Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

Director: James Whale                                   Writer: George Bruce
Film Score: Lucien Moraweck                         Cinematography: Robert H. Planck
Starring: Louis Hayward, Joan Bennett, Warren William and Alan Hale

In most film histories United Artists seems to be little more than a footnote, probably because they had no identifiable style or stable of artists. But, of course, they wouldn’t. They were a releasing company that independent production companies distributed their pictures through. As such, however, they were a much-needed place where artists could go to make films away from the often times stultifying oppression of the major studios. Independent producers who could raise the financing, could hire the director and stars they wanted, make a film, and get it into theaters all on their own. This film was produced by Edward Small, who had started in the silent era and worked in Hollywood until the 1970s. He hired A-list director James Whale, who had left Universal the year before over creative differences, and B-list star Louis Hayward to make Alexandre Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask, one of many costume dramas that the producer would make over the next few years, filling a niche that audiences at the time enjoyed.

The classic story begins in France in 1638 as the new King Louis is born, but as the current king Albert Dekker is making the announcement, another twin son is born. Walter Kingsford immediately whisks the other child away, but scheming Joseph Schildkraut has hidden himself in the room and has heard everything. After the king is informed, Kingsford has the child sent away with Warren William’s D’Artagnan to raise the child as his own. Five years later, Dekker dies and the new king takes the throne with Schildkraut as his tutor and by the time the new king, Louis Hayward, is twenty-one, Schildkraut maneuvers him into arresting William and his unknown twin brother to be hanged. The Musketeers, including Alan Hale as Porthos, had sent the king’s men away previously, so this time ninety soldiers were needed to bring them to Paris. Instead of being angry at meeting his double, however, Hayward decides to use him to do all of his unpleasant tasks, including spending time with soon to be queen Joan Bennett. When the king leaves Paris with his mistress Hayward, as Philippe, frees the Musketeers and it’s Schildkraut who then has him imprisoned with the iron mask.

The story has very little to do with Dumas’ novel, and seems to have much more kinship with Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. There’s a lightheartedness makes for a very charming picture, leaving out much of the suspense and intrigue of the original. James Whale does a tremendous job directing and one instantly realizes how much his talents were wasted at Universal by typecasting him as a horror director. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was originally approached for the lead, as the previous version of the story was filmed by his father as The Iron Mask, but Small wanted Haywood instead. Though Louis Hayward is not one of my favorite actors, he does an admirable job here in the dual role. Joan Bennett is radiant as the princess of Spain and the helper of the Musketeers. Alan Hale’s role, unfortunately, is rather small. In fact, the entire Musketeer presence is greatly reduced in George Bruce’s script. Finally, couple of supporting cast members are also worthy of note. The first is one of the soldiers who is sent to capture the Musketeers, none other than the great Peter Cushing in his very first film role. The other is the wonderful Dwight Frye as Schildkraut’s valet.

If you’ve only seen the modern adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask with Leonardo DiCaprio it’s important to know that this is a very different film. Most of the previous versions took their cue from the silent version with Douglas Fairbanks rather than going back to Dumas’ original novel and the important role in the story played by the Musketeers. Warren William was a tremendous talent and it’s a shame that he didn’t merit more screen time as D’Artagnan because he’s terrific. James Whale would film only two more features before retiring in semi-obscurity, but he was a masterful director who deserved much more recognition in his lifetime than he received. The 1939 version of The Man in the Iron Mask is no swashbuckler, but it does hold interest all the way through its two hour running time and is well worth the investment.

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