Empire of the Imagination: Rediscovering She (1935) by matthew c. hoffman
“What do you know of immortal dreams, immortal memories? I am yesterday, today and tomorrow. I am sorrow, and longing and hope unfulfilled. I am Hasha-Mo-Tep– She, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. I am… I… It’s not enough that I should hope and wait unending years in pain…” ~ She (Helen Gahagan)
She is one of the great movie adventures of the 1930s, but it’s a film many have never seen. If not for Buster Keaton, tonight’s film might not exist at all. After its re-issue in the late 1940s, the film was out of circulation for many years, and then disaster struck when the RKO studio vault, which housed the negative, suffered a fire. She was feared lost until a 35mm print of the film turned up in the silent comedian’s garage. Along with Buster Keaton’s own films, She was turned over to preservationist Raymond Rohauer. In the book Screen Deco, Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers write that the film was “revived during Radio City Music Hall’s 1976 Art Deco Week, and during its Los Angeles engagement the following year, the Los Angeles Times complimented its ‘monumental sets designed in a kind of Art Deco Barbaric.'” Now, decades later, this wonderful film has been restored in the digital medium of dvd.
I mentioned the various dvd versions of the film that are available through Kino and Legend Films, but nothing could ever beat the thrill of actually owning a film print, and for a number of years I had a 16mm print which contained some scenes deleted from the film when it was re-released. It wasn’t an original print, just a dupe, but I opened one of my programs at the LaSalle Bank Theatre with it. Of course, today few people collect film prints anymore, and that’s a shame. Anyone can buy a factory-sealed, shrink-wrapped dvd or order one off Amazon, but few will understand the joy of simply holding a film strip up to the light and seeing the images, one atop another, unfold a story on a piece of celluloid. Films come alive when projected on film onto a big screen, and people have lost contact with that experience. Modern media only simulates the theatrical experience. Movies weren’t meant to be watched on a phone or computer, and they certainly weren’t meant to be beamed digitally from a satellite into a cineplex, which will be the wave of the future. Film stock itself may die in a cold future of digital pixels, but not the films themselves. As long as there are places like our Classic Film Series, movies like She will indeed live on through the millennium.
The 1935 film is based on the outstanding 1887 adventure novel by H. Rider Haggard. It had been filmed several times in the silent era, and would be remade again in the 1960s by Hammer Studios. She is the story of a centuries old queen who awaits the return of her reincarnated dead lover. It’s an allegorical tale about the quest for eternal life. The Fountain of Youth of historical legend becomes the Flame of Life within She’s empire of Kor.
She was produced by Merian C. Cooper, the visionary who gave us King Kong. Cooper grew up as a boy reading the “Lost Civilization” literature of the Victorian period and was inspired to bring Haggard’s novel to the screen. Cooper himself was an adventurer whose real-life exploits brought an authenticity to his films. With She, he wanted to create a large scale fantasy along the lines of King Kong. As with everything else he did in life, he was determined to do it big. There are no real comparisons between the two, of course, though there are obvious elements of King Kong in tonight’s film. You might recognize that the oversized door that leads into She’s mountain palace is in fact the Great Wall that held Kong back on Skull Island. And like Kong, Cooper structured the movie around the title character who doesn’t make an appearance until Act II. But when She does finally appear, it’s a memorable entrance.
Stage actress Helen Gahagan portrays She– Hasha-Mo-Tep, as she is also known. This would be her only film role before leaving Hollywood for politics. She served two terms as a California congresswoman before running against Richard Nixon in 1950 in a bitter senate race. Gahagan was red-baited by Nixon, who labelled her the “Pink Lady.” She would lose the election, but the nickname she coined for Nixon would remain with him for the rest of his life: “Tricky Dick.” There is a biography on Helen Gahagan called The Pink Lady. Though there is scant mention of She in it, I’d still recommend it to anyone interested in Gahagan’s political career and how she became inspired by the plight of Americans during the Depression.
Cooper originally wanted Greta Garbo for the role, However, he was unable to convince MGM into releasing her for his picture. It’s one of the great “What ifs” of Hollywood casting because Garbo had the natural mystery that the part cried for. But in recent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate Gahagan’s performance. Her acting has been called mannered and of the theatre, but I think it fits her ageless character. I’d go so far as to call it a great performance because she conveys so many emotions equally well. I love her look of annoyance when Leo Vincey– not the quickest-thinking of action heroes– asks She if the sacrificial woman at the Sacred Well is a dancer. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is an authoritative presence but also a tortured soul and a tragic figure. The sacrifice scene, in particular, stands out as a remarkable piece of acting because she doesn’t come across as triumphant even though she is having her way in these moments leading up to the climax. It’s almost as though she can feel her humanity slipping away, and we sense this.
Gahagan possessed a wonderful speaking voice which only adds to the great moment in which she is first introduced to us behind the smoke at the top of the palace staircase. At that moment, Gahagan immediately brings a different kind of energy to the film. Prior to her introduction, the storyline had skirted pulp fiction. Though she lacks the blinding beauty of the literary She, Gahagan makes you feel she is indeed older than her years. Additionally, other writers have commented on her appearance and its influence on Walt Disney when he envisioned the evil queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Cooper also sought Joel McCrea for the role of explorer Leo Vincey as well as McCrea’s wife, Frances Dee, as another candidate for She. For those who don’t know Joel McCrea, he’s the current star of the month on TCM, and he had starred in an earlier Cooper production, The Most Dangerous Game. But Paramount offered to give Cooper Randolph Scott instead. Though he would become a better actor in the years ahead, Scott was, at this stage of his career, not as good as McCrea. He was a stoic, rugged actor best known for the Westerns he made in his later years, such as Ride the High Country with Joel McCrea. Nevertheless, Scott has presence and brings the two most important qualities needed for Leo Vincey: he’s heroic and handsome. In that, Randolph Scott fit the bill.
Supporting Scott is Nigel Bruce as Holly. Bruce is best known for playing Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes film series at Universal, which starred Basil Rathbone. Also starring is RKO ingénue Helen Mack, who had appeared in Son of Kong. Mack was born in Rock Island, Illinois, and she would go on to have a long career on stage and in film before eventually turning to radio as a writer. Her performance in She is very expressive, and she makes a good foil for Helen Gahagan. Three other actors who give exceptional performances are Samuel Hinds as Leo Vincey’s dying uncle, Lumsden Hare as the Arctic trader, and the German-born Gustav von Seyffertitz as She’s calculating servant, Billali. The latter is an interesting character whose jealousies and motivations could’ve easily been developed into a subplot.
The deeper elements of the story are expressed through the words of She, and there is something beautiful in her reflection on the endless flow of time. She is a haunted figure, and her poetic dialogue and delivery captures that. The screenplay was written by Ruth Rose and Dudley Nichols. Rose was an important contributor to the films of Merian C. Cooper, having penned many of his greatest adventures. I wish more people were aware of her contributions to film history. She gave King Kong its fairy tale quality, and she brought a verbal poetry to She. Rose maintained the essence of an epic novel that contained vast themes and subtleties.
Those familiar with the book decry the decision to move the story from Africa to the Arctic, but by the mid-1930s so many films had already been set in Africa. Perhaps Cooper and Rose were looking for a more remote locale that could be equally mysterious. What developed in the story conferences went beyond the realm of Haggard. “Is there anything else we can put in there to make it more exciting?” Cooper had asked Ruth Rose. “It already has everything but a saber-toothed tiger.” Ruth replied. “Great!” exclaimed Cooper. “Why didn’t I think of that? A saber-toothed tiger. Write it in!”
The original King Kong from 1933 will always be my favorite movie of all time, so I have a deep admiration for and interest in all those talents connected to it. Ruth Rose was that rarest kind of woman. For her courage and spirit of adventure, there are few I respect and admire as much as her. And she was also a darn good screenwriter. A number of years ago I tried to acquire the Ruth Rose diaries which were being auctioned on ebay along with many other items belonging to her and her husband, filmmaker Ernest Schoedsack. My own money wasn’t enough, so I contacted film curator James D’Arc at Brigham Young University for his generous assistance, and together we made a joint offer to the party in possession of the items. The seller had been a caretaker for Ernest and Ruth Rose Schoedsack.
As a writer, I was looking forward to researching the materials before turning them over to the university for preservation in their special collections. BYU also stores the Merian C. Cooper papers, so it was a natural fit to also have materials belonging to the Schoedsacks. A deal was all but done until a mercenary private collector from the East Coast inserted himself and talked the woman out of her deal with us. Though I had the small satisfaction of making the other guy pay more, this was of little importance. There were so many items relevant to film history that were lost to us. The diaries should’ve been preserved in a library for public research because they might have contained insight into the making of films like She.
In 1933 when Merian Cooper first bought the property from Carl Laemmle at Universal, he wanted James Whale to direct it. That didn’t pan out and Whale would go on to direct The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. Cooper later asked his old friend Ernest Schoedsack to direct it. Schoedsack had co-directed King Kong. This also fell through because he did not feel the material could be filmed. She was ultimately directed by actor-turned-director Irving Pichel, who had co-directed The Most Dangerous Game and would go on to make such films as Destination Moon. Here, Pichel shares screen credit with Lansing C. Holden, an architect and former set designer.
Two directors were apparently needed to supervise the film’s visual look. But it was Cooper who was the driving force behind the production. It was his vision, as well as his values, that shaped its creation. She was conceived by Cooper as a color film in Three-Strip Technicolor. RKO allocated a million dollar budget for the film with a hundred thousand dollars for the Technicolor process. But before the cameras could roll, the studio executives, lacking Cooper’s vision, pulled the plug on shooting the film in color.
She has been colorized in recent years under the supervision of special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen. Though he had nothing to do with the making of the original film, this was Harryhausen’s way of paying homage to Merian C. Cooper. However, as much as I respect Harryhausen, I couldn’t disagree more with his decision to colorize it. Regardless of Cooper’s intentions to film it in color, the fact is the film was not made in Technicolor. Colorizing it with a computerized paint gun only detracts from the richness of its black and white cinematography. The film was shot in black and white and efforts to modernize it negate the creative decisions of those who designed its mise-en-scene in black and white. On the dvd commentary, Harryhausen talks how the color version will create a whole new audience, but he’s out of touch when he says this because you don’t update films to do that. If kids today can’t appreciate a fun movie like She in its natural state, then they better just stay away altogether and play with their Wii games.
Though the color was never realized, a great film score was. One of She’s greatest realizations is Max Steiner’s music. It’s a moderne score that is truly haunting. It gives She its mystery and grandeur. It’s one of his best compositions, in fact. The complete recording has been preserved by the aforementioned James D’Arc at BYU. I have a copy of this wonderful CD, and I can’t recommend it enough. If anyone ever had to be convinced of the importance of film music, I can think of no better example than this.
It’s a recording as powerful and dramatic as anything written by the great classical composers. Steiner’s score has been described as “an opera without the arias.” Max Steiner was a brilliant Hollywood composer, the best in my opinion, and his score for She imbues the film with scope and depth it might not have otherwise had. One of his best music cues comes during the Festival of the Sacred Well, a dance number in the Hall of Kings that goes on for over ten minutes. It’s one of the biggest highlights of the film because it fuses the film’s two greatest strengths: the music and the Art Deco decor.
The production design was by Van Nest Polglase whom we shall discuss on May 31st. Polglase was the art director at RKO best known for his work on the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals. She’s “Barbaric Moderne” visual style recalls Egyptian and Mayan influences. Add the Caligari-like Expressionism seen in the hall of the eternal flame and you have one of the most visually-striking films RKO ever made in terms of set design. Lansing Holden, the co-director, was also an uncredited illustrator for the production. The set designs as well as the matte paintings and special effects work succeed in creating the unforgettable look of Kor, a world we can easily escape into.
“This doesn’t look so good to me.” ~Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott)
At the time of its initial release, She lost money– $180,000 to be exact. Its disappointing box office eliminated any chance of filming Haggard’s sequel, Ayesha, the Return of She. Theatre-goers perhaps expected more non-stop thrills. She didn’t make any money until 1948 when it was re-issued on a double bill with The Last Days of Pompeii. Modern reviews of She are all over the map, and I’m amused by many of the “critiques” I read on the IMDB. I’m all for democracy, but the user comments empower morons. She is not camp or kitsch. Those are terms viewers use to describe what they don’t understand– films that can’t be appreciated in the era they were made in. Some people call She a laughably bad movie or refer to its dated acting, and I’m not even sure what that term “dated” means. If it doesn’t measure up to modern standards it’s somehow less? It’s nonsense and low-grade film criticism.
As I mentioned, Merian Cooper had grander ideas for his final film under his RKO contract. You have the feeling that there were set pieces Cooper was forced to cut because of the budget, ideas that were put on ice like the inanimate saber-toothed tiger—frozen ideas thawed out now in the realm of what could’ve been. We can only imagine what She might’ve been had a visionary like Cooper been given an open checkbook. But we must judge only what is there on the screen. She is a cerebral action film that has great moments of solemn beauty. It has an other-worldly quality unlike any other film of its era. Its poetic interludes recall Universal’s The Mummy, which was another film about lost love and reincarnation.
She’s story resonates now when society is still looking for age-defying ways to preserve itself. Our eyes are still on the clock as the pendulum swings back and forth, and in the face of man’s enemy, Time, we still dream of youth. Artificial methods like Botox and plastic surgery are unnatural and have ugly consequences down the road. What we think will preserve us will only advance our decline, like Hasha-Mo-Tep after her over-exposure to the Eternal Flame. The subtext of She suggests an appreciation for growing old naturally with the love of those closest to us– not the seductive, fantasy love on the other side of the hill. Happiness and true wisdom come from accepting our mortality and not trying to hold it back. The flames of the hearth give more warmth and a longer glow than the cold flame of things not meant for man. This is what makes us human, and there is humanity to be found in She.
For more on screenwriter Ruth Rose and the making of the Cooper-Schoedsack films, please check out this video I made based on a rare audio recording.