Thursday, December 1, 2016

Green Hell (1940)

Director: James Whale                                   Writers: Frances Marion
Film Score: Frank Skinner                              Cinematography: Karl Freund
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Bennett, George Sanders and Vincent Price

Green Hell was one of James Whale’s final films, and it was fitting that he made it at Universal. After being summarily shown the door by the previous studio head, a change in the front office had him working for his old studio again, though in actuality under the auspices of independent producer Harry Edington. The story was an original work by Frances Marion who had done some terrific work under Irving Thalberg, but with his death a few years earlier she didn’t have the input by other writers that generally turned her scenarios into workable screenplays. The original title of her story was South of the Amazon, but the title of the film was changed to reflect the almost unbearable heat of the jungle. Unlike the dry, brown desert landscapes of North America, the jungle is lush and green. Unfortunately the story is incredibly weak and the dialogue isn’t much better, something Whale apparently didn’t seem to understand at the time. Whale was also not at the peak of his powers and so despite a very strong cast of major stars and an ace cinematographer in Karl Freund, the film was a disaster. By the time Joan Bennett shows up in the middle of the jungle, audiences began laughing freely at Marion’s dialogue and the over-ripe delivery of the actors. This was the only film Frances Marion would receive solo credit on, and it was the last film she would ever write.

The film begins on a loading dock in South America, with Vincent Price getting out of his car and going into a bar, meeting with Alan Hale as a British archeologist, and George Sanders as a ladies man looking for excitement. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is the expedition leader, a real adventurer, and John Morgan is his right hand man. Price wants to join the expedition, implying he has nothing to lose, but says a loving farewell to a mystery woman before he leaves. Then, the improbable George Bancroft as a Texas cowboy comes down the stairs singing. Gene Garrick is also along on his first adventure. Price is the mystery man of the group, apparently in love with two women and running away from both. The crew begins by heading up river at night, and two days later set out on land. They quickly run into hostile natives, who turn out to be the tribe of their native guide, Francis McDonald. Eventually they stumble upon the ruins of an ancient temple in the jungle and set up camp the following day. A passage way near the entrance leads to a giant obelisk at the center of the temple, with a golden sun atop it. Following a native out the rear passage, Price is hit by poison arrows and suffers an agonizing death, and then things get complicated when Joan Bennett shows up as Price’s wife a few weeks later.

Of course Bennett and Fairbanks fall for each other, and Sanders resents it. But Morgan is worried that Bennett isn’t what she says she is and that Fairbanks is falling into a trap. At the same time they’re distracted by the fact that all their native workers have disappeared. For an adventure film, there’s very little adventure until the end of the film and by then it’s way too late. Most of the story is taken up by the men fawning over Bennett. James Whale was no stranger to comedy, which is one of the things that made his horror films at the studio so entertaining. Unfortunately the humor in this film was completely unintended. George Bancroft is especially wearying, as doles out his cowboy wisdom throughout the entire picture. Another annoyance is Frank Skinner’s score, though it’s difficult to know whether it was him or the sound effects department that put a droning theremin-like warble on the soundtrack throughout most of the picture. The Incan temple set would be used again later that year for a Universal sequel, The Mummy’s Hand. As bad as it is, Green Hell is still kind of fascinating, watching a group of A-list actors slogging their way through a B picture. None of them had anything good to say about it afterward, and it essentially ended Whale’s career in Hollywood. Certainly not worth seeking out, but if you get the chance to see it, by all means take a look.

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