Sunday, February 28, 2010

Becky Sharp (1935)

Adapted from "Vanity Fair" by William Makepeace Thackeray (and the play by Langdon Mitchell), "Becky Sharp" is a delightful satire that is so much more deserving of praise beyond its technical achievement as the first feature shot in three-strip Technicolor.

In circulating prints, the color has faded. I'm aware that a full restoration has been done, but it is not available on DVD, and the current copies don't fare too well in that department. A reviewer at the time wrote that the film's color pallet resembled "boiled salmon dipped in mayonnaise", and available public domain copies don't even look this good.

Watching the film for the first time, I was prepared for more or less a historical curio. What I found instead was a delightfully funny satire, so completely subversive that it's hard to believe the film was made after the crackdown of the Production Code.

Produced by the independent Pioneer Pictures (and distributed through RKO Radio), the film moves along at a crackling pace, with a splendid leading performance by Miriam Hopkins, who plays the conniving Sharp with a definite wink to the camera. Hopkins was the perfect choice for this part-striking just the right note between scheming opportunist and romantic figure. Alan Mowbray is her husband who descends into a mire of debt as a result of her extravagant spending. Nigel Bruce is perfectly cast as the bumbling, asexual "best friend" of Hopkins' character, who avoids asking her to marry him by taking a job in India.

The film, skillfully directed by Rouben Mamoulian, has a largely theatrical feel to it, but that doesn't matter. The film is unashamedly theatrical, and features a wonderfully over-the-top performance style that perfectly matches the witty dialogue. The color cinematography adds to the garishness and highly stylized nature of the film, and in that context works well, although I wouldn't argue the film is greatly enhanced by being filmed in color the way "The Adventures of Robin Hood", say, would be. Overall, the film does have a distinctly low-budget look, perhaps necessitated by the added cost of Technicolor. Ray Rennahan, Technicolor's cameraman, offers quite ordinary compositions, suggesting perhaps he was far more a technician than a cinematographer. (On future projects, Rennahan would always work in collaboration with another cinematographer, such as Ernest Haller and Lee Garmes on "Gone with the Wind").

What's perhaps most striking about the film is how shamelessly opportunistic the Becky Sharp character is. This works perfectly, especially in the final fade out, which is almost startling. Her telling off of the headmistress at the beginning of the film, and her pointed jabs at upper class Billie Burke during a society ball, all make for fun, biting moments of humor. There are definitely moments that make a contemporary viewer ask how it could have possibly gotten by the censors.

While not in the ranks of the greatest works of the Classical Hollywood period, "Becky Sharp" proves that films need not be "great" to be strong entertainment. In many ways, it represents the true artistic diversity that Hollywood was capable of during the studio era. A perfect mix between high and low humor, mixed with sharp satire, "Becky Sharp" holds up very well after more than 70 years.

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