|Index||4 reviews in total|
A mixed bag. Good production values are wasted on a very shaky script. Some scenes are downright laughable. It does holds interest for the first thirty minutes and then it seems the filmmakers lose their way. Edward Arnold's acting is particularly good and there is a nice music score composed primarily by Franz Waxman. However, the film was a failure for Carl Laemmle and one of the reasons why he lost control of Universal in 1936.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film is more fiction than fact. It depicts Johann Sutter's rise
and fall from grace, dying a pauper and that is about the only true
thing in the film.
The film begins with Edward Arnold as young Johann Sutter, itinerant flute player in Switzerland. A man is killed by some bar patrons where he is flute playing and he is blamed for that and killing the bar owner when he accidentally pushes him. Arnold heads home where he kisses his wife and young children goodbye and heads off to America. (In reality, Sutter escaped to America to avoid debts.) He winds up in New York where he is hired for $10 a day to drive a horse drawn trolley. Little does he realize that the man who hired him is a strike breaker and he and his flute wind up in the hospital where he meets the most annoying sidekick ever...a guy named Pat (played by Lee Tracy.) Together they set out to California. After a series of missteps (through Vancouver, the Sandwich Islands, a mutiny and meeting the Russians who have a fetching English Countess in tow played by Binnie Barnes); they arrive in California with some of the Sandwich Island men who had been taken as slaves. (In reality, Sutter had taken the Native Americans as slaves.) Gold is discovered on Sutter's and and sidekick Tracey, who can't keep his trap shut, announces it to world, which causes a mad rush to Sutter's land and it is ultimately stolen from him. The Countess, who only stuck by Sutter as long as he has cash leaves when she realizes he's broke. Reenter Sutter's wife and children, the children now grown. The film meanders some more with Sutter's wife dying, the daughter marrying a Mexican solider (Sutter's son in reality married a Mexican citizen and changed his name to Juan.) In another form of fiction, Johann Jr. is killed by land jumpers who think that Sutter got his land back. Over his son's dead body, Sutter makes an impassioned speech about greed and that they should give the land back so he could make it farm land (oookay...knowing what I know about Sutter, I doubt he would have done this.) Anyway, Sutter goes to Washington with sidekick Pat, hoping to see the President to get his land back. (By now, Arnold is made up to be a man in his seventies, looking like a hefty version of Colonel Sanders.) He is rudely shuffled from office to office given the brushoff when he asks who to see about his case. Disheartened, and in his General's uniform given to him on the day his son was killed, he sits on a bench with his flute, summons the the pigeons. Two newspaper boys cruelly play a trick on him, saying he got his land back. He then runs to the steps of the Capitol, where he see the paper, which says that Congress adjourned without making a decision. (Which was the one thing in this picture that WAS the truth!) Sutter collapses and dies on the steps of the Capitol, Pat saying he'll be joining him. (Unfortunately, not soon enough.) BTW, the real Sutter did die in Washington, but not on the Capitol steps. He died in a hotel.
For a work of fiction, the movie's okay, but it's nowhere a biography. Not only did Universal play fast and loose with the facts, they played fast and loose with the shareholders' money to make this picture, which lost millions for Universal and caused Carl Laemmle and his family to be shown the door.
Before seeing this film and writing about it I did some research and
saw that UFA cinema in Germany also made a film about Johan Sutter.
They even did some location shooting in the USA. Imagine a Nazi
western. Now that would have proved interesting.
Having seen Sutter's Gold the elephantine film that sank the Carl Laemmle regime at Universal Pictures I can now see the problem. Not that the film was anything like the real story of the California Gold Rush and how it destroyed Sutter's Empire, but the story is told in such a pedestrian and ponderous fashion you never really get involved in the character.
Sutter himself was not that sympathetic a figure either. He may have seen himself as the great patriarchal landowner, others saw him as a tyrant and something of a charlatan. I'm not sure Edward Arnold when playing Sutter knew what to make of him either. He did in fact die impoverished trying to get what he considered proper recompense for the land he cultivated.
Maybe someone will tell the story truer and better.
This interminable biopic of the Californian pioneer John Sutter
demonstrates just how important Preston Sturgess' screenplay was to the
artistic success of 'Diamond Jim' Universal's similarly lavish biopic,
also starring Edward Arnold, of the previous year. Where Sturgess made
the most of that story's rough edges, the cavalcade of writers who
worked on this (rarely a good sign) not only sand them off but
substitute some very dull fiction in place of fact.
Production values are high - they could not help but be, given the film's massive budget - and under the direction of James Cruze, famous for his nation-building epics of the silent era, visuals are impressive. None of this can overcome a plodding, overlong and exposition-laden script, in which characters tell us exactly who they are and how they feel at every possible moment.
Edward Arnold gives a sincere performance in the title role and certainly looks the part, but Binnie Barnes sleepwalks through her role as his love interest. At the other end of the scale, Lee Tracy hams it up as Sutter's right hand man, particularly in the later scenes as his character ages.
The bare bones of the story are not uninteresting, but they're conveyed in such an uninspiring fashion that you never come to care for Sutter, his vast ambitions, or his downfall.
The financial failure of this film is often cited as having sealed the fate of Universal Pictures head Carl Laemmle and his son, Carl Jr. By the end of this, you might wish you were the one who signed the termination letter.
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