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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Notes on my Favorite Films (Year By Year) She (1935)

"Only nature...only God can produce it."

Looking to top his wildly successful King Kong, producer Merian C. Cooper unleashed the exotic and strange She upon unsuspecting (and unwelcoming) audiences in the summer of 1935. A bold production highlighted by the audacious art deco style set design of Academy Award winning Thomas Little and the fantastic costume designs of Aline Bernstein and Harold Miles, She is visually an absolutely astonishing film to watch. Co-Directed by Lansing C. Holden and Irving Pichel and starring Randolph Scott, Nigel Bruce, Helen Mack and stage actress Helen Gallagher as the mysterious title character, She is still one of Hollywood's most audacious and daring productions and my top pick for 1935.
Working from a just published novel by H. Rider Haggard with no less than half a dozen screen writers on board, Cooper had hoped that She would be his biggest success up to that point but problems plagued him and his shoot from the get-go. Originally designed to as an eye-popping color feature (the film was finally colorized in 2006 to very mixed results) before RKO pulled the plug on its budget just before shooting commenced, She is indeed a compromised production but it's still as breathtaking as any film from the era. Featuring some of the most imaginative set designs ever conceived and a handful of the oddest (but most memorable) sequences ever filmed She is, simply put, ahead of its time and it's fairly easy to see why it was rejected in 1935.
Despite all of its many attributes, She is admittedly a flawed work hampered not only by its last minute budgetary restrictions but also by a cast who are mostly forgettable. Especially disappointing is Gallagher, who simply likes the fire of say a Fay Wray, and she's offered very little support from her mostly stiff co-stars. Still, the film survives due to Cooper's vision, its extremely impressive visual style and its refreshing go-for-broke attitude.

All but lost for many years following its initial abortive release (and famously saved due to Buster Keation storing a copy of the film in his garage!) She is now rightly regarded as one of the key films of Cooper's career and it is a worthy companion to the masterful King Kong. Equally compelling, although quite different, is Hammer's 1965 remake starring a ravishing Ursula Andress, another film that has needed time to show just how good it is. Cooper's original has been released many times via poor quality public domain prints. Avoid these and search out the Kino special edition, which offers up both the original black and white version as well s the well-meaning colorized take (supervised by none other than Ray Harryhausen).