of any real attraction.  His heart still belongs to the lost love of his childhood, you see.  Mimsey is the touchstone of his past, his Rosebud, his green light at the end of the pier, and she will not be easily eradicated.

Initially, I was unsympathetic to the adult Peter.  How can anyone get on with their life if they’re stuck in the past?  It didn’t work for Kane or Gatsby.  If there’s anything the last thirty or so years of my life has taught me, it’s that the past will only weigh you down if you let it.  I’m not suggesting one should literally forget history, but had I been one of Peter’s associates in the film, I would have been constantly reminding him about being grateful for the present rather than bemoaning the mistakes or regrets of the past.  That way lies madness.

Before I get into more story details, I should mention the style of the film and the acting, which is so mannered and stylized that it feels as if it were a silent film that had a soundtrack added as an afterthought.  Gary Cooper may be a legend, but in this film…let’s be blunt, he is no Cary Grant.  Every sentence feels as if it’s been dragged out of him by way of torture.  His charisma is based solely on his imposing height and his dashing good looks, NOT his speech.  (Sorry, I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em.)  The women are not much better acting-wise, though the Duchess of Towers does have some interesting moments.  However, one of the movie’s highlights are the cinematography and subtle visual effects, especially in the late stages of the film.  Look at that scene involving the peculiar qualities in the bars of the jail cell and explain to me 100% how that was accomplished.  It’s so understated and effective that it took me completely by surprise.  I believe it would raise eyebrows with TODAY’S audiences.

I mention all of this about the style and my mindset because I believe that it all contributes to the reaction I had to the film, at which I’m still perplexed.

One day, Peter is contracted to rebuild the stables of an aristocratic family, the Duke and Duchess of Towers.  When Peter first meets Mary, the Duchess, he experiences an unexplainable connection.  His contract requires him to live in the Towers house for several months.  One day they share a conversation and discover that they shared a dream.  This isn’t a case of two people dreaming about the same thing coincidentally.  They actually shared a dream, Inception style, but without the machinery.  How can this be?

By now, any breathing audience member has already deduced that the Duchess is Mimsey and they are destined for each other.  Alas, Peter and Mary are not as quick on the uptake as we are, and their moment of recognition is delayed until after the peevish Duke confronts them at the dinner table, in a conversation laden with Hays-Code-era double-speak.  “Well, Mr. Ibbetson, are you to be congratulated again?” the Duke asks.  Later, during a second confrontation, the Duke points a gun at Peter and Mary and explains that they will not make love behind his back.  He raises his gun and says, “Get into your lover’s arms.”  Whoa.  Daring stuff for 1935.  It’s during this second confrontation that something goes horribly wrong, and Peter is sent to jail for life.

MORE melodrama?  Hasn’t this movie already had more than its fair share?  Children tearfully separated?  An equally tearful reunion?  Outrageous coincidences?  Shared dreams, for crying out loud?  Oh, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

It’s in the film’s third act, when our hero is in prison, that Peter Ibbetson really started to get to me at some primal level.  Peter and Mary, after being reunited against all odds, are now separated even more cruelly than before.  Peter is so distraught he goes on a hunger strike, chained to his “bed,” which is little more than a wide wooden beam.  (Look at it from a certain angle and he might almost appear to be on a cross, but don’t worry, it’s not that kind of movie.)  When one of his fellow prisoners makes a joke at Mary’s expense, Peter goes a little crazy and starts to throttle him.  Miles away, at the same time, Mary suddenly senses something is wrong.  In the jail, guards use force that’s a tad too excessive to restrain Peter, and at the same exact moment Mary screams.  The two are connected in a mystical way that transcends walls or distance.  They continue to share dreams in which they laugh and walk and talk as if nothing bad had ever happened.  In one dream, he points to a castle in the distance that he has built for his beloved.  I was reminded instantly of the scenes in Inception where Cobb and his wife Mal build entire cities for themselves in their own shared dream.

I’ve already given away too much, far too much than I usually care to.  As much as I want to, I can’t describe the one scene that got me to literally yell, “NO!” at the TV screen.

What fate eventually befalls Peter and Mary, I leave for you to discover.  What remains for me is to try once again to summarize how I felt after the movie was over.  Intellectually, I can see its shortcomings.  The acting is wooden, despite some pretty sharp dialogue.  The music is overwhelmingly romantic and dramatic, commenting on a lot of action unnecessarily, as was the custom back then.  There are one or two odd cuts.  But on an emotional level, the experience of watching Peter Ibbetson was like watching one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  The only other movies that ever made feel these precise emotions, although not to the exact same degree, are The Remains of the Day and Atonement.  If you know those movies, you know what I’m talking about.

The movie’s final shot is as shamelessly manipulative as these things get.  It’s unabashed romanticism at its best AND its worst.  But you know what?  This movie earns it, and it works.

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