Andre Sennwald

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 690

Science and art, the handmaidens of the cinema, have joined hands to endow the screen with a miraculous new element in "Becky Sharp," the first full-length photoplay produced in the three-component color process of Technicolor….

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Rouben Mamoulian and [color designer] Robert Edmond Jones have employed the new process in a deliberately stylized form, so that "Becky Sharp" becomes an animate procession of cunningly designed canvases. Some of the color combinations make excessive demands upon the eye. Many of them are as soothing as black and white. The most glaring technical fault, and it is a comparatively minor one, is the poor definition in the long shots, which convert faces into blurred masses….

The major problem, from the spectator's point of view, is the necessity for accustoming the eye to this new screen element in much the same way that we were obliged to accustom the ear to the first talkies. The psychological problem is to reduce this new and spectacular element to a position, in relation to the film as a whole, where color will impinge no more violently upon the basic photographic image than sound does today. This is chiefly a question of time and usage. At the moment it is impossible to view "Becky Sharp" without crowding the imagination so completely with color that the photoplay as a whole is almost meaningless. That is partly the fault of the production and partly the inevitable consequence of a phenomenon….

The real secret of the film resides not in the general feeling of dissatisfaction which the spectator suffers when he leaves the [theater], but in the active excitement which he experiences during its scenes. It is important and even necessary to judge the work in terms of its best—not its worst or even its average. "Becky Sharp" becomes prophetically significant, for example, in the magnificent color-dramatization of the British ball in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo.

Here the Messrs. Mamoulian and Jones have accomplished the miracle of using color as a constructive dramatic device, of using it for such peculiarly original emotional effects that it would be almost impossible to visualize the same scene in conventional black and white. From the pastel serenity of the opening scenes at the ball, the color deepens into somber hues as the rumble of Napoleon's cannon is heard in the ballroom. Thenceforward it mounts in excitement as pandemonium seizes the dancers, until at last the blues, greens and scarlets of the running officers have become an active contributing factor in the overwhelming climax of sound and photography.

If this review seems completely out of focus, it is because the film is so much more significant as an experiment in the advanced use of color than as a straightforward dramatic entertainment. Based upon Langdon Mitchell's old dramatization of "Vanity Fair," it is gravely defective. Ordinarily Mr. Mamoulian is a master of filmic mobility, but here his experimental preoccupation with color becomes an obstacle to his usual fluid style of screen narration. Thus a great deal of "Becky Sharp" seems static and land-locked, an unvarying procession of long shots, medium shots and close-ups. It is endlessly talkative, as well, which is equally a departure from Mr. Mamoulian's ordinary style.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Thackeray's classic tale of the ambitious Becky and her spangled career in English society would be reduced on the screen to a halting and episodic narrative. But the film is unconscionably jerky in its development and achieves only a minor success in capturing the spirit of the original. In many of the screened episodes, Thackeray's satirical portraits come perilously close to burlesque, and they barge over the line in several places….

But one thing is certain about "Becky Sharp." Its best is so good that it becomes a prophecy of the future of color on the screen. It forced this column to the conclusion that color will become an integral motion picture element in the next few years.

Andre Sennwald, "The Radio City Music Hall Presents 'Becky Sharp,' the First Full-Length Three-Color Photoplay," in The New York Times (© 1935 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 14, 1935, p. 27.

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