Ripping 1940 Technicolor melodrama Chad Hanna combines historic intrigue and torrid romance with the high-wattage trio of Henry Fonda, Dorothy Lamour, and Linda Darnell (hubba hubba!). Sounds like a sure thing, right? Well… at least the photography looks nice on Fox's Cinema Archives made-to-order DVD edition.
Competently directed by 20th Century Fox's resident workhorse Henry King, Chad Hanna uses the studio's finest technicians in service of a story that's essentially just another boring love triangle. It fails to generate much excitement, despite having the vivid setting of traveling circus performers in 1840s upstate New York. Why would Fox use their top-flight director, big stars, and Technicolor film (not cheap) on such a routine picture? Walter D. Edmonds, that's why. The best-selling in his day, now-obscure historic novelist wrote Chad Hanna as a follow-up to his hugely successful 1936 page-turner Drums Along the Mohawk. Fox already had a hit in 1939 adapting that colonists-in-peril yarn with lush production values, Technicolor photography, and star Henry Fonda, so doing a similar venture with Chad Hanna was a done deal. Only six months after readers swamped the bookstores for their own copy of Chad Hanna (it had already been serialized in The Saturday Evening Post), they could see the story dramatized in living color on the big screen. The thing is, lighting didn't strike twice this time.
Chad Hanna revolves around Fonda's title character, a naive country boy who hasn't experienced much beyond the confines of Canistoga, New York - until a traveling circus comes to town. A bribe-seeking advance man named Bisbee (John Carradine) selects the town as the next stop for Huguenine's Great and Only International Circus, a ragtag troupe which includes a blustery ringmaster, Mr. Huguenine (Guy Kibbee), his stern and sturdy wife (Jane Darwell), a married pair of European acrobats, a scraggly yet ferocious lion, and a lovely bareback horse rider named Albany Yates (Dorothy Lamour). Chad is so taken with Miss Yates that he arranges with a local man for cash (for a circus ticket) in exchange for tips for the capture of an escaped slave, although he alerts the slave in question before the authorities can get to him. This gets Chad in trouble, so he winds up joining the circus as a roustabout to be closer to Albany. The circus also takes in Caroline (Linda Darnell), the slave-hunter's impoverished daughter, who becomes Albany's friend/assistant. Eventually, Caroline takes over as the circus' bareback rider after Albany is lured away by an offer from competing circus manager Fred Shepley (Ted North). Albany's departure hurts Mr. Huguenine's already struggling circus, which is constantly hounded by Shepley's destructive goons (including big-featured cult actor Rondo Hatton). Meanwhile, Chad comes to realize that Albany's allure is distracting him from his deeper feelings for Caroline, the girl who held a torch for Chad since they were children.
My quick impression of Chad Hanna is that it's well-made and charming at times, but not terribly distinctive. It doesn't bode well that the most memorable scene is a long, documentary-like sequence with Linda Darnell attempting to ride a horse galloping in a circle while the actress was strapped into a training harness. Strangely, the circus itself doesn't figure all that much in the story - it's mostly about Chad's love life and the power struggle between the two competing circuses. Henry Fonda does a decent job, although the dullness of the material shows in his distracted performance (he must have been tired of playing one awkward country bumpkin after another). Darnell and Dorothy Lamour don't fare much better - Darnell does her best with the limited Suffering Girlfriend role (reprised in 1941's Blood and Sand), while Lamour's pancake-flat line readings makes it astonishing that she was ever considered a major movie star. At least director Henry King keeps things lively, Guy Kibbee and Jane Darwell lend some solid support, and the luminous color cinematography still impresses. The more of these lower-tier 20th Century Fox movies I see, the more convinced I am that they were the most conservative, least creative of the big classic-era Hollywood studios.
As with many early Technicolor films, the print used on Chad Hanna's made-to-order DVD release has help up well with not too much in the way of damage and wear. The image has a somewhat yellow cast, and darks become so murky at times that a few scenes are plunged in black. At times, the picture is also a bit more softened than what would usually be considered acceptable, but overall it's a pleasant-looking release.
The film's mono soundtrack is preserved in decent shape, limited dynamically yet not quite as damaged as other vintage '40s films on disc. A few pops and clicks turn up, nothing too drastic. No subtitles are included on this no-frills release.
None. As with other Fox Cinema Archives discs, the disc sports a simple menu and chapter stops every ten minutes in the film.
The 1940 circus melodrama Chad Hanna is 20th Century Fox's attempt to repeat Drums Along the Mohawk using the same best-selling author and star Henry Fonda, only with diminishing returns. Not a crowning achievement for anyone involved, but it's lively romantic drama and worth a peek for the great Technicolor photography. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.