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.

“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.

“BECKY SHARP” (1935)

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“BECKY SHARP” (1935) Review

Being something of a film history buff, I have been aware of the 1935 adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847-48 novel, “Vanity Fair” for a number of years. But I have never been inclined to watch the film, until recently.

I cannot say what led to my recent interest in “BECKY SHARP”. But it was a book on David O. Selznick that made me first aware of the 1935 film. John Hay “Jock” Whitney and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney had founded Pioneer Pictures in 1933 as a means to produce color movies. “Jock” Whitney was close friends with Selznick. He even co-financed Selznick’s production company, Selznick International, in 1935. Between the creations of Pioneer Pictures and Selznick International, the former released the first feature-length film to use the three-strip Technicolor process. “BECKY SHARP” is the sixth of eleven film and/or television adaptations of the Thackeray’s novel. It is the first in color.

“BECKY SHARP” took its title from the novel’s main character, a poor, but educated young English lady who struggles rise in the ranks of Britain’s social classes during the early years of the 19th century. Becky Sharp is the orphaned daughter of an English painter and French dancer, who graduates from Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies with a friend named Amelia Sedley. Since Amelia is the daughter of a wealthy merchant, Becky manipulates her way into her friend’s household, where she meets Amelia’s portly and jovial brother, Joseph “Jos” Sedley. Before Becky can sink her hooks into Jos, the Sedley patriarch put an end to the budding “romance” by sending Jos away to India. Meanwhile, Becky finds employment as a governess at the estate of Sir Pitt Crawley. She eventually wins the heart and hand of Crawley’s playboy son Rawdon, an officer in the British army. When news of Napoleon Bonaparte‘s escape from Elba reach Britain, Becky is reunited with Amelia, who has now married her childhood sweetheart George Osborne. The two women’s husbands and William Dobbin are deployed to Belgium to face Napoleon’s Army. But the last stages of the Napoleonic Wars proved to be the first of many crisis thrown Becky’s way.

Judging from the movie’s title, it is clear to me that screenwriter Francis Edward Faragoh had deleted a great deal of Thackeray’s novel in order to write a screenplay with a running time of eighty-four minutes. I found it odd that a film adaptation of such a famous epic novel would have such a short running time. Other epics and movie adaptations of literary works had running times that sometimes went past two hours – including “A TALE OF TWO CITIES”, “MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY”, “THE CRUSADES”, and “CAPTAIN BLOOD”. I can only assume that a minor and newly formed production company like Pioneer Pictures could not afford to produce the first Technicolor feature film with a running time close to or over two hours. If that was the case . . . if the Whitneys were that determined to produce the first full-featured movie in color . . . they could have chosen something that was not an adaptation of a famous epic novel. I find it ironic that Mina Nair’s 2004 adaptation of Thackeray’s novel had received a great deal of criticism for not being truly faithful to its source. I have encountered less criticism of “BECKY SHARP” than I did for the 2004 film. Yet, the latter is more faithful than the former. One of my problems with “BECKY SHARP” is that I thought the producers, director Rouben Mamoulian and screenwriter Francis Edward Faragoh did a piss poor job of adapting Thackery’s novel to the screen. I just learned that the 1935 movie is actually an adaptation of Langdon Elwyn Mitchell’s 1899 play, which was an adaptation of the 1847-48 novel. I hate to say this, but the movie’s running time of eighty-four (84) minutes did not serve the story.

There is so much in “BECKY SHARP” that was left out. Most of the narrative that focused upon Amelia was deleted, especially her fractious relationship with her father-in-law, Mr. Osborne. In fact, George’s father never made an appearance in this film. I suspect the same could be said about Mitchell’s play. The only time the movie focused upon Amelia’s character arc was when Becky was personally involved . . . namely George’s infatuation with Becky before the Waterloo battle and Becky forcing Amelia to face the truth about George in the movie’s last fifteen to twenty minutes. It is not surprising that the movie’s title was based upon the main character’s name. Not only was much of Amelia’s personal story deleted, the movie also rushed through Becky’s stay with the Sedley and Crawley families. It seemed as if Mamoulian and Faragoh could not wait to focus on the impact of Waterloo and the marriage between Becky and Rawdon. Between the handling of Amelia’s character arc and the rushed narrative in the movie’s first half, it is no wonder that I found “BECKY SHARP” particularly unsatisfying.

I found other aspects of “BECKY SHARP” unsatisfying. The sound and visual quality of the movie’s DVD version low in quality. The photography and color struck me as faded. And the sound is scratchy. For once, I am not blaming the movie’s filmmakers. Whoever had possession of “BECKY SHARP” after Pioneer Pictures had failed to maintain its original quality. But I can blame the filmmakers on other aspects of the movie. In it, the Jos Sedley character returned to Europe with a little Indian boy in tow as his personal servant. Only the “Indian servant” was portrayed by a young African-American actor named Jimmy Robinson. To this day, I am still trying to figure out how the producers and director Rouben Mamoulian saw nothing wrong in an African-American kid portraying an Indian kid. Hollywood’s casting for non-white characters seemed really skewed in this film. And then . . . there was the acting.

I am surprised that “BECKY SHARP” led to a Best Actress Oscar nomination for actress Miriam Hopkins. Granted, she handled the character’s questionable morality, desperation and charm very well. Yet, Hopkins engaged in so much hammy acting that I found myself wondering why of all her performances, she ended up earning a nomination for this particular one. I wish I could say that the rest of the cast gave better performances . . . but I cannot. Other cast members gave equally hammy performances. Nigel Bruce, Alan Mowbray, Alison Skipworth, G.P. Huntley and many others were equally hammy. I could not accuse Colin Tapley of hamminess on the same scale. But I found his portrayal of William Dobbin rather dramatic. And I am not being complimentary. The only cast members who actually impressed me were Frances Dee and Cedrick Hardwicke. Dee gave a surprisingly subtle and convincing performance as the sweet and passive Amelia Sedley. Thanks to Dee’s performances, audiences saw both the positive and negative aspects of Amelia’s passiveness. Hardwicke was equally subtle as Becky’s aristocratic “benefactor”, the Marquis of Steyne. Even though Steyne is an unlikable character, Hardwicke was no mustache-twirling villain.

The only reason I would recommend “BECKY SHARP” to anyone is for historical purposes. Because this is the first feature-length motion picture in color, I would recommend this movie to any film buff. Otherwise, I would stay clear of “BECKY SHARP” and consider other adaptations of William Makepeace Thackery’s novel.