Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Becky Sharp (1935)

For years, long before the establishment of Hollywood as the film capitol, to the very early days of motion pictures, it was longed by filmmakers to produce the wonderful flickering images of the medium in beautiful color. From the days when men painstakingly applied watercolors to crudely recreate the colors that could not physically be captured in the back and white images their cameras could record, to the years of experimentation by various companies to allow even partial segments of the color spectrum to be seen in films, it seemed that even before sound, color was a holy grail of the motion picture world. Long considered a novelty, partially added to segments of feature length films or recently to cartoons and short subjects, color was a spectacle shared by few in at brief times. In 1935 along comes a benchmark in feature length motion pictures as for the first time ever is a full length feature was presented in glorious three-stripe Technicolor, providing the full spectrum of colors that would dazzle audiences in the film Becky Sharp, a period picture full of colorful costumes based on the popular William Makepeace Thackeray novel Vanity Fair.

Becky Sharp is a drama based off the play of the same name, which itself was inspired by the novel Vanity Fair, following the tale of a poor, cunning, strong-willed lady who makes her way up British society, before bringing down herself as well as all the men that surround her.  Beginning the film we are introduced to Amelia Sedley (Francis Dee), a sweet young lady, generous by every sense, and Becky Sharp (Miriam Hopkins), seemingly everything Amelia’s opposite, as they set out in life after the conclusion of their studies. Unlike Vanity Fair, as the title indicates, we follow primarily Becky’s story  as she works her shrewd ways up  in social circles while meeting and flirting with many of the land’s wealthy men, set to the backdrop of the time when Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo. Becky wins the interest of Amelia’s brother Joseph (Nigel Bruce), but ends up marrying another man from a wealthy family Rawdon Crawley (Alan Mowbray), whose skill in gambling is his downfall into debt. Becky uses her cunning, flirtatious ways to get extended credit from men like Marquis de Steyne (Cedric Hardwicke), but she ultimately falls hard from her social status after her many affairs and vast debts. In her lowest times she ends up with the last laugh, still containing her cunning ways as we leave her in the film starting over at the bottom, still with her puppy dog-like Joseph by her side.

Above everything else in this film the picture is known for being the first full-length Technicolor motion picture. For years color was something filmmakers looked forward to having and utilizing, but what limited capabilities there were and the cost to go with it made the use of color more of a novelty, shared in very small bites when available. As mentioned before, early filmmakers use to frame-by-frame add watercolor for the thrill of seeing images bear more resemblance to real life, but the art was a crudely product that awed in the very beginning, but was too much work for such little result. Technicolor, a motion picture film development company built with the notion in mind to create a feasible means of color film, would really develop e in the early 1920s, with limited ability to adding the recording of only certain colors to the film process, commonly greens or reds. The use of such film and the cost would be heavy, thus it would used in segments of motion pictures to heighten scenes, such as the famous ballroom scene in The Phantom of the Opera, where the Phantom bears a dramatic, lavish red cape.

Finally in 1932 Technicolor perfected a three-stripe color film process that recorded the full range of colors and through the processing and printing created a finished product bright and vibrant to audiences. The cost was still a high price to pay, but the general public loved the results seen mainly in Walt Disney cartoons, who signed an exclusive contract to produce cartoons in full colors. The use of this color process up to this point was used primarily in these Disney cartoons, a select number of short films, and even fewer segments of full length features. The price was still very high, actually creating a loss for the small cartoon studio that was Disney, but a necessary one as seen in the studio’s future. It is here with Becky Sharp that we, for the first time, see wall to wall color for the full length of the feature, a glorious novelty that audiences were very warm to upon release. Produced by a small production company, Pioneer Pictures, a studio created with the intent to create color films, however the company would not be remembered because of its short life and small résumé, while other studios would produce much larger and more lavish color pictures in the near future.

In retrospect, it is clear that the success of Becky Sharp sits primarily in the hands that it was the first color feature film. Compared by some to the Jazz Singer for its innovation to the film arts, Becky Sharp opened to relative good praise despite a mediocre film at best, once again a mirror of what The Jazz Singer was in 1928. The respected director Rouben Mamoulian, known for such features as Appaulse, Dr. Jekyl, and Mr. Hyde, and Queen Christina, would be given the honor of directing this film, probably not just for directing skill on screen, but also for his work on stage, as the film is an adaptation of a stage play, and he had had a pervious success with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which came from similar situations. Unfortunately this film feels more like a stage play, wordy, tightly contained, and slower paced, and unlike Jekyll/Hyde lacks creative movement of the camera. It feels as if Mamoulian was aware that this was a color film and it was more necessary to have recorded more images in full color than to create the art of cinematography was he had done in the past. Not to say there was not good cinematography, but rather a feeling of limited actions of the camera, as Mamoulian framed scenes well, but lets the action do the work, instead of using the camera as a paintbrush to create something better. Something that feels unfortunate from my opinion.

With great costs going towards the film processing, the budget for casting was on the lower end, but it was important to have a good recognizable star which was found in Miriam Hopkins. While the cast was primarily made up of character actors, such as Alan Mowbray, Nigel Bruce, and Cedric Hardwicke, and Francis Dee being smaller actress at the time, though credits in a number of large pictures, Hopkins gave Becky Sharp a marquee name to top the cast. Her wit, larger résumé, and previous work with Mamoulian made Hopkins a smart casting as the shrewd Becky Sharp. Surrounded by dulling acting performances, Hopkins does stand out, even garnering an Academy Award nomination. Perhaps the nomination was a bit much as in the overall scheme of the film her performance was adequate, but noting marvelous, possibly honored for he role in the first color feature rather than for her actually for her performance. This would be a common act of the Academy, honoring those of films that were more a fad than fabulous, but you cannot completely blame them for that. Hopkins would have another great credit to her name, continually building her name in Hollywood.
 
In all the film is not overly great, but rather a fad of its time. Becky Sharp would be less remembered as a benchmark in film history for its color as The Jazz Singer was for sound. Better remembered would be Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony Flowers and Trees for being the first commercial color film, albeit a cartoon, and a vibrant and creative one at that, winning an Academy Award for best cartoon. Becky Sharp would get its honors as the first color feature with awards for best color film of the year at the Venice Film Festival, albeit with its limited competitors. The film in time would be so lowly cherished that it would sadly fall into public domain, no one wanting to claim its copyright after the production company would go under, ultimately falling to disrepair and fading. If it were not for select organizations trying to preserve it for its significance in celluloid history, it might have disappeared altogether with its color prints. It is a sad reminder that first is not always the best, nor always important.

2 comments:

  1. Not sure why everyone is so down on The Jazz Singer. I like The Jazz Singer a lot, but this trivia-answer for its use of three-strip Technicolor is indeed a stinker.

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    1. Calling The Jazz Singer plot mediocre might sound harsh, even to me because I do very much like the film. But I think if it were not for the significance of being the first major film with sound segments it would perhaps be far lesser known. The Jazz Singers' lines and delivery make the film seem perfect for the role as being a benchmark in Hollywood history, unlike Becky Sharp here. I do like the solid story it has, but in reality it is the run of the mill plot played in many different fashions throughout film history. Sound and Al Jolson made the Jazz Singer, not the other way around. That is what I am trying to say.

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