On the offhand chance that you’ve heard of this one, you may be wondering how this is warranted for an Oscar-nominated movie, produced by the man who co-directed King Kong (1933) in attempt to recreate the same success. My answer is that after bombing at the box office in its initial release, ending up a lost film for several years, and still ending up so relatively unknown in the present day, even after being released on DVD in 2007, it’s owed a little extra recognition.

 

            The movie: Titling the movie She could be called truth in advertising, as “She” is by far the most interesting character in the movie and most of the reason to see it, all the more so because it’s only film role of politician Helen Gahagan. The movie is the kind of silly yet formidable old fashion adventure serial that part of me misses. But another part says that enough of them have come and gone for us to forget the lesser entries without worrying.

 

A dying uncle summons his nephew Leo (Randolph Scott) to pass the torch in the work their family has pursued for centuries. About 500 years ago, their ancestor, who looks so much like Leo that you could say they’re the same person, discovered a strange “flame” that preserved life, but he died before he could return to civilization. The substance he discovered cannot be recreated, but the old uncle and his assistant have done enough research to prove it exists, to themselves anyway. Leo shakes his head in disbelief until he runs out of ways to phrase “it can’t be true!” and then promptly travels to the Russian artic to form a team to fulfill his uncle’s dying wish.

 

Soon, an avalanche leaves stranded our three principal characters, and they make their way to a strange underground land filled with both savage and civilized tribes, ruled by the titular character. The three are the uncle’s old assistant, Professor Holly (Nigel Bruce), who has a tendency to telegraph both when he’s fatally wrong and fatally right, Tanya (Helen Mack), the adopted daughter of the greedy man who formed their team – less distraught by his death than that of the savage men who attempted to murder her – and of course Leo, an all-noble and heroic nitwit. (Not that I have anything against the square-jawed heroes of old. But after asking enough questions that characters just finished answering for him, confiding everything in the mysterious woman he only knows rules with an iron fist, and failing to suspect that the second white woman he’s seen in the mysterious kingdom, the one about to be executed with a blanket over her head, might actually be the one he brought with him, Leo hasn’t made the best case for his wits.) After being wounded by the savages, an unconscious Leo is summoned to the personal chambers of She, who possesses the flames of immortality his family sought for so long. She believes Leo to be the reincarnation of his ancestor, who was her lover those 500 years ago, and wants him by her side now and forever. The only obstacle in her way now is Tanya, and she’s not about to lose Leo to another woman a second time.

 

The surprise is that for as expository as the opening portion is, it goes at it with gusto, playing up the mystery and the imagination of the setup and carrying itself well enough. Instead, it’s the adventure portion that stalls as often as it accelerates. There are highlights, including a pair of fight/escape sequences, a fiery reconnection scene between Leo and She, a bizarre dance sequence that rightfully netted the film’s Oscar nomination, and a thoughtful bit of insight or two. But for long portions, the film slogs its way through unnecessary setup and spends time establishing what we’ve already figured, tasks it seems Leo was born to do. At several points, we’re not sure what we’re supposed to be hoping for or even really considering. The most consistent concern is who Leo ends up with, but even this falters at points, as the ultimate villainy of She is not always countered well by Tanya; despite her moments of strength and insight when the plot demands, she is too often a bland, charmless damsel. The passionate and cruel, yet sympathetic and human She all but steals the spotlight, investing us in whether Leo ends up with her, or should, even without Tanya.

She is not the knockout it potentially could have been, but it has enough entertaining aspects to make it a good watch for those who appreciate the classics. It offers some silly and campy fun, but it’s also skillfully made, and that makes it worth your time. And if the story falters at points, at least the arc of the character at the center is something that was still worth accomplishing when it’s all said and done.

 

The stars: As it was still pretty early in his career, famous leading man Randolph Scott might not have been at the height of his powers here. His performance as Leo comes across mostly as the typical clean cut hero, save for moments where he becomes a little too wooden. (“…No! It…it can’t be!” ) He would go on to star in such classic westerns as 7 Men From Now (1956) and Comanche Station (1960). Helen Mack, who had a shorter movie career, comes off a little bit better, but it still wasn’t even enough to upstage her starring role in the forgettable sequel to King Kong (1933) released the same year. In fact, Son of Kong (1933) was remained the highlight of her acting career, until her supporting role in the comedy classic His Girl Friday (1940), after which she quickly redirected her line of work towards radio. Nigel Bruce, meanwhile, had a long career in supporting roles but is best remembered for his charming, if bumbling portrayal of Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes film series, beginning with The Hound of the Baskervilles(1939).

 

The director:  While Lansing C. Holden never directed another movie, co-director Irving Pichel, also an actor, would go on to have a quiet little career as a director, even after being blacklisted. Highlights include The Most Dangerous Game (1932), the first movie adaptation of the story with the same name, and the misleadingly titled The Pied Piper (1942). Neither, however, was the real draw for She, which was, again, made with the hope of recreating the success of producer Merian C. Cooper’s film King Kong.

 

Final score: 

As always, feel free to leave a suggestion for the next film to look at. This one, it so happens, was the first suggestion I recieved.

 

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