Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Merian Cooper’s “She”

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Sometimes we look for something and we find something different – maybe something better.
Two nights ago I was talking with my friend Franco Pezzini about the Hammer version of H. Rider Haggard’s She – the one featuring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Ursula Andress.
It’s a very unfaithful adaptation, but a fun movie.
So I decided I’ll watch it again, and do a post or two on it.
But while I was looking for the old Hammer flick, I stumbled on something even older, something I did not know existed – the Merian C. Cooper production of H. Rider-Haggard’s She, dating from 1935.

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The movie was considered lost for decades, it was found in Buster Keaton’s garage, restored by Ray Harryhausen, and right now you can find it on Youtube, of all places – in a rather decent , if sadly colorized, copy.

The film is an RKO adventure film featuring Randolph Scott in the role of Leo Vincey, and Nigel “Dr Watson” Bruce as Horace Holly.
Cooper had originally wanted James Whale of Frankenstein fame to direct – but when Whale turned out to be unavailable, the movie was handed over to Irving Pichel, who had directed Cooper’s The Most Dangerous Game. Pichet was helped by Lancing C. Holden, whose previous experience as a set designer and architect clearly influenced the gorgeous Art Deco design of the movie.
The film should have been in color, but RKO did not back the project, and so they shot it in black and white.

She-1935-film

The original Rider-Haggard plot underwent a few changes.
The mystical “flame of life” in Rider-Haggar’s novel becomes a mysterious form of super-energy, giving the story a science-fictional twist.
It’s not the only change to the plot – the action moves the lost city of Kor from Africa to the Arctic circle, “the world’s utmost northern rim”, by way of central Asia.
Which makes for a weird change – replacing c anoes and native porters with sleds.
Of course, moving the action to the Arctic allows Cooper to throw in a (dead) sabretooth tiger – and everything’s better with Quaternary megafaunas.
Also, the backstory of the novel is seriously cut short – eliminating all the Egyptian, African and Arabian references… which sort of makes sense, considering the action now takes place pretty far away from Africa.

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The love triangle that propels part of the action in the original novel is replicated by introducing the character of Tanya (Helen Mack) – that tags along with the expedition because someone has to cook, and ends up being the rival of She Who Must be Obeyed (Helen Gahagan), that reigns over a people of Egyptian/Precolombian warriors, and vents her frustration on a tribe of underground-dwelling primitives.

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All in all, the movie is quite fun – maybe not as good as King Kong or The Most Dangerous Game, but good nonetheless.
As soon as the action gets going, the plot advances at a fairly fast clip, and the viewer can sit back and enjoy the ride. The movie looks great, with huge sceneries (including the giant gate from King Kong) and a nice use of special effects and matte paintings.
But back in ’35 the film was a disaster – it lost almost 200.000dollars and it basically killed Helen Gahagan’s career on her debut. Her look and costume would survive as the inspiration for Snow White‘s evil queen in the Disney animated movie, but Gahagan herself, a Broadway actress and opera singer, would never get top billing again in a movie. She later left the stage to pursue a political career.

she gahagan

Maybe Gahagan was too algid and aloof for the audiences at the time.
Or maybe what did not work was the heavily rewritten story – by doing away with the revenge-from-beyond-time subplot involving Amenarthas, the story sags, and does not make an awful lot of sense.

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On the other hand, the film looks beautiful – great scenes and costumes, excellent music, and spectacular coreographies more than make up for the plot inconsistencies. The special effects are particularly good – and it is easy to see why Ray Harryhausen was so in love with this film he decided to do a restored, colorized version.
Cooper’s last film with RKO was clearly a project close to his heart, and it looks like a million (which is more or less what it cost). It is well worth the 100 minutes spent watching it.

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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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