BR: Becky Sharp (1935)

May 21, 2019 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  KINO / Unobstructed View

Region: A

Released:  April 16, 2019

Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: Blazing Technicolor version of the play based on Thackeray’s novel about a gold-digger in pre-Battle of Waterloo Europe.

Special Features:  Audio commentary with film historian Jack Theakson / Other Technicolor film trailers.




A Technical Backstory

Derived from William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847-1848 serialized novel Vanity Fair, Langdon Mitchell’s 1899 stage play seems like an odd choice for the fist feature film shot in Technicolor’s new 3-strip colour process, but restricting production to a studio environment allowed for more control over the new technology, and its demands of using massive lighting to expose proper skin tones and set décor.

As film historian Jim Theakston explains in his densely-packed commentary track, Technicolor co-founder Herbert Kalmus was determined to solve both the technical problems in developing a colour process with the least headaches in production, post-production, and exhibition, and repair its image as a flawed process best-suited for gimmicky use in sequences rather than an entire film.

On the plus side, Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925) featured a lengthy ball sequence in colour, whereas Douglas Fairbank’s action extravaganza The Black Pirate (1926) used a more unique process for the all-colour film, but the limited accuracy of 2-strip’s colour palette resulted in salmon pink skin tones and algae green hues. The quest to capture and project red, green, and blue debuted in Walt Disney’s classic Silly Symphonies animated short “Flowers and Trees” (1932),  but a contract to film a feature in the 3-strip process evaded the company until the founding of Pioneer Pictures in 1933, with RKO handling distribution of its product.

La Cucaracha (1934) was the first live action short film in the new process, after which came features Becky Sharp (1935) and The Dancing Pirate (1936). The significance of the two films would be eclipsed by several David O. Selznick productions, A Star is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937), and the blockbuster Gone with the Wind (1939). Perhaps because Selznick’s films were better box office performers and garnered critical praise and Oscar statues, Becky Sharp seemed to fade from view, and although it remained in circulation, most versions of Becky Sharp were struck in the cheaper 2-colour process by Cinecolor, who owned the film for a short period before the Pioneer catalogue fell into public domain.

With a radically reduced running time of 67 mins., Becky Sharp was effectively transformed from a milestone in color cinema and costly A-picture to a creaky, weird-looking B-movie, and languished as a 16mm catalogue title for decades until a restoration attempt by UCLA, which began in the 1980s and was completed in 1992. (The November 1984 issue of American Cinematographer spotlighted the film’s important place in film history.)

Further work followed as better materials were found in Europe, but in the realm of home video, what existed were lousy B&W and 2-colour tape and DVD releases, often with shorter running times from sub-par sources.This nearly 30-year odyssey finally came to a close in 2019 when the new restoration, previously restricted to theatrical screenings, made its debut on Blu-ray this spring, and the results are often quite striking.


The Movie

The 84 minute Becky Sharp was assembled from surviving 3-strip Technicolor negatives, Cinecolor elements, and a Belgium print, which also served as a reference point when the restorationists had to rebuild a colour stem when only 2 had survived.

Set just prior to the Battle of Waterloo, Thackeray’s story follows Becky Sharp (Miriam Hopkins) from her graduation from a starchy girl’s school to the men with whom she eyes, ensnares, and the hard times that follow when she’s on her own and facing imminent eviction from a seedy apartment.

During a short stay with best friend Amelia Sedley (Frances Dee), she somewhat falls for and teases her brother Joseph (Nigel Bruce), a blathering fool who frequently saves her from disastrous financial predicaments. Joseph keeps holding a candle for Becky even after he’s shunned for richer men, such as officer Rawdon Crawley (Alan Mowbray), and the Marquis of Steyne (pouting Cedric Hardwicke), a sugar daddy who struggles to keep his fly buttoned, hoping Becky will soon give in to his advances and hefty cash advances.

The film’s major sequence is the great ball, in which all three of Becky’s admirers are present, and she floats around a room with other characters in shimmering Technicolor pastels of green, turquoise, deep reds, and deep blacks. The mix of royalty, nobility, and military officers are unable to ignore the cries of war when canons boom in the near distance, and director Rouben Mamoulian, who took over directing after Lowell Sherman (What Price Hollywood?) died early into production, choreographs their flight from the estate in a fantastic montage of energy and movement, and applies his peculiar ‘logic of color’ theory, where dominant reds exit the screen last to ensure the image isn’t robbed of its brilliance, and audiences don’t become bored. A somewhat similar emotionally-based, theoretical approach went into costume designs: when Becky’s rolling in cash, she wears milky yellow outfits, and when poor, the shift to blue characterizes the depth of her (relative) poverty.

Veteran cinematographer Ray Rennahan had to crank up the lights to ensure accurate colours were photographed, and there are more than a few obvious shots in which one can see a slightly brighter casting of light on the actors, and they’re just seconds from breaking out in a torrent of sweat. (In an early close-up of Becky writing a diary entry, Hopkins’ gaze also looks slightly cross-eyed from the intense lighting that obfuscates her pupils.)


Note the giant Technicolor camera and its blimp in this production still from BECKY SHARP (1935), in which actress Miriam Hopkins readies for the diary scene.


Rennahan’s deep focus cinematography offers some great moments, such as Amelia and her husband by the balcony while dancers at the ball swirl in the background; and editor Archie Marshek’s superb montage as soldiers’ scurry from the huge building, with giant shadows dancing across the wall.

But it’s also around the ball segment where seams in the restoration appear. Better-grade Cinecolor footage fills in bits & pieces of shots & dialogue that were snipped out, and although the differences between source materials is largely subtle, it’s the finale that’s most affected by missing material. The bulk of the last scene at Becky’s shoddy (yet cinematically spacious) flat comes from very weak Cinecolor stock, and you can tell a lot of work went into building up the colours to ensure the high contrast and grain were minimized as best as possible.

When Becky Sharp was reviewed during its inaugural run, critics more or less praised the look and colour process, but less so the dramatization, and the film failed to become the blockbuster Pioneer had hoped, yet Hopkins did earn a Best Actress nomination, and Mamoulian won Best Director at the Venice Film Festival.

In spite of the nomination, this isn’t Hopkins’ best role, but she’s surrounded by a fine cast of character actors, and there’s a certain charm in watching their sometimes overtly theatrical performances, especially Hopkins and her high-pitched intensity. Becky is a savvy survivor, and being a film made shortly before the implementation of the Production Code, there are more than a few racy elements, such as Rawdon and Becky embracing on a divan, and his hand firmly grabbing her thigh. Becky uses her lithe sexuality to entice and advance, and contrary to Code rules, she pretty much triumphs in the end, immorality intact.

Her two moments of stark humiliation still have her fighting and pushing back: clenching angrily on the rug after she loses the Marquis and Rawdon instead of whimpering like a child; and the tawdry song & dance segment in a rat-hole theatre, wearing a tacky yellow dress, and angrily tossing yellow flowers to heckling audience members before she’s yanked off the stage and booted by the manager.

Much of the dialogue bubbles with dry wit and variable levels of cruelty, including a politically dicey moment that has long suffering admirer Joseph returning from India with a pageboy (black actor James ‘Hambone’ Robinson). When Becky queries, “Is that your son?” Joseph replies “Becky! You… You blacken my character!”

Another highlight has post-grad Becky visiting several horribly loud children she’s supposed to babysit, and their equally loud father, playing with cartoonish energy by Charles Richman. The whole scene ends with a messy pillow fight, and similarly leads to another one-off scene with the starchy Duchess of Richmond (scene-stealing Doris Lloyd). Both introduce characters who never reappear, and there’s a sense Makepeace’s play distilled the novel’s minor characters into short scenes which don’t necessarily add much to the story beyond covering Becky’s post-graduate period prior to becoming a man-hunter, but pepper the drama some humour.

The oddest casting choice is Billie Burke, who received major billing in spite of appearing in a very brief exchange at the ball; Burke would appear as Glinda the good witch in The Wizard of Oz (1939), and would co-star with Mowbray in the hit Topper (1937).

With Becky Sharp finally available on Blu-ray from a 4K master and radically cleaned up sound, the remaining Pioneer films deserve their own respective restorations. La Cucaracha currently exists as a public domain title and appears as a bonus short on Roan’s Dixiana (1930), RKO’s musical which concludes with (unsurprisingly) a 2-strip Technicolor sequence. The original colour version of The Dancing Pirate was originally thought lost until a copy was found in the hands of an Australian collector. News of the discovery appeared in a 2015 post at

Rouben Mamoulian’s other grand Technicolor drama, Blood and Sand (1941), is also worth examining for Rennahan’s extraordinary cinematography. The veteran cameraman shot a mass of classic films (Drums Along the Mohawk, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Court Jester) but after 1957, his work was virtually exclusive to TV series.

Hopkins also co-starred in Mamoulian’s  striking and very pre-Code version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), while Nigel Bruce appeared in that other Technicolor milestone, the shot-on-location Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) before gaining immortality as Dr. Watson in Fox’ long-running Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone.



© 2009 & 2019 Mark R. Hasan






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