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Elephant Walk

Elephant Walk
1953 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 103 min. / Street Date July 12, 2005 / 14.99
Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Dana Andrews, Peter Finch, Abraham Sofaer, Abner Biberman
Cinematography Loyal Griggs
Art Direction J. McMillan Johnson, Hal Pereira
Film Editor George Tomasini
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by John Lee Mahin from a novel by Robert Standish
Produced by Irving Asher
Directed by William Dieterle

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Elephant Walk is a genuine hoot, a completely trashy and trivial story grossly overserved by some fine actors and a handsome Paramount production. Elizabeth Taylor shines as the young bride brought into an exotic environment filled with generational intrigues as well as various tropical dangers. It's fun nonsense, a movie that was enormously popular on network television when color hit big in the early 1960s. We enjoy seeing Taylor spar with Dana Andrews and the young Peter Finch, even as we invent Airplane! or Monty Python- inflected comedy versions as we watch: This is the kind of picture that was made for lampooning on the defunct MST3K, not some defenseless no-budget genre flick. There are plenty of jokes to be mined, from Pink Elephants on Parade to the 'sequel': Baby Elephant Walk in Hatari!


In less than two weeks, librarian Ruth Wiley (Elizabeth Taylor) meets and marries tea planter John Wiley (Peter Finch), as he's set to return to Ceylon immediately after what an old gossip describes as a troublesome wife-hunting expedition in London. Ruth goes to the ancient island and quickly finds an odd situation that her husband gave her no inkling was awaiting her. There are no wives among the planters because no white woman can stand the climate. John's own mother fled back to England soon after he was born. Wiley's enormous mansion Elephant Walk is ruled over by a brooding and mysterious head servant Appuhamy (Abraham Sofaer) and Ruth is made to feel an interloper. His best friend Dick Carver (Dana Andrews) is a dangerously attractive male specimen. And finally, Wiley's sweet temperament disappears whenever a certain bull elephant appears - John is in a perpetual war with the beast, a feud that started when his father built Elephant Walk right in the path of the giant animals' traditional trail to water. It's been man vs. pachyderm ever since.

Daphne Du Maurier launched a zillion bodice-ripping potboilers with her Rebecca and this young-bride-in-peril bodice-ripper is no different. It has the innocent maid marrying the Byronic hero, a handsome fellow who goes ballistic over any and all affronts to the rule of his dead father, including periodic rebellions by a a bull elephant whose mate the father killed. Those elephants never forget, you know.

Elephant Walk also has a Mrs. Danvers clone in the housemaster Appuhamy, who gives baleful looks in Ruth's direction, smiles happily whenever the dead master's name is mentioned, and helps keep a secret locked room (a secret locked room!) out-of-bounds to unwelcome new mistresses of the house. Ruth fights an uphill battle against boorish neighbors (fond of playing bicycle hockey until dawn in the great hall) and a husband who, when he gets drunk, changes into a parody of his abusive father as regularly as Vincent Price is possessed by evil ancestors.

The screenwriter of Elephant Walk is John Lee Mahin, who wrote Red Dust twenty years beofre and seemingly turned it into a franchise. Whenever they needed romance in a tropical setting (like Mogambo, a Red Dust remake) they turned to him. It's not a tough assigment to add some Rebecca, some Jane Eyre, and to be sure to stick in a handsome rival to tempt our heroine before she finally wins her place at Elephant Walk. And Mahin (or the original novelst) doesn't hold back the clichés - a third act cholera epidemic arrives to put off inconvenient romantic decisions and provide a test of character for all concerned.

We're told that Vivien Leigh was to play Ruth, but backed out of the picture for health reasons. No such excuse was necessary if Leigh didn't realize at the start what kind of film she was in. Dana Andrews and Peter Finch must have felt strange trading a legendary actress for an up-and-coming siren. As the studios lost their contracted players and tried to operate as independent contractors, this sort of thing happened often, as with the next year's The Egyptian in which Bella Darvi and Peter Ustinov signed to star opposite Marlon Brando but ended up stuck with Edmund Purdom.

Paramount certainly laid on the production values, with elaborate second-unit filming in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka, of course). It looks as though Dana Andrews and perhaps Peter Finch actually went there, but Taylor appears to be doubled in all the exterior scenes by a stunt woman. We're also told that some distant shots are still of Vivien Leigh, but that's not easy to believe.  1

A lot of elephants are used, although a few are simply matte paintings and others are animated for individual shots. The Paramount optical department came up with some effective mattes for the final elephant attack, the one where Liz Taylor's stunt double is chased through the house and up a collapsing set of stairs. It's very well done, with a partial miniature of a burning house nicely integrated with the live action.

The format of the movie closely follows Paramount's The Naked Jungle - a shaky marriage in the tropics survives the onslaught of some natural threat and cures the disturbed husband. Charlton Heston was better as a jealous Brazilian colonist than Peter Finch is as a tea planter possessed by the ghost of his father. Every time he sees or hears the vengeful bull elephant, Finch reacts like a bull (or Tippi Hedren) seeing red. Surely the direction is split between second unit workhorses and credited director William Dieterle, but the picture plays smoothly and isn't as foolish as one might imagine it to be.

But still, the opening image of a diary page, with John Wiley spelling out his mania over his dead dad and the elephants' easement dispute, is just plain silly. And since the movie scrupulously avoids any sexual context - Ruth and John barely kiss and behave as if she's there to mother him - figuring out what the movie's really about is rather frustrating. Lessee, Ruth is an abundantly fecund female looking for 'fulfillment,' and all she finds in Ceylon are a bunch of sexless old fools, a husband made impotent by the shadow of his dad, and a potential lover who comes up short in the ethics department. I should think Ruth would see that the only real man in the movie is the bull elephant. How do we know the proud pachyderm isn't calling for her?

Paramount's DVD of Elephant Walk looks fine. The flat image mattes off well to 1:78 on a widescreen monitor (just a few heads trimmed). proving it was obviously formatted for 1:66 and could have been presented enhanced and look much better. Viewers who doubt this should check out the shape of the text blocks in the main credits; they leave plenty of room to chop off big pieces of the top and bottom of the frame.

The many rear projections look grainy and more washed out, which is how they always looked. Colors are a bit contrasty but Liz Taylor looks like her usual million bucks, especially in a purple dress that matches her eye color.

This being a Paramount disc, there are no extras. The package cover illustration shows an obvious lack of good photo material on the movie.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Elephant Walk rates:
Movie: Good but also good 'n corny
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 6, 2005


1. From Dick Dinman, 7.09.05: Hi Glenn, Jesse L. Lasky's book Love Scene: The Story of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh is one of many books that details the Elephant Walk back story. Leigh was in fragile mental health while shooting the film, a condition aggravated by the tumultuous affair she was having with Peter Finch, who was cast at her insistence. Adding to the tension were the constant visits of husband Olivier. After shooting substantial portions of the film Leigh was fired and flew back to London where she was met by Olivier and Stewart Granger (who personally substantiated this portion of the story to me.) Paramount was forced to borrow Taylor from Metro for double Leigh's salary and scrap all of Leigh's footage with the exception of the long shots. (If you freeze frame those shots on a seven foot screen you can see that it's Leigh.) Peter Finch and the then drunk and unreliable Dana Andrews had to re-shoot all their closeup scenes on the Paramount lot where 100% of Taylor's scenes were shot. Amazingly, despite the added costs and delays (and bad reviews) Elephant Walk was a sizable hit. --- Dick Dinman

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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