The other night, on a sudden whim, I went to YouTube and watched a film I’d only read about. It’s a 1935 English mystery called The Silent Passenger. It has the distinction of being the first cinematic depiction of Dorothy Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Miss Sayers wrote the story especially for the film. Here it is, if you’re interested.
I’d heard bad things about this film, and it generally lived
down to its reputation.
Actually, that’s kind of unfair. For its time and
environment, it’s not a badly done film. It’s a clever, complicated story about
blackmail and mixed-up luggage. It’s atmospheric, and the final showdown in the
railroad repair facility is fairly exciting.
What’s wrong with it – and the reason Dorothy Sayers hated
it – is the portrayal of Lord Peter. Peter Haddon, a well-respected actor of
the day, seems appallingly miscast. He has a long nose – which is right – but
otherwise he’s too tall and too dark – and kind of oily, like a gigolo. Instead
of a monocle, he sports a repellant little mustache. And instead of playing Lord
Peter as we love him – as an affected, amusing twit in the tradition of the
Scarlet Pimpernel, he walks around with his mouth gaping open like the village
Still, it has its place in history. You might find it
Actor George Arliss with a monocle. Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress
Lent is a time for confessing sins, and I must confess I have committed a social sin. I bought a monocle. And I use it.
It’s been a long time since the monocle enjoyed any kind of welcome in our culture. It was done in, I suppose, by the combination of snooty intellectuals and movie Nazis. I recently saw a photo of some leader of the alt-Right (I don’t remember his name and don’t care) who’d had himself photographed in dramatic black and white, with a monocle in his eye. Semiotically (that’s a fancy word for the symbolic meanings of everyday stuff. I know this because I’m the kind of guy who wears a monocle) the monocle is a red flag waved at egalitarian society. I can’t actually think of any beloved character, in the real world or any fictional one, who wears a monocle. Except for Lord Peter Wimsey. And he wore it so criminals would think him a fool and underestimate him.
The trouble is, I find my monocle extremely convenient and useful. It comes with a lanyard, which means I don’t have to worry about losing it. I only need vision correction (for reading) in one eye. So the monocle is just what the doctor ordered (Almost literally. When my eye doctor told me, during my last visit, that I might try wearing reading glasses with one lens removed, I asked him about monocles and he laughed. Then I checked to see if I could buy one on Amazon, and behold, they sell them there. It was the work of but a moment for me to get one all my own).
I do have the grace to be discreet about it, though. I don’t walk around wearing it all the time. I pull it out when I need to read small print, and put it away when it’s no longer needed.
Also, I work at an institution of higher learning. I consider it a solemn duty of the staff at any school to try to be as eccentric as possible, in order to create stories and legends to be recalled at class reunions. This is one of the foundations of institutional loyalty. Eccentricity at the universities made England the world’s greatest empire at one time.
I’ll let you know when I acquire a valet to complement my eyewear.