Sunday, July 9, 2017
"BECKY SHARP" (1935) Review
"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.