“Adapting AGATHA CHRISTIE”

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“ADAPTING AGATHA CHRISTIE”

Ever since the release of the BBC recent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel, “And Then There Were None”, television viewers and critics have been praising the production for being a faithful adaptation. In fact these critics and fans have been in such rapture over the production that some of them have failed to noticed that the three-part miniseries was not completely faithful. As long as the production followed Christie’s original ending, they were satisfied.

Mind you, I thought this new production, “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” was top notch, I have found myself growing somewhat annoyed over this attitude. Why do so many people insist that a movie/television production should be faithful to the novel it is adapting? I honestly believe that it should not matter. Not really. I believe that sometimes, it’s a good thing to make some changes from the original novel (or play). Sometimes, it’s good to remain faithful to the source novel. Sometimes, what is in a novel does not translate well to the television or movie screen.

A good example are the two adaptations of Christie’s 1941 novel, “Evil Under the Sun”. The 1982 adaptation, which starred Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, made some major changes in regard to characters and a minor subplot. The 2001 television adaptation, which starred David Suchet, was somewhat more faithful . . . but not completely. In my personal view, I believe that the Ustinov version was a lot better . . . more entertaining. Why? If I have to be brutally honest, I am not a big fan of Christie’s 1941 novel. No matter how many times I tried to like it (and I tried), it simply bored me.

In regard to the adaptations of “And Then There Were None”, there are only two adaptations that I really enjoyed – Rene Clair’s 1945 adaptation and this new version. The 1945 film is actually an adaptation of the 1943 stage play written by Christie. Because the play first opened in the middle of World War II, Christie had decided to change the ending in order to spare wartime theater goers the story’s nihilistic ending. Two years later, director Rene Clair and 20th Century Fox decided to adapt Christie’s stage play, instead of the novel. Several other movie adaptations – including the 1996 and the 1974 – did the same. As far as I know, only the Russian 1987 adaptation followed Christie’s original ending.

And how do I care about these numerous adaptations? I have seen both the 1966 and 1974 movies. I am not a fan of either. Personally, I found them rather cheap. I have never seen the 1987 Russian film. As for the 1945 and 2015 versions . . . I am a big fan of both. That’s right . . . both of them. I do not care that 2015 miniseries stuck to Christie’s original novel, despite some changes, and Clair’s 1945 movie did not. I simply happen to enjoy BOTH versions. Why? Both versions were made with skill and style. And I found both versions fascinating, despite the fact that they have different endings.

I do not believe it should matter that a movie or television ALWAYS adhere to the novel it is adapting. What should matter is whether the director, writer or both are wise enough to realize whether it is a good idea to be completely faithful or to make changes . . . for the sake of the production. If producer John Bradbourne and director Guy Hamilton can make a superior adaptation of “Evil Under the Sun” by utilizing major changes to Christie’s original story and if there can be two outstanding versions of “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” . . . with different endings, I really do not see the need for any film or television production to blindly adhere to every aspect of a novel it is adapting.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1890s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1890s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1890s

1 - Sherlock Holmes-Game of Shadows

1. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (2011) – Guy Ritchie directed this excellent sequel to his 2009 hit, in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson confront their most dangerous adversary, Professor James Moriarty. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law starred.

2 - Hello Dolly

2. “Hello Dolly!” (1969) – Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau starred in this entertaining adaptation of David Merrick’s 1964 play about a New York City matchmaker hired to find a wife for a wealthy Yonkers businessman. Gene Kelly directed.

3 - King Solomon Mines

3. “King Solomon’s Mines” (1950) – Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and Richard Carlson starred in this satisfying Oscar nominated adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel about the search for a missing fortune hunter in late 19th century East Africa. Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton directed.

4 - Sherlock Holmes

4. “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) – Guy Ritchie directed this 2009 hit about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson’s investigation of a series of murders connected to occult rituals. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law starred.

5 - Hidalgo

5. “Hidalgo” (2004) – Viggo Mortensen and Omar Sharif starred in Disney’s fictionalized, but entertaining account of long-distance rider Frank Hopkins’ participation in the Middle Eastern race “Ocean of Fire”. Joe Johnston directed.

6. “The Seven Per-Cent Solution” (1976) – Nicol Williamson, Robert Duvall and Alan Arkin starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Nicolas Meyer’s 1974 novel about Sherlock Holmes’ recovery from a cocaine addiction under Sigmund Freud’s supervision and his investigation of one of Freud’s kidnapped patients. Meyer directed the film.

Harvey Girls screenshot

7. “The Harvey Girls” (1946) – Judy Garland starred in this dazzling musical about the famous Harvey House waitresses of the late 19th century. Directed by George Sidney, the movie co-starred John Hodiak, Ray Bolger and Angela Landsbury.

6 - The Jungle Book

8. “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book” (1994) – Stephen Sommers directed this colorful adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of short stories about a human boy raised by animals in India’s jungles. Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes and Lena Headey starred.

7 - The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

9. “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003) – Sean Connery starred in this adaptation of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s first volume of his 1999-2000 comic book series about 19th century fictional characters who team up to investigate a series of terrorist attacks that threaten to lead Europe into a world war. Stephen Norrington directed.

8 - The Prestige

10. “The Prestige” (2006) – Christopher Nolan directed this fascinating adaptation of Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel about rival magicians in late Victorian England. Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine starred.

10 - The Four Feathers 1939

Honorable Mention: “The Four Feathers” (1939) – Alexander Korda produced and Zoltan Korda directed this colorful adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a recently resigned British officer accused of cowardice. John Clements, June Duprez and Ralph Richardson starred.

“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel is a bit of a conundrum for me. I have never been a fan of the novel. I have read it once, but it failed to maintain my interest. Worse, I have never had the urge to read it again. The problem is that it is that sentimental family dramas – at least in print – has never been appealing to me. And this is why I find it perplexing that I have never had any problems watching any of the film or television adaptations of her novel.

One of those adaptations proved to be Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1949 adaptation, which was produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. It is hard to believe that the same man who had directed such hard-biting films like “LITTLE CAESAR”, “I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG” and “THEY WON’T FORGET”, was the artistic force behind this sentimental comedy-drama. Or perhaps MGM studio boss, Louis B. Meyer, was the real force. The studio boss preferred sentimental dramas, comedies and musicals. Due to this preference, he was always in constant conflict with the new production chief, Dore Schary, who preferred more realistic and hard-biting movies. Then you had David O. Selznick, who wanted to remake his 1933 adaptation of Alcott’s novel. One can assume (or not) that in the end, Meyer had his way.

“LITTLE WOMEN”, as many know, told the experiences of the four March sisters of Concord, Massachusetts during and after the U.S. Civil War. The second daughter, Josephine (Jo) March, is the main character and the story focuses on her relationships with her three other sisters, the elders in her family – namely her mother Mrs. March (“Marmee”) and Aunt March, and the family’s next-door neighbor, Mr. Laurence. For Jo, the story becomes a “coming-of-age” story, due to her relationships with Mr. Laurence’s good-looking grandson, Theodore (“Laurie”) and a German immigrant she meets in New York City after the war, the equally good-looking and much older Professor Bhaer. Jo and her sisters deal with the anxiety of their father fighting in the Civil War, genteel poverty, scarlet fever, and the scary prospect of oldest sister Meg falling in love with Laurie’s tutor.

Despite my disinterest in Alcott’s novel, I have always liked the screen adaptations I have seen so far – including this film. Due to the casting of Margaret O’Brien as the mild-mannered Beth, her character became the youngest sister, instead of Amy. Screenwriters Sally Benson, Victor Heerman, Sarah Y. Mason and Andrew Solt made other changes. But they were so mild that in the end, the changes did not have any real impact on Alcott’s original story. Ironically, both Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason wrote the screenplay for Selznick’s 1933 film. I thought Mervyn LeRoy’s direction injected a good deal of energy into a tale that could have easily bored me senseless. In fact, MGM probably should have thank its lucky stars that LeRoy had served as producer and director.

As much as I admired LeRoy’s direction of this film, I must admit there was a point in the story – especially in the third act – in which the pacing threatened to drag a bit. My only other problem with “LITTLE WOMEN” is that I never really got the impression that this film was set during the 1860s, despite its emphasis on costumes and the fact that the March patriarch was fighting the Civil War. Some might say that since “LITTLE WOMEN” was set in the North – New England, as a matter of fact – it is only natural that the movie struggled with its 1860s setting. But I have seen other Civil War era films set in the North – including the 1994 version of“LITTLE WOMEN” – that managed to project a strong emphasis of that period. And the production values for this adaptation of Alcott’s novel seemed more like a generic 19th century period drama, instead of a movie set during a particular decade. It is ironic that I would make such a complaint, considering that the set decoration team led by Cedric Gibbons won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction.

I certainly had no problems with the cast selected for this movie. Jo March seemed a far cry from the roles for which June Allyson was known – you know, the usual “sweet, girl-next-door” type. I will admit that at the age of 31 or 32, Allyson was probably too young for the role of Jo March. But she did such a phenomenon job in recapturing Jo’s extroverted nature and insecurities that I found the issue of her age irrelevant. Peter Lawford, who was her co-star in the 1947 musical, “GOOD NEWS”, gave a very charming, yet complex performance as Jo’s next door neighbor and friend, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Beneath the sweet charm, Lawford did an excellent job in revealing Laurie’s initial loneliness and infatuation of Jo. Margaret O’Brien gave one of her best on-screen performance as the March family’s sickly sibling, Beth. Although the literary Beth was the third of four sisters, she is portrayed as the youngest, due to O’Brien’s casting. And I feel that Le Roy and MGM made a wise choice, for O’Brien not only gave one of her best performances, I believe that she gave the best performance in the movie, overall.

Janet Leigh, who was a decade younger than Allyson, portrayed the oldest March sister, Meg. Yet, her performance made it easy for me to regard her character as older and more emotionally mature than Allyson’s Jo. I thought she gave a well done, yet delicate performance as the one sister who seemed to bear the strongest resemblance to the sisters’ mother. Elizabeth Taylor was very entertaining as the extroverted, yet shallow Amy. Actually, I have to commend Taylor for maintaining a balancing act between Amy’s shallow personality and ability to be kind. The movie also featured solid performances from supporting cast members like Mary Astor (who portrayed the warm, yet steely Mrs. March), the very charming Rossano Brazzi, Richard Stapley, Lucile Watson, Leon Ames, Harry Davenport, and the always dependable C. Aubrey Smith, who died not long after the film’s production.

Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” is a charming, yet colorful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. I thought Mervyn LeRoy did an excellent job in infusing energy into a movie that could have easily sink to sheer boredom for me. And he was enabled by a first-rate cast led by June Allyson and Peter Lawford. Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” managed to rise above my usual apathy toward Alcott’s novel.

“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” (1935) Review

 

“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” (1935) Review

For years, I could never understand Hollywood’s penchant for making so many films about the British Empire during the first half of the 20th century. The film industry had released films about imperial outposts under the control of other countries – like France, Spain and even the United States. But why did they film so many about British Imperialism? One of those films is the 1935 feature,“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”.

“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” is based upon the 1930 memoirs of a former British Army officer named Francis Yeats-Brown. But if you are expecting the movie to be a clear adaptation of Yeats-Brown’s book, you are in for a big disappointment. I suspect Paramount Pictures and producer Louis D. Lighton simply used the book’s title and setting – Imperial India – to create their own movie. The movie’s screenwriters, who included Waldemar Young and John L. Balderston, wrote a story about the experiences of three British Army officers serving with the 41st Bengal Lancers on the Northwest Frontier of India. The Scots-Canadian Alan McGregor welcomes two replacements to the 41st Bengal Lancers, the well-born Lieutenant Forsythe and Lieutenant Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell), who happens to be the son of the regimental commander, Colonel Tom Stone. McGregor is regarded as some kind of North American savage, who needs to reign in his aggression. Forsythe, who comes from an upper-class family, takes pleasure in mocking McGregor’s Scots-Canadian ancestry. And Stone grows to resent his father, who is determined to treat him coldly in order not to show any partiality.

The three officers, who find themselves sharing the same quarters, slowly develop a grudging friendship. However, when word reaches the regiment from intelligence officer Lieutenant Barrett that a local chieftain named Mohammed Khan might be preparing an uprising against the ruling British, Colonel Stone and his senior officers respond with a display of both friendship and power to the chieftain. Unfortunately, Khan kidnaps Lieutenant Stone, using his mysterious “associate” Tania Volkanskaya (portrayed by a rather unexceptional Kathleen Burke) as bait. While Khan tries to extract vital information about a British ammunition caravan from Lieutenant Stone, the latter’s father refuses to make any attempt to rescue him. Outrage, McGregor and Forsythe go after their younger colleague without orders.

As I had stated earlier, I never could understand Hollywood’s penchant for Imperial British adventures for many years. Until now. I read in a few articles that “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first of its kind in this genre. Well . . . not really. The previous year – 1934 – saw the release of John Ford’s World War I adventure, “THE LOST PATROL”. And the silent era produced such films as 1929’s “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. But it was the box office and critical success of “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” that kicked off a major influx of British Empire movies that clogged the theaters up to the end of the 1930s.

How do I feel about “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”? Well . . . I certainly do not view it as a bad movie. I thought it was pretty decent. There were aspects of it that I found unoriginal – namely the “bromance” between the three major characters and the conflict involving a rebellious chieftain. How can I put this? I have encountered both scenarios before in other British Empire movies. The three buddies? Hmmm . . . the friendship between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone strongly reminded of a similar friendship between the three protagonists in 1939’s “GUNGA DIN”. One could accuse the 1939 film of plagiarizing the 1935 film, since it was released four years later. But the friendship featured in “GUNGA DIN” was based upon Rudyard Kipling’s collection of short stories called “Soldiers Three”. Who is to say that the movie’s screenwriters used Kipling’s stories as inspiration for the “bromance” in “THE LIVES OF THE BENGAL LANCER”?

Speaking of the movie’s trio, why did Paramount cast three American-born actors in the leading roles? Was there really a serious shortage of British actors? As I recall, Ray Milland was under contract with Paramount around that time. The writers made excuses for Gary Cooper and Richard Cromwell’s characters by portraying the former as a Canadian and the latter as an Anglo-American raised in the U.S. Franchot Tone is another matter. He portrayed the upper-class Englishman, Lieutenant Forsythe. Mind you, I have no problems with the actors’ performances. But I had a difficult time watching a movie set in British India . . . and starring three American actors.

I realize “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first movie to really utilize the whole “local chieftain rebels against British Imperial authorities” into its plot. This was also used in subsequent movies like “GUNGA DIN”, “THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”, and “WEE WILLIE WINKIE”. The problem is that I have seen these movies before I saw the 1935 film. And if I must be brutally honest, the screenwriters and director Henry Hathaway’s use of this trope rather dry and bloodless. Hell, even the torture that Richard Cromwell’s character underwent was handled off screen.

After viewing “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”, it occurred to me that the movie’s character studies impressed me a lot more than the “action-filled” subplot. The interactions between the characters – especially between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone – struck me as a lot more interesting and complex. First of all, the screenwriters and Hathaway did an excellent job in portraying the problems (or lack of them) that the three major characters had with the film’s other supporting characters – especially their fellow British officers. I was especially impressed by the film’s portrayal of the officers’ low regard for McGregor’s so-called North American aggression, and with the younger Stone’s cool relationship with his estranged father. I was also impressed by how the three disparate leading characters developed into a strong friendship by the movie’s last act. But the screenwriters and Hathaway are not the only ones who deserve the praise. The movie’s strong characterization would have never worked without the first-rate performances from the cast – especially Gary Cooper as McGregor, Franchot Tone as Forstythe and Richard Cromwell as the younger Stone. The three actors were ably supported by solid performances from Guy Standing, C. Aubrey Smith and Douglass Dumbrille.

Do not get me wrong. I do not dislike “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”. I think it is a pretty solid film. But I find it difficult to believe or accept that it received a total of seven Academy Award nominations. Despite the movie’s strong characterizations and excellent performances, I did not find it particularly exceptional. A part of me believes simply believes it would have been better off as a character study (with a shorter running time) than an epic British Imperial adventure.

“CHINA SEAS” (1935) Review

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“CHINA SEAS” (1935) Review

For years, film critics and moviegoers have claimed that either Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie, “JAWS” or George Lucas’ 1977 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” ushered in or created the summer box office film. I had believed this for years, until I saw Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1935 film, “CHINA SEAS”

To understand how “CHINA SEAS” came about, one would have to look into the career of MGM producer, Irving Thalberg. For several years, he served as the studio’s Production Chief, supervising the output of movies being released by MGM. After suffering a heart attack around Christmas Eve 1932, he was ordered by his doctor to take a long rest. Thalberg and his wife, Norma Shearer, spent several months traveling in Europe. When they finally returned during the summer of 1933, Thalberg discovered that studio chief Louis B. Mayer and the CEO of parent company Loew’s, had changed the studio’s managerial structure. The position of Production Chief had been eliminated and Thalberg became one of many producers on the lot with their own production unit. Thalberg struggled for two years to personally produce a major hit. He scored a few hits. But he did not really hit it big, until this 1935 movie that starred Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery.

Based on the 1931 novel written by Crosbie Garstin, “CHINA SEAS” is an ocean going adventure film about a merchant ship carrying both passengers and important cargo from Hong Kong to Shanghai. British sea captain Alan Gaskell is recruited by his company’s owner to transport a secret shipment of gold in order to fool high seas pirates into believing that the gold is being transported by another ship. Naturally, the plan fails due to an old friend named Jamesy McArdle’s discovering the plot. The latter recruits Malay pirates to board the ship as passengers and crewman so that the gold can be hijacked during the voyager. Also along for the ride are two of Captain Gaskell’s former paramours – a brassy prostitute, dance hall girl or mistress (hell, I have no idea which one) named Dolly Portland and Sybil Barclay, the elegant widow of an old friend; an alcoholic American named Charlie McCaleb; a disgraced ship’s officer formerly accused of cowardice named Tom David; an elegant Chinese lady named Soo Young; and Dolly’s extroverted maid, Isabel McCarthy . . . among others. Not only does Gaskell and his crew have to deal with marauding pirates, but also a typhoon.

Undoubtedly, “CHINA SEAS” is an entertaining movie. It possesses one of the elements that make certain movies particularly enjoyable for me – namely a story featuring long distance travel. In fact, watching “CHINA SEAS” strongly reminded me of a film released by Paramount Pictures over three years ago – 1932’s “SHANGHAI EXPRESS”. Both movies were set in or around Asia. Both movies featured long distance traveling with Shanghai as the final destination . Both movies featured a leading male character who is British, a leading female character in a sexual profession, and a Chinese woman as a supporting character. Both movies featured the violent takeover by non-Western men – Chinese troops in “SHANGHAI EXPRESS” and Malay pirates in “CHINA SEAS”. And both movies featured Jules Furthman as screenwriter. The similarities between the two movies are so strong that their differences almost seem irrelevant to me. If it were not for the fact that “CHINA SEAS” was an adaptation of Garstin’s novel, I would have accused Thalberg and MGM of plagarism.

The reason I brought up the topic of summer blockbusters when I first began this review is that “CHINA SEAS” seemed like a prime example of one. Think about it. “CHINA SEAS” possessed a cast of major stars like Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery. Rosalind Russell was not quite a star when she co-starred in this film. The movie was given a large budget for its production – at least one million dollars. A good deal of that budget was spent on visual effects. The movie featured heavy action and over-the-top melodrama. And even more ironic, “CHINA SEAS” was released during the summer of 1935, made tons of money and put Irving Thalberg back on top, professionally. If the movie had been made today, Roland Emmerich probably would have directed it. After watching “CHINA SEAS”, I could not help but wonder why film critics and historians failed to remember this film, when citing the origins of the summer blockbuster movie.

Mind you, “CHINA SEAS” is not a terrible film. I would rank it between very good and mediocre. But for some reason, I hardly found it appealing. The problem is that I it did not strike me as particularly original. The movie’s portrayal of its non-white characters struck me as wince-inducing. One aspect of the movie that really annoyed me was how the movie portrayed the Malay pirates a lot worse than Jamesy McArdle, despite the fact that the ship’s hijacking was his plan. However, Hattie McDaniel managed to overcome this racial limitation with a very entertaining performance and warm chemistry with leading lady Jean Harlow. And like 1937’s “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, most of the action in “CHINA SEAS” is set during its second half. The violence, by the way, struck me pretty harsh for a mid-1930s film – especially the tortures of Clark Gable and Lewis Stone’s characters.

Most of the characters struck me as cardboard archetypes, even the more amusing ones portrayed by McDaniel, Bencheley, Edward Brophy and Akim Tamiroff. Lewis Stone’s character, the doomed Tom Davids, came close to being an interesting and complex. But when all said and done, even his “coward who redeems himself” character proved to be a cliche. I love Jean Harlow. And I found her Dolly Portland a lively addition to the cast. And the insecurities that plagued her character proved to be very interesting. But in the end, her performance came off as a bit too shrill for my tastes. I have to give kudos to Rosalind Russell for giving a credible portrayal of an upper-class Englishwoman . . . even if the Sybil Barclay character struck me as one-dimensional. Only Wallace Beery’s Jamesy McArdle managed to avoid any one-dimensional or cliched characterization. His Jamesy proved to be the most complex and ambiguous character in the movie. This would explain why despite his villainy, his character was portrayed with a good deal of sympathy.

From a casting point of view, the biggest problem for me proved to be Clark Gable as Captain Alan Gaskell. Gable was not the first American actor to portray a British character . . . even during that period in Hollywood. Gary Cooper did it. So did Robert Taylor. But they got away with it, due to their ability to project the image of a European (especially British) male without losing their American accent. Through body language and attitude, certain American actors like Cooper and Taylor knew how to get away with portraying British men. They knew how to sell it. Gable, on the other hand, did not. Mind you, as a Midwesterner from Ohio, he did a damn good job in portraying an aristocratic Southerner in 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”. But he was still portraying an American. When Gable’s Captain Gaskell started spouting sentiments about the glories of England, I swear I was simply to astounded to break into laughter. During my second viewing of “CHINA SEAS”, I laughed. I am sorry. Gable was a first-rate actor. The torture sequence obviously proved this. But he lacked . . . something that prevented him from portraying an Englishman with an American accent with any plausibility.

From the numerous reviews I have read, many seemed to view “CHINA SEAS” as an example of the best that Old Hollywood had to offer. Look, the movie is filled with a good deal of action and melodrama that prevents it from being boring. And one can thank director Tay Garnett for keeping it lively. But for me, it is basically a 1930s version of a summer blockbuster movie – one that did not particularly knock my socks off. I do not hate the movie, but I certainly do not view it as among the best that Old Hollywood had offered.

“THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” (1937) Review

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“THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” (1937) Review

I realize that many film critics and fans would agree with my suspicion that the 1930s saw a great deal of action films released to theaters. In fact, I believe there were as high number of actions films released back then as they are now. Among the type of action films that flourished during that era were swashbucklers. 

One of the most famous Hollywood swashbucklers released during the 1930s was “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, producer David O. Selznick’s 1937 adaptation of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel. This tale of middle European political intrigue and identity theft has been either remade or spoofed countless of times over the years. One of the most famous spoofs included George MacDonald Fraser’s 1970 Flashman novel called “Royal Flash”. But if one asked many moviegoers which adaptation comes to mind, I believe many would point out Selznick’s 1937 movie.

Directed by John Cromwell, the movie began with Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll’s arrival in the kingdom of Ruritania in time for the coronation of its new king, Rudolf V. The English visitor’s looks attract a great deal of attention from some of the country’s populace and eventually from the new king and the latter’s two aides. The reason behind this attention is due to the fact that not only are the Briton and the Ruritanian monarch are distant cousins, they can also pass for identical twins. King Rudolf invites Rassendyll to the royal hunting lodge for dinner with him and his aides – Colonel Sapt and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. They celebrate their acquaintance by drinking late into the night. Rudolf is particularly delighted with the bottle of wine sent to him by his half-brother, Duke Michael, and drinks it all himself. The next morning brings disastrous discoveries – the wine was drugged and King Rudolf cannot be awakened in time to attend his coronation. Fearing that Duke Michael will try to usurp the throne, Colonel Zapt convinces a reluctant Rassendyll to impersonate Rudolf for the ceremony.

While watching “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, it became easy for me to see why it has become regarded as one of the best swashbucklers of the 1930s. Selznick, its array of credited and uncredited screenwriters, and director John Cromwell did an excellent job of transferring Anthony Hope’s tale to the screen. This certainly seemed to be the case from a technical point-of-view. Selznick managed to gather a talented cast that more than did justice to Hope’s literary characters. The movie also benefited from Alfred Newman’s stirring score, which received a well deserved Academy Award nomination. Lyle R. Wheeler received the first of his 24 Academy Award nominations for the movie’s art designs, which exquisitely re-created Central Europe of the late 19th century. His works was enhanced by Jack Cosgrove’s special effects and the photography of both James Wong Howe and an uncredited Bert Glennon. And I was very impressed by Ernest Dryden’s re-creation of 1890s European fashion in his costume designs.

The performances featured in “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” struck me as outstanding. Not only was Mary Astor charming as Duke Michael’s mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, she also did an excellent job in conveying Mademoiselle de Mauban’s love for Michael and her desperation to do anything to keep him safe for herself. C. Aubrey Smith gave one of his better performances as the weary and level-headed royal aide, Colonel Sapt, whose love for his country and the throne outweighed his common sense and disappointment in his new king. David Niven gave the film its funniest performance as junior royal aide, Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. Not only did I find his comedy style memorable, but also subtle. Raymond Massey’s performance as King Rudolf’s illegitimate half-brother, Duke Michael, struck me as very interesting. On one hand, Massey smoldered with his usual air of menace. Yet, he also did an excellent job of conveying Michael’s resentment of his illegitimate status and disgust over his half-brother’s dissolute personality.

However, I feel that the best performances came from Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I read that the latter originally wanted the dual roles of Rassendyll and King Rudolf . . . and was disappointed when Colman won the roles. But he received advice from C. Aubrey Smith to accept the Rupert of Hentzau role, considered the best by many. Smith proved to be right. Fairbanks gave the best performance in the movie as the charming and witty villain, who served as Duke Michael’s main henchman, while attempting to seduce the latter’s mistress. Madeleine Carroll could have easily portrayed Princess Flavia as a dull, yet virtuous beauty. Instead, the actress superbly portrayed the princess as an emotionally starved woman, who harbored resentment toward her royal cousin Rudolf for years of his contemptuous treatment toward her; and who blossomed from Rassendyll’s love. Although I believe that Fairbanks Jr. gave the movie’s best performance, I cannot deny that Ronald Colman served as the movie’s backbone in his excellent portrayals of both Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll and Ruritania King Rudolf V. Without resorting to any theatrical tricks or makeup, Colman effortlessly portrayed two distant cousins with different personalities. “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” marked the third movie I have seen starring Colman. I believe I am finally beginning to realize what a superb actor he truly was.

Before my raptures over “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” get the best of me, I feel I have to point out a few aspects of the movie that I found troubling. Selznick International released three movies in 1937. Two of them had been filmed in Technicolor and one, in black-and-white. I do not understand why Selznick had decided that “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” would be the only one filmed in black-and-white. This movie practically begged for Technicolor. Surely he could have allowed either “A STAR IS BORN” or “NOTHING SACRED” in black-and-white. For a movie that is supposed to be a swashbuckler, it seemed to lack a balanced mixture of dramatic narrative and action. During my viewing of the movie, I noticed that aside from Colonel Sapt forcing the royal lodge’s cook, Frau Holf, into drinking the rest of the drugged wine; there was no real action until past the movie’s mid-point. And speaking of the action, I found it . . . somewhat tolerable. The minor sequence featuring Rupert’s first attempt at killing Rassendyll, the latter’s efforts to save King Rudolf from assassination at Duke Michael’s castle near Zenda, and the charge led by Sapt at the castle struck me as solid. But I found the sword duel between Rassendyll and Rupert rather disappointing. Both Colman and Fairbanks spent more time talking than fighting. I found myself wondering if the constant conversation was a means used by Cromwell to hide the poor choreography featured in the sword fight.

I do not think I would ever view “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” as one of my favorite swashbucklers of all time. But despite some of the disappointing action sequences, I still believe that its drama and suspense, along with a superb cast led by Ronald Colman, made it a first-rate movie and one of the best produced by David O. Selznick.

“BOMBSHELL” (1933) Review

“BOMBSHELL” (1933) Review

In one of Hollywood’s ironic twists, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released “BOMBSHELL”, a 1933 comedy about the trials and tribulations of a movie starlet. To this day, many believe that the movie was supposed to be a satire on the life of silent film goddess, Clara Bow. But looking at the movie today, it could have easily been a take on the life of the film’s leading lady, Jean Harlow.

Based upon an unproduced play by Caroline Francke and Mack Crane, and directed by Victor Fleming; “BOMBSHELL” begins with movie star Lola Burns being fed up with the machinations of her studio’s publicity chief, E.J. “Space” Hanlon, who continuously feeds the press with endless fake scandals about her. Lola also has to put up with her drunken father who tries to manager her career, and an obnoxious brother; who both sponge from her. She also has to deal with a private secretary that takes advantage of her at every opportunity. Unaware of Space’s feelings for her, Lola is also torn between a fortune hunting European nobleman and gigolo and a brash Hollywood director. Lola decides to put her life in order by adopting a baby. But when Space and her family sabotages her efforts, Lola turns her back on Hollywood and flees to a desert resort.

What can I say? Not only is “BOMBSHELL” one of my favorite movies from the old Hollywood studio system, but one of my favorite comedies of all time. Screenwriters John Lee Mahin, Jules Furthman and Norman Krasna created a hilarious tale about the chaotic and surreal life of a Hollywood starlet. “BOMBSHELL” featured a rather funny interview between Lola and a writer from a Hollywood gossip rag. While Lola and her father provide the journalist with pretentious tidbits about their lives, the camera gives a view of the journalist’s more realistic take on their answers. Another hilarious scene featured a fist fight between Lola’s sponging Maquis boyfriend, Marquis Di Pisa Di Pisa and the volatile director, Jim Brogan. During the movie’s last half hour, Lola meets and becomes romantically involved with an East Coast blue blood named Gifford Middleton and his family. This relationship allowed Gifford to quote one of the most cringe-worthy and hilarious lines in film history:

“Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through your hair!”

However, Space’s response to Gifford’s uh . . . compliment, had me on the floor laughing:

“He looks like an athlete. I wouldn’t want him puttin’ his foot through my scalp.”

But not only is “BOMBSHELL” funny, it also gave moviegoers a glimpse (and I mean that literally) into life as an actress during Hollywood’s studio era. The movie’s first twenty minutes revealed Lola being prepared for a day of shooting and the type of people that worked at a studio. The only unrealistic moment during this sequence was a scene featuring the studio’s boss, who was portrayed as a benign leader concerned for both his studio and the well-being of performers like Lola Burns under contract. But the egoism, back-stabbing and borderline insanity is all there.

I have always been a fan of Jean Harlow as an actress for as long as I can remember. But I believe that Lola Burns was one of the best roles in her career. Her comedic talent seemed to be at its height in this movie. She conveyed all of the best . . . and worst of Lola Burns. Harlow made it obvious that Lola is a victim of the studio system and her bloodsucking family. But she also skillfully conveyed Lola’s egotism, temper and penchant for illusions. Someone once commented that Lola’s character and situation never changed for the better or worst by the film’s last reel. I cannot quite agree with this assessment. I got the feeling that Harlow’s Lola spent most of the movie indulging in illusions of a possible “normal life”. These illusions led her to pursue relationships with men like the Marquis Di Pisa Di Pisa and Gifford Middleton and make an attempt to adopt a baby. While proclaiming that she had enough of Hollywood, Lola expressed signs of jealousy when Space informed her that another contract player might get a role that she had previously coveted. It is not that surprising that when faced with the end of her illusions, Lola returned to Hollywood.

Lee Tracy was equally funny as studio publicist E.J. “Space” Hanlon. His Space was sardonic, manipulative and quick with his tongue. Best of all, Tracy had a great screen chemistry with Harlow. It is a pity that they never worked with each other – before or after. Both had appeared in “DINNER AT EIGHT”, but did not share any scenes together. Pity. The movie also benefited from other supporting performers such as Frank Morgan, who radiated both bluster and charm as Lola’s deadbeat father; Pat O’Brien, who was very sexy as Lola’s former beau, director Jim Grogan; Franchot Tone, as Lola’s new beau, who gave one of the most memorable lines in the movie; and a sharp-tongued Una Merkel as Lola’s bloodsucking secretary, Mac.  Louise Beavers, who portrayed Lola’s maid Loretta, had two delicious moments in the movie, despite being saddled with a racially cliched role. I especially love the scene featuring her clash with Merkel’s Mac, when the latter threatened to have her fired. It gave her the opportunity to speak another one of the movie’s more memorable lines. The only cast member I had a problem with was Ted Healey. His Junior Burns seemed like a mindless thug that lacked the charm of Lola and Mr. Burns. I found it hard to believe that he came from the same family.

If you want a peek into life at a Hollywood studio during the early 1930s, then “BOMBSHELL” is your movie. If you want a hilarious movie that starred Jean Harlow in one of her best roles, then “BOMBSHELL” is definitely your movie. Not only did the benefitted from the talents of Harlow and co-star Lee Tracy; but also from the directorial skills of Victor Fleming and a first-rate script written by John Lee Mahin, Jules Furthman and Norman Krasna.