“JEZEBEL” (1938) Review

“JEZEBEL” (1938) Review

Following the release of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, “Gone With the Wind”, some Hollywood studios scrambled to find a way to cash in on its success. Producer David O. Selznick managed to purchase the film rights to Mitchell’s novel. However, Warner Brothers Studios decided to do its own Southern melodrama called “JEZEBEL”.

Directed by William Wyler, “JEZEBEL” starred Bette Davis in the title role as a headstrong New Orleans belle named Julie Marsden in the early 1850s. Julie’s vanity and willful nature leads her to a series of actions, culminating in the loss of the man she loves, a banker named Preston “Pres” Dillard. The movie begins with Julie and Preston engaged and the former demanding the full attention of the latter. When Pres refuses to drop his work and accompany her on a shopping expedition for the upcoming Olympus Ball, Julie decides to retaliate by ordering a red dress (in New Orleans society, virgins wear white). Although Pres accompanies Julie to the ball and dances with her, he eventually has enough of her temperamental and foolhardy behavior and breaks off their engagement. Then he leaves New Orleans to spend some time up North in New York City. Julie eventually realizes she had made a major blunder and spends a year grieving over her broken engagement. However, she becomes determined to mend fences with him, when he returns to New Orleans. But their reunion proves to be bittersweet, due to Pres’ new companion – his bride – and the potential danger of a yellow fever pandemic within the city.

The road to the 1938 movie began with playwright Owen Davis Jr., whose play of the same title made its Broadway debut in December 1933. Starring Miriam Hopkins, the play only ran on Broadway for over a month before it eventually flopped. Someone at Warner Brothers must have seen some kind of potential in this Southern melodrama for the studio had purchased the play back in 1937. Rumor has it that the studio had specifically purchased it for Bette Davis as compensation for her failure to win the part of Scarlett O’Hara for David O. Selznick’s film adaptation of Mitchell’s novel. The truth is that Selznick had yet to consider his leading lady for the 1939 film back in 1937. I think Warner Brothers saw the story provided a juicy role for Davis and purchased it. Miriam Hopkins, who had starred in the 1933 play, had hoped to be cast in the coveted role. Needless to say, she was very disappointed when Wallis informed her that he had only “considered her” for the role. Warner Brothers had originally cast Jeffrey Lynn for the role of Julie’s true love, banker Preston Dillard. However, the producers of a play he was appearing in refused to release him and the studio eventually turned to 20th Century-Fox star Henry Fonda as a last minute replacement. As for the film’s director, Wallis and studio chief Jack Warner’s first choice as director was Edmund Goulding (who had directed “GRAND HOTEL”), who was eventually dropped. Next, they approached Michael Curtiz (future “CASABLANCA” director), who dropped out at the last moment. They finally hired William Wyler, who had a contract with Samuel Goldwyn at the time.

There have been many comparisons between “JEZEBEL” and the 1939 movie, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Considering the settings and leading female roles for both films, I could see why. But this is about my opinion of “JEZEBEL”. The 1938 movie is not perfect. Since the film is set in the Antebellum South, naturally it would feature characters that are African-American slaves. With the exception of two characters, the majority of them are portrayed in the usual “happy slaves” literary trope that has marred a good number of Old Hollywood films set during the 19th century. You know . . . infantilizing the black characters. One scene featuring Julie’s maid, Zette, enthusiastically accepting Julie’s infamous red gown as a present. Now, any maid worth her salt would recognize the gown as trash. A black maidfrom the 1939 comedy, “DAY TIME WIFE”, certainly regarded a cheap rabbit fur as trash and contemptuously rejected it as a throwaway present. But this wince-inducing portrayal of blacks in “JEZEBEL” seemed to be at its zenith in one particular scene that featured the Halcyon slaves greeting Julie’s guests upon their arrival at her plantation . . . with cheers. Mind you, I have seen worse in the 1957 movie, “BAND OF ANGELS”. Another major scene that I found equally wince-inducing featured Julie and a group of young slaves surrounding her, while they sing “Raise a Ruckus” to her guests. Yikes. I find ironic that a film like “GONE WITH THE WIND”, which was equally guilty of its cliched portrayal of African-Americans, managed to feature at least three or four memorable black characters. I cannot say the same for “JEZEBEL”, despite having the likes of Eddie Anderson (who was also in the 1939 Best Picture winner) and Theresa Harris in its cast. William Wyler redeemed himself, I am happy to say, in his 1956 movie, “FRIENDLY PERSUASION”. Ironically, a good number of the white minor characters – namely men – seemed to be stuck in some kind of “Southern gentlemen” cliché from stories set in the Old South. You know the type – he wears a wide planter’s hat, while either holding a glass of booze, a cigar or both; while discussing duels or putting down Yankees. This was especially apparent in one of the film’s first scenes at a saloon, inside the famous St. Louis Hotel.

There is also one scene, earlier in the film, that left me scratching my head. It featured Preston Dillard at his bank’s board meeting, discussing the possibility of constructing rail lines through New Orleans and throughout Louisiana. I realize that the other board members’ negative reaction to Pres’ support for the railroad was suppose to be a sign of the South’s backwardness and unwillingness to accept the advancement of technology. But I found this hard to accept. The movie began in 1852. During this period, the state of Louisiana was already expanding the railroad throughout the state. Nor was the South adverse to accept technological advances, as long as its elite profit from it. If the region – especially the Mississippi Valley – was willing to use steamboats to ship their cotton and sugar to the North, why not railroads? One mode of transportation was just as good as the other. And Southern planters certainly had no qualms in using Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin to become the number one producer and exporter of cotton in the first place. So, this scene seemed a bit unreal to me from a historical point-of-view.

I have two other problems with “JEZEBEL” that I consider aesthetic. One of those problems featured the film’s production designs, supervised by Robert Fellows. I had no problems with the production designs for New Orleans’ French Quarter. I had a big problem with the production designs for Julie Marsden’s plantation, Halcyon. At least the exterior designs. In the scene that featured the arrival of Julie’s guests, Halcyon’s front lawn and the exterior designs for the house resembled a large house in a Southern suburb, instead of a plantation house. I did not expect Halcyon’s exteriors to resemble some clichéd Southern manor. But it seemed quite clear to me that Fellows, along with art director Robert M. Haas and the film’s art department did not put much thought in the plantation’s exterior design. Quite frankly, it almost resembled a facade constructed in front of a matte painting, on the Warner Brothers back lot.

I certainly did not have a problem with most of Orry-Kelly’s costumes for the film. But I had a problem with one in particular . . . namely the infamous Olympus Ball “red gown”:

I realize that in the movie, the gown had been originally created for one of New Orleans’ most infamous courtesans. And I did not have a problem with the gown’s full skirt, which accurately reflected the movie’s early 1850s setting. But that bodice . . . seriously? A strapless ballgown in 1852? I do not care if the gown was originally created for a prostitute. No such ballgown existed in the 1850s. The gown’s bodice struck me as pure late 1930s. The ballgown is practically schizophrenic as far as historical accuracy is concerned. And I am surprised that so many film critics and movie fans have failed to realize this.

Surprisingly, there is a good deal to admire in “JEZEBEL” . . . actually a lot. Many critics have compared it unfavorably to “GONE WITH THE WIND”, due to the latter being a historical drama. Somewhat. Well, aside from its use of the New Orleans 1853 Yellow Fever Epidemic and the U.S. sectional conflict of the antebellum period in its narrative, “JEZEBEL” is not what I would describe as a historical drama. Which is why I find the movie’s comparison to “GONE WITH THE WIND” rather questionable. Besides, the movie is basically a character study of one Julie Marsden, an orphaned Louisiana belle who also happened to be the owner of a plantation called Halcyon. Screenwriters Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston structured the film’s narrative as a three-act play – which is not surprising considering its literary source. All three segments of the film – “The Dress”, “The Duel” and “The Fever” – served as different stages in Julie’s tenuous relationship with Pres Dillard. But the best I can say about “JEZEBEL” it is a well-balanced mixture of character study, melodrama and a touch of historical drama for good measure. I can honestly say that “JEZEBEL” was not some uneven mixture of genres.

There is something about “JEZEBEL” that I found rather odd. On one level, the whole movie seemed to be about how a willful and over-privileged woman finally received her comeuppance after causing so much chaos and even tragedy in the lives of those close to her. Yes, Julie Marsden was a selfish and rather childish woman who believed the worlds of others – especially Pres Dillard – should revolve around her. After all, it was her petulant reaction to Pres’ refusal to accompany her on a shopping trip that set their break-up in motion. But I must admit that I was surprised to find some aspect of the film’s narrative that questioned the 19th society that demanded Julie remained in her place, as a woman. Yes, she was selfish and childish. But she possessed a bold personality that seemed unfit for conforming to society’s rigid rules. In a way, I could not help but wonder if some of her attempts to do what she wanted had sprung from some kind of frustration at being expected to remaining below the glass ceiling. Surprisingly, one example was the character Preston Dillard. As I had pointed out earlier, “JEZEBEL” featured the usual “happy slaves” clichés in its portrayal of the African-American characters. But it also used the Pres Dillard character to criticize the South’s dependence on slavery. Pres denied more than once of being a follower of abolition. Yet, his criticism of slave labor, his respectful attitude toward slaves like Uncle Cato, his decision to live in the North and his support for technological advances in transportation and an improved sanitation system for New Orleans seemed to hint otherwise.

A better example of the film’s criticism of 19th century Southern society came from the film’s second act, “The Duel”. Yes, I felt contempt at Julie’s efforts to humiliate Pres and his new bride Amy by manipulating her former beau, the hot-headed Buck Cantrell, into goading them. And I also felt disgusted when her manipulations led to a duel between Buck and Pres’ younger brother, Theodore “Ted” Dillard. This proved to be especially ironic due to the close friendship between the pair. But what really disgusted me was not only did Julie eventually realized she had went too far and tried to prevent the duel; both Buck and Ted knew that Julie had manipulated them into that duel and her reason behind her action. Yet, those two morons insisted upon carrying out the duel. For face. I was especially disgusted with Buck and his blind adherence to this “gentleman’s honor” nonsense. Buck and Ted’s insistence upon carrying out their duel, despite knowledge of Julie’s role in it, seemed to be a harsh criticism of a society that encouraged such duels. This is pretty rare for a Hollywood film made before the 1960s, let alone the 1950s.

Despite a few quibbles, I was very impressed by the production and art designs for “JEZEBEL”. Red ballgown aside, I thought Orry-Kelly did an exceptional job with the film’s costumes. The Australian-born designer’s costumes came very close to reflecting the fashions of the early 1850s – not only for women, but also for men. I was also impressed by the production and art designs that also did an excellent job of reflecting the film’s setting – 1852-1853 Louisiana. The exterior designs for the Halcyon plantation may have been a bust, but I cannot say for the other exterior and set designs. This was certainly the case for the exterior designs for the New Orleans French Quarter scenes, as seen in the image below:

Jezebel.jpg

I simply found them exquisite. This artistry was on full display, thanks to the movie’s long opening shot that introduced movie fans to New Orleans circa 1852. And we can thank both director William Wyler and cinematographer Ernest Haller for this memorable scene. And this was just the first. Another creative sequence from Wyler, Haller and the film’s art designers featured a montage that introduced movie audiences to the film’s third and final act – the Yellow Jack epidemic.

I did not have a problem with the film’s performances. In general. But as I had stated earlier, I found some of the performances for minor white planters and black slaves a bit over-the-top. One of those over-the-top performances came from Donald Crisp, of all people, who portrayed Dr. Livingstone – Pres Dillard’s mentor. I thought Crisp took the whole Southern gentleman cliche just a bit too far. I was also a bit troubled by Theresa Harris’ portrayal of Julie’s maid, Zette. It seemed a bit too cliched in my opinion and I wish that William Wyler had reined in her performance a bit. Harris had better luck portraying another maid in the 1941 period comedy, “THE FLAME OF NEW ORLEANS”. There was one more performance that failed to impress me and it came from Margaret Lindsay, who portrayed Pres’ Northern-born wife Amy. How can I say this? Would one consider a limp and underwhelming character like Amy as another literary trope? At least for a story set in the mid-19th century? I could say that Lindsay was a bad actress, but I find this hard to accept, considering her performance in the 1940 melodrama, “THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES”.

Fortunately for “JEZEBEL”, it did feature some very solid performances. Eddie Anderson gave a pretty solid performance as Julie’s competent stable hand, Gros Bat. Matthew “Stymie” Beard struck me as equally solid as his young son, Ti Bat. Spring Byington was amusing as Julie’s slightly snobbish neighbor, Mrs. Kendrick. Margaret Early gave a lively performance as the former’s daughter, Stephanie Kendrick. Henry O’Neill was pretty solid as one of Julie’s guardians, General Theopholus Bogardus. But I did not find him particularly memorable. Lew Payton gave excellent support as Julie’s major domo, Uncle Cato. And Richard Cromwell really impressed me as Pres’ younger brother, the intelligent yet temperamental Ted Dillard. But there were two supporting performances that truly impressed me. One came from George Brent, who I believe gave one of the best performances of his screen career, as the uber-macho Buck Cantrell. One, his grasp of a Lower South accent really impressed me. The actor also managed to convey the glimmer of Buck’s intelligence behind his masculine posturing – something that made the rupture of his friendship with Ted Dillard rather tragic. The other impressive supporting performance came from Fay Bainter, who portrayed Julie’s other guardian, Aunt Belle Massey. Bainter did such an excellent job of conveying the character’s tiring efforts to make Julie conform to society’s rules, especially those for women. Bainter made Belle Massey’s struggles so apparent that when Julie’s manipulations led to the Buck-Ted duel, Bainter gave that infamous “Jezebel” speech with a superb performance that may have sealed her win as Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

I have read a good number of reviews for “JEZEBEL”. And for the likes of me, I cannot understand why Henry Fonda’s portrayal of banker Preston “Pres” Dillard was dismissed as either wooden or weak. I find the contempt toward the character rather mind-boggling. I even came across an article in which the author could not decide which male character was this film’s Rhett Butler – Pres Dillard or Buck Cantrell. Was that why so many had dismissed Fonda’s character? Because he was no Rhett Butler? I hope not. Personally, I found Fonda’s performance spot on as the intelligent, yet beleaguered Pres, who finally decided that he had enough of Julie’s antics. Fonda’s Pres Dillard wooden? I beg to differ. Fonda did an excellent job of conveying Pres’ emotions throughout the film – whether it was his initial passion for Julie, a combination of confusion and exasperation in dealing with Julie’s childishness, his determination to save New Orleans’ citizens in dealing with a potential pandemic, any lingering physical attraction he might feel for Julie following his marriage, and his anger. Like his younger brother, Pres had a temper, but he controlled it through a very intimidating stare that left others unwilling to confront or challenge him. It is a pity that he was never acknowledged with an acting nomination for his performance.

Bette Davis, on the other hand, more than deserved her Best Actress Oscar for her performance as the spoiled Julie Marsden. What can I say? She was superb. She would probably be the first to thank William Wyler for his direction of her performance. And perhaps the director deserved some credit for guiding her performance and eliminating some of her bad habits of exaggerated behavior. But Wyler could only do so much. The talent was there – within Davis. She recognized that she had a first-rate director on her hands and did everything she could to give a stellar performance as the bold, yet childish and vindictive Julie. And Davis knocked it out of the ballpark with some of the most subtle and skillful acting of her career.

I realized that I have not discussed the movie’s most famous scene – namely the Olympus Ball. I can see why so many critics and moviegoers were impressed by it. The film’s production manager had scheduled one day for Wyler to shoot it. The director shot it in five days and created a cinematic masterpiece. Each moment was exquisitely detailed – from Julie and Pres’ arrival, the other guests’ reaction to Julie’s dress, Pres’ insistence that the band begin playing, the dance, the manner in which the other guests slowly pulled away from couple . . . I could go on. But what really made this scene for me were Davis and Fonda’s performances. Between Davis expressing Julie’s growing unease and humiliation and Fonda conveying Pres’ intimidation of everyone in the room, it was easy for me to see why these two, along with Wyler, became Hollywood icons.

I cannot deny that “JEZEBEL” had its problems – including some of its production designs, one particular costume, and the inclusion of Southern character stereotypes – especially African-American slaves. But . . . I also cannot deny that when push comes to shove, “JEZEBEL” is a well-written melodrama and a character study of a complex woman. The movie greatly benefited from a pretty damn good script written by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel and John Huston; an excellent cast led by Oscar winner Bette Davis and Henry Fonda; and superb direction from the likes of William Wyler. I never understood why “JEZEBEL” had to exist within the shadows of “GONE WITH THE WIND”. It is more than capable of standing on its own merits.

 

“DRAGONWYCK” (1946) Review




“DRAGONWYCK” (1946) Review

Being an aficionado of old Hollywood period dramas, I noticed that it was rare to find movies set in the antebellum North. Very rare. I have tried to think of how many of these films I have come across. And to be honest, I can only think of four or five so far, in compare to the numerous films set in the antebellum South. One of those Northern antebellum tales proved to be the 1946 movie, “DRAGONWYCK”

Based upon Anya Seton’s 1944 novel, adapted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and directed by him; “DRAGONWYCK” began in 1844 Greenwich, Connecticut; when Miranda Wells, the daughter of a religious farm couple, receives a letter from distant cousin Nicholas Van Ryn. Nicholas, the autocratic and charming owner (Patroon) of a Hudson River Valley estate called Dragonwyck, asks if one of Ephraim and Abigail’s daughters could act as governess for his eight year-old daughter, Katrine. Miranda, who daydreams about a more romantic and luxurious lifestyle, manages to convince her doubting parents to let her go.

Upon her arrival at Dragonwyck, Miranda meets the young Katrine and Nicholas’ wife, a gluttonous, yet slightly high-strong woman named Johanna. She also meets the handsome local doctor, Dr. Jeff Turner, at the “kermess” – a ceremony where landowner Nicholas receives the rents of his tenants. Not only does Miranda become aware of the strange atmosphere at Dragonwyck and the tense relationship between Nicholas and his tenants; she also finds herself falling in love with her cousin and employer . . . and he with her. This budding relationship between the pair proves to be quite disastrous for all concerned.

After my second viewing of “DRAGONWYCK”, I realized that I could never regard it as a personal favorite. The writing for some of the film’s supporting characters struck me as theatrical and one-dimensional. Unfortunately, I have to include the Ephraim Wells character, who came off as a clichéd version of the 19th century religious American male and Peggy, the young maid loyal to Miranda. During the film’s third act, the narrative revealed that Nicholas Van Ryn’s lack of religious belief. Was this supposed to cap his position as an immoral and villainous man? Because honestly . . . I realized that I could not care less about his lack of belief. And I found it ridiculous that his status as a non-believer was supposed to be a sign of his villainy. I understand. Perhaps the majority of moviegoers felt differently in 1946. Needless to say, this aspect of Nicholas’ character did not age well over the past 72 to 73 years. I was not that impressed by the film’s finale in which Nicholas had a showdown with his discontented tenants. Although it featured an excellent performance by Vincent Price, I found the actual sequence a bit anti-climatic. I noticed that the film’s ending was different from the one written by Anya Seton. However, I found Seton’s ending in the novel more dramatic, but somewhat ludicrous. I could see why Mankiewicz had changed the ending.

Although I could never regard “DRAGONWYCK” as a personal favorite of mine, I must admit that I found it to be a rather first-rate film. The movie – the story itself – struck me as a prime example of American Gothic literature. In fact, I would go as far to claim that the narrative almost reminds me of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”, but with a darker twist. Unlike Brontë’s tale, “DRAGONWYCK” included the specter of murder and class conflict. The latter included the historical conflict known as the Anti-Rent War, in which tenants in upstate New York revolted and declared their independence from the manor system operated by patroons, by resisting tax collectors and successfully demanding land reform between 1839 and 1845.

One would think that the Miranda Wells character would be the narrative’s center or force. A part of me feels sad that I cannot make that claim. For the most interesting aspect of “DRAGONWYCK” proved to be the Nicholas Van Ryn character. Was he supposed to be a mere villain? If a person viewed him from how he had ended his marriage to the voracious Johanna, he or she could regard him as such. On the other hand, I found it difficult to regard his refusal to embrace his wife’s new-founded religious fervor as monstrous. Which meant that in the end, Nicholas became something of a repellent, yet fascinating character to me. A true force of nature. I wish I could have said the same about Miranda. I found her charming and extroverted, but after her marriage to Nicholas turned sour, she became something of an annoyance. Being the offspring of religious parents, I was not surprised that she eventually turned to religion. But I found it annoying that religious fervor was the only literary device used to develop her character and nothing else. Nicholas, on the other hand, proved to be a lot more complex.

A part of me wishes that “DRAGONWYCK” had been filmed in Technicolor. It would have been interesting to view Twentieth Century-Fox’s version of antebellum New York State in color. Especially the Hudson River Valley. I am not begrudging Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography. His work for the film’s interior shots, especially those for the Dragonwyck manor had provided a great deal of atmosphere, adding to the film’s Gothic narrative. But I was not that impressed by the exterior shots. I must admit that I have no memories of the film’s score by Alfred Newman. I thought Lyle R. Wheeler and J. Russell Spencer’s art direction, along with Thomas Little’s set decorations were excellent . . . especially for the Dragonwyck manor and New York City hotel’s interiors. However, I truly enjoyed René Hubert’s beautiful costume designs for the movie. Were they accurate examples of mid-1840s fashion? I have my doubts. But as the images below reveal, they were gorgeous:

 

I might as well focus on the movie’s actual performances. Were there any bad performances? No. “DRAGONWYCK” can honestly boast some solid or excellent performances. The supporting cast featured some solid performances from the likes of Harry Morgan as one of Nicholas’ angry tenants, Connie Marshall as Nicholas’ daughter Katrine, and Trudy Marshall as neighbor Elizabeth Van Borden. Future Oscar winner Jessica Tandy’s portrayal of Miranda’s Irish-born maid Peggy O’Malley struck me as a bit theatrical. I could also say the same about another future Oscar winner Walter Huston, who portrayed Miranda’s religious father Ephraim Wells. Anne Revere’s portrayal of Miranda’s mother Abigail Wells seemed a lot more subtle . . . and skillful. Spring Byington portrayed the Van Ryns’ manipulative and slightly creepy maid Magda. A part of me wondered if it was Mankiewicz or Seton’s intention to create a more benign version of the Mrs. Danvers character from “REBECCA”. Vivienne Osborne, on the other hand, gave a very skillful performance as Nicholas’ first wife, the gluttonous and insecure Johanna Van Ryn. I did not know whether to share Nicholas’ disgust for her or feel any sympathy toward her for being married to a creep.

I was prepared to dismiss Glenn Langan’s performance as the handsome local physician, Dr. Jeff Turner, who befriends Miranda. I had assumed that he would be another one of those bland leading men that the Hollywood system tried to transform into a movie star. After my recent viewing of “DRAGONWYCK”, I realized that Langan gave an interesting performance by skillfully conveying Jeff’s barely concealed anger toward Nicholas’ arrogance. However, my vote for the best performance would go to Vincent Price’s portrayal of Nicholas Van Ryn. I thought he gave a brilliant and dynamic performance as the arrogant, yet charismatic Nicholas, whose villainy proved to be rather enigmatic. Gene Tierney did an excellent job in carrying the film as the lead Miranda Wells. I was very impressed by her portrayal of the more ebullient and naive Miranda during the first two-thirds of the film. But once Miranda’s marriage to Nicholas began to fail, Tierney’s portrayal of the character fell flat. I do not blame her. I blame the manner in which the character had become one-dimensional, thanks to Anya Seton’s novel and Joseph Mankiewicz’s screenplay.

Overall, I rather enjoyed “DRAGONWYCK”. It was not perfect. No film is. But I was a little put off by some theatrical acting in the film, the decline of the Miranda Wells character and the writing overall during the movie’s final fifteen to twenty minutes. But I must admit I enjoyed most of the film’s narrative. Many would dismiss it as costume melodrama. Personally, I see no reason to dismiss melodrama. It can be appreciated, if written well like other forms of fiction. Thanks to Joseph Mankiewicz’s screenplay and direction, along with a competent cast led by Gene Tierney and Vincent Price; “DRAGONWYCK” proved to be more entertaining than I had previously surmised.

“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” (1936) Review

“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” (1936) Review

How is it that a movie about one of the most famous blunders in British military history could remain so entertaining after nearly 72 years? Can someone explain this? Warner Brothers’ take on the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, in which the Light Brigade of the British cavalry charged straight into the valley between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights during the Crimean War, is not what one would call historically accurate. Most of the movie took place in British occupied Northern India in the 1850s. Aside from the last twenty or thirty minutes, the movie really has nothing to do with the Crimean War. And yet . . . who cares? ”The Charge of the Light Brigade” is so damn entertaining that I found myself not even thinking about historical accuracy.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, and written by screenwriters Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh; the movie is an entertaining mixture about vengeance against the leader of a treacherous local tributary rajah in Northern India named Surat Khan (C. Henry Gordon); and a love triangle between Geoffrey and Perry Vickers – two brothers who are British Army officers (Errol Flynn and Patric Knowles) who happened to be in love with the same woman – the daughter of a British general (Olivia DeHavilland) named Elsa Campbell. I might as well start with the love story.

On the surface, the love triangle in ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”seemed pretty simple – one woman torn between two men. Instead of having two best friends in love with the same woman, we have two brothers. But even that is nothing unusual. What turned out to be so unusual about this particular love story – especially in an Errol Flynn movie – is that the leading lady is NOT in love with the leading man. Within fifteen minutes into the story, the movie revealed that the leading man – namely Flynn – lost the affections of the leading woman (and fiancée) – De Havilland – to the secondary male lead – namely Knowles.

At first, it boggled in the mind. What woman in her right mind would prefer Patric Knowles over Errol Flynn? The latter had a more flamboyant character and was obviously the movie’s main hero. However . . . Knowles was not exactly chopped liver. Knowles was just as handsome as Flynn in his own way and a competent actor to boot. And his character – although less flamboyant than Flynn’s – had a quiet charm of its own. I also got the feeling that Flynn’s character seemed more in love with his job as an Army officer during the British Raj than he was with dear Elsa. Geoffrey Vickers seemed to have it all . . . until his brother Perry and Elsa’s little romance pulled the rug from under his self-assured life. And yet, he seemed damn reluctant to admit that Elsa loved Perry more than him. Reluctant may have been a mild word. Geoffrey seemed downright delusional in his belief that Elsa loved him only . . . and that Perry was merely harboring an infatuation for his fiancée. What made matters worse was that everyone – including Elsa’s father (Donald Crisp) and diplomat Sir Charles Macefield (Henry Stephenson) – supported Geoffrey’s illusions. Only Lady Octavia Warrenton (Spring Byington), wife of British General Sir Benjamin Warrenton (Nigel Bruce) seemed aware of Elsa and Perry’s feelings for one another.

Before I discuss the movie in general, I want to focus upon the cast. Flynn, DeHavilland and Knowles were ably supported by a talented cast drawn from the British colony in 1930s Hollywood (with the exception of two). American-born Spring Byington and British actor Nigel Bruce were charmingly funny as the verbose busybody Lady Octavia Warrenton and her husband, the long-suffering Sir Benjamin. They made a surprisingly effective screen pair. Donald Crisp was his usual more than competent self as Elsa’s loving, but humorless father, Colonel Campbell – a by-the-book officer unwilling to accept that his daughter had switched her affections to the younger Vickers brother. Henry Stephenson gave an intelligent performance as the competent diplomat, Sir Charles Macefield, who is charged with not only keeping the peace, but maintaining British control in a certain province of Northern India. It was easy to see why Flynn’s character seemed to hold him in high regard. David Niven was charming, but not very memorable as Geoffrey Vicker’s best friend, James Randall. Only in one scene – in which Randall volunteers to leave the besieged Chukoti Fort in order to warn Sir Benjamin at Lohara of Surat Khan’s attack – did Niven give a hint of the talent that would eventually be revealed over the years. And of course, one cannot forget American actor C. Henry Gordon’s portrayal of the smooth-talking villain, Surat Khan. Gordon could have easily portrayed Khan as another ”Oriental villain”that had become typical by the 1930s. On one level, Gordon’s Khan was exactly that. On another . . . Gordon allowed moviegoers to see Khan’s frustration and anger at the British handling of his kingdom.

Olivia DeHavilland once again proved that even in a costumed swashbuckler, she could portray an interesting female character without sinking into the role of the commonplace damsel-in-distress. With the exception of the sequence featuring the Siege of Chokoti, her Elsa Campbell spent most of the movie being torn between the man she loved – Perry Vickers, the man she has remained fond of – Geoffrey Vickers, and her father’s determination that she marry Geoffrey. Elsa spent most of the movie as an emotionally conflicted woman and DeHavilland did an excellent job of portraying Elsa’s inner conflicts with a skill that only a few actresses can pull off. And DeHavilland was merely 20 years old at the time she shot this film.

I really enjoyed Patric Knowles’ performance in this movie. Truly. One, he managed to hold himself quite well against the powerhouse of both Flynn and DeHavilland. I should not have been surprised. His performance as a sleazy Southern planter in 1957’s ”BAND OF ANGELS” was one of the bright spots in an otherwise mediocre film. And two, his Perry Vickers was a character I found easy to root for in his pursuit of Elsa’s hand. I especially enjoyed two particular scenes – his desperate, yet charming attempt to be assigned to Chokoti (and near Elsa), despite Sir Charles’ disapproval; and his anger and frustration over Geoffrey’s unwillingness to face the fact that Elsa’s affections had switched to him.

There are four movie performances by Errol Flynn that have impressed me very much. Three of those performances were Geoffrey Thorpe in ”THE SEA HAWK” (1940), James J. Corbett in ”GENTLEMAN JIM” (1942) and Soames Forsyte in ”THAT FORSYTE WOMAN” (1949). The fourth happens to be his performance as Captain/Major Geoffrey Vickers in ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”. Not many film critics or fans have ever paid attention to his performance in this film, which is a pity. I suspect they were so flabbergasted by the idea of him losing Olivia DeHavilland to Patric Knowles that they had failed to pay any real attention to his performance as the complex and slightly arrogant Geoffrey Vickers. Superficially, Flynn’s Vickers is a charming, witty and very competent military officer. He seemed so perfect at the beginning of the film that it left me wondering if there were in cracks in his characters. Sure enough, there were. Thanks to a well written character and Flynn’s skillful performance, the movie’s Geoffrey Vickers became a complex, yet arrogant man who discovers that he is not very good at letting go at things that seem important to him, whether it was Elsa’s love or a desire for revenge against the villain. In the end, Geoffrey’s flaws became the instrument of his destruction. The amazing thing about Flynn’s performance as Geoffrey Vickers was that it was his second leading role. And the fact that he managed to portray such a complex character, considering his limited screen experience at the time, still amazes me.

As I had stated before, the movie’s historical account of the Crimean War and the infamous charge hardly bore any resemblance to what actually happened. The movie seemed to be about the British’s interactions with a Northern Indian minor rajah named Surat Khan. The British, led by diplomat Sir Charles Macefield, struggle to maintain a “friendly” relationship with Khan, while his men harass British troops in the area and he develops a friendship with a visiting Russian Army officer Count Igor Volonoff (Robert Barrat). The phony friendship and minor hostilities culminated in an attack by Khan against one of the British forts in his province – Chukoti, which is under the command of Colonel Campbell. The battle for Chukoti eventually turned into a massacre that only Geoffrey and Elsa survived. But more interesting, it seemed like a reenactment of an actual siege and massacre that happened at a place called Cawnpore, during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58 . . . three to four years after the setting of this movie. For a movie that is supposed to be about the Light Brigade Charge and the Crimean War, it was turning out to be more of a fictional account of British history in India during the 1850s.

But the movie eventually touched upon the Crimean War. After the Chukoti Massacre, Surat Khan ended up in hot water with the British government in India. Due to his friendship with Volonoff, he found refugee with the Russians. And he ended up as a guest of the Russian Army during the Crimean War. Following her father’s death, Elsa finally convinced Geoffrey that she is in love with Perry. And the regiment of both brothers – the 27th Lancers – is also sent to Crimea. According to Sir Charles, their posting to the Crimea would give them an opportunity for revenge against Khan. But when the 27th Lancers finally received an opportunity to get their revenge against Khan, Sir Charles denied it. And so . . . Geoffrey took matters in his own hands and ordered the Light Brigade – which included his regiment – and the Heavy Brigade to attack the artillery on the heights above the Balaklava Valley. This is so far from what actually happened . . . but who cares? I enjoyed watching Flynn express Geoffrey’s struggles to contain his thirst for revenge and eventual failure.

And then the charge happened. My God! Every time I think about that sequence, I cannot believe my eyes. Part of me is horrified not only by the blunder caused by Geoffrey’s desire for revenge . . . but by the fact that 200 horses and a stuntman were killed during the shooting of that scene. Flynn had been so outraged by the deaths of the horses that he openly supported the ASPCA’s ban on using trip wire for horses for any reason. At the same time, I cannot help but marvel at the brutal spectacle of that scene. No wonder Jack Sullivan won the Academy Award for Best Assistant Director for his work on this particular scene.

On the whole, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” is a very entertaining and well-paced spectacle. Frankly, I think that it was one of the best movies to be released during the 1930s and certainly one of Errol Flynn’s finest films. For those who honestly believed that the Australian actor could not act . . . well, they are entitled to their opinions. But I would certainly disagree with them. On the surface, Flynn seemed like his usual charming and flamboyant self. However, I was very impressed at his portrayal of the self-assured and slightly arrogant Geoffrey Vickers, who found his private life slowly falling apart. Olivia DeHavilland, Patric Knowles, Donald Crisp, C. Henry Gordon and Spring Byington gave him excellent support. Thanks to Jacoby and Leigh’s script, along with Michael Curtiz’s tight direction, ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” turned out to be a first-class movie with an interesting love story with a twist, political intrigue, well-paced action and a final sequence featuring the charge that remains mind blowing, even after 75 years.