Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re continuing our series on films released in 1935, the first full year in which Hollywood studios were forced to adhere to the Production Code, which became official in the summer of 1934. The pictures we’ll be looking at are not connected by performers, but rather by their common bond to the censoring of creativity. So far we have covered The Goose And The Gander, Dangerous, No More Ladies, Star Of Midnight, Alice Adams, Goin’ To Town, and The Gilded Lily. Today we’re turning our attention to Becky Sharp!
Becky Sharp (1935)
An unscrupulous Englishwoman sets out to steal a place in society.
Starring Miriam Hopkins, Frances Dee, Cedric Hardwicke, Billie Burke, Alison Skipworth, and Nigel Bruce. Based on the novel by Thackeray. From the play by Langdon Mitchell. Screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian.
The first full length three-strip Technicolor motion picture, Becky Sharp is an adaptation of the 19th century novel Vanity Fair. Now, I consider myself a moderately well read individual, but somehow I’ve completely missed the boat when it comes to this piece — having neither read the book nor seen any of the numerous film adaptations. So, today’s short entry will be unable to compare this adaptation to other screen incarnations of the story. But I do come to this metaphorical table with fresh, and for all intents and purposes, modern eyes.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, ambitious, social-climbing Becky Sharp leaves the snobbish English boarding school where she has been a charity case to live with her wealthy friend, Amelia Sedley. Although Amelia’s buffoonish brother Joseph woos her, he never proposes because, as Becky is told, his status-conscious father would disapprove of the match. Her pride wounded, Becky leaves the Sedleys’ and finds work as a governess at the estate of Sir Pitt Crawley. She soon wins the heart and hand of Crawley’s playboy son Rawdon, an officer in the British army. Not satisfied with her new wealth and station, however, Becky flaunts her charms and beauty among admiring male aristocrats until she gains acceptance into their exclusive continental circle. Becky’s indulgent world is shattered, however, when war breaks out during a lavish ball near Waterloo.
Before Rawdon is sent off to fight Napoleon, a terrified Becky pledges her undivided love to him and later dedicates herself to helping him procure money to pay off a large gambling debt. While sacrificing her own honor, Becky agrees to allow the rich Lord Styne an evening alone with her in exchange for the needed money, but is caught with the lord by a suspicious Rawdon, who angrily rejects both her and the cash. Alone and penniless, Becky is reduced to singing in cabarets and living in a cheap boardinghouse until her overly pious brother-in-law, hearing of her plight, unwittingly gives her enough money to clear her debts and run off to India with the still devoted Joseph. (This summary brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
The principal reason I had for seeking out this picture — which is in the public domain and readily available on sites such as YouTube — is its status as the first complete three-strip Technicolor film. That’s right, folks. Everything your parents taught you is a lie: The Wizard Of Oz (1939) is not the first color film. In fact, when we discuss color in the movies, we must note that there were many pre-Becky Sharp films shot ENTIRELY in color. But, the various processes were vastly inferior to the new three-stip process. Also, beginning in 1932, several short films (or segments of feature length films) used the three-stip process, but as I said above, this is the first FULL LENGTH three-strip Technicolor film. And that, essentially, is why this film hasn’t been completely forgotten.
We might as well get it out of the way: I didn’t care for this picture. I thought it was slow-paced (despite being only 83-minutes and apparently removing a lot from the novel) and not as engaging as it initially promises. Now, this may be anathema to fans of the novel, but I’ll take your outcries on the chin. The story is sharp and fresh, but the major flaw in this production, as I see it, is the lack of lifelessness in the script and the dialogue. Again, I can’t speak for the novel, the play, or other film iterations, but Becky Sharp exudes little of the qualities that are usually associated with the word “masterpiece.” Or even the word “memorable.”
This is surprising given the abundance of the sole element included in this film that could potentially elevate its standing: the talent. Hopkins, one of the most entertaining actresses of the era, is simply wonderful as Becky — a total fit. (Especially if we believe Bette Davis’ stories about their two pictures together!) In fact, I’d say that she is superb in this performance — injecting as much life into the picture as she physically can. Meanwhile, the cast is loaded with many appealing character performers — chief among them are Alison Skipworth and Billie Burke. And what film does not benefit from the presence of these two ladies? They’re not prominently featured, however, and much of the film rests on the back of Miss Hopkins — who seems up to the task. If only the task wasn’t an uphill battle.
There’s talent behind the camera too — director Rouben Mamoulian, who was known in Hollywood for directing Love Me Tonight (1932) and Queen Christina (1933), among others. Following Becky Sharp, he’d return to New York to direct the landmark Porgy And Bess (1935), and would go on to direct the original productions of Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), and St. Louis Woman (1946), among others. With such an eye for the aesthetics of film, it comes as a disappointment to see that the film is without spark. It’s generally well photographed with several beautiful moments and a handful of wow-able sweeping shots, but it lacks the necessary vitality. For this reason, this film comes recommended only to fans of the Vanity Fair novel. Even if you’re a Hopkins fan, you can put this one at the end of your list. Were not for the Technicolor, I think this film would be largely forgotten.
Come back next Friday for one last 1935 film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!
Becky Sharp was a good showcase for Hopkins, as you have stated. I saw the picture for the first time around 1991 on the old AMC, when they ran classic features without commercials and when Bob Dorian gave factoids about the features before and after the films aired. The version shown then was the UCLA restoration, which was very beautiful to see. Unfortunately, the versions on DVD or streaming on YouTube are scratchy re-issue prints from Astor Pictures, who, for their late-forties re-release, printed the films in two-color Cinecolor, more cost-effective for a small distributor. This is most likely the version that you viewed, and believe me, this film deserves a DVD or Blu-Ray release of the restored version. With all the films faults as an engaging dramatic film, it’s historical importance as the first 3-color feature should qualify such a release. For a great example of how early 3 color Technicolor should look, check out the 1934 Warners short Good Morning Eve, available on YouTube.
Thanks for reading and commenting, Leslie!
Look for more coverage of Miriam Hopkins’ work — Pre-Code, in particular — coming to this blog in July.