Great Garrick, The (1937): James Whale’s Still-Underestimated Backstage Farce, Starring Brian Aherne, Olivia de Havilland, Edward Everett Horton

From Our Vaults: Underappreciated Classics

James Whale, better known for his horror films, directed The Great Garrick, an historical farce about backstage life, starring Brian Aherne, Olivia de Havilland, and Edward Everett Horton.

The film also features Lionel Atwill, Luis Alberni, Melville Cooper, and future star Lana Turner (in a bit part).

The Premise:

Based on the Ernest Vajda play, Ladies and Gentlemen, the film concerns the famous eighteenth-century British actor David Garrick, who travels to France for a guest appearance at the Comédie Française.  When the French actors hear rumors that he said he will teach them the art of acting, they devise a plot to teach him a lesson.

Narrative Structure:

In London in 1750, renowned English actor David Garrick announces that he has been invited to Paris to work with the prestigious Comédie-Française. A fop in a box seat declares that the French want Garrick to teach them how to act, and the audience chants, “Teach the French!”

Unfortunately, the playwright Beaumarchais attributes the remark to Garrick himself. As a result, the outraged French actors, led by their president Picard, take over the inn where he will be staying, and Beaumarchais devises a plot to humiliate Garrick publicly.

On the road, Garrick meets Jean Cabot, an elderly admirer who once acted with him in Hamlet and now works as a Comédie-Française prompter. Cabot—who was tossed out of the Comedie-Française meeting when he protested that Garrick might be innocent—has ridden for days to warn the actor, although he does not know the plot’s details of the plot.

Garrick decides to stop at the inn as planned and play along, despite the misgivings of his valet-companion Tubby and Cabot’s concern about potential violence.

At the inn, Picard tries to rally his cast, but meets with temperament and histrionics, particularly from Basset, who insist on playing a madman. They plan to discomfort the Brit with near miss from a falling trunk; a seemingly fatal duel with swords; a shootout between husband and his wife’s lover; Basset’s mad waiter; and attack from a violent blacksmith.

A complication arises in mid-performance when Germaine Dupont, Countess de la Corbe, appears at the inn, after her coach has broken down. Garrick believes she is one of the actresses, when she is actually fleeing an arranged marriage. He plays along, offering her his room, and predictably, they fall in love.

Garrick disguises himself as the blacksmith and, pretending to be drunk, tells the troupe that he has killed their intended victim. Tubby rages at them and demands that someone call out the guard. The actors plan to flee, when Garrick reveals his identity.

Garrick storms at Germaine for her bad acting, including her bad kissing. Infuriated, she claims she does not have experience, but does not correct his mistake. Garrick advises that she quit the stage.

Picard apologizes on behalf of the company and begs Garrick to join them in Paris, and Garrick graciously accepts.

At his premiere in Paris, about to play Don Juan, Garrick searches the stage for Germaine. Realizing that she was telling the truth and that he loves her, he is too distraught to perform ever again, unless he finds her.

Announcing this to the audience, he spots Germaine in a box, beaming, and is struck dumb. In the prompt box, Jean Cabot holds up a black board that reads: “I met her at the stable. I explained. She knows, understands, forgives, loves.”

The inspired Garrick launches into speech about being in love. Germaine is at first delighted, but then worried that he will reveal her name. However, Garrick identifies his new love as “La Belle France.”

While the farce is largely amusing, Whale occasionally struggles to lend it the fast speed that is required by the genre.

Even so, the romantic passages between Aherne and De Havilland are compellingly charming.

Ultimately, the farce belongs to Aherne, who excels as the young and handsome swashbuckler, showing a lighter, more flamboyant side of his screen persona.

Upon release, the New York Times praised the film: “Of the many legends about David Garrick, that legendary figure of the 18th-century theater, this one counts as one of the most amusing.”

About James Whale:

The film was made by Whale for Warner after the troubled production of The Road Back, which met with controversy and opposition from the Nazi government, thus straining his relationship with Universal where he had worked for the past six years.

The Garrick film was intended to be a more light-hearted effort. However, both The Great Garrick and Whale’s next film, Port of Seven Seas, were box office flops. Whale eventually returned to Universal, where he ended up making B Movies.

Brian Aherne as David Garrick
Olivia de Havilland as Germaine
Edward Everett Horton as Tubby
Melville Cooper as M. Picard
Lionel Atwill as Beaumarchais
Luis Alberni as Basset
Lana Turner as Auber
Marie Wilson as Nicolle
Linda Perry as Molee
Fritz Leiber Sr. as Horatio
Etienne Girardot as Jean Cabot
Dorothy Tree as Mme. Moreau
Craig Reynolds as M. Janin
Paul Everton as Innkeeper of Adam and Eve
Trevor Bardette as M. Noverre
Milton Owen as Thierre
Albert Dekker as LeBrun
Chester Clute as M. Moreau


TCM showed the movie on January 5, 2022.