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Monday, May 28, 2012

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1939)

It’s never been quite clear whether Hollywood soured on director James Whale or he soured on them.* Best known for his work @ Universal (FRANKENSTEIN/’31, a superb WATERLOO BRIDGE/’31, THE INVISIBLE MAN/’33, SHOW BOAT/’36), he seemed to just give up after three final indie pics, of which this was the first. It’s remarkably plush-looking for a budget-conscious swashbuckler, and, after decades in subfusc Public Domain editions, looks it in a fine DVD restoration from Hen’s Tooth. The old Dumas tale is heavily tweaked, reversing the personalities of the ‘real’ King & his secret twin brother, plus two Musketeers get a bit lost, and the story construction wobbles during a miscalculated fourth act, but most of it works pretty damn well. Some of the casting is inspired (Warren William’s aging D’Artagnan; Joseph Schildkraut’s naughty Fouquet; Joan Bennett’s gorgeous Princess; Nigel De Brulier ‘3-peating’ as Richelieu) and Louis Hayward is fine in the double role. Lenser Robert Planck and the tech department add gloss & some neat trick shots, but Whale was no Michael Curtiz swashbuckler behind the camera, and the film desperately misses the passion & glamor of a Korngold score. But it’s a more than decent shot at the genre, and gives nary a clue of Whale’s growing disinterest. Or perhaps, just one. Who could make this story and skip showing the unmasking of its hero?

DOUBLE-BILL: The best version of this oft-filmed Dumas is Douglas Fairbanks’ enchanting (and very moving) final silent, THE IRON MASK/’29. Be sure to get the restored version (103 min.), available on KINO. And more happy news from the folks @ Hen’s Tooth. They’ve also refurbished another, even better, swashbuckler from this film’s indie producer Edward Small, Rowland V. Lee’s THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO/’34 with Robert Donat made just before he did THE 39 STEPS for Hitchcock.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: *The usual explanation, nicely dramatized in GODS AND MONSTERS/’98, shows how Whale wearied of the compromises, hypocrisies & Hollywood rules for its gay players. But this is too pat by half and hardly acknowledges similar career arcs for scores of industry talent that may have been straight, foreign or non-white. Look at our previous posting for an example of another highly successful, but non-gay director (George Sidney) who hung it up at just the same age. The wonder is the guys who keep going.

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