by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved
The film was The Count of Monte Cristo, the 1934 United Artists version, produced by Edward Small for his Reliance Pictures and starring Robert Donat, whose only U.S. film this was. Accounts differ as to why; though this film was both a critical success and a commercial hit -- establishing Donat as a major star on both sides of the Atlantic -- and Warner Bros. signed him for the lead in the 1935 Captain Blood, he had chronic asthma, he didn't like the Hollywood atmosphere (in both senses of the term), he was homesick and he was also under contract to Alexander Korda, who was notoriously protective of his stars. In the event, Donat backed out of Captain Blood at the last minute -- either because of his asthma or because Korda summoned him back for another project -- which put Jack Warner on the spot: after trying to hire another established action star (Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman and Clark Gable were among the names he went after) for Captain Blood, he took a chance on the unknown Errol Flynn ... and made himself a new star.
The Count of Monte Cristo was, of course, based on a story by Alexandre Dumas pere ‑- as were quite a few of Small's productions (he also did The Man in the Iron Mask, The Corsican Brothers and the 1947 Black Magic, based on Dumas' Memoirs of a Physician) -- that's been filmed many times since (it had been filmed before that, including a 1915 Famous Players silent starring James O'Neill, Eugene O'Neill's father, who'd been well known on stage in the role), and he apparently had a hissy-fit over Universal's plans to make a film called The Countess of Monte Cristo (a remake of a 1932 German production), even though that was a modern-dress screwball comedy with nothing in common plot-wise with Dumas' period piece.
The plot deals with young ship's officer Edmond Dantes (Robert Donat), who gets embroiled in intrigue when Napoleon escapes from the island of Elba in 1815 and attempts to regain control of France from King Louis XVIII, the Bourbon the victors against Napoleon in the Battle of the Nations had installed on the French throne (both the King and Napoleon appear on-screen as minor characters). He's the first mate on a vessel whose captain, Leclerc (played by silent-screen star William Farnum), involved in Napoleon's resistance movement, dies of a heart attack at sea while the ship is fighting a hurricane. Before he croaks, the captain gives Dantes a letter and instructs him to hand it to someone who will identify himself with the password "Elba." Alas, they're overheard by Danglers (Raymond Walburn), the second mate, who relays the story to the king's attorney in Marseilles, Raymond de Villefort, Jr. (Louis Calhern), with the result that Dantes is arrested as he tries to pass the note to his contact -- who turns out to be Villefort's father (Lawrence Grant). Covering for his old man, Villefort, Jr. allows him to flee but throws Dantes into prison and makes sure he'll be kept there without trial until he dies.
The prison is the infamous Chateau d'If, located on an island and virtually escape-proof (something which resonated with 1934 audiences because the federal government had recently opened Alcatraz, a prison also regarded as escape-proof because it was on an island). Dantes is supposed to be in solitary confinement but he runs into another prisoner when the Abbe Faria (O. P. Heggie) tunnels into his cell, thinking he's actually managed to burrow out of the prison grounds. The Abbe tells Dantes of a fortune he buried on the island of Monte Cristo but pleads with him, assuming he gets out and accesses the treasure, to use it only to help others (this begins to sound like Magnificent Obsession in period costume) -- but Dantes is interested only in revenge. He gets his chance at escape when the Abbe dies and Dantes substitutes himself for the Abbe's corpse in the burlap bag in which it will be disposed of by being thrown into the sea (in a haunting line I still remember from having read an excerpt from the book as a child, we're told, "The sea is the cemetery of the Chateau d'If").
Rescued by a passing ship run by smugglers, Dantes makes his way to Monte Cristo, gets the treasure (though the treasure is so huge we're left wondering just how one guy without a ship of his own can get it all back to the mainland) and uses it to establish himself, first in Rome, then in Marseilles and then in Paris, as the mysterious "Count of Monte Cristo" and take his revenge against the three people who framed him way back when: Villefort, Dangler (who in the meantime has become a major European banker) and Count Fernand de Mondego (Sidney Blackmer), the man Dantes' girlfriend Mercedes de Rosas (Elissa Landi) married after receiving a forged report of Dantes' death in custody. For some reason only Dumas, his original co-author Charles Fechter, and the film's screenwriters, Philip Dunne, Dan Totheroh and Rowland V. Lee (Lee also directed, quite stunningly and with a refreshing understatement) could explain, none of the three men Dantes is avenging himself against recognize him when they meet him post-escape -- even though he looks about the same except for a lot of white powder in his hair to turn it grey and rice dust in his makeup because for some reason the makeup artist for this film equated "pale" with "old." The only person who does recognize him is Mercedes, who tells him he's raised her son Albert (Douglas Walton, a good deal less queeny than usual and surprisingly credible as a juvenile lead) as if he were Dantes' child rather than Mondego's (which rather leads me to suspect that in the book he was Dantes' child -- this was a French author, after all! -- only they had to change that to meet the demands of the Production Code).
Dantes fakes a kidnapping and rescue of Albert, gets an introduction to the Mondegos, exposes Mondego and fights a duel with him, leading to Mondego's suicide. Then he embroils the greedy banker (isn't that redundant?) Danglers into a stock scheme and drives him crazy. But his attempts to avenge himself against Villefort run into a problem: Villefort's daughter Valentine (Irene Hervey), with whom Albert is in love. Dantes prepares his evidence against Villefort and sends it to Fouquet (Clarence Wilson), an honest prosecutor in the king's government, then fights a duel with Albert after promising his mother Mercedes, his old girlfriend, that he will deliberately lose. In the event, both men deliberately fire their bullets harmlessly, and Dantes ends up on trial with Villefort prosecuting him -- and pushing him around in a box apparently designed so the prosecutor could shove the defendant around the courtroom floor in order to humiliate him. (Were French courtrooms actually run like this in the 1830's?) Dantes uses the trial to expose Villefort publicly, and at the end he's exonerated, Villefort is jailed and the film fades out on two happy couples -- Dantes and Mercedes, reunited at last, and Albert and Valentine.
This version of The Count of Monte Cristo is generally considered the best, and the first half is a marvelous action thriller, though the plot tends to sag a bit after Dantes' escape; still it's a lot of fun, and Donat and Landi are absolutely right for their roles. Donat was poised on the edge of international stardom when he made this film, but probably blew it by not staying in the U.S. the way Ronald Colman had after a similar breakthrough in the 1923 silent The White Sister -- one would think the air of pre-smog Los Angeles would actually have been better for a chronic asthmatic than the foggy atmosphere of London, but Donat obviously didn't think so; even when he finally signed a contract with an American studio, MGM, it was with the proviso that all his films for them would be made in England (which is where he did The Citadel and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the latter of which won him an Academy Award). Ironically, the one film for which Donat is most likely to be remembered today is one he probably thought was a comedown after all these big movies, The 39 Steps, which gets shown over and over again because Alfred Hitchcock directed it.