Judge Clark Douglas wholeheartedly approves of this daffy British delight.
"She's not crying because I said she was forty-one. She's crying because she is forty-one."
When cinema began making the transition from silent movies to talkies, many actors got lost in the shuffle. Some just didn't have good speaking voices, some didn't quite have the tools necessary to make the adjustment and some were simply regarded as old news. One of the exceptions was British actor Clive Brook, who became a big star during the early 1920s (appearing in adaptations of Vanity Fair and A Tale of Two Cities, among other efforts) and retaining his stardom as he moved into the '30s (he played Sherlock Holmes on three separate occasions during the decade, and famously co-starred with silent movie legend Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express). In the mid-1940s, Brook decided to move behind the camera for a change: he directed, adapted and starred in Frederick Lonsdale's play On Approval. It would be the last film Brook would appear in for many years (he would return to play a supporting role in The List of Adrian Messenger in 1963), and the only film he would ever write or direct. That's our loss, as On Approval is a brilliant comedy loaded with surprising, wickedly entertaining moments.
Brook plays George, the 10th Duke of Bristol. At a glance, he looks remarkably wealthy (a notion that seems to be supported by his lavish home, his fancy wardrobe and his haughty demeanor), but in fact he's just about broke. George's best friend is Richard (Roland Culver, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), a shy and sweet-natured man in a similarly problematic financial state. Richard is madly in love with the widowed Maria (Beatrice Lillie, Thoroughly Modern Millie), but can't bring himself to propose to her due to the fact that she is considerably wealthier than he is. Maria is best friends with Helen (Googie Withers, The Lady Vanishes), a well-to-do American who harbors a crush on George. Through a series of convoluted events, these four individuals find themselves staying at a Scottish estate while attempting to navigate their way through a series of increasingly complicated romantic entanglements.
Brook wasn't originally attached to write or direct the film, but chose to take the reins due to creative differences with the original helmer (who wanted to emphasize the drama of the tale rather than the comedy). While Lonsdale's play was set in the 1920s, Brook smartly chose to move the action to the Victorian era to give the whole thing an extra jolt of naughtiness. There's a good deal of Hays Code-friendly innuendo littered throughout the flick, and the repressed era in which the film takes place goes a long way towards accentuating the humor. That's not the only area where Brook takes some creative liberties. The opening reel of the film is a cavalcade of fourth wall-breaking delights, as a valiant narrator struggles to land upon the right way to open the movie. The first thing we see is footage of tanks on a battlefield. "Oh no, not another war picture," the narrator sighs. "Let's take a look at peaceful life before the war," he suggests, and the film quickly responds by offering footage of a noisy automobile race. That sense of silly playfulness continues through the rest of the film (perhaps reaching its peak during a surprisingly freaky dream sequence near the film's conclusion), and it's easy to see why director Linsay Anderson labeled the film, "the funniest British light comedy ever made."
On Approval is very much a performance-driven film, and each of the central players bring something unique to the table. Brook's dry, understated delivery and acidic wit work quite well for the self-absorbed Duke; watching this performance has made me eager to check out more of his work. Beatrice Lillie generates a lot of laughs as the uptight Maria, and is particularly sharp when she's engaging in verbal duels with George. Roland Culver's sad-sack turn as Richard is consistently amusing; it's a delight to watch his eyes light up when he discovers that there might be a chance of indulging in a bit of naughtiness with the woman of his dreams. Googie Withers is perhaps the closest thing the film has to a "straight man," bringing fewer comedic tics to her performance than the other players, but she's effective enough.
On Approval (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/Full Frame transfer. Though most of the film takes place on the aforementioned Scottish estate, it very rarely feels like a stage adaptation thanks to Brook's lavish direction. There are faint scratches and flecks here and there, but detail is generally exceptional and depth is impressive. It's a sharp-looking transfer for a sharp-looking flick. The PCM 2.0 Mono track is crisp, clean and sharp throughout. The original score sounds consistently robust and the balance is always satisfying. Supplements include an audio commentary with Jeffrey Vance, an interview with Googie Withers, a stills gallery and a booklet featuring an essay by Scott Eyman.
I hadn't heard much of anything about On Approval before checking out this Blu-ray disc, but was absolutely delighted to discover a fresh, funny movie that deserves to be rediscovered.
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