When we made a list of one-shot directors, I don’t think we included Clive Brook, best known as an actor, who produced, directed, and wrote only one film: On Approval (1944), based on the play by Frederick Lonsdale. According to Jeffrey Vance, who introduced the film, Brook intended only to produce and act in the movie, but he fired the director and the screenwriter, as well as the cinematographer, who had only set up one shot in three days. Because the budget was so limited, Brook had to do the writing and directing himself. The joke is that he’s a splendid comic director. I don’t know why he never directed another movie, and the only post-Approval film he acted in was The List of Adrian Messenger.
Moving the action from the twenties, when the play was written, back to the 1890s works out well, and the opening of the film, especially, uses many New Wave devices years before the New Wave. We have a faux newsreel, actors talking to the camera, actors correcting the voiceover narration, tilted shots, later on a dream sequence—Salvador Dali meets the Marx Brothers, as Jeffrey Vance suggested.
Brook plays the Duke of Bristol, a dissipated roué who has lost most of his family fortune. He’s had to rent his ancestral home to an American heiress (Googie Withers). Perhaps he can recoup his fortunes by marrying her. Meanwhile, his timid and impoverished friend Richard (Roland Culver) pays court to, and perhaps even loves, the formidable and wealthy widow Maria (pronounced “Mariah,” of course, as the English did), played by the formidable Beatrice Lillie. Maria decides that they should live together for a month in her Scottish manor, platonically of course, and their friends George (the duke) and Helen (the heiress) come along as chaperones. Drinking and verbal mayhem ensue. It would be difficult to find four better-spoken actors, each of whom can extract the utmost of wit and meaning from a line which might seem unremarkable on paper.
This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea—glass of champagne, snifter of brandy—but if you like English comedy, this is probably for you. It was a big hit at the festival. I turned up forty minutes before showtime and snagged one of the last seats in the house, the smallest of the festival venues. Fortunately, it was repeated, and sold out again. Good news: On Approval is out on DVD. Good news: it will probably show up on TCM several months from now.