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Becky Sharp

by Glenn Erickson Apr 02, 2019

Some show had to be the first — back in 1935, this was the first movie to be produced entirely in full 3 strip Technicolor. Just like any revolutionary filmic development, it came from outside the studio system, which says something about how Hollywood works — studios will spend millions of dollars to take advantage of a striking innovation, but let somebody else do the painful R&D. Pioneer Pictures’ project began filming started with one director but then restarted with Rouben Mamoulian, who a little earlier had already shown the town a thing or two about the possibilities of sound. A stage play of the classic novel becomes almost a pageant of color, led by the reliable Miriam Hopkins. Is the movie any good?  That’s debatable. But it needs to be seen, to fully appreciate the movie miracle created by chemists, not artists.


Becky Sharp
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1935 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 84 min. / Street Date April 16, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Miriam Hopkins, Frances Dee, Cedric Hardwicke, Billie Burke, Alison Skipworth, Nigel Bruce, Alan Mowbray, G.P. Huntley Jr., William Stack, George Hassell, William Faversham, Charles Richman, Doris Lloyd, Colin Tapley, Leonard Mudie.
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Film Editor: Archie Marshek
Original Music: Roy Webb
Written by Francis Edwards Faragoh from the play by Langdon Mitchell from the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray
Produced by Kenneth Macgowan
Directed by
Rouben Mamoulian

 

(Note: the illustrations seen here do not reflect the image quality of Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray.)

Becky Sharp is a definite milestone movie, the kind that shouldn’t be allowed to fade away. Only a few years after it was made, the little company that produced it sold it off to a second-tier distributor, who cut it down and made prints in the two-color Cinecolor system. I was happy to see Bob Epstein’s name in the restoration credits for this new disc presentation. Bob was a favorite instructor at the UCLA Film School, an associate professor who split undergraduate screening classes with ex-director David Bradley. He also ran the UCLA Film Archive while I was there, and through him we ‘participated’ in the restoration of Sunrise and It’s a Wonderful Life. We were told that the industrious, little-seen Robert Gitt was working on Becky Sharp as well, but that the title was plagued with difficulties. The work apparently went on for decades. A part-restoration was premiered around 1984, but not until 2016 did the truly attractive, screenable version we now have come to be.

All that a short version of this review would need to do is refer readers to a UCLA restoration demo viewable online. But the review format gives me the opportunity to go further into the issue of preserving all of film history that we can. Hollywood is finally building a gigantic film museum down on Wilshire Blvd’s Miracle Mile; I’ll be curious to see exactly whose history it will tell, from what POV. Right now the main memory minders Turner Classic Movies are keeping ‘those old movies’ alive, a very good thing indeed even with TCM’s growing corporate mentality. In practical terms film itself is becoming extinct for exhibition. ‘Going to a show’ to take in movie entertainment with a large audience is no longer the norm, when most people would rather stay home and binge-watch. And some people say that the advent of new interactive entertainment formats will eventually make ‘the movies’ obsolete.

 

That’s why it’s amazing to see the loving care applied to film restoration work in the last twenty years. They’ve even done work on the unwieldy three-panel Cinerama features. Most films in that format hadn’t been screened since the 1960s, and nobody under sixty knows what the original experience was like. In 1989, Robert Harris’ massive restoration of Lawrence of Arabia reminded us how amazing were films shot in 70mm. IMAX is certainly impressive, but it is not quite the same. The last time I was floored by a demonstration of Giant Screen Wonder was a 70mm screening of Ryan’s Daughter. All those beautiful shots of extreme weather — you’d think God was the director of photography.

Becky Sharp isn’t quite the same experience. The kinks weren’t quite worked out of the still-experimental Technicolor system. Rouben Mamoulian’s show got mixed reviews, even if most notices gushed to report that a new future of color movies had finally arrived. 3-strip Technicolor could finally present a full range of hues, but the process made filming much more difficult. A bigger, more complex camera had to be tuned much more precisely and monitored by a specially trained crew. It was heavy and noisy, and when blimped for sound needed a heavy-duty dolly. It required much more light, and giant arcs were used on the set. Some crew wore dark glasses and actors’ eyes were literally burned. Actors can be seen sweating under the light.

 

The older two-color Technicolor was falling from popularity even as sound came in, and it wasn’t until 1933-34 that 3-strip experiments showed up. At UCLA Bob Epstein screened for us an original nitrate print of the Technicolor finale of The House of Rothschild, which was definitely in color but not exactly overwhelming. Then there was La Cucaracha, an extended Mexican flavored musical short subject that ‘Pioneer Pictures Corporation’ produced to raise money. To us the color went goes beyond lush, into garish. Backgrounds are so busy with color that they fight for attention with the performers. The singers’ makeup is heavy and overdone, almost like thick greasepaint for a circus. The idea must have been that faces had to be unnaturally painted to benefit the Technicolor palette. Some work would have to be done, or a new standard of taste established.

Becky Sharp begins with a group of characters bustling at a girl’s school sometime in the early 1800s. Unless we just became accustomed to the overdone makeup, it looks that they pulled back a bit as shooting went on; the faces in the first reel do indeed look like an unattributed critical description on the IMDB — with skin tones ‘resembling over-boiled lobsters in mayonnaise.’

 

The show opens with a dull blue curtain parting to reveal a full-color scene behind, a sort of precursor to the big curtain reveal of Cinerama eighteen years later — an endeavor produced by the principals of Pioneer Pictures. Becky Sharp is all interiors on fairly large sets and a much bigger ballroom set, all of which are bathed in a blast of high-key light that likely melted makeup and wilted flowers in a matter of minutes. The art directors do their best, and Miriam Hopkins is given a big selection of dresses displaying a variety of subtle hues and interesting color contrasts. But the bright red military costumes overpower some scenes anyway. It was clear that a new kind of art director would be needed, probably checking and re-checking each set, each costume, each hairstyle by shooting color stills (Kodachrome film first became available in 1935).

Who was paying attention to the story?  Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair was filtered through Langdon Mitchell’s 1899 play, which toned down some of heroine Becky Sharp’s extreme behaviors. It’s still a rather muted story of a not-too-wild social climber whose luck mostly runs bad in the years of the Napoleonic Wars. Thanks to her loyal girlfriend Amelia Sedley (Frances Dee), Becky keeps a number of men wrapped around her finger, including Amelia’s own husband. But the ones she connects with turn out to be different kinds of losers. Amelia’s brother Joseph (Nigel Bruce) is an overweight fool and coward, who can’t hold on to money. The more substantial Rawdon Crawley (played by the very non-romantic Alan Mowbray) marries Becky, fumbles his inheritance and gets in trouble with both the law and the powerful Marquis of Steyne (Cedric Hardwicke), who sees through some of Becky’s schemes. Having missed the brass ring several times, Becky finally ends up broke, and connives to cheat some relatives out of money.

The classic book was a satire about the pursuit of money and position in a corrupt society, with unsubtle name choices suggesting character traits. Becky is ‘sharp,’ while an obnoxious society woman goes by the name Lady Bareacres (Billie Burke). Other family names sound like ‘crawl’ or ‘stain.’ The Cliffs Notes’ take on Vanity Fair characterizes it as modern in the sense that foolish and selfish people are rewarded or punished for their deeds, but without a traditional moral or religious sermon attached. The movie distills this attitude into a flippant gesture Becky aims at a schoolmistress who disapproves of her uppity nature. She tosses back a book she’s just been gifted, with a sarcastic “Words are but little thanks!” A repeat of this verbal kiss-off to ‘decent’ society serves as her her exit line for the finale.

 

The movie is now very watchable but still imperfect. Two or three reels survived only in the two-color Cinecolor simplification. With the blue register missing, blues turn black, even with color manipulation to make things match. At the very end no good material seems to have survived, so the quality drops radically for a minute or so. Elsewhere the restorers haven’t attempted to modify or improve the color, but to replicate the look of original Technicolor prints — doing so would be pointless for what is primarily a historical restoration. I know color fans that write me every year to ask if Warners is re-transferring the two-color Mystery of the Wax Museum — when the company transferred a surviving print thirty years ago, the colorists tweaked everything to ‘improve’ the color, losing the film’s original look.

Entire books exist detailing the history and processes of Technicolor, so I don’t get too technical for fear of overstepping my base of knowledge — I have many thoughtful readers to correct me. But I have seen original prints of a number of Technicolor pictures made between 1937 and 1939 — Garden of Allah, A Star is Born, Nothing Sacred. By the time of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the process had been greatly refined. Gone With the Wind remains an overpoweringly impressive demonstration of Technicolor fully utilized.

In a nice gesture, the print on this new disc includes two sets of restoration credits, to also commemorate the team that that worked so hard back in the 1980s, when film restoration was in its infancy.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Becky Sharp optimizes the 2016 restoration, offering knowledgeable film fans the opportunity to evaluate the premiere feature in the ‘film format of the future’ circa 1935. I’m reminded that most if not all of those original nitrate studio prints we saw in the 1970s stopped being screened ages ago, for preservation purposes; Blu-rays scanned from the best available elements are likely the best way to see old movies.

Kino shares logo space on the disc with Paramount (Melange), The UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Film Foundation, all of whom supported the Becky Sharp project. UCLA’s restoration demo does not appear, but we get a useful and educational audio commentary from the expert Jack Theakston, who knows his film history as well as he does the history of film formats, color formats, the evolution of aspect ratios, and special processes like 3-D. After a less interesting discussion of the film and its actors (expect lists of credits) Jack knocks us over with a detailed history of color film processes up to the Technicolor boom. The company had a lot of ups and downs. We hear about odd two-color printing problems, like compound prints in which the two colors would separate. We also learn about Technicolor’s ‘special consultant’ Natalie Kalmus, who Rouben Mamoulian banned from the set of Becky Sharp.

The technical – chemical mastery of Technicolor is still one of the marvels of the 20th century, one of those developments that put the U.S. far ahead of what less secure and economically powerful countries could accomplish. The original 3-strip process was ridiculously unwieldy, so its abandonment around 1954 made sense. Yet it seemed a backward step when Hollywood stopped printing in Technicolor in the 1970s. Whenever film stocks became more accurate and sensitive, Hollywood responded by saving money, not making the films better: ‘we don’t need lights any more.’ These days, cameramen have film stocks almost as sensitive as the human eye, and post-production manipulation can work so many miracles that absolute precision in lighting and exposure is a luxury — ‘pictures are repainted anyway.’ Almost every film looks beautiful, without the enormous effort in craft and precision that moviemaking once required just to get an image onto a screen.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Becky Sharp
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good -minus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Film Historian Jack Theakston, Trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 31, 2019
(5974beck)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.