Becky Sharp
Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // $29.95 // April 16, 2019
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 19, 2019
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Becky Sharp (1935), an historical drama adapted from Langdon Mitchell's 1899 play, itself a dramatization of Thackeray's Vanity Fair is of great significance in the development of motion pictures, but pretty turgid as entertainment. As such, for film buffs one might call it a "Brussel sprouts" movie, the kind of thing any serious lover of cinema should experience once, though it is fairly artless, offering few pleasures and only minor interest.

What's so important about Becky Sharp is that it was the first feature to be made entirely "in Technicolor," i.e., that company's full-color, three-strip process, which dominated the industry for most of the next 20 years, and used in such classic films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (both 1939), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) The Red Shoes (1948), The Quiet Man, Singin' in the Rain (1952), and dozens of others. The last three-strip Technicolor movie, Foxfire (1955), was recently released to Blu-ray as well.

Early in the 19th century, upwardly-mobile social climber Becky Sharp (Miriam Hopkins), an orphan, is happy to leave her stuffy English girls boarding school with her best friend, Amelia Sedley (Francis Dee), and Amelia's fat and buffoonish but kindhearted older brother, Joseph (Nigel Bruce). He's in love with Becky, but she soon finds employment as a governess at the estate of Sir Pitt Crawley (William Stack), winning the hand of his playboy and heavy gambler son, Rawdon (Alan Mowbray), a British officer. Still on the prowl for better prospects, Becky's strange, contradictory charms and lack of social grace both moves her up the social ladder while contributing to her scandalous reputation. War breaks out at Waterloo, sending Rawdon off to join the fighting, and while Becky tries to pay off his gambling debts she becomes involved with wealthy Lord Styne (Cedric Hardwicke).

Dramatically, Becky Sharp is tough sledding even for dedicated film fans. The mid-1930s saw a surge in Hollywood-made literary adaptations (Treasure Island, David Copperfield, Romeo and Juliet, etc.) but most of those films display the same awkwardness that infuses Becky Sharp. The acting tends to be hammy (Bruce, Allison Skipworth as Lady Crawley) or stiff (Hardwicke, William Faversham as the Duke of Wellington), with lines delivered like a stuffy stage play for an audience hard-of-hearing.

Writer Francis Edward Faragoh's credits include a few classics like Little Caesar and Frankenstein (1931), but Becky Sharp is often ludicrous in its pretentiousness, with many howler lines. There are clumsy references to historical figures and places ("I hear Napoleon has gathered his troops in Waterloo, or some such name"). Expressing his love, Rawdon actually says, "I love you, Becky, from your little toes up!"

By 1935, Hollywood had long overcome the technical problems inherit during the silent-to-talkies transition, with Mutiny on the Bounty, Bride of Frankenstein, and Tarzan and His Mate all vibrant, aggressively cinematic recent examples. However, the new Technicolor cameras and, particularly, their need for excessive light, effectively turned back the clock to the Dawn of Sound days. Becky Sharp is entirely studio bound and the camera rarely moves. Most of the film consists of medium shots with little movement from the actors trapped in its frame. There are precious few close-ups.

Curiously, this dazzling new process feels rather squandered, and other than the addition of color, the production hardly looks the $950,000 it reportedly cost. (Even the limited musical score seems largely culled from other films. One cue suspiciously sounds like it was lifted from Max Steiner's The Son of Kong.) While the women's dresses and the men's period clothes and bright-red uniforms are certainly impressive, the set design is rather drab, even utilitarian, and the slow film required harsh, even light, a far cry from Jack Cardiff's gorgeous cinematography of the later Powell-Pressburger films. Only one short sequence, pandemonium at a lavish ball when Napoleon's cannons make themselves known, is there any real attempt to use color and light dramatically.

Miriam Hopkins was a greatly admired actress in her day, but unlike others of her generation (Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, etc.) is largely forgotten. In Becky Sharp she adds a natural vibrancy the picture sorely needs, and Frances Dee makes a fine visual and actorly contrast. Nigel Bruce and Alan Mowbray weren't yet 40 yet already seem far too old to be 33-year-old Hopkins's suitors. The IMDb notes that, despite being fourth-billed, Billie Burke appears in one short scene, but they're wrong claiming she has just two lines of dialog. (It's actually around six, but her role as Lady Bareacres is indeed tiny.) Reportedly among the dancers at the ball is future First Lady Pat Nixon, but I didn't spot her.

Video & Audio

Becky Sharp was actually produced by Pioneer Pictures in association with RKO, rather than as an entirely in-house studio production. As such rights to the film bounced around for decades, including as a mid-1940s reissue by Film Classics, Inc. in two-strip Cinecolor followed, and TV versions were often cut in addition to offering poor color. Kino's new release is a further, 4K refinement of the UCLA Film & Television Archive's 1984 restoration, then supervised by Robert Gitt and Richard Dayton. The Blu-ray, which includes new audio as well as image restoration (from the nitrate negatives and positive separations), generally looks excellent. Only during the final reel does the image quality drop significantly, clearly sourcing a composite of negatives and/or theatrical prints. Even here, however, there's obvious effort to balance the color, contrast, etc., though sharp-eyed viewers will notice changes in image quality from shot to shot. DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) with optional English subtitles and Region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

There's a great supplement in Jack Theakston's audio commentary, which delves into all aspects of the production, including especially well-researched technical comments. It's a dense track, though it does end about 10 minutes before the movie does.

Parting Thoughts

Not really for general audiences but a must, for historical reasons, for serious film buffs, Becky Sharp is Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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