Becky Sharp (Rouben Mamoulian, 1935)

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!

Poster - Becky Sharp_01 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.

Poster - Becky Sharp_02

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.

Miriam Hopkins as Becky

Miriam Hopkins as Becky

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.

Dee, Frances (Becky Sharp)_01

Frances Dee as Amelia

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.

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21 thoughts on “Becky Sharp (Rouben Mamoulian, 1935)

  1. Miriam is amazing in this film. You’re right – she has the talent to carry this film.

    I’m one who hasn’t read the novel and the movie did feel a bit rushed and disjointed to me. Another difficulty I had was I couldn’t make up my mind whether or not I actually liked Becky. I admired her in some scenes, but not in others. However, Miriam’s performance stole the entire film.

    Thanks, Judy, for joining the blogathon with your well-written look at “Becky Sharp”. :)

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    • Ruth, thanks so much, and glad to hear you agree that this is a great performance by Hopkins! Becky is appalling in the novel, but as a reader you can’t help but warm to her at times… I felt Miriam re-created that changeability in this film, although in some ways Becky is softened from the character in the book. So I think you are right not to be able to make up your mind whether you like her or not!

      Thanks to you for organising the blogathon!

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  3. As my only encounter with the film was one of the less than stellar prints, I was disappointed. Part of the problem was that at the time I had recently read the novel and the comparison was – well, no comparison at all – and the lack of picture quality didn’t really allow for enjoyment. The movie seems well-cast to me and it would be interesting to revisit it properly someday.

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    • Patricia, I totally agree on the less than stellar prints. I’ve just seen another early Technicolor film from the following year, ‘The Garden of Allah’ starring Marlene Dietrich, which has been beautifully restored and looks fantastic – I suspect ‘Becky Sharp’ could look nearly as good if we were only able to see it properly! I also found that memories of the novel distracted from the film, but agree that it is well cast. Thanks for commenting!

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  4. I’ve read the novel, and Becky Sharp does seem like a Miriam Hopkins role – mercurial, bitchy, calculating, and, as you note, always an actress performing. Watching the film, I get the sense that it was cut down from something longer, it seems so episodic. A pity Hopkins couldn’t have played the role in a kind of mini-series, which would have allowed for character development. However, I did like Alan Mowbray as Rawdon; it’s an unusually romantic part for him (he usually played character parts), and I enjoyed how he emphasized his character’s scoundrel aspect and yet also his gallantry.

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    • G.O.M., that’s a perfect description of both Becky and Hopkins in this role. Interesting comments too on Alan Mowbray, an actor I don’t know much about – a pity though that so much of Rawdon’s story in the novel is lost. I wouldn’t be surprised if the script was cut down, as it does seem so bitty – I suspect Technicolor films had to be kept very short at that time because of the cost of filming, as there is much the same problem with the Dietrich film I mentioned in my answer to Patricia, ‘The Garden of Allah’, feeling episodic and rushed. Yes, it would have been great to see these stars in a mini-series – I think the BBC mini-series in the 1980s and 1990s were the best adaptations of this novel. Many thanks for the great comment.

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  5. Great article, Judy! You’ve presented lots of insights on this important film. I had much the same reaction as you and other readers regarding the poor print quality and episodic nature, and I agree it is a strong role for Miriam, if not her best. What a pity the academy failed to give Bette Davis the Oscar for Of Human Bondage in 1934: if they had, they might not have given her the follow-up Oscar for Dangerous, thereby thwarting Miriam’s chance at the statuette! It is so wonderful to see her in colour though. Thanks for including the restoration clips: they are a very interesting complement to your piece.

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    • Thanks for the kind comments, Colleen. Definitely agree with you that Davis deserved the Oscar for Of Human Bondage rather than Dangerous – but it hadn’t struck me that maybe Hopkins would have had the Oscar for this film if that had happened! Totally agree that it is great to see her in colour, even though the picture quality of the available prints isn’t great. That restoration clip makes me even more frustrated that I can’t get to see the restored version in full!

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    • Colleen, I did leave a comment over on your review of ‘Men Are Not Gods’ but it hasn’t appeared as yet – just wanted to say that I really liked your piece.

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  6. This might get my Classic Movie Card revoked (!) but I’ve never seen Becky Sharp. There, I’ve said it! That said, I loved reading this post and it was such a necessary contribution to the blogathon. I have read the novel though, I wonder if my reluctance to seek it out is because I adore the source material and I’m not sure even Mamoulin could live up to my expectations!

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    • We can’t all have seen everything, and there are loads of classic films I haven’t seen, so I shouldn’t worry! I also love the novel and have to say that this adaptation doesn’t live up to it, but is still worth seeing for Hopkins and the odd scene where Mamoulian’s genius does come across. Many thanks!

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  7. Yet I’ve seen stills from this film (and used it as a piece of trivia several times), I haven’t seen th whole movie. I saw, however, a version with Myrna Loy called Vanity Fair, from 1932.
    Now I’m curious because I love both Miriam Hopkins and Mamoulian.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Le

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    • Thanks for your kind comment too, Le. I haven’t seen the Myrna Loy version , so will have to do so soon, as I love her too. I knew you were a fan of Myrna from your piece in the Thoughts on the Thin Man book! Thanks again.

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  8. This I have seen, and regard highly! Great Technicolor, extraordinary Miriam Hopkins performance and based on a Victorian era literary masterpiece that I fondly recall reading in a graduate course on that era as the first book assigned right before BLEAK HOUSE. But yes Judy, the sprawling novel can never be properly translated to the screen as noble an effort as this is. It would have to be as episodic as what we got here. Great review!!

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    • Many thanks for visiting and for the kind comment, Sam – glad to hear that you admire Hopkins’ great performance here, and it seems we are agreed over how much has to be left out in a single film adaptation of such a long novel. Sounds as if that must have been a great graduate course with such a reading list.

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