#530) Becky Sharp (1935)

#530) Becky Sharp (1935)

OR “A Movie without a Hero”

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian

Written by Francis Edward Faragoh. Based on the novel “Vanity Fair” by William Makepeace Thackeray, and the play by Langdon Mitchell.

Class of 2019

The Plot: Becky Sharp (Miriam Hopkins) is a poor young woman with ambitions of climbing England’s social ladder. After exploiting her well-meaning friend Amelia (Frances Dee) and Amelia’s equally oblivious brother Joseph (Nigel Bruce), Becky becomes a governess for the Crawley family, and marries their adult son Captain Rawdon Crawley (Alan Mowbray). Although Becky manages to preserve her social connections at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, her good will (as well as the trust of her friends) is running out. But all of this commentary takes a backseat to the new process of three-strip Technicolor!

Why It Matters: The NFR mentions the film’s “historical note as the first feature-length film to utilize the three-strip Technicolor process”, and praises the “shimmering visual appeal” that Technicolor provides. The write-up also includes a link to a more detailed look at the film’s restoration.

But Does It Really?: Yes, but I’m not too excited about it. “Becky Sharp” is on this list as an important piece of Technicolor history, and that’s about it. The film’s aesthetics have all the vibrancy you’d expect from Technicolor, but that novelty is lost in a modern viewing. Without a gimmick to focus on, “Becky Sharp” is a decent adaptation of a popular novel, but nothing extraordinary or essential on its own. A yes for NFR inclusion, but “Becky Sharp” is on here for its technical achievement rather than any artistic triumph.

Every Niche Production Company Gets One: Although three-strip Technicolor had been perfected by 1932, Hollywood was skeptical of the new technology (the first Technicolor cameras were expensive, bulky, and required special training to use). RKO executive/NFR filmmaker Merian C. Cooper was excited by Technicolor’s prospects, but couldn’t convince RKO to put up the money. Meanwhile, businessmen Jock and Cornelius Whitney wanted to get into the motion picture business, and founded Pioneer Pictures, which would produce only color films. Cooper was able to arrange a deal where RKO would be Pioneer’s distributor, therefore benefiting from any success from Technicolor, with none of the cost.

Seriously, Oscars?: At the 1936 Oscars, “Becky Sharp” received one nomination: Best Actress for Miriam Hopkins (the only nomination of her career). Hopkins lost to Bette Davis for “Dangerous”, widely considered a make-up Oscar for Davis (but that’s another story). Despite the technical breakthrough of “Becky Sharp”, the film was not nominated for its cinematography, though another Technicolor film (“The Garden of Allah”) would receive a special award the next year.

Other notes 

  • You may recall in previous posts that two-strip Technicolor consisted of a red filter and a green filter, while three-strip Technicolor added a blue filter. When processed, these three strips of film became their complimentary colors: Cyan, magenta, and yellow; still used today as the foundation of any color printing. In addition, the overall quality and definition of the three-strip film was greatly improved compared to two-strip.
  • Although Pioneer had dabbled in three-strip Technicolor shorts (including Oscar winner “La Cucaracha”), and some studios included Technicolor sequences in their movies, “Becky Sharp” was the first full-length feature to be shot entirely in the three-strip process.
  • Shoutout to Lowell Sherman, director of “She Done Him Wrong“, and the original director of “Becky Sharp”. Sadly, Sherman died of double pneumonia two weeks into production. Replacement director Rouben Mamoulian reshot all of Sherman’s work.
  • Like any film adaptation of a novel, “Becky Sharp” omits a few things to get down to a manageable runtime. Despite losing the book’s overall framing device, unreliable narrator, and somewhat downer ending, “Becky Sharp” is a faithful adaptation of the novel’s key events.
  • I confess I’ve never read “Vanity Fair”, so I knew virtually nothing about the story. I’m all for female leads that flout the conventions of their time, but Becky Sharp is such a horrible person. She manipulates everyone around her with a lying streak that borders on the pathological. I get that Thackeray made sure that all of his characters were flawed, and therefore dimensional, and “Vanity Fair” as a whole is a satire on England’s social structure, but I feel like a lot of that is lost in this adaptation. What we’re left with is a central character who disrespects everyone around her for no good reason.
  • Although the Napoleonic Wars loom large in “Becky Sharp”, the man himself is seen only once in this movie, in shadow (like George Steinbrenner). While we’re on the subject, stories of Napoleon being a short man are false. Bonaparte stood approximately 5’6″ (average for the time), but his short stature came from the political cartoons of James Gillray, who depicted the Emperor as a small child throwing a tantrum.
  • What a waste of Billie Burke. A few years away from playing Glinda, Ms. Burke is only in one scene in this movie, playing the kind of befuddled socialite she often portrayed in the movies.
  • A period piece about a woman manipulating the men around her to climb the social ladder with a wartime backdrop? This is just British “Gone with the Wind“.
  • Becky spends a lot of the film’s second act trying to borrow money to pay off previous debts. When did this become “Uncut Gems“?
  • I don’t know if it’s the early Technicolor or the crew getting use to this new technology, but Miriam Hopkins’ big close-up in her scene with the Marquis of Steyne is out of focus. Perhaps reshoots would have been too costly?
  • Both Cedric Hardwicke and Alan Mowbray look like Sacha Baron Cohen wearing prosthetic makeup for another hidden camera prank. I just hope Rudy Giuliani’s not around.
  • My main question about “Becky Sharp” is how did this get past the Production Code? Becky is a manipulative lead character who doesn’t learn anything, and gets away with her various schemes. I guess by cutting the ending short it’s implied that she will change her ways when she leaves with Joseph (Spoilers: She doesn’t). Did the novel’s standing as a classic help tide over the Code?

Legacy 

  • Shortly after “Becky Sharp”, the Whitneys of Pioneer Pictures invested in another up-and-coming production company: Selznick International Pictures. Once Pioneer’s contract with RKO ended, they officially merged with Selznick International.
  • Technicolor quickly became the gold standard for film stock, often used for epics and musicals. The process was refined over the years, but by the early 1950s Technicolor found itself a distant second to Eastmancolor. The last three-strip Technicolor film was 1957’s “Test Pilot”, though in the ensuing years a few films have been processed in Technicolor for that nostalgic look.
  • There have been countless adaptations of “Vanity Fair” over the years, most recently a 2018 miniseries starring Olivia Cooke, with Michael Palin as the narrator/”Vanity Fair” author William Makepeace Thackeray.
  • In 1943, “Becky Sharp” was sold to Film Classics, Inc., who re-released the film in a cheaper (and shorter) two-strip color print, as well as a black-and-white print. Aided by the film’s lapse into public domain, these two versions were the most readily available for viewing, until UCLA restored “Becky Sharp” to its full (and uncut) Technicolor glory in 1984.

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