Richard “Dickie” Heldar (Ronald Colman) has harbored a desire to be an artist ever since he was a youngster (Ronald Sinclair)—explaining to his girlfriend Maisie (Sarita Wooton) that while he can’t seem to pass any of his classes he does possess an aptitude for caricaturing his teachers. Maisie has similar ambitions, and though her guardians have insisted that she must pursue further educational opportunities abroad, she pledges that she belongs to him “forever and ever.” (He should have got this in writing.)
Years later in the Sudan, Dick is on the front lines as a newspaper illustrator covering the war between the British and the “fuzzy wuzzies.” (They don’t like it up ‘em, Captain Mainwaring…they do not like it up ‘em!) His best friend is a war correspondent named Torpenhow (Walter Huston), and during one particularly heated skirmish Heldar saves the life of his friend…but he suffers a severe laceration to his forehead as a result. After recuperating from his injury, Dick decides to pursue painting by studying under Monsieur Binat (Pedro De Cordoba) in Port Said. His artistic depictions of the war earn him critical acclaim back in London, and he soon returns to Old Blighty, taking up residence in an apartment right across the hall from his pal “Torp.”
His successful paintings make Dick mucho dinero…but sadly, the pursuit of big bucks “softens” their content, insomuch as his works now take on a superficially commercial tinge. It is also at this time that Dick again crosses paths with Maisie (Muriel Angelus); he very much wants to marry her but she won’t consent until she’s enjoyed equal acclaim as a painter as well. So while Maisie commits to more study in Paris, Dick meets up with a prostitute named Bessie Broke (Ida Lupino), who becomes Torp’s temporary house guest when Torp finds her passed out from starvation outside the entrance to their apartments. Heldar enlists Bessie’s services as a model for a painting he’s working on, yet the two of them get on like oil and water—a dislike that intensifies when Dick discourages Torp from becoming romantically involved with the girl. Heldar will have to put their mutual animosity on the back burner, however: he’s only a little time to finish what he believes will be his masterpiece, because a visit to an oculist (Halliwell Hobbes) for his blurred vision results in a diagnosis that he’s going blind.
Based on Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 novel, The Light That Failed enjoyed even greater success when it was adapted for London’s West End stage in 1903; that version reached Broadway in November of that same year, which in turn led to two silent film versions in 1916 and 1923. This Light That Failed is the third and final feature film version (so far); released in 1939 and directed by William A. “Wild Bill” Wellman (who also produced) from a script by Robert Carson. Wellman’s “war-is-hell” oeuvre includes classics like Wings (1927), Beau Geste (1939), and Battleground (1949) …so even though most of Light’s story is focused on the artistic career of Dick Heldar, the Sudan sequences are well handled (and I like Wellman’s take on the final death scene—it takes place off-camera, with a white stallion galloping toward the direction of the camera in search of a fallen rider.)
I had a passing familiarity with the plot of Light; it’s considered by a number of Ida Lupino fans to be her “breakthrough” film (1939 was good for “the poor man’s Bette Davis”—she also appeared in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that same year). The story goes that Ida was so determined to play the part of Bessie that she stole a copy of the script, then barged into Wellman’s office demanding to be allowed to audition. Wellman was impressed with Ida and agreed she should have the part—this, however, did not sit well with star Colman, who lobbied hard for Vivien Leigh. When Bill dug in his heels, Ronnie tried to have him replaced. (Wellman could have been spared a lot of grief if Paramount’s first choice, Gary Cooper, had said “Yep.”)
I may be biased about Ida’s performance in Light—it’s no secret that I’m a big fan—but I was very impressed with her turn as the…look, the entry for this film at AFI.com calls her a “Cockney bar maid”…but she’s no more a “barmaid” than Joan Bennett is a “seamstress” in Man Hunt (1941). Ida’s so sympathetic playing a part that I don’t believe was meant to be conveyed as compassionate (I have not read the book, so I don’t know if this is present in Kipling’s novel or whether this was planned by the filmmakers), even when she commits an act of vandalism that will dictate the final outcome of the film. I honestly felt remorseful for the way she was treated by both Colman’s and Huston’s characters (Huston caves to social pressure—a terrible thing for a man who earlier displayed an admirable decency toward Ida’s character), and as such wasn’t too upset at her motivations at the key point of the film.
In one of my favorite film reference books, Danny Peary’s Alternate Oscars, Peary proposes taking away Ronald Colman’s Best Actor Oscar for A Double Life (1947) and handing it off instead to Charlie Chaplin (for that same year’s Monsieur Verdoux). I don’t have a problem with this, but I do take issue with Peary’s observation: “[W]ith time comes the sad realization that this handsome and dignified screen presence wasn’t a very good actor.” What a bunch of malarkey. I first became a fan of Ronnie’s through his multiple appearances with wife Benita Hume on The Jack Benny Program…which was instrumental in launching the husband-and-wife team as stars one of the most delightful situation comedies in radio, The Halls of Ivy. If anything, Colman had an unmatched flair for light comedy (I love him in both The Talk of the Town  and Champagne for Caesar ) but also demonstrated first-rate dramatic chops in Lost Horizon (1937—my personal favorite Colman film), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Random Harvest (1942), and The Late George Apley (1947).
That having been said, Colman’s turn in The Light That Failed is not one of the highlights of his thespic resume. Again, it could be that his character was purposely written as a jerk…but if I was supposed to feel regret for the plight of Dick Heldar I had a most difficult time doing so. It’s not at all hard to delineate why Heldar never married; he behaves quite beastly toward Maisie (Muriel Angelus, nearing the end of her film career, has a thankless role but manages to remain quite likable despite her character’s shortcomings) even after she tells him what a “fine man” he is. Maisie very much wants to take care of him now that he’s blind, and he waves her away like a macho schmuck. I will say this, though: I do give Light credit for avoiding what could have been mawkish overkill with the Heldar character—but the way he chooses to deal with his condition by the end of the movie is most unsatisfying when one takes in the events that preceded it.
Walter Huston had entered the character actor phase of his career by the time of the release of The Light That Failed, demonstrating that he could be every bit as compelling in support (The Devil and Daniel Webster, Yankee Doodle Dandy) as he was as a leading man (The Beast of the City, Dodsworth). Light also features top-notch turns from such veterans as Dudley Digges, Halliwell Hobbes, Ferike Boros, and Francis McDonald.
It looks as if someone surgically removed The Light That Failed from rarefilmm.com…and I don’t know if the download links still work, so if you’re wanting to watch this online caveat emptor. There are also a number of Ma-and-Pa vendors offering the film; I obtained my copy (as always, a heckuva print) from Martin Grams’ Finders Keepers website for the low, low price of $6.99. Ivan-Bob says check it out.