Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Lovers of Merian C. Cooper's King Kong have always had a soft spot for the producer's 1935 She, an impressive RKO release that reunites many of the original film's creative and technical talent. H. Rider Haggard's 1887 novel She: A History of Adventure is said to be the first of the modern 'lost world' escapist successes, although we wonder why Jules Verne's 'Extraordinary Voyages' don't qualify. Acknowledged Haggard-influenced works include Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912, a remote plateau in Venezuela), Edgar Rice Burroughs' At the Earth's Core (1914, a land called Pellucidar at the center of the earth), Pierre Benoît's L'Atlantide (1919, an Atlantean culture discovered under the sands of the Sahara) and James Hilton's Lost Horizon (1933, a refuge from war in the Himalayas). The format has persisted in Science Fiction and fantasy movies, from Universal's anemic The Mole People to the abysmal The Incredible Petrified World.
Haggard's fantastic tale was set in Africa, like his Allan Quatermain stories, and were the subject of five separate silent adaptations, the most famous being a 1925 effort starring Betty Blythe. Cooper's lavish retelling moves the action to the Arctic circle. "She" is still 2,000 years old, but her name is not Ayesha and her lost lover is not Kallikrates but John Vincey, a mere 14 generations removed from handsome young moden adventurer Leo Vincey, played by the heroic Randolph Scott. Beautiful stage star Helen Gahagan is the imperious and ageless queen; as Helen Gahagan Douglas, she later became much more famous as a politician. In a run for the Senate she was defeated by Richard Nixon when he branded her as, what else, a Communist. The 1935 She is more famous for its tangential associations (Kong, Nixon) than for its own substantial merits.
Kino's Deluxe Two Disc Edition is presented in conjuction with colorizing entrepreneurs Legend Films, which only nine months ago released a colorized version of the 94-minute (before added credits) cut. The full-length original version is here in rather good condition, both colorized and in a preferred B&W transfer.
Young Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott) travels with fellow adventurer Horace Holly (Nigel Bruce) to a remote part of northern Russia in search of a mysterious 'element' that his father (Samuel S. Hinds) believes might grant eternal life: A Vincey ancestor is said to have been killed trying to secure it 500 years ago. Picking up a guide (Lumsden Hare) and his daughter Tanya (Helen Mack) in 'Muscovy', Leo and Holly find their way to Kor, an ancient civilization in a cave. Ruling Kor is the beautiful Queen Hash-A-Mo-Tep, or "She" (Helen Gahagan). She believes that Leo is the reincarnation of her lover John Vincey, who she killed in a rage five centuries before; "She" is immortal after having bathed in a magic fire in a sacred underground grotto. Tanya isn't happy to discover that "She" intends to have Leo enter the pyre as well, and spend eternity as her consort.
She is as old-fashioned as adventures get. Hardy Anglo explorers tangle with cannibal natives called Ahmahaggers. They shoot down several and are captured by a strange throwback culture that may hold the secret of a functioning Fountain of Youth. The intrepid heroes shoot down some more spear carriers and barely escape to tell their tale.
Haggard essentially reworked his Quatermain adventures in a fantastic framework. Ever since the library at Alexandria burned, pundits have imagined that ancient civilizations possessed technological secrets and lost arts of wizardry. Writer Ruth Rose links Hash-A-Mo-Tep's rejuvenation furnace with the Curies and radiation, although even in 1935 people would more likely associate it with rebirth myths like the Phoenix. If fire purifies, a magic fire might have powers of rejuvenation. Old superstitions become modern myths. Just a handful of generations later, we're overrun by George Lucas, The Force, and a bunch of smelly Ewoks.
Max Steiner's grandiose music with its Kong-like heavy descending chords, welcomes us to the vast underground kingdom of Kor. At the massive gates is a frozen saber-toothed tiger, and more wonders await inside. Designer Van Nest Polglase must have taken time from pouring black dance floors for Fred Astaire to concoct an elaborate, vaguely Art Deco underground empire. A ceremonial dance episode, usually the bane of this particular genre, benefits from creative choreography and camerawork. The camera pans and tilts on scenes with matte paintings and makes use of other sophisticated effects tricks. A torch-lighter swings on a long rope, reminding us of a gag in Joe Versus the Volcano. 1
Director Irving Pichel probably handled the actors while co-director Lansing C. Holden, who also served as a production illustrator, may have presided over the scenes involving special art effects. "She" makes her first entrance at the top of a tall stairway behind an obscuring sheet of steam. That beautiful visual and the Queen's wistful dialogue made a big impression on Ray Harryhausen, who adapted the same 'look' for his Grand Lunar in First Men In the Moon.
The central romantic triangle is still interesting. The slightly older Hash-A-Mo-Tep is prone to flashes of sadistic cruelty; she already blew her chance for happiness 500 years before when she killed John/Leo Vincey in a jealous fit. The Queen tries to pry Leo away from the young Tanya, but is too intimidating to warm Leo's heart. Just by talking plainly, the far less glamorous Tanya wins the competition. Freud would certainly have a fun interpretation for the 'evil' queen, but as played by the stately Ms. Gahagan she's a compelling set of contradictions. Yes, Hash-A-Mo-Tep's love is strong, but she also wants total control over her chosen mate. Her idea of bliss is spending an abstract, unchanging eternity together. That sounds similar to the romantic plan envisioned by her sound-alike Egyptian cousin Im-ho-tep, as played by Boris Karloff in The Mummy: eternal Death-in-Life, or Life-in-Death. Walt Disney was surely enraptured by this portrait of the Eternal Perfidious Female. His Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a more curvaceous copy of Hash-A-Mo-Tep, and even dresses in an identical costume.
We're amused to see Nigel Bruce fight like an effective hero, not long before he became known as the fussy Dr. Watson. While Helen Gahagan remains remote and ethereal and the chiseled Randolph Scott behaves like a dullard, Helen Mack's Tanya rescues the movie from emotional inertia. Between this picture, The Son of Kong and
His Girl Friday, Mack personified the downtrodden waif of the Depression, who survives no matter who grim things get. Helen Mack steps right up and asks tough questions of the Queen, and has no problem being honest with her feelings. Author Ruth Rose makes the character conflict between Tanya and the Queen the central spark in the movie. It isn't elevated to the Alien Mother / Ripley level of competition, but it's there and it works.
Curiously, neither woman ever mentions the concept of children, and none appear in the movie, as if kids would hinder the concept of adventure. Nobody ever wonders why Tanya doesn't say, "I can bear children who won't be creepy demi-gods." She's message is the exact opposite of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind: the essentially immature Roy Neary happily dumps his wife and kids to become one with some cosmic planet-hoppers. Leo Vincey could enter the fire and live forever, but chooses instead to live out his days in conventional domesticity. She is somewhat tame, but it pleases as a solid fantasy adventure straight from the original mold.
Kino and Legend Films' presentation of She may frustrate buyers of last year's first colorized release, but new viewers will like the idea that the film is complete, and is in much better shape than older versions.
The transfer on the B&W version is surprisingly good, with some scratches and a few missing frames. I personally can't recall where the missing eight minutes are restored, as I haven't seen the older copy in about fifteen years. The only scenes that seemed new were dialogue material with Helen Mack. But I liked the film much better this time -- the (presumably) new speeches add to the mystery and enrich the characters.
Both the B&W and colorized versions are the full 102-minute cut. The colorization is much less successful than Legend's recent Sony release 20 Million Miles to Earth 50th Anniversary Edition. As the print is darker and less stable, the colors just don't look all that attractive. Certain effects just look ridiculous, like a soft close-up of the queen through a veil. Gahagan's eyes hang there like a pair of blue dots. Legend Film's logo touts itself as "The Leader in Restoration and Colorization Technology, but they left out 'meddling revision'. I only scanned the color version and cannot be sure if it is the only change, but the colorists appear to have added unecessary, Lifeforce- like animated electrical 'enhancements' to the concluding fire scene.
The Special Edition makes the specious claim that it was "Conceived by Ray Harryhausen." He contributes a commentary, aided by Cooper biographer Mark Cotta Vaz that may appeal to viewers who haven't overdosed on Ray of late. Harryhausen seems disoriented in his interview appearances, but his enthusiasm for She is genuine.
Good content can be found among disc two's great many extras. Several are repeated from the earlier Legend disc. Harryhausen rambles wildly in an interview that covers previous ground, and bounces uncontrolled between unrelated subjects. Ray reappears to laud the colorization process and parrots the defeatist (or, just mercantile) excuse that young people won't want to watch a film that isn't in color. Oddly, his criticisms of older colorization attempts apply equally to the new version - the tinting is grossly limited in range and the process makes mattes, etc., look more artificial than ever.
As in an informercial, Legend Films executives and creatives shamelessly use Ray as a PR battering ram. They assure us that Harryhausen contacted them to colorize his old pictures, and declare that colorization is now 'fully accepted.' A spokesman uses a roundabout argument to infer that, because directors Lucas, Scorsese and Spielberg are Harryhausen's acolytes, Ray's approval of colorization should convince them to change their attitudes. It's all self-serving BS. The real purpose of the restoration docu is to sell other 'intellectual rights holders' on rejuvenating their film libraries through the miracle of color tinting.
Brigham Young University curator James V. D'Arc adds more discussion of Merian C. Cooper as a producer. He explains that She was part of a two-picture deal that included The Last Days of Pompeii but loses focus on the details. Composer John Morgan discusses the Steiner score in the pleasant featurette Max Steiner and Me.
One very welcome bit is a comparison featurette with clips from the 1911 and 1925 versions. In the 1911 She Ayesha turns into a whithered midget before expiring. 1925's Betty Blythe wears a racy abbreviated costume and steps into the flames naked, albeit completely covered by her long hair. The extras galleries contain a trailer, a story book (actually a beautiful presentation of a playbook-like premiere program), stills, portraits, and some attractive advertising and preproduction art.
A short selection of unrelated Sci-Fi oriented 1960s Ideal toy commercials are also included, including ads for the plastic robot "Mr. Machine." Perhaps the pandering commercials are relevant to Legend Films: in 1962, we kiddies asked for "Mr. Machine" mainly because the ads repeatedly told us it was the greatest toy ever!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
She (1935) rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good B&W version
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 1, 2007
1. Aha! According to the premiere program, Hash-A-Mo-Tep means "She Who Must Be Obeyed." That phrase was used more liberally in the 1965 Hammer version with Ursula Andress, John Richardson and Peter Cushing. It's a good movie and one of Andress's best. In the (more or less) Helen Mack role Rosenda Monteros becomes a disposable item in a sacrifice scene. Christopher Lee is also very good as the creepy high priest. The names Ayesha and Kallikrates are back, along with a gallery of dead lovers lifted from Benoît's L'Atlante. In any guise, Ayesha's withering demise always reminds me of The Wicked Witch of The West ("I'm melting!") and even The Thing from Another World ("Boiled carrots!")
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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