Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Son of Monte Cristo (Small/United Artists, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched a feature last night: The Son of Monte Cristo, a 1940 film that was a sequel to the 1934 version of The Count of Monte Cristo with the same producer (Edward Small) and director (Rowland V. Lee); credits the original story to Alexandre Dumas père but the American Film Institute Catalog merely states it was “suggested” by the original novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas and Charles Fechter — though Small made quite a few movies based, or loosely based, on Dumas’ works, including the two Monte Cristo films as well as The Man in the Iron Mask (the 1939 version directed by James Whale and starring the man who also played the title character in The Son of Monte Cristo, Louis Hayward), The Corsican Brothers and Black Magic. Apparently Small announced this film as early as 1936 and wanted his star from The Count of Monte Cristo, Robert Donat, to play the lead, but after making The Count of Monte Cristo in Hollywood Donat decided never again to work in the U.S. (apparently because of his chronic asthma — as I noted in my comments on his version of The Count of Monte Cristo one would have thought that the relatively clean, dry air of pre-smog Los Angeles would have been better for an asthmatic than the dank, foggy atmosphere of his native England, but Donat wanted to work in his home country and even when he signed with a U.S. studio, MGM, it was with the proviso that all his films be made at MGM’s British studio) and so the film didn’t get made until 1940, with Hayward in the male lead, Joan Bennett in the female lead and George Sanders easily taking the acting honors as the principal villain.

George Bruce, the only credited screenwriter (usually a good sign), came up with a wild story that isn’t a patch on Dumas but on its own is both an exciting adventure yarn and a veiled but unmistakable parallel to what was going on in Europe in 1940. The story takes place in the fictional duchy of “Lichtenburg” (the same name — an obvious combination of two of Europe’s real-life country-ettes, Lichtenstein and Luxemburg — was used for the fictional country in which Irving Berlin’s musical Call Me Madam takes place, and Call Me Madam was filmed in 1953 with at least one actor in common with The Son of Monte Cristo, George Sanders), nominally ruled by the young and attractive Grand Duchess Zona (Joan Bennett) but really controlled by her unscrupulous general, Gurko Lanen (George Sanders at his oiliest). Sanders’ hot black-leather costume, his imperious Prussian military bearing, his close-cropped hair and even his moustache (not an exact duplicate of Hitler’s but close enough to work subliminally) can’t help but evoke a parallel to the Nazis and their rule, and the chilling arbitrariness with which he forestalls the plots (real or imagined) against him, coolly orders people’s executions and has his soldiers smash the printing press used to publish an anti-regime newspaper, The Torch, suggests not only Hitler but Stalin as well.

Edmond Dantes (Louis Hayward), the son of the count of Monte Cristo, has inherited the family’s fortune and its banking business; he’s arrived in Lichtenburg to see if its government is worthy of the 25 million francs they’ve asked to borrow from his bank. In his spare time he’s trying to do a bit of hunting on the French-Lichtenburgian border, and his hunting dogs interfere with the flight of Zona and her confidante, Countess Mathilde (Florence Bates), who were trying to escape the country in Zona’s carriage so she could deliver a letter to French emperor Louis Napoleon (a.k.a. Napoleon III) asking him to send an army to Lichtenburg to conquer Lanen’s army, take over the country and restore the Grand Duchess to effective control. Only Lanen gets a tip from Stadt (Ian Mac Wolfe), his spy in the Grand Duchess’s circle (whom she trusts implicitly because her late father, the Grand Duke, did), who leaks him a copy of the letter, which was actually written by prime minister Baron Von Neuhoff (Montagu Love). Lanen uses this evidence to have Von Neuhoff arrested for treason and sentenced to death, and the count of Monte Cristo decides to rescue him. He reasons that the best way he has of getting access to the palace (in whose dungeons Von Neuhoff is being held) is to offer to make Lanen the 25 million franc loan and suck up to him, even though by doing so he repels Zona, who had previously fallen in love with him. Monte Cristo poses as a fop to convince Lanen he’s harmless, but he also adopts a mask and hood to pose as the superhero “The Torch,” break into the prison and free Von Neuhoff.

His plan succeeds — with the aid of a couple of men in the palace guard who pretend to obey Lanen but are really loyal to the Grand Duchess (one of them is played by future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore, while future Dick Tracy Ralph Byrd plays a would-be assassin who’s executed early on for taking a shot at Lanen and, alas, missing) — but Lanen hits on another idea: he’ll make an alliance with the Russian ambassador that will turn Lichtenburg into a Russian protectorate, and he’ll use that treaty to blackmail Zona into marrying him even though she loathes him. In his “Torch” drag, Monte Cristo holds up the Russian ambassador, Prince Pavlov (Michael Visaroff), in his carriage on the road out of Lichtenburg, but Lanen learns that Monte Cristo is the Torch after Zona accidentally “outs” him, steals back the treaty and sentences Monte Cristo to hang at the exact moment he and Zona are getting married (in what appears to be an Orthodox church service — apparently Lichtenburg, being on the border of both France and Russia, got Russia’s rather than France’s brand of Christianity), but Von Neuhoff and his loyal revolutionaries figure out a Trojan Horse-style way to get into the palace dungeon, free Monte Cristo and set up a big swordfight sequence (one of several in the film between Hayward and Sanders) in which Lanen is finally killed. The film ends with Monte Cristo and Zona in a clinch before the admiring Lichtenburgian people but no hint of what’s going to happen to them after that — a pity, since a bittersweet parting à la The Prisoner of Zenda would seem both more believable and more moving than the implication that they’re actually going to stay together at the end.

 The Son of Monte Cristo is derivative as all get-out, borrowing the superhero-as-fop bit from The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Mark of Zorro and even ripping off Richard III in the “courtship” scenes in which Lanen tries to seduce the woman who has every reason to hate him. (The year before he made this film, Rowland V. Lee had shot a version of the Richard III story at Universal, Tower of London, with Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price.) But it’s also well paced, a lot of fun, and blessed with Lee’s fluid and mobile direction (though James Whale could have done it even better!) as well as a story that maintains a nice combination of intrigue and camp and makes the social comments (Lanen = Hitler, and his minions are the Nazis) without hitting us over the head with them or risking giving offense to isolationist-minded viewers of the time. And while it’s not hard to think of actors around in 1940 who could have played this part better than Louis Hayward (including Ronald Colman, who did play this sort of part better in the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda, as well as Robert Donat, Errol Flynn and even Cary Grant), he’s certainly personable and athletic enough for it and one can believe Joan Bennett is attracted to him without making us feel like she’s slumming. The Son of Monte Cristo is little more than a footnote to its illustrious predecessor but at least it’s a good footnote, doing what a sequel should do — evoking enough of what was good about the previous film to remind us of what we liked about it and entertain us in a similar way.