Sunday 19 October 2008

Son of India (1931)

Half a century before Merchant Ivory turned tales of India into literary classics, Hollywood got up to all sorts of shenanigans with the subcontinent. Back in 1931, when this film was made India was still part of the British Empire and prey to any pulp writer who needed somewhere exotic to set an adventure. This is a rare exception, the source material being the debut novel by F Marion Crawford, an American who lived in Italy and had traveled to India back in 1879. He'd taken his travels seriously, studying Sanskrit in India and continuing that study back at Harvard. I haven't read Mr Isaacs, though I have read other work by Crawford, enough to guess that while this definitely received some of the Hollywood treatment, it holds up pretty well as a real attempt to show something of the real India. It's merely a product of its time.

Given that the time is 1931, the transition to sound was still ongoing and so our lead is one of the legends of the silent screen, whose star faded a little slower than many. He's Ramon Novarro, born in Mexico and right up there with idols like Rudolph Valentino at the top of the heartthrob list, playing romantic leads in films like Ben Hur and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg or great villains like Rupert of Hentzau in The Prisoner of Zenda. His soft voice and obvious silent era mannerisms couldn't last though and he only had one really major part left: opposite Greta Garbo in Mata Hari.

Here he plays Karim, the son of a wealthy jewel merchant who is killed in a bandit attack on his camp. Karim escapes because a holy man he has been kind to buries him from sight inside his tent. He reaches Bombay in rags with one jewel left, a diamond that is by far the best and most valuable in his father's collection. He tries to sell it to a jewel merchant, who offers him next to nothing and then brands him a thief to the authorities. He's saved this time by an American, Bill Darsay, who happened to be in the shop at the time and in the court hearing the case.

Ten years later he's rich, powerful and well established, running a successful jewel business and captaining the Indian polo team. He meets Janice, a young American lady, who falls for him as fast as he falls for her. They flounce around jewel vaults and tiger hunts and fall deeper and deeper as time runs on, but there's tragedy in store. Janice is sister to Bill Darsay, the very man to whom Karim promised the world in gratitude, something he sees as sacred, and while Bill holds him great regard he can't permit them to marry, quoting all the standard reasons which are happily fading away today.

The story is a solid one, and it both suffers from the prejudices of the era and benefits from the freedoms of the precodes which allowed something like a multi-racial love affair to at least be explored. There are many high points: the story, the setting, the way in which India isn't shown in the expected way. Unfortunately there are many low points too, not least the acting which is overblown and wrought with silent era flamboyance. Novarro is fine whenever he doesn't go over the top, which he does far too often, so much so that Madge Evans, playing Janice, follows suit. The supporting cast have very little to do, with Conrad Nagel, Marjorie Rambeau and good old C Aubrey Smith (how could you have something set in India without him?) only gracing the screen rarely.

The director is Jacques Feyder, who probably brought a different approach to the film than would have been brought by a more traditional Hollywood director. Feyder was French and he made many innovative and influential films in his native country. I've seen a couple of his French silents, including the astounding Faces of Children, which I'd like to revisit. He was offered the chance to direct in Hollywood by MGM and spent a few years there, from Garbo's The Kiss in 1929 until this film in 1931. He returned to France in 1933.

One of his other American films in 1931 was Daybreak, a Viennese fancy with Ramon Novarro and C Aubrey Smith, both of whom also appear here. However the leading lady in that film was Helen Chandler, who I could see as a superb Janice Darsay. I wonder why she didn't play the part: presumably she was working on something else, and given that 1931 saw her in standout performances in Dracula and The Last Flight, I'm not going to lose too much sleep over it.


Stella_1 said...

Hi, I am a undergraduate films studies student in Montreal. And I am doing an essay on the image of India through foreign films. I was wondering if you knew how and where I could get a copy of the film "Son of India" 1931? If you have any information I would be very grateful. Thank You.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Hola Stella.

Unfortunately I recorded this one off TCM and it doesn't look like it's scheduled again during the next three months. I'm not aware of it being available on DVD.

Best of luck with your essay. I see from your profile that you have plenty of background to make it an interesting read. Any chance of seeing it once you're done?

I'm sure there's plenty of material out there for you to work from, but the other French film based in India that springs quickly to mind is Jean Renoir's The River. That should be a lot more available.