Monday, December 04, 2006

SHE-Who Must Be Obeyed

H. Rider Haggard's novel about an immortal queen has been filmed many times. Probably the version closest to the book was the 1925 silent film starring Betty Blythe. Haggard himself wrote the title cards just before his death. Haggard was a prolific novelist, but not that many of his works have been filmed. Probably the most well-known is King Solomon's Mines.

The earliest filming of She was in 1899, titled Colonne de Feu. The next version was in 1908 by Edwin S. Porter, associate of Thomas Edison. A total of five silent versions are known to have been filmed.
The biggest production of She is undoubtedly the 1935 film released by RKO. Produced by Merian C. Cooper, who produced King Kong. It was designed to be filmed in color but the studio heads insisted on black and white. Looking at the film it is obvious that it needs color. Lansing C. Holden, who received co-director credit, was the designer and his work is outstanding. Visually, the movie is a treat, especially after entering the underground kingdom of Kor. Max Steiner (assisted by Berhard Kaun) composed an outstanding score.
Unfortunately the script is a major disappointment. The setting is moved from Africa to Siberia. A romantic subplot complicates things, too. But the greatest weakness of the film is star Helen Gahagan. She was a singer and Broadway actress, but on film she comes across as cold and aloof. Her performance is not bad, it is just that the camera does not like her. As a result, this was her only film appearance.
Other cast members are fine. Randolph Scott, before being type cast in Westerns is the stalwart hero and his mentor is Nigel Bruce, years before the bumbling Dr. Watson. Helen Mack, who had earlier appeared in Son Of Kong. But my favorite performer in the whole thing is German actor Gustav von Seyfferitz, as the queen's prime minister. Seyfferitz was a memorable silent villain, especially his Professor Moriarty opposite John Barrymore's Sherlock Holmes. Here he assays a sympathetic role and helps hold things together.
The highlight of the film is a ceremony preceeding a ritual sacrifice. Here everything comes together; design, set decoration, music, costumes, the works. Benjamin Zemach is the dance director and his work is outstanding. Most choreography for "barbarian" rituals tends to look pretty silly, but Zemach created a grand spectacle. Of course there are a couple of Busby Berkley moments, but they work One could only wish it were in color.
And in May, it will be available in color as colorized by Ray Harryhausen. I usually dread colorized films; the results tend to be pretty bad. But I have faith in Harryhausen and I doubt he would do a bad job. Now if they could just digitally insert Sophia Loren as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.


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