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Monday, January 27, 2014

JUAREZ (1939)

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.

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