Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. USA, 1935. Pioneer Pictures Corporation. Screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh, based on the play by Langdon Mitchell, from the novel Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. Cinematography by Ray Rennahan. Produced by Kenneth Macgowan. Music by Roy Webb. Production Design by George Hazenbush. Film Editing by Archie Marshek. Academy Awards 1935.
Thackeray’s massive Vanity Fair has been condensed to a smaller vehicle for the relentlessly expressive Miriam Hopkins, here appearing in the very first film made entirely in 3-strip Technicolor. She plays the ambitious Becky Sharp, who leaves her top-drawer early nineteenth century finishing school an orphan with no relations or prospects, determined to make her way in the world despite her spotty background. Through it all she has the love and ire of best friend Frances Dee, whose brother and husband fall prey to Becky’s charms even after she marries a soldier for whose little siblings she has been working as governess. Becky’s conniving ways eventually catch up with her but she’s full of pluck, and rather than chart the lengthy degradation that Thackeray puts her through in the novel, this film navigates a strange optimism, devoid of romance but also any kind of judgment of her dubious morality. It’s not a boring movie even if it is an impenetrable one, made both lively and exasperating by Hopkins’ rubbery face, but its being as well remembered as it is without its place in film technology history is questionable. The colours still look vibrant and crisp thanks to recent restorations (a mercy given that it no longer exists under protected copyright), especially in the gorgeous costume fabrics that are preposterously anachronistic (putting an empire waist on a 1930s dress pattern doesn’t quite equal historical accuracy). The body language is obviously of its time and not at all true to the period it is displaying, furthering the indulgence in post-Roaring Twenties female spirit that is opposed to the wry judgments of Thackeray’s prose, but what it most noticeable is the early bulk of Technicolor cameras evident in the majority of scenes played like silent film tableaux. All movement is the responsibility of the actors, who enter and exit frames and have to hold our attention with their faces and body language, making it that much more a testament to the take-no-holds style of Hopkins’ acting that she provides energy when the director cannot. The art form of glorious colour films would achieve greater things in later years with Vincente Minnelli, but the groundwork is worth checking out here.