Sunday, September 15, 2013

“She”: The Epic Despite Itself

Dir: Lansing C. Holden and Irving Pichel
Legend Films, 2007 release
“ . . . the worst picture I ever made. . . . I cheated a lot on ‘She’.” – Merian C. Cooper, producer

“My empire is of the imagination.” – Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed

Helen Gahagan as Ayesha.
The 1935 RKO movie version of She, produced by Merian C. Cooper on the heels of his greatest success, King Kong, sits buried in the heap of Hollywood’s fascinating failures. However, this ambitious project was important at least to the late special-effects master Ray Harryhausen, who worked strenuously to restore it to its original length and to colorize it, in accordance with Cooper’s initial plan.

The 1935 She is a catchall of hokum and wonder, thoroughly and indiscriminately intermixed. Its visual inanities, patently false but still breathtaking landscapes, and Art Deco conceits all combine to create a fever dream of a fantasy that is still powerful in a hallucinatory way.

It is best remembered, if at all, by the mainstream as the film debut AND farewell of the actress who played She, Helen Gahagan, who was blamed for the production’s revenue shortfall of $180,000 on a $500,000 budget.

However, blame might more accurately be placed at the cold feet of the usual suspects – RKO’s studio administrators. But did what many thought was major miscasting, a budget halved, sets and costumes chosen for color film but forced to be shot in black and white, and a stiff script doom the movie to failure?

“If you make fantasy too real, it loses the quality of a dream,” Harryhausen once said, and the 1935 She is the best filmed version of the story to date, due precisely to its unreal, madly stylized atmosphere.

The popularity of Haggard’s 1887 novel (83 million copies printed as of 1965, making it one of the most widely read works of fiction in history) would seem to make any adaptation a winner, but all nine more-or-less loose film versions and derivatives (Vengeance of She, anyone?) have failed to make a strong impression.
The Gates of Kor (repurposed from "King Kong")
In the original text, Haggard continues to build on the “Lost World” genre that he founded with King Solomon’s Mines in 1885. In She, a dead father’s legacy gives his son, Leo Vincey, an ancient map that describes a lost kingdom in the heart of Africa. Leo and his mentor Professor Horace Holley travel there, finding the lost city of Kor and its inhabitants in catacombs beneath a dormant volcano.

The civilization is ruled over by Ayesha -- She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, an immortal, mysterious, and powerful woman who has waited 2,000 years for the return of her lover Kallikrates, whom she slew in a jealous rage. She believes Leo is that reincarnation of Kallikrates, and eliminates her competition for Leo, the native girl Ustane.

Ayesha now tells of her plan to enter the larger world and conquer it – and Holly has no doubt but that she can. She then takes Leo and Holley to the pillar of flame that confers immortality, ordering Leo into it so that they can be together for eternity. Leo is afraid, so she steps into the flame, as she first did 2,000 years ago, to reassure him – but a second exposure to the flame causes her to age immediately, crumbling to dust before their horrified eyes.

Ayesha ages.
“She” is a great story, painfully written. Rider was not out for complexity or subtle effect; everyone says exactly what’s on their minds, no character development occurs. Occasional bursts of sophomoric speculation and philosophy, including a pretty constant stream of misogyny, out of the mouth of Haggard’s narrator Holly, bog down the action. Haggard’s eye for atmosphere and description, however stilted, combined with the fantastic elements he conceives, sustains the reader enough to get him or her through to the end.

Haggard was a staunch imperialist. Aside from his respect for the Zulu people, developed during a seven-year sojourn in South Africa, his books are riddled with what is considered now an appalling, matter-of-fact racism. In She, blacks and Muslims are fit only for service and as cannibal food; She herself indulges in a long anti-Semitic rant at one point. Like most adventure stories of the period, Haggard is at once entranced by the strange sights and cultures revealed by Western explorers, and determined to show that white men are naturally inclined and intended to dominate, document, classify, exploit, subordinate, and assimilate these “foreign” discoveries.
Nigel Bruce is agog as natives try to make a Hot Pocket out of his cranium.
If She is a presentiment of women’s liberation, it is a nightmare vision of it. The appeal to man and boy, Haggard’s primary readers, is the dizzying fantasy of domination by an omnipotent, sexually hypnotic woman – a pornographic Queen Victoria. Holly’s misogynistic narrative makes it clear that he is repulsed and terrified by She, but compelled to shadow and obey her due to her beauty, bearing, and psychic power. Mike Madrid, in his excellent book Supergirls, succinctly describes her –  . . . an intoxicating savage princess . . . a creature that provokes both fear and lust. Ayesha was the ultimate fantasy of civilized man: the beautiful, savage white queen, ruling a kingdom unhindered by the laws of modern morality.”

Ayesha is much more of the femme fatale, the enchantress, demon-lover, akin to Lilith, Lamia, Circe, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, and the heroines of operas such as Turandot and The Makropoulos Case. She is the timeless rock upon which men crack their souls; her image debases into the stereotype of silent screen star Theda Bara and other irresistible “Vamps,” bad girls, and the like.
Ayesha and Leo.
If Ayesha is the anima-shadow of Haggard, she enables him to release his inner, inconquerable drama queen. Ayesha is a powerful projection of male desire/terror onto the female – woman as a temptress whose caresses will drive men mad, make them do her bidding, drain their seminal power through sexual vampirism, and then kill them . . . usually lopping something off them to boot as a symbolic castration, as in the stories of Judith, Delilah, and Salome. In She, Ayesha is the source of both sex and death – infinitely, absurdly faithful, possessed of never-changing beauty.

(Rider does have an accurate sense of how limited Ayesha’s appeal would be to women -- in the novel, Holly writes: “We never had the advantage of a lady’s opinion on Ayesha, but I think it quite possible that she would have regarded the Queen with dislike, would have expressed her disapproval in a more or less pointed manner, and ultimately have got herself blasted.”)

Haggard was not averse to spinning out a money-making concept; there are four Ayesha books in all, just as there are 19 Alan Quatermain (the narrator of King Solomon’s Mines) novels – and even a crossover work that puts Ayesha and Quatermain together.

The book inspired film adaptations, almost as soon as film was invented – seven in the silent era alone. It would take a showman with an epic appetite to do justice to Haggard’s story.

Merian C. Cooper, producer of the 1935 She, was compelled to live on the adrenaline edge. A hellion who was kicked out of Annapolis during his senior year of 1914, he worked as a seaman, a journalist, and worse, and when World War I came, he became an aviator, enduring being shot down by the Germans and imprisoned. After the war ended, he joined the Poles in fighting Russia's new ruling Soviets, and was once again shot down and stuck in a prison camp.

Freed at last, Cooper began to make his name as an explorer, focusing on the still-medieval delights of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia and Eritrea). Finally, Cooper, his friend cameraman Ernest B. Schoedsack, and reporter (and spy) Marguerite Harrison, decided to document the lives of nomadic Persian herdsmen, creating one of the first ethnographic documentary feature films. (These were still the days of The Great White Hunter, Frank Buck and “Bring ‘em Back Alive,” and Lowell Thomas “with Lawrence in Arabia.”) Grass (1925) was a runaway hit, spurring a thematic sequel Chang set in Thailand, and propelling Cooper and Schoedsack into the movie business.

The two freelanced the 1929 silent Four Feathers for Paramount and then collaborated on the mutual high point of their careers, King Kong. Now both served as screenwriters, directors, producers. Cooper’s looming tenure at the top of RKO seemed to presage more hit projects to come.

Cooper replaced a resigning David O. Selznick as head of the studio almost exactly on the day of King Kong’s release, March 7, 1933. His ambitious plans for RKO were never realized due to a number of factors.

First, RKO went into equity receivership shortly before he took the helm – the Depression had hit all Hollywood studios hard, and as the weakest of the “Big Five” major studios, RKO hit bankruptcy. Budgets were slashed and dozens of talented RKO employees were let go.

Next, Cooper suffered a heart attack six months into the job, keeping him out until mid-December, 1933; another health issue compelled another long vacation in Hawaii (which also served as a belated honeymoon) for Cooper and his wife. When he returned in May, 1934, he resigned his RKO position, but retained the commitment to make for them two big-budget spectaculars in the newly-developed three-strip Technicolor – She and The Last Days of Pompeii, another effects-heavy historical epic based on the title (but not the plot) of the 1834 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Schoedsack would direct the latter.

Despite Kong's success, Cooper’s elaborate plans for bigger and more elaborate features, incorporating the latest technological advances – in a way, he was the James Cameron of his time, in more ways than one (1) -- were subverted by RKO’s death grip on the purse strings.

In fact, after Cooper returned from Hawaii he found that, instead of having $1,000,000 to spend individually on “She” and “The Last Days of Pompeii,” he had exactly half as much to spend on each production. Cooper had intended for “She” to be the first feature film shot entirely in three-strip Technicolor; instead, that privilege went to the prestige production “Becky Sharp,” by the same studio, later in the same year.

Instead of securing Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich as Ayesha and Joel McCrea as Leo, he went with the less-known and more affordable Broadway actress Helen Gahagan (Douglas – she and actor Melvyn Douglas were newly married at the time) and Randolph Scott, who was just moving from supporting roles to leads.
Helen Mack on Ayesha's terrace -- note RKO's signature black parquet flooring.
Ruth Rose, a former naturalist married to Schoedsack, who penned the script for Kong, adapted Rider’s novel to the screen. Little was changed from the original, save for changing the location of the lost city of Kor from central Africa to the Arctic (presumably on orders from producer Cooper, who was probably looking to vary his spectacular film effects) and, most importantly, altering the romantic subplot.

In the novel, Leo is wived by comely native girl Ustane before reaching Kor; later Ayesha kills Ustane with her mental powers, and makes love to Leo, quite literally over her dead body. In the film, Leo is beguiled by the sweet, spunky orphan Tanya (Helen Mack) en route to Kor. This being Hollywood, Tanya is imperiled but not destroyed, and lives happily ever after with Leo in what seems at the fadeout to be a hymn to domesticity, and a firm turn of the back to wonder and mystery. In this version of “She,” true, mortal love conquers all.
Tonya's sacrifice.
Matthew C. Hoffman, in his notes for his “Screen Deco” film series, notes astutely that Van Nest Polglase, long-time RKO art director, had supervised the design of previous shiny, stylized productions such as the Astaire/Rodgers vehicle The Gay Divorcee. The pleasures of geometry, symmetry, high-contrast shading, and the high-gloss, slick surfaces of plastic, Bakelite, and chrome are indulged as nowhere else in the film designs of the period. (Pre-production artwork indicates a much softer, more organic design for the film.)

Under Polglase’s supervision, special effects wizard Vernon Walker, who made his reputation overcoming the mind-numbing difficulties of camera effects for King Kong, took up the challenge yet again, and the 1935 She is a masterfully crafted blend of process shots, matte paintings, and set design. The fact that designs were made with color in mind, designs that were scotched at the last minute, means that the question of whether or not to show what its color production might have looked like is a good one.
A matte shot of the throne room.
Legend’s two-disc set contains the colorized and black-and-white versions, an interview with Ray Harryhausen, a self-congratulatory and somewhat defensive Legend feature on the colorization process (hey, they’ve been fighting critical disdain and creator outrage since Day 1), an interview with Cooper archives curator James V’Arc, key scenes from silent-era productions of She, production stills, promotional art and material, a photo gallery, the original She storybook, an interview with composer John Morgan, freshly composed trailers for this and other Legend re-releases, and a reel of “sci-fi toy” commercials from the Space Age.

The digital colorization process we see in this DVD release still lends only a muted, musty tonal quality to the onscreen palette,
Randolph Scott as Leo, in color -- sepia tones . . . 
but it gives us at least a hint of what might have been. D├ęcor, dress and props are a steroidal concoction of styles – Deco underlying a mad blend of Oriental, Mesoamerican, Egyptian, Sumerian, Atlantean – and the baroquely wrought spears look remarkably like those used in The Wizard of Oz four years later. Hoffman describes this amalgam succinctly as “Barbaric Moderne”; blogger Ryan Harvey expands, “She’s kingdom is a 1930s wonder of faux-futurism, a collision of art deco and the Roman Empire that only grand old Hollywood could have crafted.”

The result is kitsch – a style that is both grandiose and bargain-basement, which simultaneously repels the savvy viewer due to its blatant artificiality and draws us in with its audaciously straight-faced assertion of itself. The temples of Kor rise from the smooth, glossy black floors of the RKO soundstage. At one point,  Ayesha’s high priest Bilali is seen dressed up like a miniature replica of the Chrysler Building. Yet in deadly seriousness the story unfolds. The intensity of the creators’ efforts and the mismatched design elements give the whole of the 1935 She a MORE dreamlike quality – that of the tattered, inconsistent, and unfinished constructs of the sleeping mind.

A key example of this cognitive dissonance is the sacrificial dance sequence towards the end of the film. Artists of the period were obsessed with primitivism. The art, music, and dance of non-Western cultures was explored, exploited, and assimilated – an aesthetic colonialism.

This “primitive ritual” was choreographed by Benjamin Zemach, a Russian dancer whose early work with the Habima Theater of Moscow exposed him to the avant-garde strategies of Stanislavsky, Vakhtangov, and Meyerhold. After his migration to America, he was associated with Martha Graham in New York. Zemach’s vocabulary of movement is highly reminiscent of the wide stance, expansion/contraction, and angular, rhythmic thrust that characterizes Graham’s work.

Anyone familiar with 20th-century dance may find it She’s pseudo-anthropological rite ludicrous (in fact, it won the film its only Oscar nomination). . . but it percolates into the collective subconscious and becomes part of how future such dance/events are captured on film (Cobra Woman, 1944; The Ten Commandments, 1956; The Indian Tomb, 1959; Cleopatra, 1963 . . . ). As is usual with the human mind, the gaudy misperception becomes the received truth.

Another aid to the dissociative feel of the film is the fact that two directors were used – Irving Pichel and Lansing Holden. Pichel was a striking actor who made his directing debut three years earlier, sharing chores with Shoedsack on The Most Dangerous Game in 1932. They were slated to work on She together again, but Schoedsack, feeling the material was too difficult to be filmed convincingly, bowed out. Holden, a World War I flying ace, was a budding architect and set designer whose first directing job this was. I presume that Holden handled the technically challenging shots and Pichel handled the actors. Would She be more memorable had Schoedsack stuck it out?

And what about the casting? Garbo’s smoldering remoteness might have been stronger than Helen Gahagan’s more imperious directness of manner. However, Gahagan performs as directed, with assurance and grace. Randolph Scott is stiff as Leo. In Scott’s defense, he has not much to work with, and is at the beginning of his career, still playing hunky secondary roles. After decades of experience, he learned how to project complex emotions from under the mask of polite reserve his characters always wore.

Nigel Bruce does his best in the thankless role of Holly, who is tasked to run through the exposition and ask all pertinent questions. Bruce had not yet gotten stuck in his usual bumbling, silly-ass-Englishman characterization, used to great effect in the Sherlock Holmes film series with Basil Rathbone.

The real puzzler is the casting of Gustav von Seyffritz as high priest Bilali. Although he made his reputation in horror roles and grotesque character parts, his accent is nearly impenetrable, and his hawkish profile is not imposing here.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that this was composer Max Steiner’s third score for Cooper, after The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong; the latter is considered the first and still the exemplary “wall-to-wall” film score, complete with motifs. Steiner’s seemingly inexhaustible genius is in full force here, showing Hollywood that a pervasive, underlying opera-like music soundtrack can charge the movie with rhythm, emotion, and meaning.

The 2007 release of Harryhausen’s restored version gives us not only a look at what might have been, but shows us a conceptual template that would be imitated in countless adventure/fantasy films, down to the present -- even inspiring the look of another classic villainess and the creation of the superheroine.

The 1935 She made an impression, not in and of itself, but as a stylistic template. The most immediate and marked influence on Hollywood was the design for the gown and headdress of the Wicked Queen in Walt Disney’s Snow White in 1937. It’s pretty much a straight lift from Cooper’s production. The icy hauteur of Ayesha was transmitted, without credit.

1937 also saw the birth of the first comic-book heroine, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle – “The mother goddess of jungle girls,” according to Mike Madrid. Conceived of as the female answer to Tarzan, Will Eisner dreamed her up, and derived her name from She. (2)

A wide range of assertive female characters were emerging culturally – in literature, film, pulps, and comics -- and as a royal figure like Ayesha, Sheena similarly rules over her swath of jungle, never leaving to interact with the civilized world, as Madrid states: “Sheena embodied the colonial concept of the naturally intelligent and rational Caucasian, looking after her gullible black underlings”.

Like She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed’s, Sheena’s kingdom remains insular, womblike, a dream-world in which values do not change and all relationships ossify – a dead end. Later decades would bring forth more balanced, less isolate fictional females.

In a larger sense, “She’”s aesthetic heritage is pervasive. Fantasy always seems cobbled of fragments of the ancient and imagined future; we build our imaginary worlds with familiar building blocks. Cooper’s production, addicted to gigantism, melodrama, cheesy splendor, beefcake and sinuous native girls, and a magic sense of nature, would invade every pore of the sensibilities of filmmakers to come.

As a project that fell between two chairs, the 1935 “She” maintains a sense of wonder, not despite its tatterdemalion splendors but precisely because of them.

  1. In 1938, Cooper proposed a film called “War Eagles” that took place in a lost world hidden in the Antarctic, “a super-Western of the air in which instead of riders of the plains on horseback, we will have wild riders of the air on giant prehistoric eagles.” [Vaz, pg. 278] The outline climaxes with the lost world’s eagle-riders saving New York City from an enemy air force. Lost world, Native-American-type protagonists, a fight against technologically superior invaders from the air -- sound anything like Avatar?

2.               2. Will Eisner’s The Spirit – 2: Setting Up Shop,” Interview with Tom Heintjes, 1992 --

Familiar faces, final fates

Co-director IRVING PICHEL ran afoul of the Second Red Scare in the 1950s. He was named one of the “Hollywood Nineteen” and, though never called on to testify in front of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, he was blacklisted. He left the country and directed a few films outside the United States, never regaining his reputation.

Star HELEN GAHAGAN went on to a national political career, and infamously clashed with and lost to Richard Nixon, whom she christened “Tricky Dick,” in the 1950 California Senate campaign.

HELEN MACK left acting and film after a few years, becoming a producer, director, and writer for radio. She helmed such shows as “Richard Diamond, Private Detective” and “The Saint,” and later wrote for television.

SAM HINDS (John Vincey) spent his career as authority figure. He will be best remembered for playing George Bailey’s father in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Sam Hinds
RAY “CRASH” CORRIGAN (uncredited Guard) became the hero of several B-Westerns and serials, and specialized in costumed ape imitations in later films. His “Corriganville” Western film set brought him largesse as Western film and TV production peaked in the 1950s.

JIM THORPE (uncredited Captain of the Guard) spent decades after his Olympic triumphs as a Hollywood bit player, among many other hand-to-mouth jobs.

NOBLE JOHNSON (uncredited Amahaggar chief), though African-American, was compelled to play exotic villains, natives, “Latins,” Indian chiefs, and the like, throughout his career. He took his earnings and used them to produce films for African-American audiences, the so-called “race” films that were shown exclusively to non-white crowds.
Noble Johnson

BENJAMIN ZEMACH (Dance director) later choreographed the groundbreaking pro-union musical revue Pins and Needles on Broadway in 1937, as well as Kurt Weill’s epic opera/oratorio on Jewish history, The Eternal Road, the same year.

MERIAN C. COOPER never equaled the fame of King Kong; however, in 1947 he formed Argosy Pictures with his friend, director John Ford, and produced most of Ford’s masterpieces – including his Cavalry Trilogy (Fort Apache, Rio Grande, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,) The Searchers, The Quiet Man, and Wagon Master. Ironically, Cooper was a supporter of anti-Communist efforts in Hollywood in the 1950s, but gave work to blacklisted Irving Pichel, who can be heard as the narrator in Ford’s 1949 She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.