Sparkling entertainment that sets three separate strange tales into an engaging, lightly probing frame starring Robert Benchley at his lighthearted best, Flesh and Fantasy questions premonitions and fate, suggesting that “destiny” in reality either masks human compulsions or predispositions or pressures certain outcomes as self-fulfilling prophecy. Dreams—both sleeping and waking ones—figure in, as does the capacity of love to redeem the individual from self-doubt. Julien Duvivier directs remarkably here, abetted by two splendid cinematographers, Paul Ivano and Stanley Cortez, who make shadows shimmer and shudder.
The first tale, set in New Orleans at Mardis Gras, involves a self-doubting law student and an ugly, embittered girl who secretly loves him and arranges for them to meet and date; she appears beautiful to him because of the mysterious mask she wears but must return by midnight to a curio shop. Betty Field is superb as the girl who discovers that unselfish love rather than desire is the key to the liberation of the soul, that is to say, happiness.
The second tale, set in London, comes from Oscar Wilde and involves a palm reading that predicts a certain wealthy lawyer will become a murderer. This man, an American (Edward G. Robinson, excellent, and matched by Thomas Mitchell as the reader of palms), does his best to outwit the parlor prophecy by deciding to murder someone whose loss he will not regret! Dreamlike, the second tale tickles the first—is this what the young law student played by Robert Cummings has become?—and segues into the third: the most brilliant.
Paul Gaspar—“The Great Gaspar” (Charles Boyer, who co-produced, magnificent)—is a world-renowned circus aerialist who feigns drunkenness as part of his thrilling act, for which the safety net below is ceremoniously rolled up and taken away. Paul has a dream: an exquisitely earringed woman—a stranger to him—screams from the audience as he drops to his death during performance. And there she is onboard ship as he sails to America to perform: Joan Stanley (Barbara Stanwyck, gorgeous, alluring, wry, gentle—fantastic, but also down-to-earth). They become lovers. Another dream: Joan Stanley is really Joan Templeton, and she will be arrested by the police as soon as the ship docks. When this doesn’t appear to happen, well, then: What’s to worry about the dream of death? Only . . .
Great dark fun.
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