Least Favorite Movie Period Dramas

Below is a list of ten of my least favorite movie period dramas:

 

LEAST FAVORITE MOVIE PERIOD DRAMAS

1. “Legends of the Fall” (1992) – Edward Zwick directed this dull and overrated adaptaion of Jim Harrison’s 1979 novella about the lives of a Montana ranching family during the early 20th century. Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins starred.

2. “Barbary Coast” (1935) – Howard Hawks directed this turgid tale about an Eastern woman who arrives in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and comes between a corrupt gambler/saloon keeper and a miner. Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea starred.

3. “Mayerling” (1968) – Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve starred in this lavish, yet dull account of the tragic romance between Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his mistress, Baroness Maria Vetsera. Terence Young directed.

4. “Idlewild” (2006) – AndrĂ© 3000 and Big Boi starred in this confusing and badly written musical set during Depression Era Georgia. Bryan Barber directed.

5. “Becky Sharp” (1935) – Miriam Hopkins earned a surprising Best Actress nomination (surprising to me) in this unsatisfying adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s 1847-48 novel, “Vanity Fair”. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the movie is known as being the first full-length production in Technicolor.

6. “Gods and Generals” (2003) – Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall starred in this adaptation of Jeff Shaara’s 1996 Civil War novel and prequel to the much superior 1993 movie, “Gettysburg”. Ronald Maxwell directed.

7. “The Hindenburg” (1975) – Robert Wise directed this rather dull account of the Hindenburg air disaster. The movie starred George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft.

8. “Anna Karenna” (2012) – Joe Wright directed this stagey adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel. Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson starred.

9. “Glorious 39” (2009) – Stephen Poliakoff directed this slow and pretentious thriller about a young woman who discovers that her family are pro-appreasers who wish for Britain to seek peace with Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II. Romola Garai starred.

10. “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) – Tim Burton directed this dull and overrated adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and 1871 novel, “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There”. Mia Wasikowska and Johnny Depp starred.

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“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 known story 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 fiancĂ© 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.

“BEAU GESTE” (1939) Review

 

“BEAU GESTE” (1939) Review

After watching the 1935 movie, “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”, I learned that Paramount Pictures had plans to release a series of movies with an imperial setting that featured Henry Hathaway as director and Gary Cooper as star. Following the 1935 film, the next movie on their list proved to be “BEAU GESTE”, a remake of the 1926 adaptation of P.C. Wren’s adventure novel.

“BEAU GESTE” opens with a mystery. A company of French Foreign Legionnaires arrive at one of their outposts, Fort Zinderneuf after receiving word that it had been attacked by Tuareg tribesmen. At first, the fort seems occupied. But a closer inspection by Major Henri de Beaujolais, commander of the relief column, reveals dead bodies mounted for deception. Major de Beaujolais discovers a note on one of the bodies, admitting to the stealing of a valuable sapphire called the “Blue Water”. The story flashes fifteen years back to Victorian England, where it introduces the main characters – Michael “Beau”, Digby, and John Geste; the three adopted brothers of Sir Hector and Lady Brandon, their aunt. Also living at the Brandon estate called Brandon Abbas are Lady Brandon, her ward Isobel Rivers and Augustus Brandon, Sir Hector’s heir. Sir Hector, a spendthrift landowner, has not lived at Brandon Abbas for years. Even worse, his constant spending and gambling has taken a toll on the estate’s income. While playing a game of hide and seek with the other four children, Beau witness an exchange that will have consequences on both himself and his family.

Fifteen years later, the Brandon household learn about Sir Hector’s plans to sell the Blue Water for more funds. When the jewel is brought out for one last look, the lights are extinguished and someone steals the Blue Water. All present proclaim their innocence, until first Beau, and later Digby depart without warning, each leaving a confession that he had committed the robbery. Although reluctant to part from Isobel, with whom he is in love, John leaves England and goes after his brothers. John discovers that Beau and Digby have joined the French Foreign Legion and also enlists. Following the brothers’ reunion at Saida in French Morocco, they are trained by the harsh Sergeant Markoff. Markoff learns about the Blue Water theft from another recruit, a former thief named Rasinoff, after the latter overheard the brothers joking about it. Both Markoff and Rasinoff are convinced that Beau has the gem. Following the recruits’ training, they are divided and sent to separate commands. Markoff is ordered to select men to be sent to Fort Tokotu. Among them are Digby and the Gestes’ two American friends. The remaining men – including Beau and John – are assigned to serve under Lieutenant Martin at Fort Zinderneuf. There, Beau and John face greater dangers from mutinous troops, attacking Tuareg tribesmen and the sadistic Sergeant Markoff.

I had first seen “BEAU GESTE” on television years ago, when I was a child. But for some reason, it failed to appeal to me. For years I avoided the movie . . . even after I learned that several adaptations had been made from P.C. Wren’s novel. I also learned that when this version was first released during the summer of 1939, several critics dismissed it by claiming it was basically a shot-by-shot remake of the famous 1926 version that starred Ronald Colman. Perhaps it is . . . perhaps it is not. I do not know for I have never seen the 1926 film, aside from one or two shots on YOU TUBE. And I do recall that one particular scene from the Colman film never made it to this particular version. But despite the critics’ accusations, the 1939 film not only became a hit, it also became the most famous version of Wren’s novel. As I had stated earlier, “BEAU GESTE” was supposed to be part of series (or trilogy) of Imperial adventures released by Paramount Pictures. Like the 1935 film, “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”, all films were supposed to be directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Gary Cooper. Fortunately, Hathaway proved to be unavailable for Paramount’s upcoming production, “BEAU GESTE” and the versatile William Wellman was recruited to helm the film.

One of the first things that struck me about “BEAU GESTE” is that Wellman projected a great deal of energy and atmosphere into the movie. I was so impressed by his direction that I found myself wondering why I had avoided this movie for years. So much seemed right about this film. Now I realize that the opening sequence was supposed to be very similar to the opening sequence of the 1926 film, but I found myself still impressed by how Wellman infused his own gritty style into the scene. In fact, that same gritty style seemed to permeate most of the film – at least the North African sequences. Not only was I impressed by the movie’s opening scene, but also those that featured the doom and gloom that seemed to permeate the troops’ barracks at Fort Zinderneuf, the entire sequence in which the troops plot a failed mutiny against the brutal Sergeant Markoff, the battle against the Tuareg tribesmen at Fort Zinderneuf, and the Geste brothers and their American friends’ final encounter against the Tuaregs at a much-needed oasis. One would notice that I did not include any of the scenes featured at Brandon Abbas. Although they were important to the plot – especially the childhood flashback – I was not exactly dazzled by them. I find it interesting that many moviegoers and film critics have compared “BEAU GESTE” to the usual imperialist adventure films that especially permeated the movie theaters from the mid-to-late 1930s. Superficially, I would agree with them. But there is something about this film that struck a grim and slightly depressing note that many seemed to miss. The Geste brothers’ real adversary turned out to be Sergeant Markoff, not the attacking Tuareg tribesmen. And for me, the narrative seemed to be more about how a family scandal ended up having a senselessly tragic effect upon brotherly love.

I thought Wellman’s direction was more than ably assisted by cinematographers Theodor Sparkuhl and Archie Stout’s outstanding photography. They not only did an excellent job in utilizing Southern California and Southern Arizona locations for French Morocco, but injected their photography with rich atmosphere, as shown in the following images:

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I will admit that I have no memory of Alfred Newman’s score for the film. I certainly would not count it as among the best scores written during the 1930s. But I also have to admit that I found it memorable enough that it remained stuck in my brain for a least a week after I watched it. I was surprised that famous Hollywood icon, Edith Head, designed the costumes. She seemed like an odd choice for a period adventure. After all, “BEAU GESTE” was set briefly in the late 1890s and mainly in the few years before World War I. I do not know enough about men’s fashion or the French Foreign Legion uniforms during that period to judge her work. I can comment on her costumes for Susan Hayward and Heather Thatcher. I see that Head made certain that their costumes reflect the late Edwardian period, but . . . but just barely. The fashions of 1938-39 nearly threatened to taint Head’s work.

“BEAU GESTE” managed to earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Brian Donlevy’s portrayal of Sergeant Markoff. And I cannot deny that he gave a superb performance that could have dangerous veered into broad theatricality. But I realized that those theatrical moments were more about Markoff urging the men under his command into fighting mode. However, Donlevy’s more subtle moments really explored Markoff’s venality and what he would do to attain more power.

However, “BEAU GESTE” also featured four future Oscar winners (Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Susan Hayward and Broderick Crawford) and three future Oscar nominees (Robert Preston, J. Carrol Naish and James Stephenson). And their performances reflected the acting talent that made their future glory possible. I never understood recent film critics’ insistence that Gary Cooper could be something of a stiff actor. He was far from stiff as the charming, playful and noble Michael “Beau” Geste. In fact, I would say that he gave the most relaxed performance in the movie. And at the same time, he also skillfully conveyed his character’s emotions throughout the film. I suspect that “BEAU GESTE” proved to be a turning point in Ray Milland’s career. After all, most of the movie is told from the viewpoint of John Geste, the youngest of the three brothers. Milland’s skillful acting and strong presence definitely reflected this turning point in his career. Robert Preston, who was 21 years-old at the time, ironically portrayed the middle brother of this trio, Digby Geste. I suspect the reason he was not cast as John was that Millland was the more experienced actor. And yet . . . I was surprised at how Preston, who was over a decade younger than Milland, managed to skillfully portray a character who was older than Milland’s. More importantly, I was very impressed by how an American actor with British parents, a Welshman, and another American managed to project the image of three close brothers from the British upper classes.

The movie also featured a superb performance from J. Carrol Naish, who portrayed the expatriate Russian thief, Rasinoff. I suspect that Rasinoff had been originally written as a contemptible personality. And yet Naish not only conveyed the character’s low traits, but he also left me feeling slightly sympathetic toward Rasinoff. Susan Hayward portrayed Isobel Rivers, another ward of the Brandons and John Geste’s love interest. Hayward did not have much of a chance to do anything other that look beautiful and convey support to Milland’s character. But she gave a solid performance. Heather Thatcher fared better as the Gestes and Isobel’s guardian, Lady Patricia Brandon. Thatcher expertly conveyed the character’s warmth, charm, and steely determination to keep the family financially solvent by any means possible. Other supporting characters also gave solid performances. They included Broderick Crawford and Charles Barton, who portrayed John’s exuberant American friends Hank Miller and Buddy Monigal; James Stephenson as Major Henri de Beaujolais; Albert Dekker as the mutinous Schwartz; Charles Barton as the noble and doomed Lieutenant Dufour; Harold Huber as the backstabbing Voisin; and a young Donald O’Connor, who I was surprised to find portraying the young Beau Geste.

Looking back on “BEAU GESTE”, I found myself wondering why I had ignored it for so long. For a movie that was supposed to be one of your typical imperialist adventures that celebrated European occupation, it proved to be – at least for me – a lot more. Instead of an imperialist adventure, I found myself watching a mixture of a family drama, a psychological thriller and a tragedy. William Wellman did an excellent job of rising “BEAU GESTE” above the usual imperialist nonsense. And with an excellent cast led by Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston; the movie proved to be a lot more.