Sunday 14 January 2024

Green Hell (1940)

Director: James Whale
Writer: Frances Marion
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Bennett, John Howard, Alan Hale, George Bancroft, Vincent Price, Gene Garrick and George Sanders

Index: The First Thirty.

I had no idea what Green Hell was going into it, except that I thought it was a war movie. It isn’t. It’s a jungle adventure yarn, set in South America, and the names behind it bode well. It isn’t just the stars, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. top billed, Joan Bennett as the female lead and George Sanders listed separately. It’s also the crew: James Whale as director, flying solo for the last time; Frances Marion as writer, with a pair of Oscar wins behind her; and Karl Freund as cinematographer, my favourite such from the classic era.

The bad news is that it’s really not the best work of anyone involved. On the other hand, the good news is that it’s not without its joys, especially early on.

Vincent Price actually starts us off, as David Richardson, clad in a white suit and in search of Dr. Loren in a crowded South American bar. That’s Alan Hale and he’s got Forrester there with him too, a total lech in the able form of George Sanders. They’re putting an expedition together to seek Incan treasure in the jungle. Outside, in a vain attempt to fight off flower girls, is expedition leader Keith Brandon, in the able form of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

It’ll take a year, maybe two, but Richardson says that he has nobody, even if he makes sure to bid someone farewell before leaving, telling them that he loves them. This seems odd but it becomes odder when they start up a river and he asks a colleague if it’s possible to love two women simultaneously, think yourself faithful to each and yet still ache to be free.

We’ll learn what that’s all about later, after he’s shot by poison-tipped arrows and dies. It isn’t the longest part for Price, but he has a lot to do while it’s there and he does all of it well. Even after he’s gone, his presence hangs on in the form of Joan Bennett, who shows up just a little late to be with him. It’s through her that we learn the rest of his story.

Of course, they found the Incan ruins long before Richardson dies, though we have little idea of how long it took because the passage of time is difficult to track here. We can see what Marion, one of the most important writers of her day, could do everywhere, in themes and setups and characters like Richardson, but it’s also obvious that she’s having to shoehorn her talents into a pretty clichéd adventure story.

So we meet the good natives, one of whom is a friend who speaks broken English, Gracco, played by Francis McDonald, native of Bowling Green, Kentucky, who was fortunately always reliable even when tasked with an idiotic job like trying to be believable as a topless Incan guide with bones round his neck. And we meet the bad natives, who are headhunters.

We also spend time in the Incan ruins with lots of cool architecture, statues and carvings. And secret subterranean passages. And, if the place delivers, a burial chamber full of gold as well. Oh, and there’s an evil spirit haunting the temple too, which may or may not account for the natives gradually vanishing.

And we get a love triangle so complex that it warrants an entirely new name. That kicks off as soon as Joan Bennett, sister of Constance Bennett from Service de Luxe, arrives in camp. She’s Mrs. Richardson, but Mr. Richardson is at death’s door and doesn’t last much longer.

Even if he had, Forrester would still have been pursuing her with abandon, if he could keep finding new orchids to give her, though maybe the more morally conscious expedition leader wouldn’t. Stephanie Richardson had to have felt like the rope in a tug of war, with the other sex-starved men present ready to throw themselves at her too if only she would flutter her eyelashes their way.

We even get a finalé that features a storm, a gunfight and a gunfight in a storm. Every film made by classic era Hollywood either featured a storm in its finalé or got by ignoring a studio executive who thought that it should.

What’s odd, given how good all these actors are, is that Price, who gets less time than most of them, ended up with the deepest role. David Richardson is the first character we see and he gets the most complex setup, with a real sense of mystery about who he is, what drives him and who might fall out of his history.

I wonder what was going through the mind of the studio casting department. They clearly hadn’t worked out how to cast Price in 1940, as they’d made him a romantic lead in a comedy, shifted him into historical drama, moved that into horror and tried out pulp adventure here. Next up would be a gothic, then more history and eventually a huge film noir.

I don’t want to spoil where his First Thirty takes him, because I haven’t seen every one of these films before and I’m eager to see how he grows through it, but

I simply can’t forget that he’s rightfully best known as a horror icon and that didn’t truly get acknowledged until House of Wax in 1953, too late to fit in his First Thirty.

While Tower of London was arguably a horror movie, he didn’t have a horror part in it, and I guess we could look at The Invisible Man Returns as much as science fiction as horror, but he’d flirted with the genre. He was just too good in everything else as well for the studio to know that was where they should have taken him, I guess. What a tough problem to have!

No comments: