13 October 2008

Movie Review: She (1935)

She (1935)
Directed by Lansing C. Holden and Irving Pichel. Produced by Merian C. Cooper. Starring Helen Gahagan, Randolph Scott, Helen Mack, Nigel Bruce.

Any current discussion of the 1935 version of She must start with a discussion of colorization.

The technology of colorizing black and white footage took heavy flack in the 1980s after Ted Turner turned his paint gun on classics and everyone on the planet screamed “foul.” Colorization was then relegated to the more respectful art of restoration. But it has made a comeback recently with “artistic justification colorization,” where a black and white film gets the treatment because an artist connected to it believes that it was the intent to make it color in the first place. Ray Harryhausen, producer and special effects maven on the 1957 monster films 20 Million Miles to Earth, worked to have the film colorized in 2007 because he had originally wanted the film shot in color, but had to give in to budget restrictions. By Harryhausen’s request, the 1935 She has also gotten the colorization treatment from Legend Films for its DVD release. Harryhausen had nothing to do with that movie (he was fifteen when it came out) but wanted it done as a tribute to producer Merian C. Cooper, who directed and produced King Kong. Cooper had also wanted She shot in color, but at the last minute had to switch to black and white.

Whatever the reason for the colorization, whatever the posthumous justification for it, I still cry “foul.” Regardless of whether someone wanted to film a movie in color, if it was filmed in black and white, it was lit, costumed, and designed with this in mind. No matter how skilled the colorization process is—and Legend Films does an excellent job—the movie will still look and feel wrong because the color scheme doesn’t match the mise-en-scene. It also removes major artistic decisions from the original design team.

However, I can’t complain angrily about the colorization on She or 20 Million Miles to Earth, because the new DVDs contain both the original and the colorized version. The color version hasn’t replaced the black and white; the originals are still available. And I think most viewers will stick with the black and white.

As you can probably guess, when I received my DVD of She from Netflix, I watched the black and white version first. I then went through the colorized version while listening to the commentary, so I’ll have a few specific comments about that later.

She was intended as Cooper’s splashy follow-up to the box-office monster King Kong. Lavish and filled with fantasy, it seemed a cinch to connect with audiences, but it lost money when it was released. It might have turned into a vanished film had Buster Keaton not kept a print of it stored in his garage, and it was recovered in the 1970s.

She is adapted from H. Rider Haggard’s classic 1887 novel, a foundational work in the “Lost Civilization” genre that Haggard helped ignite with his other famous novel, King Solomon’s Mines. But Cooper, along with his writing team of Ruth Rose (co-author of Kong’s script) and Dudley Nichols, switched the lost civilization from Africa to the Arctic. Technically, the Arctic is also a desert because it has almost no precipitation, but it’s still a bizarre locale switch. The lavish 1965 Hammer version with Ursula Andress in the title role moved the story back to Haggard’s beloved Africa. (By the way, it would be nice if somebody released the ’65 version on a Region 1 DVD some time before the polar ice caps melt.)

Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott) comes to London to see his dying uncle at his urgent summons. His uncle wants him to search out a family legend about a distant Flame of Life that may contain an element that grants eternity. Through the magic of a title card, the audience is whisked away with Leo and his uncle’s partner Holly (Nigel Bruce, Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes) to the Arctic Circle. A grizzled guide takes them into the unknown territory, with his perky adopted daughter Tanya (Helen Mack, the female lead in Son of Kong) along for the romantic interest Fay Wray part. Actually, as the plot unfolds, the similarities to Kong will seem more and more obvious. Cooper clearly knew what sort of fantasy-adventure he loved.

Vincey’s guide dies in an avalanche he causes out of his own greed to get at some gold frozen in ice, but the collapsed glacier reveals the tunnel that the three intrepid survivors use to find the hidden temperate civilization of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed (Helen Gahagan). First, however, they walk into a native sacrificial ceremony, which reminds me a lot of . . .

Okay, I’ll quit with the Kong links. You get the general idea.

The immortal “She” rules over a timeless art-deco kingdom. The imperious lady believes Leo is his ancestor John Vincey returned to her after five hundred years. Tanya’s jealousy starts to kick in, while She’s cruelty soon becomes obvious. The situation for the three interlopers is perilous, but only Leo’s connection to She will allow them to discover the Flame of Life that has kept the queen alive for centuries. It’s a dangerous game to play, for the temptation of She and her promise of immortality might overcome Leo.

Gahagan gives a pitch-perfect performance of command and mystery as the title character. On the opposite side, Helen Mack is cute as a button. She was a bright spot in the minor Son of Kong, and she’s the perfect romantic foil to play against Gahagan’s bewitching, icy queen.

But the real performance of interest is Randolph Scott as Leo Vincey. It isn’t because of the performance he gives here, which is steel-jawed and adequate, but because of the performances he would later give as one of the patron saints of the American Western. There’s nothing of that rugged man of the frontier in She, none of the magic that I associate with the actor who appeared in Ride Lonesome, Seven Men from Now, and Ride the High Country. In fact, when he first steps into the film dressed in a sharp double-breasted suit, I didn’t recognize him at all. It’s amazing how a decent actor with no specific charisma would evolve into a superb actor with an iconic persona.

The effects work is filled with breathtaking mattes and models that create the magic of an unreal world, like Gustav DorĂ© etchings. Some of the other optical effects are striking, such as the whirling Flame of Life. She’s kingdom is a 1930s wonder of faux-futurism, a collision of art deco and the Roman Empire that only grand old Hollywood could have crafted. Most “Lost World” adventures of the 1930s were relegated to inexpensive serials, and She demolishes them on every visual level. The production design does get a bit too modern in places, such as a ritual dance with masks that seems more Busby Berkeley than H. Rider Haggard—and which goes on too damn long. At least Max Steiner conjures up some impressive music for these scenes.

She provides an epic of other-worldliness, but I understand why it failed with audiences in 1935 that expected another roller-coaster thrill-ride like King Kong. Where Kong was almost relentless with its actions and thrills and danger, She is static and talky, so solemn and slow that it feels far longer than its hundred minutes. The magnificence of the presentation can only sustain interest so long before the ritualization gets snoozy. Only in a few minutes of destruction and pursuit near the end does the movie get any of King Kong’s energy.

Now, about that colorized version.

I can’t find fault with Legend Film’s technical work; the colorization process has come far since the late ‘80s when it was first stirring up controversy. But the colorized scenes still feel . . . wrong. The color seems flat when it’s placed onto black and white photography, and the cool art deco look of She’s kingdom is dimmed because of the process, looking garish instead of stylish. That powerful sense of watching an etching vanishes. Also, so many important art design decisions have been left to the guesswork of people working seventy years after the film’s completion that the result can’t help but look inauthentic.

To Ray Harryhausen: you’re one of my film idols, you helped form my early dreams of fantasy and mythology, you instilled my love of monsters, but the choice to colorize She was, I’m sorry to say, a mistake. At least the DVD preserves the original for us.