Nigel BruceBillie BurkeAlison SkipworthFrances Dee
Becky Sharp
Medium: film
Year: 1935
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writer: William Makepeace Thackeray, Langdon Mitchell, Francis Edward Faragoh
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, historical
Country: USA
Series: Vanity Fair >>
Actor: Miriam Hopkins, Frances Dee, Cedric Hardwicke, Billie Burke, Alison Skipworth, Nigel Bruce, Alan Mowbray, G.P. Huntley, William Stack, George Hassell, William Faversham, Charles Richman, Doris Lloyd, Colin Tapley, Leonard Mudie, May Beatty, Charles Coleman, Bunny Beatty, Finis Barton, Olaf Hytten, Pauline Garon, James 'Hambone' Robinson, Elspeth Dudgeon, Tempe Pigott, Ottola Nesmith
Format: 84 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 2 February 2010
That was surprisingly impressive, considering that for a while I was convinced that I was watching tripe.
Firstly, it's a 1935 film and even by those standards feels behind the times. I'd have expected this kind of florid performance style in 1931, but not here. In fairness some of the acting's pretty good, but you'd think the movie was carrying around a proscenium arch and Miriam Hopkins in the title role is giving us a moustache-twirling pantomime villain. Unbelievably she was Oscar-nominated. Then you've got the dialogue, which tends to be so on-the-nose that it's painful. It's like a bad radio play rather than the speech of humans. Exposition and character notes are bundled into the dialogue with barely even a veneer of realism. Frankly to me this felt like a hangover from the silent era, complete with scene-setting caption cards in the form of Becky's diary entries. You've got silent movie acting and what I'm going to call silent movie dialogue, in that it's generally a precis of the important dramatic points rather than anything naturalistic.
In only one way is this movie is advanced for its time. It's the first three-strip Technicolor feature film, with the third strip being blue in addition to green and red. Congratulations. Ten out of ten for effort. Unfortunately the results look as children did it with felt tip pens. A critic at the time said the cast looked like "boiled salmon dipped in mayonnaise".
Put all this together and you've got something that practically had me wincing. Maybe I just needed to get accustomed to the style, but the first ten minutes of this film struck me as dire. After that, things got better. The staginess and ham works better with the Crawleys, after which the film starts finding some momentum. The action set piece of the soldiers abandoning the ballroom is brilliant, the dynamic of Becky, Rawdon and Lord Steyne in the second half is genuinely interesting and the finale avoids comparisons with Thackeray by being entirely new. It works. The damn film works. Despite appearances it's a good adaptation of Vanity Fair, which raises it above two-thirds of the modern adaptations I've seen.
Historically it's interesting. This film was the culmination of a storm of Vanity Fair adaptations in the early 20th century, but after this... nothing. Presumably it had been sufficiently expensive and critically acclaimed that no one else felt like knocking out another cheap hack version. As well as Hopkins's Oscar nomination, this also did well for itself at the Venice Film Festival, winning Best Color Film (d'oh) and being nominated for, get this, the Mussolini Cup. On watching it, what becomes very clear is that we're back in an era when the stage was the principal influence on movies. This isn't an adaptation of Thackeray. On the contrary, it's an adaptation of Langdon Mitchell's 1899 stage version, which isn't as free as some I've read but is still regarding Thackeray's original ending as a mere suggestion and writes a new one instead. I liked this a lot. It gives the story a completely new shape, but it's a shape that works and the results make for a successful film, which is clearly better than the versions which are grudgingly trying to meet Thackeray halfway.
I might even say that the film gets better the less faithful it is. Its early chapters are merely hasty abridgements of Thackeray that don't add much, being hamstrung by their own pace and the fact that they've lost too much of the story's connective tissue. In principle I admire the ingenuity of how they introduce George and Dobbin, but they lost me by overplaying it. However I love what they're doing with the difficult second half, by making Becky genuinely in love with her husband. This probably sounds like a simple change, if not an obvious one, but it makes a huge difference to how the story feels. From Hopkins's Becky it's a particular surprise. We thus have a genuine tragedy, in which both Becky and Rawdon have something to lose. The love triangle of Rawdon, Becky and Lord Steyne thus has more fire and punch than any other I've seen, with Rawdon being on top of the situation for once and the Becky-Rawdon scenes having a surprising amount of force because they both understand what they're playing with. This part of the story has traditionally tended to involve a dispassionate Becky playing off her menfolk against each other until Rawdon goes ballistic. Not here. Everyone really means it. This isn't the usual chilly Becky, although it helps that she's got no children to neglect in this adaptation.
Hopkins takes her character on a pretty extreme journey, eventually getting me on her side despite starting out even more openly evil than Susan Hampshire's Becky in 1967. She never stops enjoying the fact that she's a manipulative, lying bitch, but on the other hand she's been hit far harder than most Becky Sharps. Wow. I've just seen a 75-year-old film square the circle. Without for a minute pretending that Becky Sharp's a good person, they make you like anyway. The more I talk and think about this film, the more I'm impressed. Hopkins never gives us an ounce of inner life from start to finish, but I can't deny that she deserves some credit for what's being achieved here and I'd certainly never dream of faulting her energy. Let's say that without condoning her Oscar nomination, at least I can see where they're coming from.
After that we have a finale that includes a fascinating scene with a washerwoman and a jeering music hall. William Dobbin turns out to be a much tougher customer than I'd expected, thus justifying in retrospect the earlier scene in which he was collecting debts for the gambling club. There's business with Jos Sedley (which I'd expected) and Pitt Crawley and his wife (which I hadn't). All this works well and ends with a nice circular reference to the very first scene of the film.
I admire the script's clever touches, of which there are a lot. Becky telling different stories to different people nicely underlines the fact that she's a bitch, although I'd have expected her to keep her lies straight. I like the loaded dice, the way she tries to borrow the same money from multiple victims and Lord Steyne's talk of blackmail in the confrontation scene. I like the way that Becky's clearly targeting Steyne as nothing more than the latest in a chain of men, to be used and discarded. I like the way Jos tries to haggle about the horses, which helps us sidestep the problem that we don't understand sums of money from two centuries ago. Adaptations normally just throw out some number with a random number of noughts on it and expect us to know what that means. There's also some nice dialogue about George's letter. "You mis-spelled every other word."
There's also a surprising amount of history. We see Napoleon! Technically it's only his silhouette, but that's something clever that I'd never seen before. There's an awareness of French history and the recent revolution. There's the Duke of Wellington, Beau Brummel and the Prince Regent, the latter being not only a lookalike for the real George's portraits of the period but even gets a throwaway mention of his real-life mental problems. This freaked me out a little, actually. It looks like lurid melodrama, yet it's got all this historical texture. However the reason of course is that this is a 1935 film based on an 1899 play by a man born in 1862. Obviously it's going to be more au fait with the Napoleonic period.
I haven't talked much about the actors yet. The one I knew about in advance was Nigel Bruce as Jos Sedley, who'd later be Rathbone's Dr Watson. It's clearly him, but he's not that easy to recognise since he's both younger and playing younger. Lord Steyne is the theatrical knight Sir Cedric Hardwicke, also seen in Laurence Olivier's Richard III and (more relevantly for me) The Ghost of Frankenstein. I was fairly happy with everyone once I got into the spirit of the piece, although they do have a strange habit of making the men fat and jolly. Bruce's Jos Sedley isn't shy and nervous at all, which is a revelation for the character and makes him much more fun to watch, but it's more surprising still to see a Sir Pitt Crawley who's a fake beard and a "yo ho ho" away from playing Father Christmas. However all the performers I like best are women. They've found possibly my favourite Matilda Crawley, who's a fat, shameless old hypocrite with a voice like a buzzsaw. However there are two actresses here who jump off the screen as if they'd shot the film yesterday. The lesser of them is Ottola Nesmith in a tiny role as Lady Jane Crawley, who took lots and lots of uncredited little roles in films including the 1941 Wolf Man and a couple of Val Lewtons. Most remarkable though is Frances Dee as Amelia Sedley, who's not only extraordinarily beautiful but has a knack of conveying more depth in a moment than her co-stars managed throughout the entire movie. I don't think it's deliberate. She's actually rather bad at the very end of the movie, but there's something about her face that drills a hole between your eyes.
Ironically I thought Dee was a better Becky Sharp than Hopkins, despite the fact that she's playing Amelia Sedley. Even when she's being sweet and gentle, she has enough layers that you're wondering what's going on underneath, whereas Hopkins doesn't do layers. When the film opened I was impressed by how interesting and subtle it was until the camera moved across to Hopkins and I realised to my shock that Dee was actually Amelia. I don't remember being particularly blown away by Dee in I Walked with a Zombie (1943), but I was impressed enough here to look up her filmography. Blood Money (1933) sounds like a good one, especially since it's pre-Code. Dee once denied having played a prostitute in that film, saying she'd merely played a masochistic nymphomaniacal kleptomaniac.
I haven't even talked about the ball properly yet. That was astonishing, taking a film that had until that point been costume drama and giving it a proper action sequence with stampeding soldiers, chaos and screaming. It's genuinely stirring. I'd never seen that section of the book adapted without lots of time spent on preparations, regrets, final goodbyes and so on, but here instead they create panic and make their few snatched farewells seem far more urgent. I was intellectually impressed by a lot of of this film, but that sequence blew me away.
An odd fact, by the way, is that the original director died during filming and his replacement scrapped all the footage and started again from scratch.
Overall, this is a movie with a really off-putting surface, but a clever and imaginative structure underneath. Of all the Vanity Fair versions I've seen, this is a rarity in not being broken. Of course I've yet to see the 1987 series, but I'd say this works in a way that the 1998 series manages and the 1967 and 2004 adaptations don't. Hardwicke isn't scary as Lord Steyne, which is a shame, but then again Alan Mowbray as Rawdon Crawley reminded me of Patrick Macnee. It's not exactly a film that sparkles, though.