Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Count of Monte Cristo (1934)

Director: Rowland V. Lee                              Writers: Philip Dunne & Dan Totheroh
Film Score: Alfred Newman                          Cinematography: Peverell Marley
Starring: Robert Donat, Elissa Landi, Louis Calhern and Sidney Blackmer

This is one of the early versions of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Several versions of the novel had been filmed during the silent era, the most famous with John Gilbert in 1922. This independent production by Edward Small for his company Reliant Pictures was the first sound version made of the story. Fredric March was Small’s original choice for the title role, but it turned out Robert Donat’s services were easier to acquire. Interestingly, March would go on to appear in another 19th century French story, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the very next year. Robert Donat did not enjoy making films--especially in Hollywood--and thus appeared in only twenty throughout his career. His most famous picture was produced the following year, The 39 Steps for Alfred Hitchcock, though he later won his Academy Award for Goodbye Mr. Chips in 1940. While Dan Totheroh had worked on the original treatment with director Rowland V. Lee, he had to leave California and Philip Dunne was hired to write the dialogue. In the end the novel was severely truncated in order to fit into the allotted running time for the film, and some major changes were made to the plot in order to make it more viewer friendly for American audiences. These changes to the story, especially the happy ending that Lee tacked on, were responsible for making the film a major success when it was released.

The story begins in France, after the exile of Napoleon. The Emperor sends out a secret letter from Elba but a storm threatens to sink the ship it’s on. First mate Robert Donat is then given the letter by the dying captain, and told to deliver it to a man in Marseilles, but he doesn’t know anything about the contents. Raymond Walburn, however, hears everything. In Marseilles soldiers are busy rounding up men loyal to Napoleon to be executed. As the ship comes into port two people are anxious for its arrival, Lawrence Grant, the man who is to receive the letter, and Elissa Landi, the fiancée of Donat. But Landi’s mother, Georgia Cane, wants the relationship ended and goes to Sidney Blackmer, who is in love with Landi, to get his help in stopping it. Then Donat is given command of the ship and meets with Landi to declare his love. Blackmer tries to reason with her, but fails. When he receives word from Walburn about the letter he takes it to the head of the police, Louis Calhern. So not only are Grant’s men following Donat, but the police are as well. Donat, however, has no idea of the danger the letter poses to him. When he gives the letter to Grant, both of them are arrested immediately. The first twist comes when the viewer learns that Calhern is Grant’s son. Calhern naturally can’t let it be know where his father’s loyalties lie, so he is then forced to imprison the innocent Donat for the crime, in the worst prison imaginable, the Château d’If.

When Napoleon escapes from Elba, Blackmer goes quickly to the Château d’If to have Donat declared dead so that no matter what happens politically no one will look for him, including Landi. Meanwhile, Landi honors her mother’s dying request and marries Blackmer. For eight years Donat is kept in solitary confinement in the island prison with no hope of parole, and even less of escape. Then he hears tapping from the other side of the wall and digs out one of the stones only to meet O.P. Heggie on the other side. Heggie is rich, and offers Donat half his fortune when they escape. Meanwhile, Landi is living the life of luxury, though less than passionate about being married to Blackmer. It’s not until Heggie dies, and Donat hides in the body bag, that he is taken out of the prison and thrown into the sea. And thus begins his long awaited, carefully planned revenge against Calhern, Walburn, and especially Blackmer, by posing as the Count of Monte Cristo. Director Rowland V. Lee is probably best know by horror fans for helming the third of Universal’s Frankenstein films, Son of Frankenstein, as well as Tower of London, while O.P. Heggie is equally famous for his role as the blind hermit in Bride of Frankenstein. The horror connection to the film would also continue much later, when Sidney Backmer appeared in Rosemary’s Baby in 1969. The story is a classic one, and well done for the time period, spawning a much less popular sequel, Son of Monte Cristo six years later. The original Count of Monte Cristo, however, remains a classic tale of adventure and revenge that has delighted audiences for nearly two centuries.

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