“Lilacs in the Spring” (or “Let’s Make Up” as it was released in the USA) is a very strange film. I should admit that I saw this in a truly awful print, with terrible color and some chunks, small or otherwise, apparently missing, so the film may actually be marginally less strange than I think. Still, it’s very badly constructed. The first half hour or so, some of it in black-and-white, offers us Anna Neagle as a young woman during World War II trying to decide between two suitors. I suspect Anna Neagle is an acquired taste, especially for an American like myself, and I haven’t acquired it. Her acting is acceptable, her dancing is fine, her singing is well-trained, but she isn’t particularly appealing. There’s something brittle and artificial about her that obviously excited British audiences during and just after the war (she was an enormous star in her native country, thanks at least in part to the exertions of her husband, director Herbert Wilcox).
It doesn’t help that her two suitors are no more appealing than she is. Peter Graves (not the American actor) makes literally no impression as a shy, mild-mannered soldier with a German accent (his character’s father is supposed to have been German), and is only marginally more interesting as Prince Albert (Neagle’s character has a dream sequence in which she’s Queen Victoria). David Farrar is, if anything, even less attractive as an overbearing stage director.
This tedious story line is then pushed aside for another flashback which takes up the bulk of the film, and it’s here that “Lilacs in the Spring” becomes watchable, because it’s here that Errol Flynn takes over. He was in his mid-forties by now (and looking at least ten years older), but he’s the only one in the film with star quality, and he has it in spades. He’s also an extremely convincing actor in this role – a self-confident song-and-dance man who woos and weds Anna Neagle’s character’s mother (also played by Anna Neagle) and propels her to stardom, while his own career heads downhill. In a showcase for Anna Neagle, the introduction of Flynn is something of a tactical error – he has extraordinary charm and energy and he makes every other actor in the vicinity look unnecessary, with the exception of Kathleen Harrison, who’s always fun to watch.
And that’s the problem – unlike Flynn, and despite all the lavish musical numbers designed to show off her talents, Neagle isn’t particularly interesting to watch on screen. The flashback story engulfs the rest of the film to the point where we just couldn’t care less – if we had cared at all – whom the “younger” Neagle character decides to marry.
It’s worth watching to see Errol Flynn at his best – not as a swashbuckler, but as a performer.