Director – Julien Duvivier, Screenplay – Samuel Hoffenstein, Ernest Pascal & Ellis St. Joseph, Based on Short Stories by Ellis St. Joseph Laslo Vadnay & Oscar Wilde, Producers – Charles Boyer & Julien Duvivier, Photography – (b&w) Stanley Cortez & Paul Ivano, Music – Alexander Tansman, Makeup – Jack Pierce, Art Direction – Robert Boyle, John B. Goodman & Richard Riedel. Production Company – Universal.
Robert Benchley (Doakes), David Hoffman (Davis). 1:- Betty Field (Henrietta), Robert Cummings (Michael), Edgar Barrier (Stranger). 2:- Edward G. Robinson (Marshall Tyler), Thomas Mitchell (Septimus Podgers), Anna Lee (Rowena), Dame May Whitty (Lady Pamela Hardwick), C. Aubrey Smith (Dean of Chichester). 3:- Charles Boyer (Paul Gaspar), Barbara Stanwyck (Joan Stanley), Charles Winninger (King Lamarr)
While Doakes is relaxing at his club, Davis insists on reading him several stories from a book. 1:- During Mardi Gras, the plain and homely washerwoman Henrietta sees the body of a suicide dragged from the river and feels tempted to throw herself in. A mysterious stranger speaks to her and then takes her to his mask shop and asks her to choose the mask of the person she would be. Henrietta chooses the mask of a beautiful woman. Wearing it, she goes out into the carnival and meets her customer Michael. He becomes captivated by her, begging her to show her face to him, but she must return the mask by midnight. 2:- The lawyer Marshall Tyler is at a party where Septimus Podgers is telling people’s fortunes. However, Podgers hesitates when Marshall asks to have his palm read. Marshall asks for a private reading later. There Podgers tells Marshall that what he saw in his palm is that he will be a murderer. Haunted by this, Michael goes out and decides if he is to be a murderer then he will choose when to commit the act. 3:- Paul Gaspar performs a successful high-wire circus act as The Great Gaspar. He then has a dream of falling and loses his nerve up on the wire. During a sea voyage, he meets Joan Stanley who was in his dream even though she insists she has never met him. Paul is persistent and romances Joan even though she keeps secrets about who she really is from him.
Julien Divivier (1896-1971) was a director who had started work in France during the silent era. Duvivier made a number of films in France from 1919 through the sound era, which includes a version of The Golem (1936) and a remake of The Phantom Carriage (1939). Duvivier has a Hollywood sojourn during the 1940s beginning with Marie Antoinette (1938) and including the anthology Tales of Manhattan (1942), Flesh and Fantasy and the British-made Anna Karenina (1948), before making a return to France.
The Anthology Film was relatively new at that point. There had been some genre efforts made during the German silent era with Tales of the Uncanny (1919) and Waxworks (1924). Dead of Night (1945), which is considered the foundational work of the British horror anthology, was still two years off. Flesh and Fantasy was requested as a follow-up to Tales of Manhattan, Duvivier later released a feature-length follow-up with Destiny (1944), which had originally been intended to have been the opening episode here.
The wraparound is negligible but the first segment – none of the episodes are given titles – captivates you from the opening scene. Duvivier’s directorial style is extraordinary – in the opening moments, we see figures in black demon costumes and others in white angel wings carrying a body before the camera pulls back to show we are in the midst of the Mardi Gras. The momentary effect is of like something out of Dante’s Inferno (1924). Or when Betty Field is tempted to throw herself in the river and we see the river below her all lit up by a glow from beneath. The venture to the mask shop makes imaginative use of shadow and chiaroscuro to highlight the dense visual clutter. Later Divivier’s camera joins a group of partygoers as they dance in a train through the house while outside we see the projected lights of fireworks and the carnival. The film dazzles you with its visual stylishness, quite unlike much of anything else being made during this period.
The downside of the first episode is that it plays on the theme of beauty and ugliness about which people of this era were very concerned. The plot is very similar to The Enchanted Cottage (1921), a play in which a disfigured war veteran and a homely woman meet at a magical cottage where they can see the true beauty in either’s hearts – see the film version The Enchanted Cottage (1945). The episode comes from a similar place where Betty Field becomes beautiful by putting on the mask. The end where she sees that the mask allowed her to reveal her inner beauty not weighed down by years of bitterness – in other words, she only gains her self-worth by being able to appear as beautiful and acceptable in the eyes of a man – seems dated today.
The second episode, adapted from Oscar Wilde’s short story Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (1891), is a Clairvoyance and Precognition story. It has a great hook where Edward G. Robinson receives a prophecy from fortune-teller Thomas Mitchell that he is going to be a murderer. In the appealing twist, Robinson then decides that he is going to make the prophecy come true by killing someone. This episode is not quite up there with the stylishness established by the previous episode but there are some great shots with Robinson debating with himself where we see him talking to his reflection in store windows, the glass of street lamps, off his spectacle lenses and even as a shadow illuminated on the wall.
The third episode stars French actor Charles Boyer (who also produces the film) as a trapeze artist who has a unique act where he performs a high wire walk while appearing to be drunk and stumbling along the rope. This is the least fantastic of the episodes – merely one where Boyer has a Dream of falling and sees a woman in the crowd that later turns out to be one he meets on a transatlantic sea voyage. As the woman in question, Barbara Stanwyck plays with a good deal of mystery and allure. It is also the least inventive visually of the stores and but works well in terms of its story and characters.