Langdon Mitchell’s stage play (itself derived from Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair) may seem like a strange choice for the first 3-strip Technicolor feature film, but the period setting (just before the Battle of Waterloo), the era’s flowing gowns and military uniforms, and a strong-willed woman as lead character kind of makes sense, particularly since Becky Sharp’s hunger for money and social status demands elaborately decorated sets, as well as dramatic lighting when Sharp’s luck keeps veering from fortuitous to near poverty.
Sharp (Miriam Hopkins) is vile creature: she’s a gold-digger who lies her way into the hearts of gullible men, extracts whatever hard cash she can find, and moves on to the next best thing while keeping a thin tether on her conquests - just in case her current target proves to be a washout.
Even when she encounters a wealthy and powerful Marquise (a sorta-young Cedric Hardwicke), there’s little doubt she’ll manage some control, although the inevitable failure of that liaison forces her into hiding when she becomes the ridicule of upper class society.
Incredibly, Sharp remains married to a milquetoast (pouty Alan Mowbray) while she progresses towards the Marquise’s boudoir, and although she’s courted by her best friend’s husband (G.P. Huntley) at one point, her friend Amelia (Frances Dee) remains supportive in the end, offering her another escape from poverty when everyone else has scorned the satin-clad monster.
The strangest aspect of the play is its obvious tongue-in cheek quality, which is itself enhanced immeasurably by Hopkin’s Grand Guignol performance, if not a stylistic addition made by the screenwriters, and directors Rouben Mamoulian and Lowell Sherman (who died early into the film's production).
Hopkins’ efforts were nominated for an Oscar, but it’s a highly theatrical performance with every note delivered at screaming intensity; she does mope now and then, but as Becky Sharp, Hopkins cackles and bawls, shouts and beats down the resistance of her suitors with no mercy or pause, and it’s a character portrayal that’s evolved over the years into a high camp.
Hopkins’ also exploits her character’s physical powers, teasing her weak-willed admirers with a leg and flexing torso; there’s a raw, raciness that periodically bleeds from the screen, and one suspects this may have been one of the last productions to not only flaunt a temptress’ sexuality past the Production Code, but have her remain unrepentant, unpunished, and prepared for another teasing adventure in the final reel.
Much of the dialogue bubbles with dry wit and variable levels of cruelty, including a politically wrong moment that has long suffering admirer Joseph (a blathering Nigel Bruce) returning from India with a pageboy (James ‘Hambone’ Robinson). When Sharp queries, “Is that your son?” Joseph replies “Becky! You.. You blacken my character!”
Mamoulian’s direction seems to improve once the film gets to the grand ball sequence, since much of the early scenes are talky dialogue exchanges that limit any camera movement (although that may have been due to the Technicolor camera’s gigantic size and sound blimp). The ballroom, as well as Napoleon’s salvos that send all enlisted men to the front, marks the film’s kinetic leap to life, with some stunning lighting, use of shadows, and an exciting montage as soldiers leave on horseback from the building, leaving Sharp and the Marquise to start their scandalous relationship.
Becky Sharp should be a film widely available on home video, particularly since UCLA’s 1992 restoration was highly publicized (the film also received a write-up in the November 1984 issue of American Cinematographer), but the only source on home video seem to be the old two-colour Cinecolor version, an ongoing source of headache among film buffs who want to see Mamoulian’s film in its blazing Technicolor glory. (The UCLA version has reportedly appeared on AMC, however.)
This is particularly frustrating because it was in Becky Sharp that Mamoulian experimented with his ‘logic of color’ theory: to prevent a sequence from visually drying up, the dullest colour elements (such as actors clad in grey uniforms in the ballroom sequence) left a shot first, leaving the most arresting colours (actors in red coats) until last. One still gets an impression of what Mamoulian was striving for in Cinecolor, but it’s a far cry from what was restored by UCLA.
Much like the expanded version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed that played on TCM, or any version of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, there seems to be a mix of rights and apathy at play, although perhaps Beck Sharp’s dilemma stems from muddy ownership issues.
The film was one of three productions produced by Pioneer Pictures Corporation, a company set up by millionaire John Hay Whitney, who also owned shares in Technicolor. Each of the company’s films were firsts: La Cucaracha (1934) was the first 3-strip Technicolor live-action short, Becky Sharp (1935) the format’s first feature-length color film, and Dancing Pirate (1936) the first feature-length colour musical.
(Prior Technicolor films used the older 2-strip process which lacked the explosive redness in 3-strip films like 1939’s The Adventures of Robin Hood.)
The three Pioneer films were also released by theatrically by RKO, whose catalogue is currently owned by Warner Bros., but the trio’s distribution rights may have ended years before Warner’s acquisition. What film buffs are left with are public domain transfers on budget DVDs, from this review is derived.
(Alpha Video’s copy runs 84 mins., so there’s no worry of getting the hacked up 67 min. reissue version, but the audio mix – whether present in the original Technicolor or the Cinecolor version – is atrocious. Dialogue is pinched to near-distortion, and given so many of the actors shout and scream throughout the film, the experience is torturous. Roy Webb’s score cuts also sound tinny, and the bad mix robs the music of its dramatic intensity.)
Another reason the UCLA version might be commercially unavailable are the major leaps in technology since the restoration. As the studios have been upgrading their elite classics with new HD transfers, the UCLA version may need a new digital transfer, and that painstaking process – as well as a possible audio cleanup – might be what’s currently keeping Becky Sharp away from DVD, if not Blu-ray.
The Alpha release is a stop-gap, and certainly provides a glimpse into what the film almost looks like in colour, but by no means does it represent the gorgeous cinematography that convinced other studios to give Technicolor’s 3-strip process a try.
Rouben Mamoulian’s other grand Technicolor drama, Blood and Sand (1941), is also worth examining for the extraordinary cinematography. Hopkins also co-starred in the director’s striking (and pre-Code) version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), whereas Nigel Bruce also appeared in that other Technicolor milestone, Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936).
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan