I’m continuing my series of postings on William A Wellman films with a look at another of his smash hits. However, Beau Geste is very different from most of his movies that I’ve discussed so far. Returning from Technicolor to atmospheric black and white, this is a melodramatic imperialist adventure in the vein of Gunga Din or The Four Feathers, which were both released in the same celebrated movie year, 1939. At the outbreak of the Second World War, military danger and heroism were in the air. Gary Cooper takes the title role as Michael “Beau” Geste, with Ray Milland and Robert Preston as his two brothers. The story is set in the pre-First World War period, as the three all run away from their English home to join the French foreign legion after the mysterious theft of a rare jewel. They end up in the Sahara, commanded by a sadistic sergeant (Oscar-nominated Brian Donlevy). Based on a bestselling 1920s novel by now largely forgotten writer PC Wren, the film is a strange mixture of wildly noble gestures, as its title suggests and a surprisingly gritty depiction of war – all shot through with humour and set against an idealised English Edwardian childhood. I found it compelling to watch, but did feel that it fell away a bit in the middle.
The movie is available as a region 1 DVD in the Universal Backlot series, as well as a region 2 Spanish DVD. There is also a region 1 box set which includes it, the Gary Cooper Collection. I don’t know what the quality of any of these DVD releases is like, as I saw the movie on the Sky Classics satellite TV station in the UK, which showed a beautiful, sharp print.
My review will inevitably be full of spoilers, and this is a film where the plot twists are important to the effect – including the shocks in the opening scene – so, if you fancy watching it, I’d suggest doing so before you read on.
After seeing Borzage’s Depression drama Man’s Castle, I was keen to see more of his pre-Code work – and, having now seen A Farewell to Arms twice, must say I think it is a masterpiece. I’ll admit that I don’t remember Hemingway’s novel very well and am not sure how much resemblance the film bears to the book (not much, according to Hemingway himself, who was unimpressed). But, if you don’t worry about comparisons with the printed page, the film itself is powerful – with great performances from both Gary Cooper and top-billed Helen Hayes, Oscar-winning cinematography by Charles Lang, and a blend of wild romance and dark, unsentimental depictions of war and suffering.
When seeking out this film, it pays to be careful which version you watch. There are a lot of public domain DVDs around containing a censored version from a later cinema release, cutting out 10 minutes of footage, including two sexual encounters which are vital to the plot. I ended up watching the film in this mutilated form to start with, and was confused by how much it jumped around in the early scenes – and also by the fact that some conversations made no sense. However, when I looked up some information about the movie, all became clear. I realised that it was in fact 89 minutes long, and what I had seen was a 79-minute version cut to remove the pre-Code content.
No time tonight to write a long posting, but I just wanted to say that I’ve seen yet another Wellman pre-Code. This one, Chinatown Nights, a romantic gangster melodrama starring Wallace Beery, Florence Vidor and Warner Oland, isn’t a great film – though I saw it on an extremely grainy unofficial DVD, and I’m sure it would look much better in a restored print on the big screen. I know it has been shown at one or two festivals so presumably there must be a better print available. The cinematography, by Henry Gerrard, who also worked on Wellman’s classic Beggars of Life, was clearly stunning, with haunting scenes full of dramatic shadows – even though a lot of this has been lost in the print I saw.
Dangerous Paradise is yet another very obscure early William A Wellman film – it isn’t on DVD, is never shown on TV, and the copy I got hold of has a dodgy picture and a lot of soundtrack noise. Nevertheless, I really like it. Once again, as very few people are likely to see it, I’ll keep my posting short. This film was actually the director’s fourth talkie, but it’s the earliest one I’ve managed to see so far, and has quite a bit in common with his silent masterpieces Wings and Beggars of Life, including the fact that it stars Richard Arlen. However, the film it most resembles is Wellman’s acclaimed though little-known Safe In Hell, made the following year. Both are the stories of women forced to be tough by circumstances, who find themselves on remote tropical islands besieged by an assortment of threatening males.
Although I’ve been posting on a few different topics recently, I’m still very interested in William A Wellman’s silents and pre-Codes. So I was excited to read that one of his rare silent films is being screened at a festival, even though it is on the wrong side of the Atlantic for me! His film You Never Know Women, made in 1926, is being shown at Capitolfest at the Capitol Theatre in Rome, New York, at 4.50pm on August 15. This is a movie which was thought to be lost for many years until a print was found in the Library of Congress in 2001, and I believe it has been screened at a few festivals since then. Comments on the imdb from a handful of people who have seen it are very enthusiastic.
Here are the details from the Capitolfest website:
You Never Know Women (Universal, 1926) Florence Vidor, Clive Brook, Lowell Sherman, El Brendel, and Roy Stewart; directed by William Wellman. (70 min.) SILENT
Florence Vidor and Clive Brook are two members of a Russian troupe of acrobats on tour in the U.S. whose love for one another is threatened by manipulative playboy Lowell Sherman. Along the way there is a spectacular theater fire and the comic antics of El Brendel (and his goose). Reportedly Paramount was so pleased with director William Wellman’s work that rewarded him with a $25-per-week raise and the big-budgeted Wings (1927). “In addition to being one of the nicest program pictures in many weeks, it is flawlessly acted, brilliantly directed and filled with novel situations.” -Sisk, Variety
Florence Vidor and Clive Brook
This description sounds intriguing – I’m very interested to see that there’s a circus theme here, as this crops up in Wellman’s pre-Code Lilly Turner and so many of his early films are full of wanderers. If anybody visiting my blog gets a chance to see this film, either at this festival or another, please let me know what you thought of it! I suppose there is even a chance it may show up at the BFI in London in the future.
Since I’ve just been starting to get into silent movies, I was pleased to have the chance to see this little-known silent melodrama at the BFI in London, where it was screened as part of their Josef von Sternberg season. I was especially attracted by this film because it stars Clara Bow and Gary Cooper, who also both feature in Wellman’s Wings, made the same year, about which I’ve been busy obsessing lately.
Clara Bow and Gary Cooper
However, this is a very different type of film, a woman’s emotion picture with a soapy flavour, centred on two friends, played by Bow and Esther Ralston, and their love lives – at times I was reminded of later films like The Old Maid or Old Acquaintance starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. The friendship between Kitty and Jean is central throughout and just as important as their relationships with the men in their lives. As the title suggests, the film is full of lurid warnings about the dangers of divorce and the terrible effects on the next generation – though, bizarrely, as the story centres on a desperately unhappy marriage, I’d have thought it actually works as an argument for divorce rather than against it.
After being overwhelmed by William Wellman’s Wings (1927), I wanted to see another of his few surviving silent films. This is a haunting tale of tramps wandering through a shadowy underworld, starring Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery.
Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen
Although this film was made before the Great Depression, it looks forward to later Wellman movies like Wild Boys of the Road (1933) in focusing on the outcasts of society and showing poor people’s desperate struggle to survive. I’m not going to go into as much detail about this movie as I did about Wings, but I definitely think it’s another masterpiece – and I’m saddened that it is so little known.
It is amazing to me to realise that this haunting and dazzling silent epic was so nearly lost forever, despite being winner of the first Oscar for best film. It had been thought that no copies of William Wellman’s early masterpiece still existed, until a print was discovered in the Cinémathèque Française archive in Paris and quickly restored. Watching it and seeing how powerful the imagery and acting are, with great performances by Clara Bow, Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, plus a memorable cameo by Gary Cooper, it makes me wonder how many other great movies have indeed been lost to us.
Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen
Although this film does survive against all the odds, and has been shown in a few cinemas with an organ accompaniment, it hasn’t as yet been released on DVD, except as a video transfer on the “grey market” and on a Chinese DVD, which I believe has subtitles that can’t be removed. After watching it twice in a good unofficial copy, I’d love to see it fully restored. According to the article on it at Wikipedia, which includes a good clear plot summary, the original release was colour-tinted and had some scenes in an early widescreen format, as well as some prints having synchronised sound effects. A special edition DVD could try to re-create all this, and have a commentary from a film historian – I’d rush out to buy it! However, even a DVD without all those bells and whistles would be very welcome.
I didn’t particularly mean to watch this movie at all. As a Cecil B DeMille epic, it isn’t the sort of thing that normally appeals to me, since I tend to like movies which are on a smaller scale. But I noticed in the TV listings that James Stewart played a clown, which seemed like such surprising casting that I was tempted. So I turned it on as background viewing while doing some paperwork – and within a few minutes the paperwork was thrown to one side.
I suppose the initial attractions for me were the lavish costumes and the amazing Technicolor, which add up to a breathtaking mixture and make it hard to tear away your eyes from the screen. There is also masses of circus action – with the whole film almost seeming to be one long parade and series of stunts, and the human dramas just happening in snatched moments in between.