“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.

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“REAP THE WILD WIND” (1942) Review

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“REAP THE WILD WIND” (1942) Review

I really do not know what to say about Cecil B. DeMille. His movies have always produced mixed feelings within me. But there are a few that I would have no trouble watching over again. And one of them is his 1942 film, “REAP THE WILD WIND”.

Following the success of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, “Gone With the Wind” and its 1939 cinematic adaptation, Hollywood spent nearly two decades trying to repeat the success of the latter. This campaign began with Warner Brothers’ 1938 film,“JEZEBEL” and probably ended with MGM’s 1957 epic, “RAINTREE COUNTY”. Among the “moonlight-and-magnolias” films that hit the movie theaters during this period was “REAP THE WILD WIND”, which DeMille both produced and directed.

“REAP THE WILD WIND” was based upon Thelma Strabel’s 1940 novel, which was serialized in “The Saturday Evening Post”magazine. The movie tells the story of an antebellum Florida belle named Loxi Claiborne, who runs a Key West salvage business founded by her late father. Following his death, she assumed control of the business to keep her family financially secure. Loxie’s mother deplores her participation in such rough business and would prefer her to follow the example of her Cuban-American cousin, Drusilla Alston, by behaving like a well-bred Southern belle. Loxie eventually finds romance when a hurricane forces a ship called The Jubilee to founder off the Key West coast, leading her crew to rescue its master, Captain Jack Stuart. Because Loxi and her crew did not arrive first to the scene, another salvage crew led by Lexi’s Yankee-born business rival, King Cutler, acquires the wrecked Jubilee’s cargo. It is also revealed that Cutler had hired Jack’s first officer to deliberately wreck the ship. And unbeknownst to Loxie and Cutler, her cousin Drusilla and his younger Dan have fallen in love. Loxi and Jack fall deeper into love, as she nurses him back to health. When they both realize that Jack might be fired by Charleston lawyer Steve Tolliver, who serves as manager of the Devereaux Lines, the shipping company that owns the Jubilee; Loxi schemes to win a plum captain’s position for Jack by seducing Steve and convincing him not to fire Jack. Instead, a surprising romantic triangle ensures, when Loxi finds herself becoming attracted to Steve. And this romantic triangle, leads to surprising tragedy for several of the movie’s characters.

The 1942 movie not only benefited from Hollywood’s fascination with the Old South, but also from Cecil B. DeMille’s “Americana” phrase that may have began with 1936’s “THE PLAINSMAN” and ended with either the 1947 movie,“UNCONQUERED” or the 1952 Best Picture, “THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH”. Who knows? What I find interesting is that I ended up enjoying “REAP THE WILD WIND”, despite its shortcomings. And it certainly had plenty of those. One flaw that caught my interest was the ridiculous trial in which Jack Stuart faced prosecution for deliberately wrecking the pride of the Devereaux Shipping Lines – the Southern Cross. I found it ludicrous for a few reasons. One, Steve Tolliver was a Charleston maritime lawyer. How on earth was he able to serve as prosecutor for a criminal case that originated and was held in another city and state – namely Key West? And it seemed wrong for Steve to be prosecuting a man for a crime that personally involved him. The trial also featured the testimony of a free black sailor named Salt Meat. Were free blacks allowed to serve as a witness for the prosecution . . . against a white defendant? I rather doubt it.

But the real problem I had with “REAP THE WILD WIND” were the one-dimensional characterizations that permeated the story. At least four of the movie’s characters proved to be complex – Loxi Clairborne, Steve Tolliver and Dan Cutler and especially Captain Jack Stuart. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for many of the other major characters. One of those one-dimensional characters proved to be the movie’s main villain, King Cutler. Many stories about the Antebellum South have featured villains that were usually the following – an expatriate Yankee, a slave ship captain or a plantation overseer. Sometimes, the villain would be a combination of two or all three. Cutler turned out to be a sea captain and Loxi’s rival . . . who shipped slaves on the side. He was also the personification of one-dimensional evil. The Drusilla Alston character proved to be your typical Southern belle of the Old South . . . a second-rate Melanie Wilkes, but with only the mild manners. And of course, “REAP THE WILD WIND” had to feature not only its share of African-American stereotypes, but also a virtual rip-off of the Mammy character from “GONE WITH THE WIND” in the form of the Clairbornes’ maid, Maum Maria. Loxi’s rival for Steve’s affections, Ivy Devereaux, proved to be another cliché – namely the bitchy and spoiled Southern belle. The movie also features another cliché, Captain Philpott, who was not only Loxi’s ship master, but also the personification of the “salty” sea captain. Even worse, he was forced to spout “I’m a good Yankee” in nearly every other scene he was in . . . as if being a New Englander was not only a crime to the other (and Southern-born) characters in the movie, but also to moviegoers from all over the country.

Thankfully, “REAP THE WILD WIND” still had plenty of virtues that managed to overcome its flaws. One, it is a beautiful looking film, thanks to cinematographers Victor Milner and William Skall’s outstanding work with Technicolor. Below are examples of their work:

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Milner and Skall were not the only ones that contributed to the movie’s visual style. Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier, along with George Sawley’s set decorations and Natalie Visart’s colorful costume designs certainly maintained the movie’s early 1840s setting. But I have to commend Edward Overstreet and Barney Wolff’s special effects; along with the visual effects team of Farciot Edouart, Gordon Jennings, William L. Pereira, and Louis Mesenkop did a stupendous job with the movie’s two special effects scenes – the hurricane at the beginning of the film, the giant squid that both Steve and Jack encountered underwater. The Hollywood community must have took notice of the film’s visual style. Milner and Skall earned Oscar nominations for their photography. Anderson, Dreier and Sawley all earned nominations for Best Art Direction. And the visual team of Edouart, Jennings, Pereira and Mesenkop won Oscars for the movie’s visual effects. The nominations and wins were all well deserved, as far as I am concerned.

I must admit that despite the barrage of one-dimensional characters, “REAP THE WILD WIND” proved to be a first-rate story. It was nicely balanced with romance, drama and adventure. It featured a fascinating heroine who proved to be a complex character and not some one-note cliché. Even the love triangle proved to be interesting, especially since two parties of the triangle – Loxi and Jack – ended up underestimating Steve a great deal. I found that fascinating. And although I originally found the love story between Drusilla and Dan a bit sacchrine, it proved to have great consequences in the end. I read somewhere that the screenwriters – too numerous for me to list – made many alterations to Strabel’s novel. Since I have never read the novel, I see no point in comparing the two. I only hope that Strabel’s novel proved to be as exciting and well-paced as the 1942 movie.

Despite my complaints about the one-dimensional characterizations in the film, I must admit that the cast managed to give some pretty good performances. Raymond Massey injected a great deal of energy and style into his portrayal of the villainous King Cutler. Despite being saddled with a remake of the Mammy character, Louise Beavers was equally entertaining as Maum Maria. There was one scene in which her character complained of Loxi taking her for granted that had me on the floor laughing, thanks to Beavers’ sharp performance. Both Susan Hayward and Martha O’Driscoll were solid as the two one-dimensional Southern belles, but it seemed obvious to me that they were better than the material given to them. And also Lynne Overman proved to be entertaining as Loxi’s loyal Yankee Captain Philpott. DeMille managed to capture another aspect of “GONE WITH THE WIND” by casting Oscar Polk (who portrayed Pork in the 1939 film) in the role of the free black sailor, Salt Meat. And Polk made the best of it in a well-acted scene in which he described the sinking of the Southern Cross during Jack’s trial.

But four cast members had the opportunity to shine in roles that proved to be complex. Ray Milland did a great job in portraying the intelligent and somewhat sly Charleston lawyer, Steve Tolliver. I was impressed at how he skillfully balanced Steve’s strong-willed nature and gentlemanly nature – a balance that kept the other two major characters offguard. One of those characters is Captain Jack Stuart, who thanks to the script and John Wayne’s skillful performance, proved to be the most complex in the movie. Jack Stuart also proved to be Wayne’s first character with an obvious dark side and he made the best of it. Paulette Goddard, who was one of the four final actresses considered for the Scarlett O’Hara role, was cast as the movie’s main heroine, Loxi Clairborne. And she was excellent as the headstrong Loxi, whose heart seemed to be bigger than her sense. I was also impressed at how Goddard did an excellent job in conveying Loxi’s reluctance to admit the latter’s true feelings for Steve. More importantly, not only did she create a strong screen chemistry with Wayne; she and Milland proved to be a sizzling screen team. In fact, this was the second of their four screen pairings. Robert Preston, who has proven to be a favorite of mine, was excellent as King Cutler’s younger brother, Dan. Preston did a great job in conveying Dan’s torn feelings over his admiration for his more ruthless brother and his love for the ladylike Drusilla.

I am not going to pretend that “REAP THE WILD WIND” was the epitome of Cecil B. DeMille’s career. It suffered from some unrealistic plot moments and plenty of one-dimensional characterizations. But the movie did benefit from a gorgeous visual style, an exciting and well-paced plot and some pretty damn good performances from a cast led by Ray Milland, Paulette Goddard and John Wayne. More importantly, all of this was crafted together with style, verve and excitement by Hollywood icon, Cecil B. DeMille.