Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Count of Monte Cristo (1934)

(This post is part of the Costume Drama Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini)

The Count of Monte Cristo was written by Alexandre Dumas (père) and was serialised in the Journal des Débats from August 28 1844 to January 15 1846. The first single volume English translation of the novel would be published in January 26 1846 under title The Prisoner of If or The Revenge of Monte Christo. Whether in French or English, The Count of Monte Cristo would prove to be one of Alexandre Dumas's most popular novels, alongside such works as The Three Musketeers

As might be expected given the novel's popularity, it has been adapted to other media several times. The first film adaptation was made in 1908, with four more made in the Silent Era alone (in 1913, in 1918, in 1922, and in 1929). The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), directed by Rowland V. Lee, would be the first sound film adaptation of the novel. 

The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) originated with producer Edward Small. Mr. Small had begun his career as a talent agent in New York City in 1917 and later moved to Los Angeles. Eventually he entered film production, producing movies both through his own production companies and Columbia. It was in 1932 that he and partner Harry M. Goetz formed Reliance Pictures, a company formed with financing from Art Cinema, a subsidiary company of United Artists. The first two films Edward Small produced for United Artists were I Cover the Waterfront (1933), a crime drama, and Palooka (1933), film based on teh popular comic strip Joe Palooka starring Jimmy Durante. The third was The Count of Monte Cristo (1934).

Edward Small hired Rowland V. Lee to both direct and write the film. Mr. Lee wrote a treatment for the movie with playwright Dan Totheroh. When Dan Totheroh moved to New York City, Rowland V. Lee brought Philip Dunne onto the project to write the dialogue. According to Mr. Dunne, he told Rowland V. Lee that he had never read The Count of Monte Cristo. Mr. Lee told him not to worry, that he would act it out for him. According to Philip Dunne, Rowland V. Lee did such a good job that he ended up using all of Mr. Dunne's dialogue. 

Fredric March was initially considered for the lead role of Edmond Dantès, the titular Count of Monte Cristo. Fredric March proved unavailable and as a result Robert Donat was cast in the role. Robert Donat was fresh from his success as Thomas Culpepper in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). British producer Alexander Korda then loaned Mr. Donat to Edward Small for The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). It would be the only film that Robert Donat made in Hollywood. Mr. Donat did not particularly like Hollywood and he also suffered from asthma that made travel unpleasant. He would go onto further success in his native Britain in The 39 Steps (1935) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). He won the Oscar for Best Actor for the latter film.

The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) received generally positive reviews. Variety remarked of the film, "Monte Cristo is a near-perfect blend of thrilling action and grand dialog, both of which elements are inherent in Alexandre Dumas' original story." In his review in The New York Times, Andre Sennwald wrote of The Count of the Monte Cristo (1934), "In its third cinema reincarnation, "The Count of Monte Cristo, which began an engagement at the Rivoli yesterday, is still as passionate and grand as the waves that crash against the grim battlements of the Château d'If.." The National Board of Review also named it one of the 10 best films of 1934. It also did very well with audiences.

In fact, The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) was such a success at the box office that, along with MGM's Treasure Island (1934) and Alexander Korda's The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), it triggered an entire cycle of swashbucklers that would last into the early Forties. If not for The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), then, we might not have Captain Blood (1935), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), or The Black Swan (1942). The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) would also produce two sequels: The Son of Monte Cristo (1940) and The Return of Monte Cristo (1946).

Like the original novel, The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) centres on Edmond Dantès, a merchant sailor who is imprisoned for years and, after escaping, begins extracting revenge on the corrupt individuals who imprisoned him. That is not to say that there were considerable differences between the novel and the 1934 film adaptation. The novel is a complex and to large degree serious examination of the theme of revenge. The movie is a less complicated work whose emphasis is on swashbuckling. It is largely because of the novel's complexity that several major characters from the book do not appear in the movie and other character's roles are reduced in the film. There are also several plot points that differ in the book from the movie. In the novel Mercédès Mondego is Edmond Dantès's fiancée. Following his escape from prison, Mercédès and Edmond elect to part ways. In the movie they resume their relationship. In the novel Fernand and Edmond never engage in a sword fight as they do in the movie. There are several more ways in which the novel differs from the movie, changes made either because of the novel's complexity or simply to make the novel more accessible to American movie audiences in 1934.

While The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) differs a good deal from the original novel, that is not to say it is in anyway inferior. The novel is a classic that examines the idea of revenge. The movie is a well-executed swashbuckler. In fact, it is arguably one of the greatest films made in the genre.

The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) would have a lasting impact. As mentioned earlier, it spurred an entire cycle of swashbuckler movies that would last into the Forties. What is more, its influence is still being felt in the 21st Century. Kevin Reynolds's 2002 adaptation of the novel would seem to owe a good deal to the 1934 movie (including his sword duel with Fernand). The plot of the 1980s graphic novel V for Vendetta would seem to owe something to the original novel, both dealing with imprisoned men who then extract revenge on those who wronged them. The 2005 film based on the graphic novel acknowledged this influence by making Count of Monte Cristo (1934) V's favourite film. It is safe to say that The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) will continue to have an influence. Indeed, after 85 years, it is still considered by many to be the quintessential film version of the novel.


Caftan Woman said...

A perennial favourite story, and film version. The themes touch our core. I hadn't considered the influence of this film before and your point is well taken. Edward Small movies have a special place in my heart. Growing up, it seems most of my favourites came from this movie-loving independent producer.

Silver Screenings said...

I didn't realize this film was so influential when it came to the swashbuckling films of the 1930s. I need to finally see it, ASAP!

Debbie Vega said...

I had no idea before I read your post that this is the film that started the sound era swashbuckling craze. When I think of Robert Donat, I picture Mr. Chips, not a swashbuckling hero. I need to catch up on this and see it.

Thanks so much for participating!