The last of the three waxwork historicals Paul Muni made with helmer William Dieterle may well be the waxiest, but it's also of uncommon interest. After LOUIS PASTEUR/’36 and EMILE ZOLA/’37; the early Mexican Presidente looks like some ancient Aztec carving come halfway to life, but, in its deliberative manner, rather effective. And in John Huston’s conflicted script, political & personal sympathies land uncomfortably between the striving local rebels and the duped, but kindly Hapburgs (Brian Aherne; Bette Davis) who play out unexpected destinies. It’s one of those Hollywood pics that goes beyond its intellectual depth, unintentionally stumbling into nuance & ambiguity while clinging desperately to formulaic tropes; the tension can be riveting. A huge cast of top-flight Warners contract players are in support, including a few out-of-place ringers (Donald Crisp?, John Garfield?), but the familiar faces help to keep track of a highly eventful story that lost a couple of reels after an early preview. Anyway, who needs a scorecard when you’ve got an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score with all those yummy leitmotifs? These Muni/Dieterle Great Man bio-pics have been out of favor for decades, but as simplified, potted history (plus allegorical glances at WWII), they’ve aged into entertaining artifacts in their own right.
DOUBLE-BILL: Dieterle’s next bio-pic, DR/ EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLET/’40 with Edward G. Robinson, was a far more modest production, but truly daring in subject matter for the period, the search for a cure to syphilis.