Three years after his directorial debut, the silent film The First Born (1928), Miles Mander tried his hand on two sound films. The first, The Woman Between, was an adaptation of his own stage play ‘Conflict’. The second, Fascination, was based on another writer’s script. Unlike some actor-directors, like Tom Walls, Mander decided to restrict his duties to directing only and did not appear in either film.
Fascination’s main attraction for modern audiences is the starring role of future ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ Madeleine Carroll, appearing here four years before her famous role in The 39 Steps opposite Robert Donat. According to the DVD sleeve notes, only one 35mm copy of Fascination survives in Britain, of which the sound and image quality leave something to be desired. It is, however, eminently watchable, not only for Carroll’s performance, but also as an interesting counterpoint to The Divorce of Lady X which was released seven years later. Both films deal with marital fidelity, but whereas the later film treats infidelity as a comic subject and accepts its existence as a matter of course, Fascination is much more moralistic on the subject.
Fascination opens with a scene in a children’s playroom, where a little boy and girl are playing with a toy train set. They are Larry and Vera, the protagonists of the film. Mander’s directorial style comes across immediately in the close-up shots of various toys, which give an emotive impression of the room from a child’s perspective. He shuns any establishing shot of the space. In foreshadowing of Larry and Vera’s later troubles, the toy train runs of the rails and Larry, in trying to fix it, breaks the tracks altogether. However, the children quickly make up and a third boy, who had been playing in a corner, orders that they should be ‘married’; a mock ceremony ensues.
The film then briefly moves to Larry and Vera’s courtship as young adults (Larry is ‘in his last term at Oxford’ studying to be an architect) before moving on to a time three years into their marriage, when the main action of the film begins. Vera and Larry have been established as a devoted couple, who laugh and play together and commit to a series of ten ‘commandments’ of marriage, which include ‘telling the other everything that matters’ rather than the more traditional expectation for the wife to obey the husband.
Three years into the marriage, there are no children yet (more on that later) but Larry has established himself as an up-and-coming architect/interior designer and Vera is a content housewife. Larry has received a request to do the interior design of an apartment for a famous stage actress, Gwenda Farrell, who is currently starring in the hit play ‘Fascination’. Gwenda, of course, is played by Madeleine Carroll. Reeling from a recent break-up, Gwenda is taken by Larry and he is smitten by her. The reasons for his attraction to Gwenda are never explained; the audience is asked to assume that it is inevitable for a happily married man like Larry to fall in love with another women based on her looks and glamour alone.
After an initial meeting in a cafeteria, ostensibly to discuss the business of the flat, it is Larry who suggests that they go out on the river for the rest of the day and have a picnic. Once outside, he starts flirting with Gwenda and she calls him a ‘silly boy’ and tells him not to ‘spoil things’. However, she immediately follows this up with an invitation to supper in her flat – and as if the audience needs reminding, Mander here inserts a shot of a sign in the adjacent pond which announces ‘Danger’.
Although Larry is clearly an active and willing participant in the affair, it is no surprise that Gwenda is presented as the primary guilty party, as she reciprocates his attention and moves the relationship along. At the night of the supper (where we can assume the relationship is consummated), Vera is starting to get upset with Larry’s frequent absences from home. Her suspicions are confirmed when Gwenda sends Larry an intimate letter which Vera reads. But even here Vera has not done anything illicit or objectionable: Larry has eye trouble and asks Vera to read his letters out to him, even encouraging her to open the one marked ‘Personal’. Vera does not reveal to Larry what she has read and burns the letter without him being any the wiser.
Although Larry by this point is starting to feel very conflicted about his affair and wants to end it, Gwenda ostensibly still has too much of a hold on him to enable him to break things off. Thankfully for him, his wife has found a solution. Vera writes to Gwenda under false pretences and invites the other woman to her marital home. Here, rather than having an argument, Vera explains that she loves Larry and wants to protect her marriage, so she is happy to silently consent to his affair with Gwenda. In Vera’s reasoning, if she were to cause a big fuss, Larry would be driven into Gwenda’s arms more.
Before Gwenda has a chance to respond to this proposal, Larry comes home – Vera hides Gwenda quickly behind a curtain. Larry confesses his affair to Vera, begs her forgiveness and offers to write to Gwenda immediately to break off the relationship. Gwenda decides to reveal herself and explains to Larry that Vera, in her generosity, had agreed to him continuing the affair just to keep her marriage intact. She insists on ending her relationship with Larry now that she has met Vera.
Fascination ends with the contrast of Gwenda, smoking alone in her dressing room and forcing herself to get ready for yet another night’s performance; and Vera and Larry, cuddled together in a chair where Vera reveals to him that she is pregnant.
Unlike in The Divorce of Lady X, then, divorce is an impossible outcome in Fascination. If Vera had opted to divorce Larry, she would have had to stand the shame and exposure of the divorce court, with a famous actor cited as co-respondent in the case. Clearly, for a respectable middle-class woman this was not really a route to contemplate, even without the added complexity of pregnancy or children. Her willingness to allow the affair to continue, then, is perhaps less magnanimous than the film presents, and more pragmatically her only option.
Yet, by perpetuating the narrative that single women ‘steal’ husbands away from faithful wives; and faithful wives should accept this and allow husbands to come back in their own time, Fascination clearly sides with patriarchal norms. Vera’s ostensible agency is in fact non-existent- something also stressed by a scene where she visits Larry’s office to ask him for household money. Fascination presents marriage as the route to a woman’s happiness, and independence and professional success as poor substitutes. Despite the increasingly progressive position of women in British society by the early 1930s, this film demonstrates that cultural texts often still expounded traditional viewpoints.