While my mother loved Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) most of all, another fifties comedy she adored was the British Genevieve, written by American expatriate William Rose and directed by South African-born Henry Cornelius. Charming, funny, poised and, ultimately, gently poignant, this classic about two friends who are annual rivals in their antique cars in the London-to-Brighton rally won best film prizes from the British Academy and at the Golden Globes. The title refers not to a woman but to London barrister Alan McKim’s 1904 Darracq roadster, to whom—to which—wife Wendy is accustomed to taking a back seat. Men are such boys about their cars, you know.
In a way the film is all about a woman after all: Wendy; for Alan’s and Ambrose Claverhouse’s road rivalry sublimates the romantic competition for her that Alan has already maritally won. It is hinted that Ambrose’s open-ended line of female companions is the result of his loss of Wendy, whom he dated first and fatefully introduced to Alan. Ambrose still flirts with Wendy under Alan’s nose, which jealously twitches. Sometimes we cannot accept that we’ve already won the race.
For the current rally, although she is a tad miffed that Alan always gets his way, Wendy is by his side, like always; Ambrose has brought along beauteous Rosalind Peters, who has unexpectedly brought along her St. Bernard. (Well, her housekeeper got sick!) To and fro, for the latter of which they concoct their own competition, both men’s wheels stumble into one performance calamity after another. Will Alan lose his Genevieve to Ambrose?
In the fits-and-starts race back to London, at one point when Ambrose is up ahead, an older gentleman, unaware of what’s at stake, stalls Alan to wax nostalgically about Alan’s car; Alan tries to cut the conversation short, but, his humanity kicking in, resigns himself to being cordial to the old timer: a gracious moment. Wendy, surprised, falls in love with him all over again.
Dinah Sheridan is fine as Wendy, and Kay Kendall dazzles and delights as Rosalind—dear Kay, who would die of leukemia, at 33, six years hence.*
Not as sharp or profound, or as flat-out hilarious, as Howard Hawks’s Monkey Business (1952), some of whose thematic territory it retreads, Genevieve nevertheless comes equipped with a special aura, a lovely glow, a nod in-the-moment to the passage of time.
* Dear, brilliant Kay: Les Girls (George Cukor, 1957); The Reluctant Debutante (Vincente Minnelli, 1958).
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