Flesh and Fantasy (1943) – reviewed by George

With that title it seems the film should be about sex, but actually it’s about superstition. There are bookends and tie-togethers with Robert Benchley, and indeed since the billing is by appearance, Robert gets top billing.
There are three complete short films, all built around Mr. Doakes’s (Benchley’s) conundrum. He has been told by a fortune teller that he will do an unspecified thing, then has gone home and dreamt that he did not do this thing. Who to believe? The fortune teller or his own personal dream? And choosing either one will be a personal failure since he doesn’t believe in either. His friend Davis (David Hoffman) tries to calm him by reading three stories that deal with either a dream or a fortune teller.
In the first tale Henrietta (Betty Field), an unattractive dressmaker (she is not hideous or ugly as the script specifies, but she could use a makeover) is told by a stranger (Edgar Barrier) that she should wear a beautiful mask to Mardi Gras, and love and beauty will result. Field, who frequently played harpies, had the talent to play attractive or un-. Urged by the fortune teller, she dons the mask. At Mardi Gras she meets a good-looking young man, Michael (Robert Cummings), and is drawn to him, and he pursues her despite her eagerness to escape, because she is sure the fortune teller is wrong. How could she become beautiful just by wearing a beautiful mask?
The second tale involves the society fortune teller Septimus Podgers (Thomas Mitchell), who is the entertainment at a small soiree hosted by Lady Pamela Hardwick (Dame May Whitty). He tells one woman, Lady Carrington (Doris Lloyd) whose husband has been missing for over two years, lost on an expedition, that she will hear from her husband very soon. And he tells Marshall Tyler (Edward G. Robinson) not to ask any questions about the success or failure of his infatuation with the lovely Rowena (Anna Lee), but to see him later and he will read his palm. When they get together Septimus tells Marshall that he will commit a murder – it’s right there in his hand. Marshall wants nothing to stand in his way with Rowena, and a murder would certainly do that. What to do?
And the final story deals with a dream. Paul Gaspar, the famous aerialist (Charles Boyer), whose act is called The Drunk Man on the Tightrope, dreams that he sees a woman scream and then he falls. And he works without a net. When he actually meets the woman, Joan Stanley (Barbara Stanwyck), he falls in love with her, but will the dream come true?
And Doakes still has to make his mind up about what to believe or not, and no matter what he decides, will that brand him as superstitious?
A good movie, very entertaining. And what a cast! The three screenplays are by Ernest Pascal, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Ellis St. Joseph, based on stories by Oscar Wilde, Laslo Vadney, and Ellis St. Joseph. The excellent direction is by Julien Duvivier. No idea who wrote the Robert Benchley bits. Maybe Benchley?

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