Best in Show: Dean Spanley as Out-of-Homebody Experience

My records show that I watched some 250 films in 2008. They range from silent one-reelers to noisy epics, from British wartime propaganda to Third Reich comedy, from the obscure Lottery Man (1916), which I enjoyed, to the biggest blockbuster of the year (The Dark Knight), which I did not. For all this variety, the majority of the titles on my list (continued to the right of this journal entry) are Hollywood films of the studio era, many of them from the 1930s and 1940s. Conventional as I am in this, I concur with those who hold 1939 to be Hollywood’s best vintage.

Later decades, the present one excepted, are poorly represented in my annual account. There are two films from the 1990s (one of them a television movie about the inclusion of which the pedant in me had a long debate with myself); a lone film from the 1980s (the tonally misjudged if beautifully languid A Handful of Dust, based on one of my favorite novels of the 1930s); and less than a handful of 1970s pictures, two of them by one of the greatest directors of Hollywood’s golden age, Alfred Hitchcock. There is to me no surprise in these statistics; they are an adequate reflection of my cinematic tastes and predilections. Prejudices, you might say.

What distorts the picture are my travels. They broaden to the extent that, against the pertinacity I cannot bring myself to pass off as better judgment, something like Hulk (sat through in New York), The Day the Earth Stood Still (endured in London), or Midnight Meat Train (suffered in Riga) slips in. Still, if it weren’t for those bouts of wanderlust, I probably would not have had the pleasure of catching Guy Maddin’s hypnotic My Winnipeg, featuring noir dame Ann Savage, who passed away on Christmas day last year; nor would I have seen Tarsem Singh’s stunningly surreal The Fall or Toa Fraser’s quietly quirky Dean Spanley, a film I caught at the Little Theatre in Bath, England (pictured above).

Dean Spanley is based on a 1936 novella by Lord Dunsany, which has been republished with Alan Sharp’s screenplay and commentary. It is more accurate to say that the film is inspired by My Talks with Dean Spanley, a casual, witty discourse on reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. Inspired it certainly is.

As the title slyly suggests, the heart, soul and center of these talks is a clergyman who, in a former life, was what an intoxicated person afflicted with temporary dyslexia might call a “Spanley.” Without resorting to puns as crude as mine, the narrative plays with the idea that a man who wears a dog collar might have been barking at the moon before he learned to preach; that a clergyman may have had a past existence entirely at odds with his preachings about the afterlife; and that, in order to arrive at the secret of a dull, reserved, and abstemious man, one must drink him under the table to get him to reminisce about a time when he belonged there:

It was [the] remark about the woods and the night, and the eager way in which he spoke of the smells and the sounds, that first made me sure that the Dean was speaking from knowledge, and that he really had known another life in a strangely different body. Why these words made me sure I cannot say; I can only say that it is oddly often the case that some quite trivial remark in a man’s conversation will suddenly make you sure that he knows what he is talking about. A man will be talking perhaps about pictures, and all at once he will make you feel that Raphael, for instance, is real to him, and that he is not merely making conversation. In the same way I felt, I can hardly say why, that the woods were real to the Dean, and the work of a dog no less to him than an avocation.

The film much expands on the original material without evaporating any of its charm. Distilling its essence, screenwriter Alan Sharp turns the talks with the Dean (wonderfully portrayed by Sam Neill) into a story of self-discovery and healing in which the clergyman’s secret, arrived at by way of methodically yet unscrupulously administered Tokay, into the key to the troubled relationship of the narrator (Jeremy Northam) with his cantankerous father (played by Peter O’Toole). Rather than exploiting it strictly for laughs, Toa Fraser’s sensitive treatment of Lord Dunsany’s novella is a rare and winning—and so rarely winning—combination of wit and sentiment.

Yes, travel broadens. Coming back home, you might even look differently at your own dog as he gives you that “and-where-have-you-been look of mingled joy and reproach . . .

4 Replies to “Best in Show: Dean Spanley as Out-of-Homebody Experience”

  1. This was a problematic film for me. If it was just a fireside yarn about alcohol, male company, beloved dogs and lost experiences, I have no problem. But if it was an accurate examination of otherwise smart Edwardian gentlemen, why DID they go in for spiritualism? Just part of the grieving process for a lost son and brother following the horrors of war?

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  2. Thanks for the link to my blog. I didn't think the story was likely to stay in my mind for the rest of my life. But I did think there was excellent, moody photography and really splendid acting.Still the question remains, at least for me. Why were these rational, educated men sucked in by the promises of spiritualism? Not just as a game, surely.HelsArt and Architecture, mainly

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