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.

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Carrie (William Wyler, 1952)

Carrie 3For my money, Carrie is one of William Wyler’s greatest films – and one of Laurence Olivier’s finest performances. Yet it often seems to get overlooked. Maybe it would have more recognition as a classic adaptation if the title of Theodore Dreiser’s original novel, Sister Carrie, had been kept,  which would also have avoided confusion with the horror film of the same name. In any case, I’d definitely urge any admirer of Olivier to see this period melodrama – and, if you are one of the doubters who think he was always too stagy on screen, this movingly understated role should help to change your mind.

Not everyone was sure about the choice of the very English Olivier for the great American role of George Hurstwood, a restaurant manager driven into a downward spiral by his passion for Carrie (Jennifer Jones). But Wyler was convinced the actor’s elegance would work well, and he was right. From the first glimpse of him, about half an hour into the film (wow, Olivier is playing a waiter?)  there is a poignant feeling of this character slipping downwards, falling through the net. This adaptation of Sister Carrie focuses on the central love story, contrasting his decline with Carrie’s rise to fame, which gives it the same kind of dynamic as A Star Is Born. Just as in the various versions of that story, it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the character heading for the bottom.

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Barbary Coast (1935)

I’ve decided I’m going to try to write slightly shorter blog postings, as I’m so short of time these days due to my work situation. But I still want to try to record some of my thoughts on the classic movies I keep watching – so my mid-year resolution is to use more pictures and fewer words!

Miriam Hopkins as Mary 'Swan' Rutledge

Miriam Hopkins as Mary 'Swan' Rutledge

This is one of the early Howard Hawks films I didn’t manage to see during the blogathon organised by Ed Howard earlier this year. But I’ve now caught up with it after spotting the VHS video in a local secondhand shop (it hasn’t been released on DVD in the UK) and have also read Ed’s excellent review at his Only the Cinema blog. It’s definitely a lesser Hawks offering and doesn’t really have his stamp about it, but I’m still glad to have seen it.

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The Old Maid (1939)

After thoroughly enjoying Old Acquaintance, which teamed Bette Davis with Miriam Hopkins, I was keen to see their earlier film together, The Old Maid. I’d seen this movie described somewhere as a “soap opera”, but I think that’s very misleading. In fact, it is an adaptation of a stage play based on a novella by Edith Wharton, in her collection Old New York. While it does have elements of melodrama, it also has complicated characters, painted in shades of grey, neither impossibly good nor impossibly bad.   

Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins

Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins

Once I’d seen the movie for the first time, I got hold of Wharton’s novella and read it and then watched the film again. If anything, I was even more impressed the second time round.  There are some changes to Wharton’s plot, notably moving the story to the period of the American Civil War and stepping up the character of Clem Spender, played by George Brent – but to me the portrayal of the two central women seems essentially true to the original story.

Hopkins stars as the beautiful, spoilt Delia Lovell, with Davis as her cousin,  Charlotte, who is somewhat under her shadow and later becomes the embittered “old maid” of the film’s title. Davis originally wanted to play both main female roles but in a way she is already playing two parts, since Charlotte later in the film is so different from the lively young girl in the opening scenes. I’m glad the dual role was decided against, since there is so much chemistry between her and Hopkins. Watching the two portray lifelong friends, it’s hard to believe that they disliked one another so much in real life.    

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931 and 1941)

Following on from my posting about the silent 1920 version starring John Barrymore, here are some thoughts about the two talkies made in 1931 and 1941, starring Fredric March and Spencer Tracy.

SPLIT PERSONALITIES: Fredric March, above, and Spencer Tracy with Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, below

After watching the two talkies, I definitely think the Rouben Mamoulian version from 1931, starring Fredric March, is by far the stronger of the two, largely because, as it’s pre-code, it can be a lot more daring in sexual terms. This version amounts to a powerful attack on oppressive Victorian morality, making the story all about sexual repression. It’s suggested that Jekyll, who in this version, as in the Barrymore one, is again young and beautiful, is being driven to despair by being forced to undergo a long engagement to the virtuous Muriel (Rose Hobart).
He is tempted to take on his second identity in order to have a sadistic affair with music hall singer/prostitute Ivy, leading to murderous violence. Something I liked about the movie was that it is sympathetic to Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins, who is shown as beautiful and alluring and does her best to tempt Jekyll, but certainly isn’t dismissed as a “bad girl”. The scenes with Jekyll and Ivy in this version are the sexiest scenes in any of the three, I’d say – a shadowy outline of her swinging bare leg is still there in the next scene, showing how he is haunted by her. This is just one of the scenes which uses striking experimental effects, with another being the one where Jekyll first transforms into Hyde, a moment which is also one of the greatest sequences in the Barrymore version .

The film might seem anti-feminist in that Muriel’s refusal to enter into a sexual relationship before marriage drives Jekyll/Hyde to his crimes – but, complicating this, she only rejects her lover because she is too dutiful a daughter to her overbearing father.
Unlike Barrymore or Spencer Tracy, whose features are still clearly there when transformed into Hyde, March looks unrecognisable. His heavy ape-like make-up is apparently to suggest that he is turning back into the beast beneath man’s civilised surface.

There’s a lot of interesting discussion of the 1931 movie in ‘Dangerous Men’, by  Mick LaSalle – unfortunately I’ve taken this back to the library, but I remember that he looks at the film in the context of March’s other pre-code films, which often see him suffering from alcoholism, in tears and caught in a spiral of self-destruction. I’d be fascinated to see a few of these. LaSalle says that March says the line “I’m in hell”, which in this film he speaks to Muriel, in several other movies too. I do find his performance powerful and can see why he won the Oscar, though for me Barrymore is even better.

The Victor Fleming version of 1941, starring Spencer Tracy, seems rather weak and watered-down by comparison – there isn’t as much openness about sexual repression, although the opening, with a man screaming out abuse in a church, struck me as quite disturbing. Again, Jekyll is torn between “good” and “bad” women, but in this version Ivy (Ingrid Bergman) is a barmaid and singer without any suggestion that she is a prostitute, something made clear in the pre-code version.

For me the biggest problem with this version is that Tracy is miscast. I do usually like him as an actor, and think he is fine in the scenes as Jekyll, where basically he just plays the sort of character he usually plays – tough and slightly world-weary, with a sort of abrupt charm. But things go wrong as soon as he turns into Hyde. Unlike both Barrymore and March, he doesn’t have the sort of volatility to make him believable as a snarling psycho – he just seems to be going over the top, and it doesn’t help that he hardly has any make-up and still looks like himself! I feel pretty much the same about Tracy in this film as I do about Bogart (one of my very favourite actors) in another horror film, The Two Mrs Carrolls, where Bogie plays a tortured painter with a split personality – he too is fine in the more realistic scenes, but not where he has to chew the scenery and turn into a psycho. There’s the feeling of the studios shoe-horning both these fine actors into roles which just weren’t suited to their talents.

At first I thought Ingrid Bergman had been miscast, too – her attempt at a Cockney accent is wildly unconvincing, with every third word sounding Swedish. (Tracy sticks to his usual accent.) But after a minute or two, it’s clear this doesn’t matter – I think she is brilliant as Ivy, giving a shimmering intensity to her role, and seeming so terrified of Hyde that she makes him frightening to the audience. I’ve read that Bergman was originally supposed to play the good girl, Jekyll’s fiancee Beatrix, but wanted more of a challenge and swapped parts with Lana Turner. If this is true, then I definitely think Bergman made the right choice – for me this version is her film all the way. Turner is also fine as Beatrix, but has far less scope.