Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1870s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1870s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1870s

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1. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) – Martin Scorcese directed this exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton’s award winning 1920 novel about a love triangle within New York’s high society during the Gilded Age. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder starred.

 

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2. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this colorful adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

 

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3. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.

 

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4. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (2015) – Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen starred in this well done adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman who attracts three different suitors. Thomas Vinterberg directed.

 

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5. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – Mike Todd produced this Oscar winning adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about a Victorian gentleman who makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Directed by Michael Anderson and John Farrow, the movie starred David Niven, Cantiflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton.

 

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6. “Stardust” (2007) – Matthew Vaughn co-wrote and directed this adaptation of Neil Gaman’s 1996 fantasy novel. The movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfieffer.

 

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7. “Fort Apache” (1948) – John Ford directed this loose adaptation of James Warner Bellah’s 1947 Western short story called “Massacre”. The movie starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, John Agar and Shirley Temple.

 

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8. “Zulu Dawn” (1979) – Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole starred in this depiction of the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 South Africa. Douglas Hickox directed.

 

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9. “Young Guns” (1988) – Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips starred in this cinematic account of Billy the Kid’s experiences during the Lincoln County War. The movie was directed by Christopher Cain.

 

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10. “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) – Jon Favreau directed this adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel about an alien invasion in 1870s New Mexico Territory. The movie starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.dom

“BLANCHE FURY” (1948) Review

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“BLANCHE FURY” (1948) Review

I suspect that many fans of costume dramas would be fascinated to know about the series of period dramas released by the British film industry during the post-World War II era. A good number of those films were released by a British film studio known as Gainsborough Pictures. But not all of them were released through this particular studio. Some were released through other studios or production companies . . . like the 1948 period drama, “BLANCHE FURY”.

Based upon the 1939 novel written by Marjorie Bowen (under the pseudonym of Joseph Stearling), “BLANCHE FURY” told the story of two lovers during the 1850s, who become embroiled in adultery, greed and murder. More importantly, Bowen’s novel and the movie was inspired by a real-life case involving the 1848 murder of an estate owner and his adult by a tenant farmer trying to stave off a bad mortgage. The story surrounding “BLANCHE FURY” proved to be a bit more complicated and melodramatic.

The story begins with a beautiful impoverished gentlewoman named Blanche Fuller, who is forced to serve as a domestic companion for a wealthy woman (think of Joan Fontaine in 1940’s “REBECCA”). To Blanche’s great relief, she receives an invitation to become governess for the granddaughter of her rich uncle Simon Fuller. Upon her arrival, Blanche becomes romantically involved with Simon’s only son, the weak-willed Laurence. She learns that her uncle and cousin have assumed the surname of Fury, which belonged to the previous owner of the estate, the late Adam Fury. She also meets Philip Thorn, Adam’s illegitimate son, who serves as the estate’s head groom and resents Simon and Laurence’s possession of his father’s estate. Blanche decides to marry Laurence for the sake of security and wealth, but becomes dissatisfied with her marriage. She and Philip also fall in love and quickly drifts into a sexual affair. Longing for possession of both Blanche and the estate, Philip drags Blanche into a plot that leads to double murder.

The first thing that caught my attention about “BLANCHE FURY” that it is a beautiful looking film. Producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, director Marc Allégret and cinematographers Guy Green and Geoffrey Unsworth really made use of the Technicolor process. And if I must be brutally honest, I could say the same for the costumes designed by Sophie Devine, who created some colorful outfits for leading lady, Valerie Hobson, as shown below:

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Despite my admiration for the photography and costumes, I was not that impressed by the set designs and especially the production designs. Well . . . let me take some of that back. I had no problems with John Bryan’s production designs for scenes featured in smaller rooms – Philip’s quarters and a private bedroom or two. But I was not impressed by scenes in large rooms – you know, the drawing room, foyer or library of the Fury manor. Quite frankly, these “sets” resembled badly made matte paintings instead of lived-in rooms. Lifeless. An individual museum room with a collection of paintings looked warmer.

But I certainly had no problems with the story. The latter begins with Blanche in the process of giving birth before it flashes back to her days as a paid companion. Thanks to the screenplay written by Audrey Erskine-Lindop and Cecil McGivern, audiences received several glimpses into Blanche’s mindset – her frustrations as a paid companion and later, as wife to the weak-willed Laurence Fury; her sexual fascination with Philip Thorn and the later realization that she had bitten off more than she could chew, thanks to Philip’s murder plot. For me, the most memorable scene in the entire movie featured an argument between the unfaithful Blance and the arrogant Laurence, who had insisted that she interrupt her rest to entertain a guest who had arrived with him and his father in the late evening. Blanche’s blatant refusal to blindly obey her husband nearly caused me to stand up and cheer, despite the fact she had spent the last 24 hours cheating on him with Philip. I had an easier time understanding Blanche than I did Philip. He seemed to have this attitude that the Fury estate should have been given to him, despite being born on the wrong side of the blanket. And the fact that he was willing to destroy the Fuller-Fury clan (with the exception of Blanche), including Laurence’s young daughter, left me feeling cold toward him in the end.

“BLANCHE FURY” featured some very solid performances, despite a penchant for some of the cast to nearly drift into slightly hammy acting. I could never accuse Valerie Hobson of overacting. Mind you, her performance did not exactly knock my socks off, but I thought she did a pretty job. Her best moments proved to be the Blanche/Laurence quarrel and Blanche’s horror over Philip’s arrogant behavior following the deaths of her husband and father-in-law. I had recently come across an article suggesting that Stewart Granger was not exactly the most skillful actor. Recalling his performances in movies like “KING SOLOMON’S MINES”, “SCARAMOUCHE” and “BHOWANI JUNCTION”, I found this opinion hard to accept. But a part of me could not help but noticed that his performance in “BLANCHE FURY” – especially in the movie’s last half hour – threatened to wander in the realm of the melodramatic. Otherwise, I found his performance satisfactory. Michael Gough fared just as well as Miss Hobson as Laurence Fury – especially in the memorable Blanche/Laurence quarrel scene. Though, there were moments when I thought he would go a little overboard. Sybille Binder, who portrayed the Furys’ stoic housekeeper Louisa was just that . . . stoic. I thought she would play a major role in the movie. But in the end, I felt that her time was more or less wasted. Susanne Gibbs made a very charming Lavinia Fury, Laurence’s young daughter. But I thought the best performance came from Walter Fitzgerald, who portrayed Blanche’s no-nonsense uncle (later, father-in-law) Simon Fury. I found it rather interesting that Fitzgerald could portray such a blunt character with great subtlety. He seemed to be the only cast member who did not threatened to become melodramatic.

I may have had a few problems with “BLANCHE FURY”. But if I must be honest, I found it entertaining and rather satisfying. Thanks to Marc Allégret’s direction, Audrey Erskine-Lindop and Cecil McGivern’s entertaining screenplay, Guy Green and Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography and a solid cast led by Valerie Hobson and Stewart Granger, I found the movie more than satisfying.

“OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” (1931) Review

 

“OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” (1931) Review

Adultery is rarely treated with any kind of maturity in fiction – whether in novels, plays, movies and television. I am not saying that adultery has never been portrayed with any maturity. It is just that . . . well, to be honest . . . I have rarely come across a movie, television series, novel or play that dealt with adultery in a mature manner. Or perhaps I have rarely come across others willing to face fictional adultery between two decent people with some kind of maturity.

If one simply glanced at the title of the 1931 movie, “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN”, any person could assume that he or she will be facing one of those salacious tales from a Pre-Code filled with racy dialogue, scenes of women and men stripping to their underwear or morally bankrupt characters. Well, “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” is a Pre-Code movie. But if you are expecting scenes and characters hinting sexy and outrageous sex, you are barking up the wrong tree.

“OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” is about a young railroad engineer named Bill White, who seemed to have a drinking problem. When he gets kicked out of his boarding house, after falling back on his rent, Bill is invited by fellow engineer and friend Jack Kulper to stay with him and his wife Lily. All seemed to be going well. Bill managed to fit easily into the Kulper household. He stopped drinking. And he got along very well with both Jack and Lily. In reality, his relationship with Lily seemed to be a lot more obvious than with Jack. And this spilled out one afternoon, when in the middle of one of their horseplays while Jack was out of the house, Bill and Lily exchanged a passionate kiss. Realizing that he was in love with Lily, Bill moved out and left Jack wondering what had occurred. Matters grew worse and eventually tragic, when Jack finally realized that Bill and Lily had fallen in love with each other.

From the few articles I have read, there seemed to be a low regard for this film. Leading lady Mary Astor had dismissed it as “a piece of cheese” and praised only future stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell. Come to think of it, so did a good number of other movie fans. Back in 1931, the New York Times had described the film as “an unimportant little drama of the railroad yards”. Perhaps “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” was unimportant in compare to many other films that were released in 1931 or during that period. But I enjoyed it . . . more than I thought I would.

“OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” is not perfect. First of all, this is an early talkie. Although released in 1931, the film was originally shot and released to a limited number of theaters in 1930. And anyone can pretty much tell this is an early talkie, due to the occasional fuzzy photography. Also, director William Wellman shot a few of the action scenes – namely the fight scene between Bill and Jack, along with Bill and another engineer named Eddie Bailey – in fast motion. Or he shot the scenes and someone sped up the action during the editing process. Why, I have no idea. There were a few times when members of the cast indulge in some theatrical acting. And I mean everyone. Finally, I found the resolution to the love triangle in this film a bit disappointing. Considering that divorce was not as verboten in the early 20th century, as many seemed to assume, I do not see why that the whole matter between Bill, Lily and Jack could have been resolved with divorce, instead of tragedy. In the case of this particular story, I found the tragic aspects a bit contrived.

Otherwise, I rather enjoyed “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN”, much to my surprise. Repeating my earlier statement, I was impressed by how screenwriter Maud Fulton, with the addition of William K. Wells’ dialogue; treated the adulterous aspects of the love triangle with taste and maturity. What I found even more impressive is that the three people involved were all likeable and sympathetic. I was rather surprised that this film only lasted 70 minutes. Because Wellman did an exceptional job with the movie’s pacing. He managed to infuse a good deal of energy into this story, even when it threatened to become a bit too maudlin.

Wellman’s energy seemed to manifest in the cast’s performance. Yes, I am well aware of my complaint about the performers’ occasional penchant for theatrical acting. But overall, I thought they did a very good job. Future stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell had small supporting roles as Bill’s other friend Eddie Bailey and his girlfriend, Marie. Both did a good job and both had the opportunities to express those traits that eventually made them stars within a year or two. I was especially entertained by Blondell’s performance, for she had the opportunity to convey one of the movie’s best lines:

Marie: [taking out her compact and powdering her face] Listen, baby, I’m A.P.O.

Railroad worker at Lunch Counter: [to the other railroad worker] What does she mean, A.P.O.?

Marie: Ain’t Puttin’ Out!

I noticed that due to Cagney and Blondell’s presence in this film, many tend to dismiss the leading actors’ performances. In fact, many seemed to forget that not only was Mary Astor a star already, she was a decade away from winning an Oscar. Well, star or not, I was impressed by her portrayal of the railroad wife who finds herself falling in love with a man other than her own husband. She gave a warm, charming and energetic performance. And she portrayed her character’s guilt with great skill. I could also say the same about leading man, Grant Withers. He is basically known as Loretta Young’s first husband. Which is a shame, because he seemed like a first-rate actor, capable of handling the many emotional aspects of his character. Whether Bill was drunk and careless, fun-loving, romantic or even wracked with guilt, Withers ably portrayed Bill’s emotional journey. I also enjoyed Regis Toomey’s performance as the emotionally cuckolded husband, Jack Kulper. I mainly remember Toomey from the 1955 musical, “GUYS AND DOLLS”. However, I was impressed by how he portrayed Jack’s torn psyche regarding his best friend and wife.

I am not going to pretend that “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” is one of the best films from the Pre-Code era . . . or one of director William Wellman’s best films. Perhaps that New York Times critic had been right, when he described the film as “an unimportant little drama of the railroad yards”. But I cannot dismiss “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” as a mediocre or poor film. It is actually pretty decent. And more importantly, thanks to the screenplay, Wellman’s direction and the cast, I thought it portrayed a love triangle tainted by adultery with a great deal of maturity.

“SADIE McKEE” (1934) Review

“SADIE McKEE” (1934) Review

Back in the 1930s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was king of the Hollywood industry, thanks to the business and artistic acumen of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. One major aspect of MGM that made it the most successful studio eighty years ago was its star system. The studio used to boast that it had “more stars than there are in heaven”. One of its top stars was Hollywood icon, Joan Crawford.

Crawford first gained the notice of the MGM brass back in the mid-to-late 1920s. By the early 1930s, she had become a major star, whose metier was the “shopgirl-turned-Cinderella” story. This certainly seemed to be the case for her 1934 movie, “SADIE McKEE”. Based upon Viña Delmar’s 1933 short story, “Pretty Sadie McKee”, this movie told the story of a young part-time serving maid from upstate New York, who moves to New York City with her n’er do well boyfriend, Tommy Wallace, to start a new life as a married couple. When Tommy abandons Sadie to become part of a nightclub act with a beautiful singer named Opal, Sadie is forced to take a job as a chorus girl at a nightclub. There, she meets a wealthy businessman named Jack Brennan, who falls hard for her. Although she marries Jack, Sadie realizes that she still loves Tommy and that her new husband is a serious alcoholic.

When I first saw “SADIE McKEE”, I feared it would become another “EVELYN PRENTICE”, an old and rather unsatisfying MGM melodrama that had been originally released during the same year. And I viewed “SADIE McKEE” with a jaundiced eye. I am happy to say that my wariness proved to be groundless . . . for about two-thirds of the film. I have to commend both director Clarence Brown and screenwriter John Meehan for setting up Sadie’s story – her initial friendship with childhood companion Michael Alderson, attorney for her future husband; their falling out over Sadie’s romance with Tommy; and her engagement to and abandonment of the latter. If I must be honest, Meehan’s screenplay – at least two-thirds of it – proved not only to be detailed, but also well paced. Probably the best aspect of “SADIE McKEE” was its dark portrayal of alcoholism in the form of Sadie’s husband, Jack Brennan. In a scene that I never came across in a movie made before 1950, the film revealed how excessive alcoholism could lead an affable man like Brennan commit a shocking act of violence against the leading lady.

I managed to enjoy and appreciate “SADIE McKEE” so much that I was surprised when the movie took a disappointing turn during its last fifteen to twenty. Two things occurred that I believe brought about the movie’s downfall. Brennan finally became sober – a bit too early for my tastes – and Sadie discovered that her former fiancé, Tommy, was dying from tuberculosis. I honestly wish Brown and Meehan had either allowed Sadie’s story with Brennan and Michael to last longer. In fact, I wish she had never re-entered Tommy’s life in the first place. Their reunion at a hospital reeked with over-the-top sentimentality that bored me senseless. I believe in forgiveness as much as the next person – which is probably barely at all. But I thought Sadie’s forgiveness of Tommy happened a little too quick for my taste. I also had a problem with the movie’s last scene, which followed rather quickly on the heels of Tommy’s death scene. I read other reviews of “SADIE McKEE” that claimed it ended with a romance between Sadie and Michael. Really? I certainly did not get that impression. I felt more of a renewed friendship between them.

The performances in “SADIE McKEE” more than made up for the movie’s last act. Several bloggers have complained that leading lady Joan Crawford had failed to convey Sadie’s innocence in the film’s early scenes. I cannot agree with this assessment. I thought Crawford did a fine job in portraying the more innocent Sadie. More importantly, she expertly conveyed Sadie’s developing character as the latter faced more troubles. Franchot Tone gave an earnest performance as Sadie’s once and future friend, attorney Michael Alerson. On paper, his emotions seemed to be all over the map, but Tone skillfully kept his performance under control and did not allow his character’s emotions to get the best of him. I have never been much of a Gene Raymond fan. In fact, the only movie I had previously seen him in was the 1933 musical, “FLYING DOWN TO RIO”. Needless to say, I was not impressed. However, I was impressed by his portrayal of the charming, but shiftless Tommy in “SADIE McKEE”. Raymond made it easy for me to understand Sadie’s attraction to him.

Esther Ralston gave a funny, yet sympathetic performance as Sadie’s dependable friend, Dolly Merrick. Jean Dixon gave a skillful performance as the charming, yet shallow songstress Opal, who lures Tommy to her act and later dumps him. Fans of the television series, “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” would be surprised to see Leo G. Carroll portray the butler in the Brennan household. I thought he gave a solid performance. But the movie’s best performance came from Edward Arnold, who was outstanding as Sadie’s alcoholic husband, Jack Brennan. Arnold once claimed that Brennan was his favorite role. It struck me as a difficult role for any actor to perform. But Arnold more than held his own in a skillful performance that revealed the best and the worst of this complex character. Personally, I feel that Arnold should have received an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Despite the disappointing finale, I still managed to enjoy “SADIE McKEE”. I would not regard it as one of the best films to star Joan Crawford. But aside from its maudlin finale, I found it fascinating. Director Clarence Brown, screenwriter John Meehan and a talented cast led by Crawford did a solid job in bringing the adaptation of Viña Delmar’s short story to the screen.

“RIVER LADY” (1948) Review

 

“RIVER LADY” (1948) Review

While perusing the Internet on the career of actress Yvonne De Carlo, I noticed that she made a handful of conventional costume pictures for Universal Pictures, after she had signed a long-term contract with them in 1946. One of those films was the 1948 movie, “RIVER LADY”.

Set in the upper Mississippi River Valley during the decade after the Civil War, “RIVER LADY” is an adaptation of Frank Waters and Houston Branch’s 1942 novel. It told the story of a conflict between the citizens of a Minnesota mill town, the loggers who worked downstream and the lumber mill owners. The representative of a local lumber syndicate named Bauvais wants to purchase a struggling lumber mill from its owner, H.L. Morrison. But the latter refuses to sell. However, the owner of a gambling riverboat owner named Sequin manages to purchase the mill in order to provide a reputable job for her boyfriend, Dan Corrigan, a lumberjack whom she loves. However, Sequin has a rival in Morrison’s only daughter, Stephanie. When the latter learns about Dan and Sequin’s engagement, she exposes Sequin’s purchase of the Morrison mill. Dan becomes enraged when he realizes that his fiancee has manipulated his life and in a drunken fit, rejects the riverboat owner and marries Stephanie. Business sparks eventually ignite between a vengeful Dan and an angry Sequin, who has aligned herself with the mercenary Bauvais.

What can I say about “RIVER LADY”? I have seen my share of minor period dramas from “Golden Age of Hollywood” over the years. Some of them have been decent. Some of them have been surprisingly pretty good. Others have been . . . well, a waste of my time. “RIVER LADY” was a waste of my time.

Did “RIVER LADY” have the potential to be a pretty good movie? I do not think so. Frankly, I found it difficult to summon the energy to get excited over a messy rivalry involving the lumber business in 1870s Minnesota. And I am confused over Sequin’s role in this story. She purchased part of the Morrison lumber mill for lumberjack Dan Corrigan. But once he had dumped her, why was there no conflict between her and Morrison over Dan’s role in the business? Instead, she sat back and watched him use the business to engage in a conflict with her other business partner, Bauvais. Would it have not been easier if the writers could have found another reason for Sequin and Dan’s breakup? And why would Dan be so upset over Sequin manipulating him into a major position with the Morrison lumber mill . . . and not express any anger over the ugly manner in which Stephanie Morrison had interfered in his upcoming marriage? Odd.

Then again, I also realized that I did not really like most of the characters in this movie. To be honest, I just did not find them that interesting. Except for two . . . namely Sequin and Bauvais. I would never regard either of them as nice, but Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea did such excellent jobs in making both of them interesting and dynamic that it seemed a pity that neither ended the movie on a happy note. Rod Cameron and Helena Carter gave solid performances as lumberjack-turned-businessman Dan Corrigan and his bride, Stephanie Morrison. But to be honest, their performances seemed like a walk in the park in compare to DeCarlo and Duryea. And as a leading man, Cameron did not exactly rock my world . . . if you know what I mean. The movie also featured solid performances from John McIntire, Lloyd Gough, Florence Bates and Anita Turner. Only Turner really impressed me, for I found her portrayal of the Morrisons’ maid Esther rather witty. However, none of the cast members were not helped by D.D. Beauchamp and William Bowers’ dialogue, which seemed more appropriate for a 1940s crime melodrama, instead of a film set in the mid-to-late 1800s.

I have no idea on whether “RIVER LADY” was a “B” movie or not. It feels like a “B” movie, despite having a cast that featured the likes of De Carlo, Duryea, Cameron and McIntire. As a frequent visitor of the Universal Studios Hollywood Theme Park, it is pretty obvious that a good deal of the movie was filmed on that studio’s back lot. And although the costumes designed by Yvonne Wood struck me as pretty colorful, a bit too much of late 1940s fashion seemed to have crept into some of De Carlo and Carter’s 1870s costumes.

What else can I say about “RIVER LADY”? Despite first-rate performances from Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea, along with the colorful production; this is a movie that I doubt I would be interested in watching again. Once was enough.

“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.

“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

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“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

I have seen a good number of television and movie Westerns in my time. But I find it rather odd that it is hard – almost difficult – to find a well done movie set during the California Gold Rush era. And I find that rather surprising, considering many historians regard it as one of the most interesting periods in the history of the American Old West.

Of the movies and television productions I have come across, one of them is the 1935 Western, “BARBARY COAST”. Directed by Howard Hawks and adapted from Herbert Asbury’s 1933 book, the movie told the story about one Mary Rutledge, a young woman from the East Coast who arrives in 1850 San Francisco to marry the wealthy owner of a local saloon. She learns from a group of men at the wharf that her fiancé had been killed – probably murdered the owner of the Bella Donna restaurant, one Louis Chamalis. Upon meeting Chamalis at his establishment, Mary agrees to be his companion for both economic and personal reasons. She eventually ends up running a crooked roulette wheel at the Bella Donna and becoming Chamalis’ escort. But despite her own larceny, Mary (who becomes known as “the Swan), becomes disenchanted with Chamalis’ bloody methods of maintaining power within San Francisco’s Barbary Coast neighborhood. He even manages to coerce a newspaper owner named Colonel Cobb, who had accused Chamalis of a past murder, into keeping silent. During a morning ride in the countryside, Mary meets and falls in love with a handsome gold miner named Jim Carmichael. Life eventually becomes more difficult for Mary, as she finds herself torn between Jim’s idyllic love and Chamalis’ luxurious lifestyle and his obsessive passion for her.

Judging from my recap of “BARBARY COAST”, it is easy to see that the movie is more than just a Western. It seemed to be part crime melodrama, part romance, part Western and part adventure story. “BARBARY COAST” seemed to have the makings of a good old-fashioned costume epic that was very popular with Hollywood studios during the mid-to-late 1930s. If there is one scene in the movie that truly personified its epic status, it is one of the opening sequences that featured Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and her first meeting with Louis Chamalis. Mary’s first viewing of the socializing inside the Bella Donna is filled with details and reeked with atmosphere. Frankly, I consider this scene an artistic triumph for both director Howard Hawks and the movie’s art director, Richard Day.

“BARBARY COAST” went through four screenwriters and five script revisions to make it to the screen. The movie began as a tale about San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, but ended up as a love triangle within the setting. This was due to the Production Code that was recently enforced by Joseph Breen. The latter objected to the original screenplay’s frank portrayal of the San Francisco neighborhood’s activities. By changing the screenplay into a love story in which the heroine finds redemption through love for a decent sort, the filmmakers finally managed to gain approval from Breen. Although Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were credited as the movie’s writers, screenwriters Stephen Longstreet and Edward Chodorov also worked on the script, but did not receive any screen credit. Personally, I had no problems with this choice. Thanks to Hawks’ direction, moviegoers still managed to get a few peeps on just how sordid and corrupt San Francisco was during the Gold Rush.

The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea. I would not consider their performances as memorable or outstanding, but all three gave solid performances that more or less kept the movie on track. I found this a miracle, considering the emotional rifts that seemed to permeate the set during production. As it turned out, Robinson and Hopkins could barely stand each other. However . . . there were moments when Robinson and McCrea’s performances were in danger of being less than competent. Robinson nearly veered into the realm of over-the-top melodrama while conveying his character’s jealousy in the movie’s last twenty minutes. And McCrea came off as a bit of a stiff in most of his early scenes. Only with Walter Brennan, did the actor truly conveyed his sharp acting skills. As for Hopkins . . . well, she gave a better performance in this movie than she did in the film for which she had earned an Oscar nomination – namely “BECKY SHARP”.

The movie also featured competent performances from the likes of Walter Brennan, Frank Craven, Harry Carey, and Donald Meek. But if I had to give a prize for the most interesting performance in the film, I would give it Brian Donlevy for his portrayal of Louis Chamalis’ ruthless enforcer, Knuckles Jacoby. Superficially, Donlevy’s Knuckles is portrayed as the typical movie villain’s minion, who usually stands around wearing a menacing expression. Donlevy did all this and at the same time, managed to inject a little pathos in a character who found himself in a legally desperation situation, thanks to his loyalty toward his employer.

But you know what? Despite some of the performances – especially Brian Donlevy’s and the movie’s production values, I did not like “BARBARY COAST”. Not one bit. There were at least two reasons for this dislike. One, I was not that fond of Omar Kiam’s costume designs – namely the ones for Miriam Hopkins. The problem with her costumes is that Kiam seemed incapable of determining whether the movie is set in 1850 or 1935. Honestly. A peek at the costume worn by the actress in the image below should convey the contradicting nature of her costume:

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The other . . . and bigger reason why I disliked “BARBARY COAST” is that the plot ended up disappointing me so much. This movie had the potential to be one of the blockbuster costume dramas shown in movie theaters during the mid-to-late 1930s. If only Joseph Breen and the Censor Board had allowed the filmmakers to somewhat follow Asbury’s book and explore the colorful history of San Francisco from the mid-1840s to the California Gold Rush period of the early-to-mid 1850s. Despite the colorful opening featuring Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and the subplot about the Louis Chamalis-Colonel Cobb conflict, “BARBARY COAST” was merely reduced to a 90 minute turgid melodrama about a love triangle between a gold digger, a villain with a penchant for being a drama queen, and stiff-necked gold miner and poet who only seemed to come alive in the company of his crotchety companion. To make matters worse, the movie ended with Mary and Jim Carmichael floating around San Francisco Bay, hidden by the darkness and fog, while evading the increasingly jealous Chamalis, before they can board a clipper ship bound for the East Coast. I mean, honestly . . . really?

I have nothing else to say about “BARBARY COAST”. What else is there to say? Judging from the numerous reviews I have read online, a good number of people seemed to have a high regard for it. However, I simply do not feel the same. Neither director Howard Hawks; screenwriters Ben Hetch and Charles MacArthur; and a cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea could prevent me from feeling only disappointed. Pity.