This is my contribution to the Miriam Hopkins Blogathon, which is running from January 22 to 25. Please do visit and read the other postings!
I’ll admit I expected a lot from Becky Sharp. It has a great star, Miriam Hopkins, in a powerful role giving her plenty of scope, and a great director – Mamoulian, who made such classic pre-Codes as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Love Me Tonight. It’s adapted from one of the best-known Victorian novels, Thackeray’s glittering satire Vanity Fair, set around the Battle of Waterloo. And, what’s more, it was the first full-length feature ever made in glorious three-strip Technicolor. What’s not to love?
The movie didn’t quite live up to my expectations, though it certainly has its moments and I’m very glad to have seen it. One problem is that it seems to be hard to get hold of a decent print. This film has fallen into the public domain, so many versions around on the net and on DVD are almost unwatchable – very sad, since early Technicolor can look fantastic if properly restored. There is a version restored by UCLA, but this isn’t available on DVD, although it is sometimes shown on TCM in the US.
I live in hope that the restoration might get a DVD release for the 200th anniversary of Waterloo in June (though that will doubtless be a bigger deal for those of us in Europe) – but, in the meantime, there is a version on Youtube which has been cleaned up to some extent and has good sound quality, though it still looks a bit ragged. I believe there may also be some DVDs on the market which are better than this – if you know of a version with a good picture, I’d be interested to hear about it. I’ll link to the film on Youtube at the bottom of the posting, and also to a video at Youtube which shows examples of the UCLA restoration.
Unfortunately, seeing the film in fairly poor condition makes it hard to consider Mamoulian’s achievement as a director properly. In the restored version, might some scenes have the breathtaking visual qualities that some of his other films do, like the Gary Cooper pre-Code City Streets? Cinematographer Ray Rennahan was a Technicolor pioneer and went on to win an Oscar for his work on Gone with the Wind… so maybe. The ball scene does look rather sumptuous even in this form, and I suspect it might be stunning if seen to full advantage.
Aside from the picture quality, though, perhaps the main problem is that it’s an impossible task to compress such a long and multi-layered novel into one 84-minute film. Mira Nair’s most recent film version was almost an hour longer and still left an awful lot out. Thackeray’s masterpiece follows the lives of two schoolfriends, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, after they leave Miss Pinkerton’s Academy and set out to make their way in the world. Both marry soldiers – Amelia her childhood sweetheart, George, who she adores despite his cruel treatment, and Becky an adventurer like herself, Rawdon Crawley. Both follow their men to war and witness events surrounding the Battle of Waterloo, but there is a great deal more to the novel, which paints a satirical picture of early 19th-century society – and, by implication, of Victorian society too.
Wisely, Mamoulian hasn’t even tried to cram all of this in. The film is adapted not directly from the novel, but from a stage version focusing just on Thackeray’s anti-heroine – hence the change of title. It follows the progress of Becky from the opening scene where she leaves school, tracing her love affairs and relentless social climbing.
The “novel without a hero” constantly switches to and fro between the two heroines, conniving Becky and saintly Amelia. However, “Emmy”, played by Frances Dee, hardly gets a look-in here and is squeezed into the background. This means that Miriam Hopkins is in almost every scene and really carries the film, dominating it with her character’s forceful personality.
Becky herself is a consummate actress, always trying to play her audience and make them believe in the version of herself she wants to put across. Hopkins is great at conveying this, and gives Becky the right mixture of seduction and calculation, as she gleefully woos Amelia’s booby of a brother, Joseph Sedley (Nigel Bruce), before deciding that he isn’t going to offer marriage, and going after other game instead – the handsome soldier Rawdon Crawley (Alan Mowbray).
The most enjoyable part of the film is watching her switch character on cue – for instance, playing a virtuous Bible-reader when she thinks it will enable her to get some money out of her brother-in-law, pious hypocrite Pitt Crawley (William Stack). There is a surprisingly pre-Code type scene where she sits on the table and a swooning Pitt holds her hand in her lap, apparently getting the wrong kind of satisfaction out of the Bible reading session! The melodramatic sequences with Becky being wooed by the dastardly Marquis of Steyne (Cedric Hardwicke) are also good and build up the tension. And watch out for her interaction with Billie Burke as Lady Bareacres.
Unfortunately, however, there is rarely enough time to develop any part of the story properly, and it is really a series of brief episodes, which are probably quite confusing if you don’t know the novel. In particular, there is too little about the military storyline, and the Battle of Waterloo is rushed over. At times it feels rather studio-bound, and, although there are some snappy one-liners (In an hour they’ll be dying for their country. Well, I’m dying for my breakfast), much of the dialogue is painfully weak. There’s a particularly inept scene early on where Amelia’s two suitors propose to her at once and she has to decide which one to accept in about one minute flat – presumably her love life couldn’t be allowed any more screen time.
All in all, this is a strong role for Hopkins, who clearly relishes the chance to play such a demanding, complicated and seductive woman. It’s also a must for anyone interested in comparing adaptations of great Victorian novels. The film overall is rather disappointing, but I’d still love a chance to see it in truly glorious restored Technicolor.
The pictures are gratefully taken from Dr Macro. Below are links to the film at Youtube and a video showing snippets of the UCLA restoration.