The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) by matthew c. hoffman

•April 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

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The Prisoner of Zenda is a perfect film—that rare synthesis of great casting, meticulous direction, and a witty screenplay. The producer, David O. Selznick, was himself a perfectionist who spared no expense at making his films the best they could be. What he created in 1937 was the greatest romantic adventure film ever made. There are more popular films in this series, and they have everything we expect in a swashbuckler—but they don’t have Ronald Colman. David Selznick once said that he would not have made this film without him. Around Colman is one of the finest casts ever assembled. This will be the only time we see the son of Douglas Fairbanks in Crossed Swords, but fortunately for us, it’s his best swashbuckling role: the villainous Rupert of Hentzau. For those who have never seen this film before, you are in for a real experience.

The Prisoner of Zenda is a beautiful fable about love and heroism. It’s the story of Rudolf Rassendyll, a British gentleman who must fill in for his look-alike cousin, King Rudolf, when the king is abducted. The novel was written by Anthony Hope and published in 1894. Soon after, it was turned into a popular stage play. It had been made into silent movies in 1913 and again in 1922. But tonight’s film would be the first sound version. What separates this version from the others—as well as from other swashbucklers in general—is the profound way it deals with its themes of loyalty and devotion to the throne. In the role of Rassendyll is Ronald Colman who, throughout his career, embodied the noble virtues of the gentleman adventurer.

Author R. Dixon Smith writes, “As the dedicated Englishman who saves a kingdom at the expense of his own happiness, Rassendyll is the perfect incarnation of all the qualities which made the definitive Colman screen personality so overwhelmingly popular in the thirties: sincere and reliable, determined and resilient, affable and witty, yet somehow always bearing just a touch of the ‘broken wing’ which so arouses female sympathy and affection. This inner fragility, the vague sadness under the surface which was reflected both facially and through the sensitive, restrained delivery of that exquisite voice, had by now become the most distinctive element of Colman’s style.”

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In the foreward to Sam Frank’s Bio-Bibliography on Colman, Robert Morsberger writes, “Though less athletic than Errol Flynn, Colman could be as dashing a swashbuckler. His Prisoner of Zenda vies with The Adventures of Robin Hood as the most beloved swashbuckler of all time.” What few people realize is that Colman was a swashbuckling matinee idol in the silent era—certainly not to the same degree as Douglas Fairbanks, but producer Sam Goldwyn tried to make him the new Valentino. This is most evident in the still photos I’ve seen of some of his films with actress Vilma Banky, such as Two Lovers. Unfortunately, these films are not available. Even most of his sound films are not commercially accessible.

Colman would be better known today if he hadn’t turned down so many roles. It’s a shame The Prisoner of Zenda was the only film he and David Selznick made together. Colman was considered for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, but instead he made a film that was better suited to him: The Light That Failed—another one of those terrific Colman performances not on dvd. Colman also turned down Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

This rare photo (courtesy of Kendall Miller) comes from a Sunday newspaper supplement (Nov. 1937).

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But at least we have his Rudolf Rassendyll, which is one of his best roles. It’s a dual role, and he had played dual roles before in films like 1933’s The Masquerader, which had some parallels to tonight’s film in terms of plot; both movies deal with the substitution of political figures. Even going back to his silent career he had played a dual role in one of his teamings with Vilma Banky: 1927’s The Magic Flame. Since we see two Colmans in this film, I should reveal how this effect was accomplished. In Ron Haver’s wonderful book, David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, Haver explains the scene where Colman shakes hands with himself, which was of course a double. “The camera shot through a plate of sheet glass that had been taped to cover the area of the double’s head and shoulders. After exposing the action, the film was rewound in the camera, the plate glass was retaped to cover everything except the area of the double’s head and shoulders, and Colman changed costumes and stood in. Colman’s head and shoulders were then photographed in perfect register with the double’s body.”

According to the brilliant cinematographer James Wong Howe, this camera effect would have been more obvious had it been in color as Selznick had originally intended. The idea was to shoot the film in three-strip Technicolor. Author Sam Frank challenged this assessment years later in 1970 by asking James Wong Howe why he didn’t simply make a screen test in color to see how the effect would look. Howe responded that it hadn’t occurred to him. There are, however, some color photos taken on the set by photographer Fred Parrish, which look amazing and offer a glimpse into what could’ve been. But nevertheless, the black and white compositions and lighting effects in this film are stunning, so we can forgive Howe for the color test that never was.

The Prisoner of Zenda was directed by John Cromwell, but the climactic swordfight with sabres was actually directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Known as an action director, Van Dyke’s tempo for this sequence was more in keeping with what Selznick envisioned. Also, the moving renunciation scene between Rassendyll and Princess Flavia was directed by George Cukor, who was known for directing women to great effect. This was Madeleine Carroll’s best scene in the film. Her dialogue about honor binding a woman too brings an added depth to her character and to the sequence.

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Selznick had tested Anita Louise for the role of Princess Flavia but thought Madeleine Carroll had more the aura of a princess and was a better match for Colman age-wise. She had recently starred with Robert Donat in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. Selznick did have issues with Carroll’s makeup, however, which he changed, feeling that she needed to look more like a princess of the 1880s and not a movie star of the present day. The other major female role in the film is that of Antoinette, played by Mary Astor, four years before her appearance in The Maltese Falcon.

Playing the roles of the king’s aides are British stalwart C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven, who at the time was a relative newcomer to Hollywood. As the sneering Black Michael is Raymond Massey, whom we remember from Things to Come in last year’s series. Massey is also one of the elite actors to have essayed the role of Abraham Lincoln, which he did in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. There is a funny anecdote that Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. tells from the set involving Massey and his struggle to interpret the role of Black Michael. For advice, Massey turned to C. Aubrey Smith. “Sorry to butt in, Aubrey, but I just can’t get under the skin of my character, Black Michael. I thought you might advise me.’ Aubrey had to turn up the power in his hearing aid first. Then he lowered his Times, took the monocle from his eye, and glaring at (Massey), said, ‘My dear Ray, in my time I have played every part in The Prisoner of Zenda except Princess Flavia. And I ALWAYS had trouble with Black Michael.’ With that, he replaced his monocle, turned off his hearing aid, and picked up his Times again.”

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And finally, in the role of Rupert of Hentzau is Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He had been acting since the silent period (where studios capitalized on his last name), but it was this role that really restarted his career. Originally, he had wanted to play the lead, but his legendary father talked him into playing Hentzau because “not only is The Prisoner of Zenda one of the best romances written in a hundred years and always a success, but Rupert of Hentzau is probably one of the best villains ever written. He is witty, irresistible, and as sly as Iago… Nobody has ever played Rupert and failed to steal the show, on either stage or screen. It is so actor-proof, in fact, that Rin Tin Tin could play the part and walk away with it!”

The character of Hentzau seems to appeal to many modern viewers because of today’s penchant for anti-heroes. He is very much the charmer in this film, and he’s really the perfect antagonist for Colman: two characters who are polar opposites in what they stand for, and that just makes the final confrontation between them all the more potent.

The film was originally previewed at 135 minutes and contained a prologue and an epilogue depicting an older Rassendyll telling his adventures in flashback. This was eventually cut out. It’s interesting to note that Lost Horizon, Colman’s other great film of 1937, initially contained this same framing devise in its structure but was also cut out. When it was finally released in late 1937 it was an immediate hit with audiences and critics alike. The Prisoner of Zenda was even topical. It came in the wake of the abdication of Edward VIII. The film’s coronation scene paralleled the real-life coronation of King George VI of England.

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Selznick’s “glamorized ideals” in this film were certainly in keeping with the tone of Hollywood at that time. It’s a shame such ideals are in short supply in modern film, which fixates on the ugly realities. As with society in general, the bar has been lowered and we are more willing to embrace poor conduct and glorify the wrong things. Personal integrity and tradition are relegated to the fringe, and films like The Prisoner of Zenda are collectively viewed as cultural relics of a time that is no more. But how much, within today’s entertainment whirlpool, will be remembered seventy-five years from now? And who will remember what our mainstream films say or what they teach us, if anything, about ourselves?

The Prisoner of Zenda, by contrast, is timeless– its poetry captured on film, its purity, undiminished through the years. It is set in a time that never was, but this does not make it irrelevant. As with Shakespeare, stories do not have to recreate reality or document historical fact in order to provide an emotional truth or meaning. At the heart of its theme is the nobility of character and self-sacrifice. Never were these values better conveyed than in tonight’s film. With that, we come back to the play-actor, Rassendyll.

Since this is our only swashbuckler with Ronald Colman, I thought I’d end my talk with a few words from a friend of mine who is a bit of a Colman scholar. His name is George Schatz. Speaking of Colman’s legacy on screen, he wrote that, “There seemed to be some indefinable quality, some unique combination of appearance, voice, quiet humor, or personal projection that made us pay, by the millions, to spend some time with him; not to be preached at or instructed by, but simply to be complimented by his example of what qualities the human species is capable, even the least of us. Perhaps this is the heritage that Colman offered: that it is most important to not only reveal what man is, but what man can be.”

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Kismet (1944) by matthew c. hoffman

•August 8, 2011 • 2 Comments


The first film series I ever programmed was the William Dieterle retrospective at the LaSalle Bank Theatre revival house in Chicago. One of the films of his I wanted to show was Kismet (1944). Dieterle had made an earlier German version of it in 1931 for First National. But the 1944 version was unavailable and it wasn’t until years later that I saw it on video. It didn’t make an impression on me until I saw it again recently. Last week TCM played it as part of their month-long look at how Arabs are portrayed on film. At the time, MGM consciously tried not to offend Muslims by instilling a “new world awareness” into the production. Though it’s relevant today for being one of the few Hollywood films to present a positive image of Arabs, its greater relevance is that it offers one of Colman’s most enjoyable performances in the 1940s. He dominates this visually-striking, Arabian Nights-type fairy tale.


Colman plays Hafiz, the King of Beggars, who disguises himself at night as a prince– a prince of liars. He keeps his daughter Marsinah (Joy Ann Page) walled in so that one day her prince can batter it down. “The fairy tale always comes true” is his golden promise to her. Meanwhile, the Caliph (James Craig) disguises himself as a gardener’s son so that he can seek out truth in the streets of Bagdad. Unbeknownst to Hafiz, the Caliph has fallen in love with Marsinah.


Hafiz romances Jamilla (Marlene Dietrich), his “lady of the moonlight’ who dances in a harem of the Grand Vizier (Edward Arnold). The Vizier is an enemy of the Caliph and has already made one assassination attempt on the Arabian ruler’s life. Hafiz is determined not to allow his young rose to bloom for a mere camel boy, so in the Vizier he sees an opportunity to “tie his chariot to such a star” and keep his promise to his daughter. Hafiz poses as a prince in the hope of offering Marsinah to the second most powerful man in Bagdad. However, when Hafiz is exposed as a thief and threatened with mutilation and death, he makes a desperate offer to the Vizier. He will kill the Caliph himself… if his daughter is made Queen in the Vizier’s court.


Kismet is uplifting entertainment made all the more enjoyable by the lively performance of Ronald Colman. (His good friend, William Powell, was first cast in the role.) Colman really seems to enjoy playing a beggar/magician. His enthusiasm for the role, in turn, makes us feel good. This was his first film since Random Harvest, and at this time in his career he did not want to make any war films. (He was already doing his part for the war effort on radio as well as touring for the war bond drive.) He wanted to instead do something that was pure escapism. Though some suggest he was miscast in the role, his characterization reminds us of the poet-vagabond Francois Villon in If I Were King (1938). It’s really not that much of a stretch for Colman. The ending to Kismet recalls Villon’s fate in the earlier (and superior) film.


Colman took over a role made famous by another actor, Otis Skinner, who had appeared in Kismet on both stage and in film. But today no one remembers Otis Skinner. We’re grateful people remember Ronald Colman, as when TCM devotes a whole day to his work. It’s Colman’s presence in this film that makes this version the one to seek out. There was a musical Kismet a decade later starring Howard Keel, which I have no interest in seeing. But it would’ve been interesting if the 1944 film had allowed Colman the opportunity to sing. Though he performs no songs, he does speak wonderful, witty dialogue that allows for humor. The screenplay, based on Edward Knoblock’s original 1911 play, was written by John Meehan and has many light-hearted moments which Colman takes full advantage of.

This was Colman’s first film in color– and what a brilliant use of it. The film was photographed in lush Technicolor by Charles Rosher. The cinematography would be nominated for an Academy Award. There is a richness in its color scheme with deep blues and reds. There are strong contrasts of blue and gold, gold and black, black and red, and red and blue. The women in the Grand Vizier’s court wear an assortment of yellow, orange, and pink.

The sets were by the legendary set designer Cedric Gibbons, who designed the sort of fantasy world that’s reminiscent of The Thief of Bagdad. Though obviously studio-bound, its artificial quality conjures a dream of Old Arabia. The busy marketplace is one of many sets that stand out. This is the kind of production that was meant to be seen theatrically– not in piecemeal on youtube. Films like this take on a whole new dimension when they are bigger than you. The art direction was nominated as well for an Academy Award.


The musical score by Herbert Stothart was nominated too. One can tell this was the same man who had composed The Wizard of Oz. There are a couple musical cues that are fleetingly similar to compositions in the 1939 film. There’s enough there to suggest a connection. Kismet would also be nominated for sound.

If Kismet is remembered at all today it’s for Marlene Dietrich. Its most famous scene is the one in which she dances with gilded legs for the court. The choreography, however, is far from golden, and her overall performance as Jarmilla is rather cold. She’s a weak leading lady for Colman as she’s more decoration than anything else– especially in the wake of Greer Garson. Author Sam Frank points out that except for one scene, Dietrich never looks at Colman directly!

Joy Ann Page portrays Hafiz’s daughter, Marsinah. She was actually Jack Warner’s step-daughter. Her career was never very distinguished, and she is perhaps best known for her role as the young wife in Casablanca.


The weakest casting link is James Craig as the “yahoo” Caliph. His character has a strength in that he does not fear the Vizier, but as soon as Craig opens his mouth with that modern, Southern drawl the illusion is shattered. (Richard Carlson was first cast in this role.) Craig had been much better as Jabez Stone in William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). This truly great American film remains my favorite of all of Dieterle’s work. Interestingly enough, it also stars Edward Arnold as Senator Daniel Webster. Dieterle reunites both in Kismet. There are also fine character actors in the MGM film such as Harry Davenport, Hugh Herbert, and in a smaller role, Charles Middleton. Though he’s uncredited, that’s the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan, narrating the “Once upon a time” prologue.

I wouldn’t rank Kismet as one of Colman’s top films– not even in the Top 20– but it deserves more exposure than what it’s received. It’s really a beautiful film to watch, and if seen theatrically, it would be all the more magical. One of my favorite moments is the shot of Colman’s eyes as he sadly reflects upon a problem he doesn’t have an answer for. Imagining moments like that on a screen 20 feet tall in front of you is to know the power of film. Actors who have been gone a long time suddenly are alive in a way that can’t be duplicated anywhere else. Suddenly the film’s power to captivate and take you to another world of imagination is on a level with any summer blockbuster out right now. The difference is, the memory of the summer blockbusters fade after a week or two, but the Colman films are truly immortal, even these lesser ones.


Beau Geste by matthew c. hoffman

•September 8, 2009 • 1 Comment

“The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon… but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars, and endures like the Word of the Prophet.” –Arabian Proverb

Beau Geste (1926) is not only the definitive screen version of the P.C. Wren novel, it is also one of the finest American films of the silent era. It is Ronald Colman’s best silent film, though its success it not solely attributable to his presence. Beau Geste is a great film for its technical merits as well as for its cast, which is truly an ensemble. Though Colman stars “by arrangement with Samuel Goldwyn,” his co-stars are on equal footing, and no one performance stands out above the others. Everyone involved was up to the challenge of making this adaptation of the classic tale one of the greatest adventure films of the period.

The opening shot is an indelible image of a caravan crossing windswept, desert sands. This is a battalion of the French Foreign Legion on their way to Fort Zinderneuf. Upon reaching the outpost, Major Henri de Beaujolais (Norman Trevor) is fooled into believing the fort is still manned when in fact a dead man is propped up at every embrasure– “the fallen who were not allowed to fall.”  There is a solemn dignity to Trevor’s performance, as when he recognizes his error.  This opening scene is truly haunting in how it is staged.

The major sends his trumpeter into the fort, but when he fails to return, Beaujolais himself scales the wall. He finds the quiet remains of a massacred regiment. The commandant lies murdered with a French bayonet in his chest. And on the person of another soldier, the major finds a written confession pertaining to a “Blue Water” sapphire. After a cursory examination of the fort, he returns to find the commandant– as well as the soldier who had been beside him– missing. Shortly after Beaujolais leaves the scene, Fort Zinderneuf eerily begins to go up in flames, as seen by the other legionnaires from a nearby oasis.

The film backtracks fifteen years to the story behind the Fort Zinderneuf mystery. At Brandon Abbas, in country England, the young Geste brothers and their cousin, Isobel, play war with toy ships on a lily pond. They are learning to be brave and noble soldiers. When young John is wounded in the leg, he is accorded a Viking’s funeral for the fallen. In his honor, one of the model ships is sent out ablaze across the pond. A thought comes to Michael “Beau” Geste: “Digby, you must promise that if I die first, you’ll give me a Viking’s funeral.”  The scene is rather protracted, but it works. Herbert Brenon (who had directed 1924’s Peter Pan) lets the scene play out. It’s really a poignant moment in time, a Romantic vision of childhood in late 19th century England.

Afterward, we are introduced to Lady Patricia Brandon (Alice Joyce, Colman’s second wife in 1925’s Stella Dallas), the boys’ aunt who is also the owner of the priceless “Blue Water” sapphire, which she proudly shows off to her nephews and niece. However, due to financial difficulties, she secretly agrees to sell it to the visiting Rajah Ram Singh.  Unbeknownst to her, Beau, hiding behind a suit of armor while at play, witnesses this agreement.

Twenty-seven minutes into the movie, we get our first glimpse of Ronald Colman when we see the Geste brothers as young men. Ronald is Beau, and Neil Hamilton (TV Batman‘s Commissioner Gordon) is Digby. Ralph Forbes, in his American film debut, plays John. Mary Brian portrays the grown-up Isobel. A telegram soon arrives from Lady Brandon’s husband, whom she is separated from. He requests the immediate sale of the  “Blue Water” heirloom. Aware of the predicament she is in, the lights go out momentarily, and the jewel is stolen. None of the brothers fess up. As a result, one by one they leave home in disgrace, choosing to stand by one another.

Though no words are spoken in this silent movie, one can almost hear the sly humor in Colman’s voice had he read his own parting note to his brothers: “Meanwhile, both of you be good boys and try to think kindly of your wicked brother. –Beau”   The men choose to disappear into the memories of their childhood, into the tales once told to them by a much younger Henri de Beaujolais. From him, the boys had learned that the French Foreign Legion was the “exile of the self-condemned.” They are now condemning themselves to this life.

John Geste arrives in the port of Marseilles, the last stopping point before basic training. At the Canteen, he meets two Americans, Hank (Victor McLaglen) and Buddy (Donald Stuart). Also at the watering hole is Boldini (the excellent William Powell), a swarmy Italian in a black beret known for his “dirty tricks.” He is re-enlisting in the Legion. From there, John travels to Sidi-bel-Abbes for final drill.  Here, to his surprise, he is reunited with his two brothers.

After a conversation amongst the Gestes about the “Blue Water” sapphire– overheard by Boldini– the Italian tries to steal it off Beau at night. Boldini is caught, and for his crime against a fellow legionnaire, the other recruits pin his hands to the table with swords as punishment. This arouses the suspicions of the brutal Sergeant-Major Lejaune (Noah Beery), who decides to break up the Anglo-American clique immediately. Digby is sent with Hank and Buddy to Major Beaujolais’ battalion at Tokotu. The others must remain with Lejaune, who has his own designs on the jewel Boldini was after.

They are sent to Fort Zinderneuf, the last outpost in the Sahara. It is a place that is “often under the fire of the Arab outlaws, always under the fire of the terrible desert sun.” When Lieuntenant Maurel dies of illness, Lejaune takes over as Commandant. The brothers witness the full degree of his cruelty when a couple of deserters are retaken. With his whip, they are driven back into the sweltering desert. For the brothers, life at Fort Zinderneuf is not really life, “but an avoidance of death.”

Soon after, Beau and John are confronted by plotters looking to start a mutiny against Lejaune. However, Beau and his brother intend to stand by the flag of France. “To hell with the flag!” the head rebel tells him. “At four o’clock tomorrow morning the pig dies.” When the mutineers disappear, stool pigeon Boldini calls the brothers over to inform them that Lejaune is already aware of the mutiny. He intends to have the loyal ones kill the traitors. Then, Lejaune will himself kill those that remain in order to get the jewel. When the relief force arrives, Lejaune will take sole credit for suppressing the revolt.

Before the plot can transpire, Lejaune calls the brothers into his quarters so that he can put the jewel away for safe keeping. When Beau claims he doesn’t have any jewel, Lejaune attacks him but is overtaken when John trains his bayonet on him. Beau shows their loyalty to the Legion by returning Lejaune’s pistol. Given his precarious position with the others, Lejaune withholds his wrath against the Gestes… for the time being. “You loyal, lying grandsons of Gadarene swine!”

Shortly afterward, the garrison is attacked by the Arab marauders, and every man is sent out to defend the fort. No one can be wasted. Even a blinded man is forced to remain at his parapet until he is killed. Noah Beery dominates the scene in the defense of the fort as he runs back and forth on the ramparts, propping the dead up against the embrasures. Even carcasses have value to him. The Arabs must be given the illusion that the fort is well-manned. At one point, he even has the men loudly sing the Legion’s Marching Song. Even Boldini– banished to the watchtower– is ordered to join in the forced laughter until an Arab bullet silences him.

Beau is shot down, and when Lejaune tries to search the body for the jewel, John threatens to kill him. In the scuffle, Lejaune is killed. But Beau lives long enough to die in his brother’s arms. Meanwhile, Major Beaujolais’ relief patrol– seen at the beginning of the film– arrives just before the Arab massacre is complete. As the trumpeter scales the wall, John makes his escape over the other side of the fort. The trumpeter is revealed to be Digby, who discovers his fallen brother, Beau. He takes him below to the barracks, and there he keeps a promise made long ago. He will give Beau a Viking’s funeral. Since every Viking must have a dog at his feet, Digby drags the lifeless body of Lejaune into the room. As the body goes up in flames on the bed, Digby too escapes from the fort.


He soon catches up to John, and after another surprise reunion, the two go off into the desert together. They meet Hank and Buddy, who are part of Beaujolais’ scout patrol. But the four of them become hopelessly lost under the blazing sun of the Sahara. They are soon down to one camel with a very low water supply. Knowing that John has Isobel to come home to, Digby leaves the others behind and sacrifices himself to the desert. He couldn’t leave Beau behind.

John eventually makes it to the ocean and back to England, where he is reunited with Isobel and Lady Brandon. He shows her the note Beau had written and which he had wanted her to see. In it, he confesses to having stolen the jewel. He knew his aunt had sold the real one many years before to the Indian prince, so in order to save his aunt’s reputation, he stole the glass imitation. Beau had hoped his act of thievery would instead be taken as a beautiful gesture. “… in fear and love I took it, and if that has helped you at all, perhaps you will still call me ‘Beau’ Geste.”

Beau Geste was the defining film in Ronald Colman’s silent film career. All the qualities he would be associated with in his later films were to be found in this film. Though he had displayed such heroism and honor in films as recent as The Dark Angel (1925), the role of Beau was his first as a “gentleman adventurer.” This star image would hit its peak in the late 1930s with such films as Lost Horizon (1937), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and If I Were King (1938).

There are no inane romantic entanglements in this film, and the only love interest is on the periphery– that being John’s engagement to Isobel. The film is a grand tribute to brotherly love, the love between men in its purest form. Around this theme, director Brenon fashioned a film that paid strict attention to detail. There is an air of authenticity hovering over the movie. It was, in fact, shot in California’s Mojave Desert. (The producers originally had considered shooting it in Algeria.)

In Juliet Colman’s 1975 biography of her father, Ronald Colman: A Very Private Person, Neil Hamilton fondly remembered the production:

“One of my favorite moments in the film was when the fort was attacked by the foe. There was Ronnie and I and twenty men inside, defending it. Attacking were one thousand five hundred horses and riders. (They had rounded up every out-of-work cowboy and brought them down to Yuma and put them on horses!) Groups of men on their horses were sent out with water and food to certain spots beyond the horizon to wait until later in the day when at a given signal by radio or semaphore, they’d ride in to attack the fort. The day started and finally, when the sun was exactly right and the clouds were exactly in the right position, you could see in the entire one-hundred-eighty-degrees view of the horizon little specks way in the distance. As they converged on the fort, they were recognizable as riders. It was an absolutely magnificent sight. The desert was black with them, and finally they got to within an eighth of a mile of the fort, and Brenon was seized by a stroke of genius. He picked up his megaphone and shouted, ‘For every man that makes a good fall during the firing of the rifles, an extra ten-dollar check!’ So they came closer and closer and when they were within one thousand feet of the fort, the signal was given for us to fire. And the twenty-two men including Ronnie and me inside the fort fired, and one thousand five hundred men fell dead in the desert. They couldn’t use one inch of film.”

Though more people are familiar with the 1939 version starring Gary Cooper, the remake is, like the stolen “Blue Water,” only an imitation of the original. My first introduction to the silent film came through owning a copy of the Percival Christopher Wren book.  It’s a fabulous novel, and Grosset & Dunlap had put out an edition to coincide with the Paramount release “illustrated with scenes from the photoplay directed by Herbert Brenon.” Though videotapes of the film have surfaced, it hasn’t been released commercially for home entertainment. Why Criterion hasn’t given the film the full treatment is anyone’s guess, but a version of it can be found on “Youtube” if one has the patience to watch it in installments with a far inferior musical score. Beau Geste deserves far better. It is a screen masterpiece that should be revived theatrically as well as on dvd. The very opening scenes of the film evoke a mood and atmosphere that could never be duplicated in sound films, and certainly not on our television screens. There is something about our first glimpse of the mysterious fort, set to a chilling organ accompaniment, that can never be surpassed. It is a hauntingly beautiful film.

In Gentleman of the Cinema, author R. Dixon Smith wrote, “Beau Geste is something more, as big thematically as its panoramic Sahara setting. Its elemental themes– courage, honor, duty, renunciation, self-sacrifice, and above all, brotherly love, all caught in the swell of war and brutality– are developed with a strength and dignity as inspirational as the Arabian proverb from which its central theme is taken. This is escapism ennobled.”

The Unholy Garden (1931) by matthew c. hoffman

•July 6, 2009 • 1 Comment


“Shooting and spoofing take their turns in the packet of excitement and fun known as ‘The Unholy Garden,’ which arrived at the Rialto last night. In this picture Ronald Colman as Barrington Hunt, an Englishman with an unsatiable appetite for crime, does his one good deed before he speeds off in somebody else’s car with a thug who would probably like to put a bullet through him.” — The New York Times, Oct. 29, 1931

The Unholy Garden (1931) is an insane film. For me, it’s always been a Ronald Colman guilty pleasure. By that I mean it’s a lot of fun if viewed as a comedy and not as serious drama. It is, understandably, considered one of Ronald Colman’s weakest films– certainly the least effective of his early sound films. Colman himself felt it was his poorest to date. However, looking at his entire body of work, it’s actually more entertaining than My Life With Caroline (1941) or The Story of Mankind (1957). (Anyone who has seen the latter two might not read that as a ringing endorsement.) But The Unholy Garden is just weird enough to be of interest to those who appreciate the cinema of the bizarre.

My first introduction to the film was in a book called Human Monsters: The Bizarre Psychology of Movie Villains by George E. Turner and Michael H. Price. The authors saw value in it and listed it among dozens of other obscure films from the ’30s and ’40s waiting to be re-discovered… though many would claim this one is best left buried by the sands of time.

Perhaps the attraction is in seeing the dashing, debonair Colman in an ugly milieu of villainy where no one can be trusted. And yet, he still remains true to the “Colman image” in the film’s final moments with the heroine.  Colman plays Barrington Hunt, a gentleman thief who has fled to Algeria from Marseilles– “the knight of rueful countenance whom chance had blown into the Sahara,” as biographer R. Dixon Smith wrote.  With Colonel Lautrac (Arnold Korff) out to find him, Hunt is keeping a low profile in a North African tavern. Outside are the crowded streets of the marketplace with Arab music filling the air. Sultry Elize Mowbry (Estelle Taylor), the sort of lady who helps men pass the time very pleasantly, is working for the Commandant with her own interests in mind (that is, the reward). Knowing where Hunt is, she plans to use her wiles to lure him to her home for the authorities to nab.  Once outside, Hunt sees that the marked vehicle is property of the Algerian Commandant and so hijacks it. He’s a rather polite kidnapper as he takes Elize along for the ride. He drives off to the Palais Royal, a broken-down hideaway in the Sahara– an “unconvincing Grand Hotel in the sand,” noted  R. Dixon Smith. It’s in the heart of Arab territory, but more importantly, out of French jurisdiction.


There, Hunt meets up with his old associate, Smiley Corbin, the dim-witted comedy relief partner played by Warren Hymer. (Character actor Hymer–of the Nat Pendleton school of acting– often played illiterate gangsters, though in real life he was a Yale graduate.) Together, they’re the odd couple of robbers. Also holed up at the oasis is Dr. Shayne (Lawrence Grant, the villain from 1929’s Bulldog Drummond). Here, he plays a murdering doctor who uses the skull of his third wife as a container for tobacco. “Quaint,” Hunt tells him. There is also Colonel von Axt (Ulric Haupt), a German who sold out his division in The Great War, and various other international reprobates by the names of Prince Nicolai Poliakoff (Mischa Auer), Kid Twist (Kit Guard), and Nick-the-Goose  (Henry Armetta).

Upstairs lives a blind, wheelchair-bound embezzler, Baron de Jonghe (Tully Marshall), who is cared for by his sweet granddaughter, Camille (Fay Wray). The denizens read the cranky old man’s mail and learn he is sitting on a lot of money. They try unsuccessfully to investigate, but the old man wields a gun at all visitors. Fortunately for the crooks, his aim is not good. This sort of job calls for a degree of finesse. Enter Barrington Hunt. As the outsider, he quickly gains the old man’s trust while reassuring the others it’s all an act. His plan is to seduce the naive Camille in order to get to the ten million francs. He prefers to work through mood. The courtship is on.


But Barrington doesn’t appear to be working fast enough for the others, and one of the gang spies on him in the garden as he recites poetry to his desert Cinderella. Reporting to the others afterward, Hunt tells them, “Tomorrow I shall switch from Shelley to Byron. Work my way slowly eastward through the Oriental poets. And Tuesday, if there’s a moon, I shall plunge deep into Roman mythology.” Later, when Hunt offers to start a crackling hearth in the baron’s room, he is ordered at gunpoint to put away the matches. Hunt figures it out that the money is hidden somewhere in the fireplace.


After hearing a drunken Elize spout out Smiley’s confidences, the thieves suspect that Hunt and Smiley are planning a double-cross with the intent on taking the money for themselves. Smiley is knocked out and the criminal ne’er-do-wells go after Hunt. At gunpoint they lead him into a storage room during the Christmas festivities. The heavies tell Hunt that when the man at the piano starts playing they are going to shoot him. “Ask him to play something sad,” he jests like Bulldog Drummond.  However, the gentleman thief is able to con two of the crooks into taking action against the other two. “There should be enough for the three of us,” he tells the doctor and the colonel. “Why let the others in?”

The baron’s brother, Alfred (Charles Hill Mailes), arrives on the scene in an attempt to get the baron to surrender the money and return to France. However, the old man is soon shot by the Russian, who absconds with the metal box containing what he thinks is the money. Hunt, though, had already beaten him to it and is running through the palace with the francs safely tucked into the pockets of his white dinner jacket. During the ensuing chase, the Russian is killed and the rest of the crooks turn on each other. Hunt had left a little ‘sugar’ in the baron’s room for them to fight over, scattering some of the notes on the floor.

Camille is rushed to Alfred’s car, but instead of fleeing with her, Barrington gives her the money in the movie’s best scene.

“… it’s the one thing I’ve done that’s any good. Don’t spoil it. I love you more than I said. That’s why you must go on– alone. Oh, it would be nice, my dear, but it’s nicer this way. It would only mean a little while together, and then the police. You wouldn’t find Paris very nice as a convict’s bride. I would keep you with me, but–but, don’t you see, I planned it this way. A better job than I’ve ever done before. Go back to life. And someday, when your eyes are shining, and you go to meet an honest man, look at Paris once for me, and think of it as my wedding present.”


At the time The Unholy Garden was made, Ronald Colman was the biggest star on the Goldwyn lot. With that in mind, Samuel Goldwyn would not have deliberately given him a bad script. The origins of the story, in fact, came from two of the best writers in Hollywood: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. They had narrated their basic idea to Goldwyn in a meeting at the Pierre Hotel in New York. Goldwyn was quickly sold on it and brought the writing duo to Hollywood to write the screenplay. Unfortunately for the studio, instead of concentrating on the idea they had pitched, Hecht and MacArthur put all their creative energies into a script for another studio: Howard Hughes’ Scarface. There is the story that Ben Hecht wrote The Unholy Garden in a one-night marathon at the typewriter. Suffice to say, the final script that Goldwyn got on his desk was not the great story that had been envisoned at the initial meeting in New York. There was nothing that could be done at this point as production was about to start, and Colman was bound by his contractual obligations to do it. The experience no doubt instilled in him a greater desire to become independent– and more selective with his film projects.

The film was helmed by George Fitzmaurice, who had directed Colman in several of his silent films, including two opposite Vilma Banky: The Dark Angel (1925) and The Night of Love (1927). This would be his last film with Colman.

Fans of classic horror will appreciate the presence of King Kong‘s Fay Wray as Camille.  In Juliet Colman’s biography of her father, Ronald Colman: A Very Private Person, Fay remembers:

“He (Colman) made no overt objection to the film, but there was an air of discomfort about the whole thing. I wasn’t comfortable in it either. I felt an uneasiness in playing scenes against so grubby a background, wearing pastel chiffon with Alencon lace and having a hairdresser standing by. I was a brunette then but because all the women that had played opposite him had been a blonde, I was made a blonde…… Ronnie really was a teacher… I felt that while we were running through the dialogue, while he made suggestions, that he was not in his part, that he was directing to some degree. Fitz was the director, but I remember much more keenly rehearsing with Ronnie. He was both in the scene and watchfully outside, making significant observations about how, for instance, I reacted to a poem he was reading: ‘Hark! Hark! The lark at Heaven’s gate…'”


The Unholy Garden works best if you take it as an adventure spoof rather than drama. Though it lacks the polish of Bulldog Drummond, this 75 minute adventure is by no means dull and has its witty moments.  The sharp contrast between Colman and the American goof, Smiley, is rather amusing, as is the idea of inserting an actor as distinguished as Colman into this cutthroat enclave. Though he plays a crook, it’s after he falls in love with Camille that his gallantry shines through– very much in keeping with what audiences expected of Colman at the time. There’s a nice moment when Hunt is with Camille in the mosque garden (a too obvious Goldwyn soundstage) and he reflects back on Christmas in England. “Decency had its moments.”

Ronald Colman would follow this with two far superior films: John Ford’s Arrowsmith (1931) and King Vidor’s Cynara (1932), but it is a testament to Colman the actor that even in “trash” we can find hidden treasure. Authors Turner and Price wrote of the negative critical consensus:

“This oversimplified view takes into account some rather predictable elements of plotting and perhaps an overabundance of bizarre touches, but neglects to acknowledge that the production shimmers with high artistry. Not to mention that the cast, in support, serves up some of the most intriguing vamps and scamps any lover of melodrama could desire. Garden does sink deep into the outre, an excess that the viewer will find either charming or offensive. The skull-as-tobacco jar is one such example, but the most effectively disturbing touch is a Christmas party scene where the criminals sing carols in assorted clashing keys and languages. The dialogue sparkles with romance and wit.  (Willy) Pogany’s evocative sets are magnificently lighted and photographed to generously eerie effect by two of the great cinematographers, George Barnes and Gregg Toland. Colman’s rakishly sophisticated demeanor is complemented beautifully by the innocence of Miss Wray…”

NOTE: A decent quality dvd copy of this film is available at

Return to Shangri-La by matthew c. hoffman

•January 9, 2009 • 2 Comments

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I started a blog for this movie group because Ronald Colman has always been my favorite actor, and I thought I would expand upon his career with an online journal. Also, I thought I should explain some of the reasons behind the site. Simply put, Ronald Colman was an actor who made audiences (this writer, in particular) feel good about life. Years ago at a young age, I even wrote a poem about RC called “The Spirit of Man.” (I’m no Francois Villon, but it was a sincere attempt at poetry!) Part of the fascination for me– aside from the many memorable films he appeared in– was the image of Colman as the chivalrous hero. On and off the screen, he was a gentleman, and his motto could’ve easily been: to thine own self be true. Author Lawrence J. Quirk wrote of him, “Colman alone gave the world, through the medium of his films, that combination of exceptional good looks, poetic grace– and a strong tinge of mysticism in his aura that enchanted and intrigued millions.”

Watching a Colman movie has always been like an event, so when I had the opportunity to manage a revival house, there was one movie in particular I wanted to play. And it was the one movie I was most proud to have shown… Against all the cynicism in today’s world, I wanted to present a film that shows how we collectively can be more than what we are now. It’s a movie that makes us believe in a transcendent humanity– that we can rise above the ugly parts of society. Lost Horizon (1937), Frank Capra’s masterpiece, is a beautiful film in so many ways. In it,  Ronald Colman plays Robert Conway, the visionary diplomat who glimpses the eternal in Shangri-La– a place, as James Hilton wrote, “touched with the mystery that lies at the core of all loveliness.”

On October 5th, 2002, I screened Lost Horizon at the LaSalle Bank revival house in Chicago, Illinois. It was the first film ever shown in the 35mm format at the bank, and the audience response was phenomenal. In the brochure for the film series I had Colman scholar George E. Schatz write of the film. Years later, I repost his words as a special introduction for those of you not familar with this movie…

Ronald Colman Pictures, Images and Photos

There is a rare fruition, a quality of distinctive elements blending together as rewardingly as with a vintage wine, that transforms Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon into that form of anticipation and deeper impact we sometimes experience with a beloved opera or symphony. Our newer DVD technology offers us the choice to skip to favored scenes or musical numbers, but we think you’ll find that there is such an insistent procedural relationship, such inevitability of scene to scene, with their additional gifts of visual and aural beauty in this classic film that you’ll not want one instant out of its flowing place.

Capra could not have fully known, as we are fortunate enough to appreciate in 2009, was how truly timeless Stephen Goosson’s set designs for Shangri-La would prove to be, or that Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical score lives as a multi-themed masterpiece that gives each scene its deserved distinction. What Capra did know was that there was only one actor to truly embody and represent the major role of Conway: Ronald Colman. Time has also revealed that Colman, beyond his enduring 3-decade handsome ‘leading man’ appeal and ‘Best Actor’ nominations over an eighteen-year period, proved to be, in his personal life as well as his characterization in this film, as close to being a true Renaissance man as we may hope to find in the real world. His exceptional clarity and quality of speech could offer even ordinary sentences a poetic lift, but given the Capra-Robert Riskin script Colman enjoyed here, you might well find phrases and content both affecting and memorable.

There is a type of ‘critic’ who seem to delight in stealing and repetitively using the term “Capra-corn” with a ill-earned smugness, which hardly accurately describes the immigrant boy whose flowering and insistent intellect earned him a Degree in Engineering, whose bright comedic wit won a career writing scripts for silent films, and who not only served his United States during World War II directing the Why We Fight series of films, but carefully gathered a collection of beloved rare books worthy of a museum.

And if those same critics seem to dismiss Capra’s Lost Horizon as a “fantasy,” they are correct only in one instance: the extended-life span is contrary to Earth’s environmental realities. But even here, the James Hilton book and the Capra-Riskin script cautions us: when Conway is offered this extended span of active life, he demures: “It must have a point. I sometimes wonder if life itself has any.” This is hardly the substance of a mindless sugar-coated going-to-the-seashore escapism.


In all other respects this story is of the Earth, fully within the limits of our own humanly achievable. It does not depend, as would most “fantasies,” upon metaphysical, supernatural, or extraterrestrial interventions. While we readily acknowledge that the very nature of Shangri-La demands an exotic location, this must be understood in the context of its time: the author of the 1933 novel (as, of course, would be the writers of its 1936 screenplay) was only too well aware of the threatening tentacles of Hitler’s voracious Nazi intentions; therefore, Tibet seemed to provide a site not only excitingly remote and mysterious in which to place Shangri-La, but also so as the High Lama states: “We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect.” It is here that we believe a most important distinction was made by the Capra-Riskin screenwriters: they changed the novel’s “our” books and music, to “their” or the entire outer world’s accumulated scientific and cultural knowledge, not as an ‘elitist’ Utopian society, but hoping only to act as a safe haven, a temporary repository, until a war-mad world could retrieve it if and when peace finally returned.

In a 2009 Earth, where not even Tibet remains removed from a satellite digital pinpoint, every local library with interlibrary and computer resources can provide a similar Shangri-La-like stunning wealth of knowledge to our individual selves! But in that 1933 and 1937 world, that fragile story depends upon our believing that Conway believes in Shangri-La and its humanitarian purposes, and, when we witness that Capra and Colman so obviously believe in its rewarding totality, you feel free to, as well!

                                                                                                George E. Schatz