Monday, February 2, 2015

Beau Geste (1939)

Director: William A. Wellman                        Writer: Robert Carson
Film Score: Alfred Newman                          Cinematography: Theodor Sparkuhl
Starring: Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston and Susan Hayward

Beau Geste is another in the long line of films from the magical year of 1939. The story was adapted from the novel by Percival Christopher Wren, first published in 1924. Of course there was a popular silent version made two years later, starring Ronald Coleman, Noah Beery and William Powell, and the ’39 version is a near identical remake. In 1966 the film was remade again, this time in widescreen Technicolor with Guy Stockwell and Telly Savalas. But the classic version is the one starring Gary Cooper. While ostensibly an adventure film, it is primarily a mystery story revolving around three orphaned brothers who grow up in a British estate that has fallen on hard times. Growing up alongside the brothers are the heir to the estate, and the lady of the manor’s female ward. One of the fascinating bits of trivia about the film is that four of its stars would go on to win Academy Awards, Cooper, Milland, Preston and Crawford, and here they all appear together before any of them had won. And yet it was Brian Donlevy who would be the only actor on this film to be nominated for an Oscar. The film also sports a terrific score by Alfred Newman, the same year as he composed the music for The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton.

The film begins in the North African dessert. Captain of the French Foreign Legion, James Stephenson, comes upon a fort that appears to be occupied by troops, but all of the soldiers are dead at their posts. He sends Robert Preston inside to investigate, but when he doesn’t come back Stephenson investigates for himself and finds no sign of Preston. He does find two men who appeared to have fought each other to the death--one of whom wrote a confession that he stole a rare sapphire--and later they disappear too. When shots ring out the soldiers retreat and the fort is burned from the inside. The film then goes back fifteen years to a wealthy estate in England where three orphaned brothers live with Heather Thatcher, down on her luck with only the sapphire left, and the visiting Stephenson asks to see it. Years later, when the sapphire turns up missing, Garry Cooper leaves a note saying he’s taken it and disappeared. Younger brother Robert Preston then leaves a note for the third brother, Ray Milland, saying he took it, and Milland leaves to find them both, leaving Susan Hayward at the estate to join the foreign legion. With the three boys reunited in Africa under the charge of Brian Donlevy.

It takes a long time for something to happen in North Africa, and for a long while most of the action takes place in the barracks. J. Carrol Naish overhears the brothers talking about the sapphire and is caught trying to steal it, but before the men can torture him Donlevey makes him his corporal and takes over the attempt to get it from the brothers by shipping Preston off to another post, along with their friends Broderick Crawford and Charles Barton. But the action eventually comes, along with the revelation about the sapphire. The film is something of an ensemble piece, and while Cooper is the nominal star he’s really no more prominent in the film that the other two leads. The story is kind of odd, to say the least, and yet it is infinitely watchable. That is to say, it’s ultimately a rewarding film and the odd structure ultimately pays off in the end. Though Ray Milland and Robert Preston have substantial roles in the film, this was Susan Hayward’s film debut and she only a brief part in the middle of the story. The other notable fact about the film is the appearance of Donald O’Connor as the young Beau Geste, one of several films he appeared in as a child actor. The direction by William Wellman is good, though nothing stands out as being exceptional. The only other Oscar nomination was for the art design by Hans Dreier and Robert Odell, but given the wealth of great films that year there was little chance of it winning an award. While Beau Geste is not quite a classic it is a fun and interesting film that is worth seeing.

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