Cast & Crew
The film begins with a scene in which Barbara rings Leonora to tell her that something has happened to Chris. At this point, we don't know who Chris is or what has happened, only that he has lost conciousness. The film then flashes back a year, to when the old friends Barbara and Leonora meet again after having lost contact for many years. Time has not strained their relationship it seems, and Barbara invites Leonora to her house a few days later to meet her husband. Her husband Chris, a pompous, austere psychologist, gets off to a bad start with Leonora. The two despise each other until one night when Barbara has to leave town to look after her mother. Because of this, she is unable to go to the play she had arranged to go with Leonora to. Chris reluctantly decides to go in place of Barbara, and the two hit it off and begin a relationship.
The Astonished Heart -
Directed by Terence Fisher and Anthony Darnborough, the film was shot at Pinewood Studios as a Gainsborough Pictures production, under the auspices of the J. Arthur Rank Organisation, and was distributed in the United States by Universal. Noel Coward played psychiatrist Christian Faber, who has been married to Barbara (Celia Johnson) for twelve years. When Barbara is unable to attend a play, Christian reluctantly agrees to take Barbara's friend, Leonora Vail (Margaret Leighton) in her place. Although Christian initially dislikes Leonora, the two fall in love and have an affair, with tragic consequences. Also in the cast were Coward's long-time companion, Graham Payn as Christian's assistant, Joyce Carey, and Michael Hordern.
Coward had sold the rights to Tonight at 8:30 to producer Sydney Box, who was the head of Gainsborough. Box turned around and sold the rights of all ten one-acts off, one by one, to J. Arthur Rank. Believing he could get a better price from Rank if he could provide a screenplay, Box asked playwright Warren Chetham-Strode to create a draft for The Astonished Heart , but Chetham-Strode had too much respect for Noel Coward and declined. He sent Coward a letter explaining that adapting a one-act play into a full length motion picture would require him to add a significant amount of material to Coward's original story, and that Coward's "work cannot be messed about." Coward had no issue with Chetham-Strode taking liberties with the material and asked him to accept the job. Chetham-Strode again declined and Coward did the adaptation himself.
Michael Redgrave was signed to play the part of Christian, described in the play as "about forty years old, tall and thin. He moves quickly and decisively, as though there was never quite enough time for all he had to do." Redgrave, at 41, fit the bill nicely and filming began in June 1949. As he would later write in his diary, Coward went to the studio on June 14th to view what had been shot and thought "Margaret Leighton and Celia absolutely brilliant, but Mike definitely not right. Had a talk with him and then, on the way home, decided to play the picture myself. The situation is now tricky." Coward returned to Pinewood the next day for lunch with Redgrave, Box, and Darnborough, and after a brief conversation, Redgrave felt that he wasn't right for the part and suggested that Coward play it himself. Coward wrote that night of Redgrave, "He behaved really and truly superbly, and I will always respect him for it." His benevolent mood was to change quickly the following day when J. Arthur Rank's "minions suggested [Coward] play the picture for nothing as a gesture to the British Film Industry." A heated discussion soon followed, resulting in Coward securing a salary of £25,000 and a percentage of the profits. If the film failed at the box office, he would receive £5,000, and if Rank made his money back, Coward would get the extra £20,000.
Coward enjoyed working with Celia Johnson and was impressed with her ability to do crossword puzzles while on set and still act superbly. He later recalled how Johnson could move the entire cast and crew to tears playing a highly dramatic scene, and as soon as the director said "Cut!" her mind immediately returned to where she had left off in the crossword puzzle. Despite his respect for Johnson and Leighton, The Astonished Heart was not a good experience for Coward, who told Graham Payn, "I hated playing Faber. It depressed me." After watching a rough-cut of the finished film, he confessed in his diary, "I am never seen as being a great psychiatrist and the reasons for my suicide do not seem enough. It is nearly good but not quite."
The audience had the same reaction to The Astonished Heart as Coward; it was depressing. Post-war England was still struggling with the after effects of a devastating war and The Astonished Heart had no chance at the box office. When the film was released in the United States in February 1950, The New York Times reviewer felt that Coward as a performer and the screenplay itself were both too austere. "Less intellect and more emotion on Mr. Coward's part probably would have made for a warmer performance. His manner is too cool and reserved to carry the conviction of a man consumed by passion. In contrast there is a nice suggestion of animal vitality to Margaret Leighton's portrayal of a Mayfair temptress and there is compassionate resignation and dignity, however misguided, in Celia Johnson's performance as the aggrieved wife."
Shortly before his death in 1973, Coward expressed a desire to watch The Astonished Heart , "just to find out if it really was as bad as they said it was." Coward never did see The Astonished Heart again, but the film did return to art house screens in the 1990s as a cult classic.
SOURCES: Coward, Noel The Noel Coward Diaries Day, Barry The Cinema of Noel Coward The Internet Movie Database "THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; Noel Coward's The Astonished Heart' Has Its Premiere at the Park Ave. Theatre" The New York Times 15 Feb 50 Payn, Graham My Life with Noel Coward Spicer, Andrew Sydney Box
By Lorraine LoBianco