Director: Rouben Mamoulian
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray’s microscope on Georgian hypocrisy, has long been a favorite property for actresses looking for a meaty role to sink their teeth into. Hollywood has produced a succession of Becky Sharps since 1911. Most recently, Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon took her turn as the scheming orphan determined to crack high society, no matter what the cost. However, for me, 1935’s Becky Sharp contains the definitive portrayal of Becky. The fabulous Miriam Hopkins turned in an Oscar-nominated performance that is energetic, sexually adventurous, and devil-may-care, while providing a pertinent social commentary on the gap between rich and poor that must have put Depression-era audiences solidly in Becky’s corner.
Becky Sharp also holds the distinction of being the very first three-strip Technicolor movie. This advance in color technology finally allowed movies to reproduce the color blue and, according to the ever-fascinating American Widescreen Museum Web site, “eroded the widespread commercial viability of all other methods of color photography for nearly 20 years. The picture was produced by Pioneer Pictures in collaboration with Technicolor Corporation in an effort to demonstrate to studios that had tired of imperfect and complex systems that films could be photographed in full color.” A complete explanation of the three-strip Technicolor process—and specifically as it relates to Becky Sharp—is given at the American Widescreen Museum Web site. This important film, therefore, was one Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation put high on its list for preservation. This restoration, along with Jean Renoir’s restored The River, were contributions to the CIFF by the Film Foundation.
The film opens at a girls boarding school, with an overhead dolly shot of girls surrounding a beautiful young woman. She is graduating and heading out into the world. In this classic style of introducing our heroine, we are instead redirected to another young woman sitting on the far side of the room—Becky Sharp (Hopkins). She is speaking to the only girl who has chosen to sit by her side. This girl assures Becky that she will get the same warm send-off as the other young lady, Amelia Sedley (Frances Dee). Becky assures her that the headmistress will not be conveying her back to the warm bosom of a family she doesn’t have and a suitable marriage; she will, in fact, admonish the orphaned Becky to be grateful for having had a roof over her head and being treated to an education far above her station. She also will be told to go out into the world and take up a useful profession.
All comes to pass exactly as Becky predicted. The headmistress presents a beautifully bound dictionary to Amelia, who promises to “sleep with it every night under my pillow” (ouch!). The only rub in the arrangement is that Becky fires back, accusing the headmistress of taking Becky in because she was useful and saved the school money by doing chores for free that hired staff would have done. The headmistress perfunctorily presents Becky with a dictionary as well. Then, Amelia’s brother Joseph (Nigel Bruce) comes to retrieve her. When Becky says she has no one coming to get her and nowhere to go, Amelia insists that Becky come with them. As Becky starts out the door, she turns back to the headmistress and says, “There are a million words I could say now, but this will have to do” and throws the dictionary at the headmistress’s feet. To paraphrase Bette Davis in All About Eve, Becky Sharp is going to be a bumpy ride.
Things at the Sedleys are agreeable enough for Becky, who enjoys living in a luxurious home and being treated with some deference. She plans to make it permanent by trying to induce Joseph to marry her. Unfortunately, Joseph, though tempted, flees from her entreaties all the way to India to avoid incurring his father’s wrath. In the meantime, Amelia chooses between two suitors. Humiliated, Becky accepts a position as governess at the home of Sir Pitt Crawley (George Hassell), an undisciplined and jolly country squire with an armful of rowdy children. Becky is about to decline the position when Crawley’s son Rawdon (Alan Mowbray) walks in the door. Becky’s unabashed lust for him is a wonderful cinematic gem. She changes her mind and soon becomes the dashing soldier’s wife.
The Crawleys live far above their means primarily through Becky’s charms. She flirts with men who end up owing gambling debts to Rawdon, borrows from Rawdon’s minister brother and anyone else she can, and gets her admirers to pay for her flocks and adornments. One day, one of Rawdon’s debts catches up with him. Becky does the one thing Rawdon cannot accept; she suggests to the evocatively named Marquis of Steyne (Cedric Hardwicke) that she will have sex with him if he forwards the money needed to cover Rawdon’s debt of honor. Rawdon, refusing Becky’s declarations of love, leaves her.
Becky is reduced to singing in a bawdy house, where she bombs big time. Coincidentally, Joseph is at the performance, and goes to her humble rooms. Amelia comes, too, and Becky apologizes for the callous way she always treated Amelia. Like the Unsinkable Molly Brown, Becky rises again to the challenges of life.
Miriam Hopkins brings a world of energy and ingenuity to the role of Becky Sharp. She plays this brazen opportunist without a hint of humility or regret. Becky’s appetites are all on display, her envy and resentment of her “betters” driving her as much as her enjoyment of the finer things in life. Hopkins makes her love for Rawdon genuine even as she flirts openly—largely with his approval—with anyone she thinks will give them money or position.
Frances Dee is the more typically compliant woman of her time. Her husband George (G. P. Huntley) makes overtures to Becky right under her nose—overtures that Becky accepts out of spite—and yet Amelia never complains or fights back. Being a lady also means never stooping to unladylike behavior to hold on to one’s husband. She even comes close to choosing propriety over love when another man courts her after George’s death in battle. Becky has to push Amelia to stop shrinking from life, her one act of repentance to a friend who never deserted her.
There are some incredible set pieces in this film as well. A dress ball takes place on the eve of and within sight of the Battle of Waterloo. The almost hysterical gaiety is emphasized by the way the characters weave through the ballroom, arranging introductions and trysts that put this ball in good company with those in Jezebel, Gone with the Wind, and even The Leopard. The guests try to convince themselves that some booming from without is thunder; then a dramatic gust of wind blows open some room-length French windows, admitting the storm of war. Panicked guests seek their carriages and escape from Napoleon’s troops. Becky, half French and hot-blooded, thrills at the idea of Bonaparte at war with the society she despises, and we feel that adrenalin rush with her.
The supporting cast play their roles with relish, and I particularly liked Nigel Bruce, who is good-natured rather than his more typical buffoonishness. Mamoulian’s slightly heavy hand actually works to great effect in this film. While a more subtle Becky would certainly be a valid interpretation, his direction of Hopkins makes Becky live up to her last name—a force of nature that could mow down all in its path.
I would have liked it if one of the UCLA restorers had been on hand to explain the process by which this film was returned to its glory. The colors of Becky’s yellow frock, blonde hair, and green lace trim popped and added to the flamboyance of her character. While not as crisp as the black-and-white restorations of silent films I’m used to, Becky Sharp and The River reveal just how much can be done by expert restorers if they are given the time and the tools. It’s great to have this important piece of film history and cracking good movie back and looking so great.