This week's movie is the 1930s adventure fantasy She!
I am sucker for any movie produced by King Kong's Merian C. Cooper (a guy who deserves a bio-pic of his own. Seriously; this is a guy who was falsely declared dead...twice, before he even got to Kong!), so when I saw She was available on Netflix WI I couldn't wait to check it out.
Based on the 1886 novel by H. Rider Haggard, She opens with a scientist, dying of radiation poisoning, who summons his nephew Leo (Randolph Scott) and, supported by his scientific partner Horace Holly (Nigel Bruce, most famous as Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes), reveals he has been searching for a radioactive element that he believes can preserve life, making people nearly immortal.
The scientist's experiments derive from a letter, passed down through his family for generations, about an uncle and his wife who discovered a remote, closed off society living in Siberia. Supposedly in this tiny, hidden spot is something called "The Flame of Life", a sort of reverse Fountain of Youth.
The only piece of evidence of this whole story is a small statue supposedly taken from the village. The scientist implores Leo and Horace to take up the mission and find The Flame of Life. As Leo and Horace agree, the scientist succumbs, and dies.
Leo and Horace head to Siberia, and find a small outpost run by a old man named Dugmore and his daughter Tanya (Helen Mack). At first, Dugmore is less than friendly to strangers:
Dugmore and his daughter join the expedition, and we're treated to some of the really cool, in-camera combos of sets and matte paintings that Cooper's productions were so good at. Sure, they really don't look real, exactly, but they have a classic feel, like they're ripped from illustrations of old adventure novels:
Eventually our little band of explorers (minus Dugmore, who is killed in an avalanche when he lets his greed get the best of him) find the mythical land they've been searching for, hidden inside the crack of a glacier, a place called Kor.
Kor is run by She, aka Hash-A-Mo-Tep (Helen Gahagan), who takes one look at Leo and believes he is actually his older relative, the one who visited Kor with his wife. She, who claims to be immortal, falls for Leo, believing he is the reincarnation of his uncle, a man she loved but had killed when he would not leave his wife.
After promising to share the secret of immortality, Leo falls for She and decides to stay in Kor, even though Holly and and Tanya are told to leave. Tanya, who has fallen for Leo, tries to talk Leo out of it, and is used as a human sacrifice for her trouble.
When Leo sees this, it wakes him from his stupor, and he decides to try and escape with his friends.
A lot of these scenes are very talky, but they're made more lively by the astounding art direction. There's a great scene where the camera pans across a row of toweting statues:
Seeing these, it reminded me of the Seven Deadly Sins statues from the origin of Captain Marvel, and makes me think what an amazing movie could have been made, if somehow The Big Red Cheese and Merian Cooper had ever been paired up for a feature film. But I digress...
Our trio escapes various pursuers and ends up in She's sacred temple, where The Flame of Life resides. She tells Leo to enter, but he refuses, so she does. Unfortunately, this time the effects are less than rejuvenating:
She collapses and dies, and Leo, Tanya, and Holly escape Kor, while the Flame of Life rages out of control. These final scenes in Kor again feature stunning art direction, heavily influenced by German Expressionism:
Leo, Tanya, and Holly make it home, where Holly tries to explain why The Flame of Life did what it did to She. Tanya refuses to believe it, saying she thinks True Love saved them from the villainous She. The End.
Of course, She is complete and utter nonsense; a mish-mash of ideas and tones and influences, but I didn't care. Like Cooper's other movies (most famously Kong, of course), She feels like its a portal into another world, one more grand and fanciful than most films of the time (heck, more than most films now!), and it has just enough verisimilitude that it all feels real, even when you're dealing with immortality, secret societies living inside glaciers, or a giant rampaging ape.
She isn't nearly as fun as Kong, of course--Gahagan as the titular character is fun to look at but fairly one-note--but its well worth your time if you enjoy these kind of crazy fantasy adventure films of the time. They never made them quite like this again.
Fun Fact: She was considered a "lost" film until Buster Keaton (of all people) had a print of it (in his garage!), which he gave to a film historian.
Fun Fact 2: She was originally shot for color, but when Cooper's budget was cut he went to black and white. Supposedly Ray Harryhausen was involved in a colorized version as a tribute to Cooper; man I have to track that down!