Exhibit Number One was "The Private Life of Henry VIII", which of course I remember like everyone else for the famous chicken-bones on the floor scene... and had no idea that Donat was even in it. It was Charles Laughton's film, of course, and remains rightfully so, even though it's a bit creaky. (He over-does the swaggering and laughing at the beginning of the film, and the structure remains inherently episodic, despite an attempt to use Donat's character as a linking device — unfortunately it's not really much of a role. John Loder, in another very minor part, made more of an impression on me...)
Today's exhibit was Donat's sole Hollywood movie, the 1934 "Count of Monte Cristo". I was eager to see this, as I like swashbucklers and it has a good reputation; I also had an ulterior motive! The good news is that this turns out to be, as I hoped it might, my "long-lost Monte Cristo" -- the film I once caught the end of, thanks to the BBC, on holiday twenty years ago, and have never been able to find again since. The bad news is that, alas, the part I missed isn't actually nearly so good as the remainder...
The Reliance Pictures production of "The Count of Monte Cristo" is a queer mixture of success and banality; of studio polish and poverty-row shortcuts; of genuine emotional power and thumping cliché; of briskly-moving adaptation and bizarre moments of staging (revolving witness-box, anyone?) A literal version of Dumas it is not — one would not expect it of any film spectacular made at this period — but many of the changes made are entertaining or effective, and the happy ending provided works at least as well as Dumas' rather unsatisfactory version. The meandering original is reduced to a bare two hours' running time by dint of concise scripting and cutting out most of the sub-plots involving the de Villefort and Morrel families, an attempt which is by and large successful. It works less well at the beginning, where there are simply too many unidentified characters popping up and scheming without any of them really being established properly, particularly as Morrel and de Villefort's father are then pruned from the plot, never to appear again. And de Villefort's downfall as presented here really doesn't work for me: lacking the damning evidence of infanticide, the script doesn't seem to come up with any terribly convincing alternative to turn the tables on the prosecutor. On the other hand, introduced material such as Mercedes' (completely uncanonical) aristocratic snob of a mother and the tableaux in praise of Fernand at which Haydee accuses him works very well.
Ironically — given the Hollywood studio's doubts as to their unknown English import's ability to pull off anything but a fresh-faced lead — Robert Donat shines mainly in the latter half of the picture as the older, embittered and sophisticated Monte Cristo. His guileless Dantes makes little impression, for it could be any generic juvenile lead role — the character as written is not so much naive as uninteresting. Donat fares better where he can give a sense of some hidden depths to the part, and his best features are his strong eyes and brows rather than his cheery grin. As Monte Cristo, however, he is both debonair and dangerous, an intelligent schemer with a dry wit at his enemies' unknowing expense, and he is supported ably by both Douglas Walton as the young Albert and Elissa Landi as Mercedes.
It was Miss Landi's performance with which I was truly impressed here; she ages with utter conviction from the wilful girl to the resolute mother, and lends her scenes opposite Donat the real impact that is lacking from so much of the film. In a plot that has been re-angled to concentrate far more closely on the Edmond/Mercedes relationship, her role is vital, and her character provides most of the emotional engagement of the story, from light-hearted charm to heartbreak (Valentine de Villefort, here paired off with Albert, is a mere cypher in comparison).
The film starts off in outright formulaic guise, from Napoleon's appearance (in full uniform and cocked hat, with his hand duly thrust in his breast like that) to the standard storm-at-sea sequence with water poured across the screen. It continues to suffer from crude musical underlining almost throughout, almost sabotaging for example Donat's scene with the dying Abbé Faria, which he otherwise pulls off with conviction, while certan characters, such as Morrel and the mute Nubian Ali, appear to have been retained despite the loss of the plot elements which actually involved them (possibly as a result of cuts to the script later in filming?) Overall, however, the adaptation does a pretty good job of conveying information quickly and concisely — Albert's entire Italian adventure is dealt with effectively in a matter of a few minutes with none of the essentials lost, and Haydee's brief role introduced without seeming contrivance. It borrows little in practice from Dumas' wordy original save the bare outlines of its plot, and sometimes not even those; but as an initially uninspired Hollywood adaptation it improves considerably as it goes on. Literary fidelity isn't everything, and if it were not let down by certain sections I would have rated it considerably higher; alas, this production remains an odd mixture of the powerful and the pedestrian.