Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (dir by Henry Hathaway)


The 1935 adventure film, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, is a film that probably could not be made today.

Of course, that’s true of a lot of films from the 30s.  In some cases, that’s a good thing and, in some cases, that’s a bad thing.  The Lives of Bengal Lancer is an entertainingly old-fashioned adventure story but it’s also a shameless celebration of the British Empire.  The fact that it was made in Los Angeles and featured all-American Gary Cooper in the lead role doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s pretty much a celebration of British colonialism.

Gary Cooper plays Lt. Alan MacGregor, a Scottish-Canadian who serves in British Calvary.  He’s a member of the Lancers and is currently serving in India, which, at the time that this movie was set (and made), was still under British control.  When the film begins, MacGregor is greeting the new arrivals.  Among those arrivals are Lt. John Fosythe (Franchot Tone) and Lt. Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell).  Lt. Forsythe is an experienced officer who has been sent to India as a replacement for another officer who managed to get himself killed while out on a patrol.  Meanwhile, Lt. Donald Stone is a newly commissioned officer who is desperate to win the approval of his father (and McGregor’s superior), Col. Tom Stone (Guy Standing).  Unfortunately, Donald quickly discovers that winning the approval of his father isn’t going to be easy.  Col. Stone, after all, has a lot to deal with.

For instance, there’s Mohammed Khan (Douglas Dumbrille).  Kahn is a local prince and he boasts that he has got an Oxford education.  He pretends to be an ally of the British but instead, he is plotting a revolution.  The first step in that revolution is to intercept a convoy of British weapons but how can Kahn discover the convoy’s route?  Maybe he could kidnap a lancer who is close to the unit’s commanding officer?  With the help of a Russian femme fatale named Tania (Kathleen Burke), Khan is able to capture Donald.  When MacGregor and Forsythe defy the colonel’s orders and attempt to rescue Donald on their own, they end up getting captured as well!

“We have ways to make men talk!” Khan declares and soon, the three men are having their fingernails ripped out and the skin underneath burned with fiery bamboo.  It’s a shocking act of sadism, one that caught me by surprise in 2020.  I can only imagine how audiences in 1935 reacted to Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone being so graphically tortured on the big screen.  Though the men swear that they will not reveal the location of the convoy, how much torture can they take before they break?

As I said at the start of this review, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is an old-fashioned film and, with its depiction of savage rebels and heroic colonizers, it would probably cause a riot if it were released today.  However, if you can set aside the whole pro-imperialist theme of the film, this is a fairly entertaining film.  It gets off to a slow start and, to modern eyes, some of the acting is bit creaky but Gary Cooper is, not surprisingly, well-cast as the film’s hero and he’s ably supported by Tone and Cromwell.  Douglas Dumbrille and Kathleen Burke are entertainingly campy villains and the film’s final battle is well-done.

A box office success, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer was nominated for Best Picture but it lost to an even bigger hit (and a film that was a bit more critical of the British Empire), Mutiny on the Bounty.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #14: Suspicion (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


Suspicion_film_poster

First off, a warning.  The following review of the 1941 best picture nominee Suspicion will include spoilers.  So, if you haven’t seen the film and you’re obsessive about avoiding major spoilers, then don’t read the review.  Simple, no?

Two years ago, I was having lunch with some of my fellow administrative assistants.  One of them was talking about how she had watched an “old movie” the previous night.  From listening to the vague details that she offered up, I was able to figure out that she had apparently stumbled across TCM for the first time in her life.  From listening to her talk, I would not be surprised if she was literally describing the first time she had ever actually seen a black-and-white movie.  Needless to say, my first instinct was to correct everything she was saying but I resisted.  (For some reason, at that time, I was feeling self-conscious about being perceived as being a know-it-all.)  But, as she kept talking, I found it harder and harder to keep quiet.  Listening to her talk about old movies was like attending an art history lecture given by someone who had flunked out of a finger painting class.  Finally, when the conversation had moved on to someone who we all knew was sleeping with her much older boss, our self-proclaimed old film expert announced that age didn’t matter.  “I’d go out with Cary Grant,” she said, “and he’s old.”

Before I could stop myself, I added, “He’s also dead.”

Oh my God, the look of shock on her face!  I actually felt really guilty because I could tell that she had apparently taken a lot of happiness from the idea that suave, witty, and handsome Cary Grant was still out there.  And can you blame her?  In a career that spanned three decades and included several classic dramas and comedies, Cary Grant epitomized charm.  Some of his movies may seem dated now but Grant was such a charismatic and natural actor that it’s impossible not to get swept up in his performances.

(Who would be the contemporary Cary Grant?  I’ve heard some people compare George Clooney to Grant.  And it’s true that Clooney has Grant’s charm but, whereas Grant always came across as very natural, you’re always very aware that George Clooney is giving a performance.)

It was Grant’s charm that made him the perfect choice for the male lead in Suspicion but it was that same charm that made the film so controversial.  In Suspicion, Grant plays Johnnie.  Johnnie meets, charms, and — after the proverbial whirlwind courtship — marries Lina (Joan Fontaine), a sheltered heiress.  It’s only after Lina marries Johnnie that she discovers that he’s broke, unemployed, and addicted to gambling.  With everyone from her family to her friends telling her that Johnnie is only interested in her money, Lina starts to worry that Johnnie is plotting to kill her.  Lina starts to view all of Johnnie’s actions with suspicion, wondering if there’s an innocent explanation for his occasionally odd behavior or if it’s all more evidence that he’s planning to kill her.  When he brings her a glass of milk, Lina has to decide whether or not to risk drinking it…

Suspicion was based on a novel in which Johnnie was a murderer and which ended with Lina voluntarily drinking that poisoned milk.  In the film, however, Johnnie is not a murderer.  Apparently, it was felt that Grant was so charming and so likable that audiences would never accept him as a murderer.  Instead, he’s an embezzler and all of his strange behavior is due to him being ashamed of his past and feeling that he’s not worthy of Lina.  Once Lina realizes that Johnnie isn’t trying to kill her, she promises him that she’ll stay with him.

And a lot of people (including director Alfred Hitchcock, who claimed it was forced on him by the film’s producers) have criticized that ending but you know what?

It works.  If I had to choose between Joan Fontaine essentially committing suicide or Joan Fontaine promising to love Cary Grant even if Grant goes to prison, I’m going to go with the second choice.  Ultimately, Suspicion works because you can imagine being swept off your feet by Grant’s character.  But what makes Suspicion enjoyable, to me, is that Johnnie ultimately turns out to be exactly who we were hoping he would be.

Needless to say, Suspicion works as a great double feature with Rebecca.  Watch one after the other and have a great night of menace and romance.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #13: Rebecca (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


Rebecca_1940_film_poster

Well, here we are, less than a week into Embracing the Melodrama, Part II, and I’m already running behind!  The plan, as I mentioned back on Monday, is to review 128 melodramatic films over the next three weeks.  And, even though I know that sounds a like a lot, I had it all planned out so that I’d be able to get all that done in just 21 days.  All I had to do was make sure that I reviewed 6 films a day.

And …

Well, life happened.

But no matter!  It may now take me 3 and a half weeks to review 128 films but that’s no great tragedy.  And besides, regardless of how long it takes, I’ve got some pretty good films scheduled.

Take, for instance, the 1940 best picture winner Rebecca.

Rebecca is a film that all women can relate to.  The heroine is played by Joan Fontaine.  I say “heroine” because we never actually learn the character’s name, nor do we learn much about her background.  When we first see her, she’s defined by her job, which is to basically be a paid companion to a wealthy woman.  Later, she’s defined by her whirlwind romance with the brooding and aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier).  When, after two weeks, they get married, she becomes known  as the second Mrs. de Winter.  She becomes defined by both who she married and who she is not.

She’s not Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter.

As soon as Maxim takes his new wife to his estate, the second Mrs. de Winter discovers that she’ll always live in the shadow of the deceased Rebecca.  Everyone she meets describes Rebecca as being a vibrant, lively figure — in other words, the complete opposite of the meek second Mrs. de Winter.  The coldly imperious housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), has perfectly preserved Rebecca’s room and makes little attempt to hide the scorn that she feels for the second Mrs. de Winter.  Even worse, once they return to the estate, Maxim reveals himself to be moody and tempermental.  With the help of the manipulative Mrs. Danvers, the second Mrs. de Winter becomes convinced that Maxim will never love her as much as he loved Rebecca.

Making things even more complicated, a man claiming to be Rebecca’s cousin comes by the house when Maxim is away.  Jack Flavell (played by George Sanders, at his most serpent-like) suggests that there may have been more to Rebecca’s death than the second Mrs. de Winter was originally told…

Rebecca is a classic film, for many reasons.  It’s well-acted, with Fontaine, Olivier, Anderson, and Sanders all bringing their characters to vibrant life.  It’s a gothic romance.  It’s a thriller.  It’s a mystery.  It is the epitome of old Hollywood style.  But, for me, the main reason that Rebecca is a classic is because it tells a story to which almost everyone can relate.  Every relationship that I’ve ever had, I’ve always been curious and occasionally even jealous of who came before me.  There’s nothing more intimidating than living in the shadow of someone who you will never get a chance to meet personally.  The second Mrs. de Winter’s insecurities are everyone’s insecurities and, in some fashion or another, we’ve all had a Mrs. Danvers in our life.  The second Mrs. de Winter’s struggles are our struggles and, as she grows stronger, the viewer grows stronger with her.

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most influential and acclaimed filmmakers of all time but he never won a directing Oscar.  Rebecca was the only one of his films to win Best Picture.  Producer David O. Selznick brought Hitchcock over from England to direct Rebecca and it’s been reported that Hitchcock resented Selznick’s interference.  (And, while Rebecca is undoubtedly a good film that was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it’s not exactly a Hitchcock film in the way that Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, or Vertigo are Hitchcock films.)  As a result, Hitchcock subsequently made it a point to edit future pictures in camera so that the studios would not be able to re-edit his films.

But, whether you consider it to be a Hitchcock picture or a Selznick production, Rebecca remains a wonderfully watchable melodrama.