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Rake's Progress, The (1945)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Rake's Progress, The (1945)
DirectorSidney Gilliat
Production CompanyIndividual Pictures
StudioGainsborough Studios
ProducerFrank Launder
 Sidney Gilliat
ScreenplayFrank Launder
 Sidney Gilliat
Director of PhotographyWilkie Cooper

Cast: Rex Harrison (Vivian Kenway); Lilli Palmer (Rikki Krausner); Godfrey Tearle (Colonel Robert Kenway); Griffith Jones (Sandy Duncan); Margaret Johnston (Jennifer Calthorp)

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The dissolute life and heroic death of playboy Vivian Kenway who, after a decade of parties and philandering, finally finds a useful role to play when war breaks out.

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Given that Sidney Gilliat's first two directorial credits (Millions Like Us (co-d. Frank Launder, 1943), Waterloo Road (1944)) focus on the lives of ordinary working people, at first sight The Rake's Progress (1945) looks like a throwback to the 1930s - an era where a man like Vivian Kenway (Rex Harrison), Tory MP's son, Eton and Oxford-educated man-about-town, funded by a hefty allowance that lets him ignore anything as vulgar as a career, was all too familiar from popular culture. P.G.Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster is a perfect parallel.

But Gilliat knew that 1945 audiences were far less prepared to accept this character uncritically after what they'd just been through - so his film shows a much more sophisticated understanding of its era than would have been the case a decade earlier. Wisely, he opens the film with Vivian's death in combat - letting the audience know in advance that however infuriatingly irresponsible his behaviour may be, he will redeem himself in the end.

In this respect, the film departs from the original Rake's Progress (1735), a series of pessimistic engravings by William Hogarth that show how unexpected riches lead to misery and degradation, culminating in madness. Vivian could easily go the same way, but he ultimately has a degree of self-awareness that his predecessor lacked, best demonstrated towards the end when he acknowledges (accurately) that he's part of a dying breed.

Gilliat's eye for telling detail is as sharp as ever, especially in the South American scenes, which double as a harsh criticism of the economic policies of rich countries who not only exploit the resources of poorer ones, but would rather burn surplus produce than sell it at a lower price. Vivian's hypocrisy also comes under the spotlight - he ridicules Jill (Jean Kent) for marrying Sandy (Griffith Jones) for money, using this as an excuse to destroy her marriage, and then does the same thing himself, his apparent altruism in rescuing Rikki (Lilli Palmer) from the Nazis undermined when she discovers his financial deception.

That Vivian never becomes irretrievably repulsive is largely thanks to Harrison's performance, often ranked alongside My Fair Lady's Professor Higgins as his best. He invests Vivian not only with the expected (indeed, essential) roguish charm, but also with a keen intelligence - aware of the limitations of his chosen lifestyle, but being unable to break free until war gives him a truly worthwhile alternative.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Discussing Vivian (3:38)
2. Viennese proposal (5:48)
3. Rueful reflection (2:25)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Two Thousand Women (1944)
Waterloo Road (1944)
Cooper, Wilkie (1911-2001)
Gilliat, Sidney (1908-1994)
Harrison, Rex (1908-1990)
Launder, Frank (1906-1997)
Launder and Gilliat