|Page 1 of 3:||  |
|Index||26 reviews in total|
BECKY SHARP, historically important as the first feature film in full,
three-color TECHNICOLOR, has always fascinated me. It's history,
however, is frustrating and disappointing. Made by Pioneer Pictures and
released through RKO, BECKY SHARP was sold to a poverty row exhibitor
(whose name escapes me at the moment)in the 1940's for re-release. The
company chose not to pay the high prices that TECHNICOLOR charged for
release prints and had new prints of the film struck in inferior two
strip CINECOLOR. More damaging to the future of BECKY was that the
company never properly stored the original nitrate negatives. BECKY
SHARP was sold to TV only in a shortened B&W print or in CINECOLOR
Still, the idea of this elusive "lost" treasure haunted me. It was amongst the very first videocassettes that I ever purchased back in the early days of the VCR when I was but a lad (and YES, I got strange looks.) BECKY SHARP was one of those poor, orphaned films whose copyrights have expired and now live in the public domain. The quality of the video cassette and the color was astonishingly bad, and gave no hint of the pleasures the original TECHNICOLOR photography must have contained.
A sad story to be sure, but fortunately UCLA performed a massive restoration effort on the film in the late 1980's, literally scouring the world for available film elements. Unfortunately, the restored BECKY SHARP has never been commercially released in any format. It was shown during AMC's first Film Preservation Festival back in 1993, however, and luckily I recorded it to cherish for all time (or at least until the tape wears out.) It has never aired since.
The restored BECKY SHARP is a revelation!! The film starts with barely any color at all, then pleasant pastels are introduced, followed eventually by the striking red coats of the British military. Full of color and deliciously over-ripe tints, this was primarily an experiment to see how color plays out in a feature film. The cast and drama takes a back-seat to the real star of the show, glorious TECHNICOLOR. The film itself is somewhat plodding and overplayed, but a lot of fun, to be sure!!
I'm not sure what legal red tape is responsible for there being no commercial release of this beautiful restoration, but none has appeared and this is a shame.
Because of the overwhelming success of his novels, people still read
Charles Dickens. If you poled people who like to read classic novels,
you would find most people read Dickens, Emily and Charlotte Bronte,
and Anthony Trollope most among the "high Victorian" novelists (those
from 1830 - 1882). This cuts out a large number of fine novelists, like
George Eliot, George Meredith, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Benjamin Disraeli
(yes, the Prime Minister), or even William Wilkie Collins, the first
great mystery/detective novelist. But the one that is particularly odd
is William Makepeace Thackeray.
In his day (he was a prominent novelist from 1839 to 1863 when he died) Thackeray was actually the leading rival of Dickens as the leading novelist. Dickens was capable of a wider variety of social class types in his fiction, and could show wilder humor and greater tragedy in his novels. But Thackeray was more gifted at subtle characterization and clever social satire of the upper class. He was a member of that class, and knew what he was talking about when he wrote about them. George Orwell noted that when Dickens did an aristocrat in like Sir Mulberry Hawk in "Nicholas Nickleby", the resulting character was a type from Victorian melodrama, whereas Thackeray or Trollope made more realistic figures.
He also was willing to experiment in odd ways. Occasionally Dickens did too - he did first person narrative novels like "David Copperfield" and once did one with a female narrator "Bleak House". But in 1846 Thackeray wrote "Vanity Fair, A Novel Without A Hero". The title was a pun. The two leading characters, Rebecca (Becky) Sharp and Amelia Sedley, are women (so it suggests the novel has a "heroine"). But both women are quite faulty. Becky is a fortune hunter who won't let anyone or anything keep her from becoming rich. Amelia is a nice person. In fact, she is too nice. She has to go through an 800 page story before she stops being friendly to her school friend Becky, and only after Becky reveals what a bad person she has been to Amelia.
None of the characters in "Vanity Fair" is flawless. The closest to a hero in the story, William Dobbin, adores Amelia - but won't push himself as a suitor (he wants her to notice his adoration by herself). Becky vamps members of the Crawley family (where she is the family governess), and marries the second son, Rawdon, in expectation of a generous aunt's largesse to support them. But that fails to work out. So she tags along with Rawdon, accompanying him on the Waterloo campaign, and makes a play for George Osbourne (Amelia's selfish husband). Eventually she and Rawdon become social figures, "living well on nothing a year" (by cheating merchants of payments for their food, clothes, etc). She also becomes the mistress of the powerful Marquis of Steyne (pronounced "stain").
How the events of this novel without a hero end I leave to the reader to read the novel (the best way) or to see either this version by Rouben Mamoulian, the recent one with Reese Witherspoon, or a modern dress version from 1932 with Myrna Loy as Becky. Mamoulian's version reduces the story to 90 minutes of film, and so much is thrown out. In particular the antics of Amelia's cowardly, pompous brother Joseph Sedley (Nigel Bruce in Mamoulian's film). Hopkins does very well as Becky - garnering her best film performance. She is supported by Alan Mowbray as Rawdon, who may be raffish in some ways but gains our respect as he sees the woman he loves for what she is. Francis Dee is adequate (if not memorable) as Amelia. Cedric Hardwicke is sinister and powerful as Steyne. Allison Skipworth gives one a taste of the self-centered, pampered aunt of Rawdon, "Miss Crawley".
So what went right and wrong. It is a great novel (my opinion) but I admit this film leaves me cold. So much was cut out the film is just a synopsis of the main plot. But then, Thackeray's greatest strength as a satirist was as a subtle writer. Somehow subtlety on his printed page is not well translated onto the silver screen. On the other hand, Mamoulian did make great strides (in terms of elegant cinematography) with the then new three tone color film system. The best moment is at the scene of the great last ball given to Wellington's staff and men at Brussels in June 1815, which ends as a cannon blast in the distance is heard: the opening shot of Waterloo. The moment that the blast is heard a blast of air causes a red curtain to blow, looking like a wave of blood. Mamoulian was able to squeeze out of the process some idea of what to do with it. For that reason the film is worth seeing. But I urge the interested viewer to take the time to read Thackeray's novel.
Pretty BECKY SHARP, orphaned & penniless, knows exactly what she wants
out of life and how to get it.
William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair is brought to vivid, if drastically reduced, life and provides a wonderful showcase for star Miriam Hopkins, who gets the most out of her selfish, petulant, scheming, desperate character. Her Becky is fascinating to watch and dominates nearly every scene in the film, making us forget that the actress is not English and forgive that the character is rather less than virtuous.
Miss Hopkins is aided by a sizable cast of seasoned veterans, mostly British, several of whom only appear in a single scene. Frances Dee has very little to do except look lovely as Becky's school chum. Nigel Bruce comes off rather better as Miss Dee's obese brother who adores Becky. The incomparable Alison Skipworth plays their quarrelsome old aunt who hires Becky for a short while. Alan Mowbray has a fine romantic role as the husband who worships Becky, to his pain.
Marvelous Sir Cedric Hardwicke successfully underplays his role as a powerful nobleman who takes Becky as his mistress. Wonderful Billie Burke appears for a few moments in a serious role as a society lady attending a soirée in Brussels. Doris Lloyd is the hostess.
Three short, sharp portrayals worth watching for are provided by Elspeth Dudgeon as an acidic girls' school proprietress; George Hassell as a rascally old baronet; and Tempe Pigott as a plain-talking charwoman.
BECKY SHARP is important historically in that it was the first film produced in full 3-strip Technicolor. Director Rouben Mamoulian's opulent production was a worthy choice for such a distinguished accolade. Restored in the 1990's, the color is once again most pleasing to the eye.
Becky Sharp (Miriam Hopkins) is a lower class girl who, through her
upper class friend Amelia Sedley (Francis Dee), does her best to become
an upper class woman herself...and do anything to get there.
Dull story with thudding dialogue (nobody ever talked like that) but I watched the whole thing. This movie has just two things going for it: Miriam Hopkins fantastic performance is one. She is playing a very unlikable character but she's so beautiful (in some shots she takes your breath away) and full of life that you can't help but root for her. The second thing is the groundbreaking use of color photography. I believe this is the first full-length feature to be filmed entirely in color. Director Rouben Mamoulian uses color creatively to express mood or show what a person is feeling or doing. I saw the restored print which has rich, beautiful colors. Even when the story was boring (which is often) with that lousy dialogue the colors and use of light and shadow kept me watching. With this film and the 1932 version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", Mamoulian created new rules in how to direct sequences and use settings, light and shadow. Sadly, he's forgotten today.
So, this is worth seeing only for Hopkins and the color. Don't watch it for the story or you'll be sadly disappointed.
You see, it's not so much the stories that count, it's the way they're
told. Becky Sharp, the motion picture, came to be by a convoluted
route. William Makepeace Thackeray's mid-19th century novel Vanity Fair
was used as the basis for Langdon Mitchell's late 19th century stage
play, which was in turn adapted for this 1935 movie. What have we lost
and what have we gained?
Of course, books, plays and pictures are very different things, and certain changes have had to be made so that each adaptation works for its particular medium. Becky Sharp bears all the hallmarks of a lengthy novel reworked for the stage. A play can't be over a certain length because it has to be seen in a whole evening, and yet individual scenes tend to be fairly long because of the disruption of having to change sets. Becky Sharp, perhaps surprisingly, changes very little of the basic plot, but it condenses the entire (900+ page) tome into a series of dramatic vignettes. Because the novel tends to tell of many important events in a by-the-by fashion, Mitchell was also forced to come up with a lot of his own dialogue. Finally, the play differs from the novel in that every episode is told from Becky's point-of-view, whereas Thackeray's narrative travels with a range of characters.
So far, so disappointing (perhaps). But what was most important here was not that the story survived intact, but that the tone of Thackeray's masterpiece carried through. What is so special about Vanity Fair is the author's cynical, sarcastic tone, which makes a comedy out of these unpleasant goings-on. This is not an easy task in a motion picture, unless you were to resort to voice-over narration with passages from the novel (not especially en vogue in the 30s). But as it happens this motion picture does not do a bad job.
Firstly, we have the right cast. Miriam Hopkins's Oscar nomination has raised a few eyebrows here and there, and it's true her performance is hysterically hammy. But that is Becky Sharp, a cheat and a liar whose entire life was an act. When she breaks down in false tears over her late mother's possessions, the moment seems silly, but it is supposed to be funny. The bulk of the cast are overblown caricatures, but again this is faithful to the novel. Thackeray wasn't subtle. Look at those names Pitt Crawley, Lord Steyne even a minor character who didn't make it to this version called Sir Huddleston-Fuddleston. And most of the players are spot-on. Nigel Bruce simply is Jos Sedley, and George Hassell is perfect in his unfortunately brief appearance as Sir Pitt.
Then there is Rouben Mamoulian's direction. His flamboyant visual style could be disastrous in the wrong picture, but here all his extroverted camera moves and trick shots pay off. With the condensed storyline, the overt technique helps to keep the flow. We are brought closer to the spirit of the original text by the fact that we are constantly aware of the director's touch, just as Thackeray constantly addresses his reader with a sly wink. This again highlights the fact that Becky Sharp is more enjoyable if it is taken as a comedy, not as a drama. It's just as well Mamoulian let loose on a pure drama could be awful.
This was famously the first picture in three-strip Technicolor, and as the use of colour here is especially good I'll devote a few lines to that too. Whereas some early colour pictures used blaring shades, Becky Sharp is filled with subtler tones for example those rusty browns and greyish blues in the opening scene, much more effective than bold blue and red. And rather than simply colour-coding a character's costume or a set, we here see the tones flowing on and off the screen. To again take that opening scene, we begin with the warmer hues of Amelia and her friends, and then slowly move, via various different shades of dress and the growing amount of the stark wall that can be seen, to the cold blue-grey of Becky. Later in the first scene at the Crawley residence, all the colours are very plain, which gives more impact when Rawdon walks in in his bright red uniform. It's hard to say who is responsible for this smart handling of colour. Production designer Robert Edmond Jones is the celebrated inventor of "simplified realism", whereby sets complement action, but Mamoulian appears to have done a very similar job with the colour on the 1941's Blood and Sand. We'll assume it was a joint effort.
Really, the only major flaw in Becky Sharp (and it is, I'm sorry to say, a very major one), is that the paring down of the narrative to 84 minutes without actually cutting much of the plot makes for somewhat confusing viewing. It's difficult to keep up with time and place, and the novel's legion of characters pop up then disappear before they have made an impression. Personally, I found Becky Sharp fun to watch because I am familiar with the novel and it was nice to see these figures brought to life so accurately. However, I first saw it before I read the book, and recall finding it bizarre and boring, as I suppose would the majority of viewers. For this reason, it fails in itself as a motion picture.
I just had the pleasure of seeing the restored version of "Becky Sharp", and, like others who had taped this back in the bad old days of nearly monochromatic, public domain copies of this title, the improvement amounts to seeing an entirely different film. The use of color was striking and surprisingly well considered. As a writer, I found the dialogue delightfully rich in the manner of what were admittedly more sophisticated films of the 30's. Make no mistake, other than the admirable use of 3-strip Technicolor on its first feature film outing, this is no masterpiece--Mamoulian's name in the credits notwithstanding. But compared to today, with dialogue now largely dismissed as unnecessary to filmed "entertainment", it was brilliant. I could finally hear 90% of it, whereas in the old Cinecolor print, most of it was unintelligible. What pains me is that audiences seem unable (or unwilling) to enjoy dialogue that was meant to be listened to and appreciated on its own account. I heard nary a chuckle during any the witty ripostes of which Beck Sharp has its(and her) fair share of. A shame.
"Becky Sharp" seems to have consistently attracted unfair comments.
it may not be as subtle as many of its contemporary counterparts, the
provides a fun basis for a glorious use of Technicolor. As the first
feature length movie to be shot in full colour, the film is a wonderful
example of cinema as spectacle. Though admittedly, at times, the viewer
almost be sent cross-eyed by the vibrancy of the colour, its use is
interesting in so far as one can see the attempts made at one level to
exhibit the colour, whilst also trying in vain not to distract from the
narrative. Also, from the beginning of the opening sequence the status of
the film as a stage adaptation is clear, and in this way the idea of the
overlooked tradition of cinema as spectacle is further
The plot itself is slightly reminiscent of a Gainsborough melodrama (although it precedes them), and yet it is refreshing in many ways that Becky is not the subject of the traditional narrative retribution and resolution. The over-the-top nature of some of the narrative action does provide moments which may cause an audience member to cringe; however, if the film is not taken too seriously, it remains enjoyable.
"Becky Sharp" has too often been overlooked in the history of film. It may not have been widely popular at the time of its release, and it may not be seen within a high cinematic cannon, but it is definitely worth viewing, if only to appreciate the emergence of three colour film as the new advancement in film technology.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The 1935 film "Becky Sharp" remains important chiefly for being the
first major movie shot in Technicolor. The story is an abridged version
of William Makepeace Thackeray's 19th Century novel "Vanity Fair."
Becky Sharp is the main character of the book and is a social-climbing
hussy with few redeeming qualities, except for her good-looks.
Thackeray didn't judge her too harshly, however. He was more interested
in satirizing British society, in general. "Vanity Fair" was indeed his
greatest work although he's also known for writing "The Memoirs of
Barry Lyndon" which Stanley Kubrick brought to the screen in the
Miriam Hopkins may have been a bit old to be playing the conniving Becky Sharp but she gives it her best shot. Unlike the novel, Hopkins' character is at least somewhat justified in her decision-making process even while retaining the frivolous part of her personality. The key scene in the film is near the end when director Rouben Mamoulian re-enacts the famous Duchess of Richmond's ball at her Brussels estate on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. It's done with a definite flair for the dramatic along with some well-placed historical references. The ominous sounds of war are heard in the distance as the great ball comes to a premature end; its frightened participants running off into an uncertain future.
The cast is filled with some familiar faces from the past. Beautiful Frances Dee livens up the screen as Becky's good pal Amelia. Nigel Bruce, best remembered for playing Doctor Watson alongside Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, does some adequate work as one of Becky's admirers. Sir Cedric Hardwicke is also around as a British aristocrat with a roving eye for the ladies. Recently, Reese Witherspoon tried her luck in the role of Becky Sharp in the 2004 film version of "Vanity Fair" with mixed results. At least she was young enough for the part.
Miriam Hopkins delivers a great performance as a nonchalant woman who cheats her way through society before finding out that what goes around comes around, and of course she must find a way to redeem herself. The color in this film looks a lot better than most people of the day describes it as. And I think the guy who said the color looked like "boiled salmon dipped in mayonese" has had a little too much mayonese. Altogether, I highly recommend this film for anyone who can't seem to find a good movie to watch, because this is the one!
Based on Thackeray's VANITY FAIR, this film tells of a self-centered girl(Miriam Hopkins), who, after years of looking after her own needs, finally does one good deed for someone else. Often noted as the first full color motion picture, BECKY SHARP has much more to offer in the way of entertainment. Hopkins, one of the finest actresses on-screen in the '30's, gives a magnificent performance in the title role which brought her a much deserved Oscar nomination. Director Rouben Mamoulian, who directed Hopkins in the 1931 version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, always had great visual style, a gift that's fully evident here.
|Page 1 of 3:||  |
|External reviews||Plot keywords||Main details|
|Your user reviews||Your vote history|