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Vortex, The (1927)

Courtesy of Moving Image Communications

Main image of Vortex, The (1927)
35mm, black and white, silent, 6281 feet
DirectorAdrian Brunel
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
ProducersC.M. Woolf
 Michael Balcon
Adaption & scenarioEliot Stannard
From the play byNoël Coward
PhotographyJames Wilson

Cast: Ivor Novello (Nicky Lancaster); Willette Kershaw (Florence Lancaster); Frances Doble (Bunty Mainwaring); Alan Hollis (Tom Veryan); Simeon Stuart (David Lancaster)

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A talented but troubled young composer wrestles with love and a mother who is growing old disgracefully.

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Noöl Coward's 1924 play, The Vortex, was the writer's first serious work. Its topics of drug-taking and extra-marital affairs were considered lurid, and several producers refused to stage it, but its controversial subject matter made it a big hit, running for over a year on the London stage.

The play told of a woman who has a lover and her drug-taking son but, to satisfy the censors, the film, made four years later, dealt with a woman with a close male companion and a son who nearly turns to drugs. Director Adrian Brunel was assigned to the film by Michael Balcon at short notice, but was pleased to be working again with Ivor Novello, with whom he'd made The Man without Desire (1922). Brunel had his own editing firm but was unable to do the cutting on The Vortex as he was called away to begin shooting on his next film. As a result he was unhappy with the way the film turned out.

He was also frustrated by the humorous and mock-weighty intertitles, although they do attempt to convey the themes of the film, declaring it to be a "tale of post-war youth". While they skirt over the more serious issues, contemporary audiences, presumably familiar with the play, were no doubt able to read between the lines and deduce more than was actually portrayed.

Novello is distractingly attractive as Nicky, and brings an effeminacy to the role that renders Nicky a rather unconvincing partner for Bunty. His almost incestuous devotion to his mother, more heavily implied in Coward's play, is largely lost in the film as Florence veers from jealousy at his engagement to warm embrace of his future wife. In fact, much of the emotional content of the film is underdeveloped, and Nicky's final descent into drug-taking is hasty and unconvincing.

The set design, however, is a triumph, in particular the two houses owned by Nicky's parents. Florence occupies a town house decorated in a stunning deco style, while Nicky's father has retreated to his country house, furnished in a more Victorian manner. Each house is a physical representation of their personalities and the gulf between them; while Florence believes that her husband disapproves of her "futurist decorations", he describes himself as "a bit pre-war", thus expressing a key tension at work in 1920s Britain.

Jo Botting

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Video Clips
1. Disapproval (3:07)
2. Guilty secret (3:16)
3. Little box of forgetfulness (4:30)
Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)
Brunel, Adrian (1892-1958)
Coward, Noël (1899-1973)
Novello, Ivor (1893-1951)
Stannard, Eliot (1888-1944)