Monday, August 6, 2012

General Died at Dawn, The (1936)

Paramount Pictures
Director: Lewis Milestone
Starring: Gary Cooper, Madeline Carroll, Akim Tamiroff

Gary Cooper plays an American mercenary fighting in war torn China in The General Died at Dawn. In this suspenseful thriller directed by the decorated filmmaker Lewis Milestone we find a myriad of emotions about the story and the creativity of the picture. It is a film that starts slow, but ends with an impactful conclusion. Meanwhile Milestone takes moments to play around with editing for a matter of creativity which, although original and imaginative, sends mixed emotions with the outcome.

The General Died at Dawn is the tale of an American mercenary hired to aid a rebellion against a tyrannical regional general in war torn China. O’Hara (Gary Cooper) stands against the ideals of the dictator like General Yang (Akim Tamiroff), making it easy for him crusade in the cause to bring support to a small uprising against the general by way of transporting money to purchase arms to defeat Yang’s army. However O’Hara is seduced by a friendly blond, Judy Pierre (Madeleine Carroll), unknown to him to a be a mercenary for Yang, landing O’Hara in the very hands of the general. Judy is however caught in the middle as she actually sympathizes with O’Hara, only doing her task in hope to raise funds to return to America and not deal with the general. After the misplacement of the money due to the death of Judy’s father, Peter (Porter Hall), both O’Hara and Judy are at the mercy of the general as he seeks for some clue of the whereabouts of the cash out of the couple. Upon the discovery of the money and a fatal gunshot wound to the general from a scuffle, General Yang manifest just how much power he has as he demands all his men commit suicide out of allegiance to him. It makes for a suspenseful moment as O’Hara talks himself into being spared, not to be killed before the mass death to share the tale of the might general and his men.

Although the picture takes a while to find its footing, at first playing rather dull and flat, it builds up a wonderful suspenseful finale of power, fear, love, lose, respect, shock, and awe. That is a lot to say about a film that can be called mediocre years after it original release. The feature struggles with editing, but at the same time finds new, creative ways to transition and get points across. At times the acting is rather stiff. Once again a Hollywood feature falls into the unfortunate old tricks of dressing up white actors to lay the major Chinese roles, despite some rather well-spoken Asian actors fill in for minor roles. Fight choreography is lacking as well as the few moments of action where Gary Cooper punches out a couple of men, we are reminded how fake and unskilled actors were when it came to stage fighting.

Lewis Milestone, years after his Academy Awards for directing, carries the production very well with his style of shooting and lighting. What he seems to do in this picture is play with the ideas of editing. It may seem minor years later, but at one distinct transition the camera focuses on a doorknob as it fades to the shape of a billiard ball in the next scene; a minor transition in years to come, but imaginative for 1936. At another time in the picture we see characters talking about other individuals in the film as corners of the frame fold up like paper to reveal sights of what those individuals are doing at that time, filling all four corners with a total of five actions happening at the same time. The billiard transition is creative and will be seen in many forms throughout all of film, a rather popular style of transition that was in its infancy here. The folded corners reveal shot is a bit more jarring, but is inventive in showing how we the audience can be shown different actions while focusing on the dialogue of something else. This is perhaps a seed for more creative minds in the future with the potential we see here.

Through these moments of editorial playtime there are flashes that seem like the editor was just not paying attention to the cutting board as a few cuts are made during normal scenes that have the actors pause for too long as if waiting for action. They make one feel as the editing room was far too focused on more key points of the feature allowing a few flubs got by. They are either mistakes, or I am just horribly misunderstanding the moments. Above all seen Milestone starts to help break new ground in more creative ways to present film.

Cooper captured by the General's men.
Cooper had made himself into the front lining star by this time, as he would be for many years, and to join him on this journey into the battle over Chinese rule is a newcomer to the Hollywood scene. Madeleine Carroll had made her breakthrough with the help of British director Alfred Hitchcock back in England with films such as The 39 Steps and Secret Agent. The first of Hitchcock’s blond archetypes, Carroll was signed by Paramount Pictures and brought to America where a chance to star with Cooper would help propel her image into new heights in the motion picture business.

In a supporting cast filled with Chinese characters we again find Chinese characters filled by white actors in makeup playing with fake accents. The title character of General Yang was played by Russian born actor Akim Tamiroff. With the aid of pancake makeup and other alterations that created slanted eyes Tamiroff makes for a passable Chinese tyrant, but primarily for his acting, not for the look. Tamiroff would be nominated for his portrayal of the evil yet tragic character, an honor no doubt won by the emotional finale where he commands the respect of all during his death, from those hated him, as well as those who served him. Also sharing in the fake-Chinese make-up is Dudley Digges, playing Mr. Wu, the organizer of the mission for O’Hara. As you can see with names like Yang and Wu, the creative team only knew so much about Chinese culture. The sad thing is California is full of generations of Chinese and Japanese ancestors with very fine educations and skills that were not used for acting in major roles. We do see a few minor characters that speak perfect English and actor fairly well, but studios would not trust drama on minorities at that time.

The remaining supporting cast would be filled with character actors. You might recognize one fellow that look familiar to many. William Frawley, a former vaudevillian performer and bit role actor, plays a drunk and angry American that falls upon the money all are searching for. Frawley would be best remembered for his years of playing the lovable, yet cranky neighbor Fred on the hit sitcom I Love Lucy.

The General Died at Dawn is a passable picture for the entertainment value it brings, especially with the suspense filled conclusion of O’Hara literally begging for his life over the dying general. Nominated for three Academy Awards, best supporting actor, best cinematography, and best musical score, the film was notable for its time. With its few moments of creative editing the picture plants the seeds of what would come in the near future with the skill of storytelling in motion pictures, making for an admirable note in motion picture history.

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