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Film / The Light That Failed

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She's just as crazy as her portrait!
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The Light that Failed (1939) is a melodrama directed by William A. Wellman, starring Ronald Colman, Walter Huston, Muriel Angelus, and Ida Lupino.

Adapted from the Rudyard Kipling novel of the same name, the story is about an English artist, Dick Hedler, a war correspondent in Sudan. After the war, he knocks about in foreign lands practicing his craft when Torpenhow (Huston), the friend who Hedler saved during the war, invites him back to England because his paintings have become a sensation. Back in London, Hedler meets with Maisie (Angelus), an old childhood sweetheart, who is a struggling artist and painfully rejects Hedler’s offer of marriage. Saddened but still determined to continue his success, Hedler turns conceited and begins neglecting his artistic vision.

Tragedy strikes when he’s diagnosed with decaying optical nerves: blindness is the permanent result. Determined to make his masterpiece, he finds Bessie (Lupino), a floozy Cockney girl, and paints her portrait.

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Not to be confused with the M*A*S*H episode of the same name.


Tropes:

  • The Alcoholic: Once he's diagnosed with his oncoming blindness, Hedler finds out that his eyes focus better when he drinks so he gets very drunk when he's painting Bessie's portrait.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The cavalry is outnumbered by the enemy, but Hedler joins them to fight until the death. It’s exactly the way he wanted to die.
  • Death Equals Redemption: Hedler signs back up as a correspondent for another war (while blind) and somehow gets into the cavalry. He knowingly goes into a suicidal mission, dying in the process. But he died doing what he loved and without any of his conceited pretensions about him.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Torpenhow and Hedler.
  • Giftedly Bad: Maise’s artwork definitely needs more practice and patience.
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  • Last-Name Basis: We never learn Torpenhow’s first name.
  • Loyal Animal Companion: Binkie, Torpenhow’s terrier that takes a liking to Hedler.
  • Lower-Class Lout: Bessie to a T.
  • Mad Artist: Hedler when he’s painting the last portrait of Bessie. He locks her in his apartment and forces her to laugh (for the painting) for hours on end to get it perfect.
  • Our Hero Is Dead: The film ends with Hedler’s death and Torpenhow musing how it was the best way for him to go.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: All the praise for his work makes Hedler become rather conceited.
  • Starving Artist: Maisie. It’s probably her own fault though: when she asks for advice from Dick, —he’s more than willing to give her some—she immediately rejects it because it wouldn’t be her own. Mind you, it’s simple advice that any artist could do with: learning how to draw well in the first place.

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