Monday 28 September 2009

Gold is Where You Find It (1938)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: George Brent, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains and Margaret Lindsay
Having just watched a Michael Curtiz film that didn't really engage, the odds of seeing another one are slim, Curtiz being one of the most reliable workhorses Hollywood ever had. This one is a much more lavish affair than Stolen Holiday, made in Technicolor for a start, even though it's 1938. It hasn't aged too well technically, because the colour process makes it seem a little blurry and the dialogue is a little too easily lost in the mix. The opening narrative segment doesn't help either, being helpful but done in an old school rapid fire newsreel style. It points out that while we're in California seeking gold, we're not in the gold rush of 1849 but the later days of 1877, when it's done by companies with serious machinery.

What we're watching is a Californian conflict. One on side are these important companies with their power and influence, who hollow out the mountains above Sacramento with their high powered hoses to extract the gold within. On the other are the farmers who own the wheat fields below those mountains, who are on the receiving end of the deluge of water and muck from the gold companies above that pollute their wells and wash out their fields. Spanning the two worlds is newcomer Jared Whitney.

He's come to California to be a mining superintendent at the Golden Moon Mine at Tenspot, mushroom mining town above the quiet Sacramento Valley. He ends up tied up with the Ferris family who run a large ranch in that very valley. He meets them by saving young drunken idiot Lance Ferris from doing something dumb in a bar, but stays with them because he falls for Lance's younger sister Serena, also known as Sprat. Needless to say, this doesn't make her father happy, Col Chris Ferris, who is one of the most respected farmers in California and their voice in society.

Whitney is George Brent, who heads a pretty impressive cast. While I've seen him later than this, I don't think I've ever seen him in colour before and it looks wrong somehow. He was from a different era, the black and white era and he doesn't look right outside of it; even though his final film, the aptly titled Born Again, was released in 1978, that was a full 22 years after his previous one. He holds his own here, being an able and experienced lead and a very well spoken one. However it doesn't help that he was 39 and his romantic interest here was 22 and playing 17. Maybe Errol Flynn would have been more appropriate, especially given his connection to many of the cast.

That romantic interest is Olivia de Havilland, who looks as at home in colour as Brent doesn't, probably because she appeared in what seems like every great early Technicolor film Hollywood made. She went from this to The Adventures of Robin Hood and a year later she'd make both The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and, of course, Gone with the Wind. She's one of the best things about this film, not just a capable love interest but a forward thinker too, a society lady and a working woman. She gets plenty of screen time and she makes the most of it. Sprat Ferris is so much better a role than Melanie Wilkes that it's almost unreal.

There's a serious cast to back them up. Col Ferris is Claude Rains, looking as old as I've ever seen him in silver hair and Technicolor. His voice of authority over the farming community is powerful; he's precisely who we'd choose to represent us if we were farmers facing ruin. His family is entirely recognisable. Son Lance is Tim Holt, still new here but with only a year to go to Stagecoach. His brother Ralph is John Litel and his wife Rosanne is Margaret Lindsay, who also seems a little strange in colour too but its just another facet to her appeal, to go with her instantly recognisable and melodious voice.

Lindsay's father, Harrison McCooey, the arch villain of the piece who runs the mining company, is Sidney Toler, playing a white man, for a change. His foreman at Golden Moon Mine is a deliciously ruthless Barton MacLane. Backing them up are recognisable names like Gabby Hayes, Harry Davenport, Willie Best, Moroni Olsen and Marcia Ralston. The cast is universally solid and they get some good material to work with. I particularly liked the offhand remarks to place historical context. We're told in conversational asides about strange new inventions from Bell and Edison, and at a party, George Hearst, United States Senator, dismisses his son Willie's attempts to move into newspapers. Nobody's going to make money in newspapers, he suggests, though with hindsight we realise that William Randolph Hearst did pretty well at it.

There are problems with the story though, as this Technicolor film is black and white at heart: the good guys are good and the bad guys bad, with only Jared Whitney spanning the gap between the two. There's so much thrown in here that this rare mix of a whole slew of genres inevitably ends up a little unsure at what it really wants to be. It's a historical drama about the clash between two old industries and the growth of a new one; it's a western, of course, because of the setting and because of a conflict that turns physical; it's a love story between Jared and Sprat; it veers off at points into a courtroom drama and a thriller and there's even a special effects finale. Throwing all this into little over an hour and a half is a little ambitious and it does deliver pretty well but nowhere near the heights that its ambition aimed for. Maybe at twice the length with more background and depth it could try a little more at the shades of grey that were so sadly lacking. Maybe then it couldn't have been shot in Technicolor.

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