The General Died at Dawn (1936)

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A beautiful couple, betrayal, action and civil war in China for the Madeleine Carroll blogathon.

In The General Died at Dawn (1936), Gary Cooper is a mercenary delivering money to fund the rebellion forces against the Chinese military. He’s betrayed by Madeleine Carroll, who didn’t want to do it, and hates herself for doing it, but had to do it to help her sick father (Porter Hall) get money for passage back to the US so he can die at home. Akim Tamiroff plays an egomaniacal Chinese warlord with a cult following, whose proudest achievement seems to be that his soldiers would all gladly kill themselves rather than fail him. He’s almost a ridiculous little man but he’s so sadistic and brutal that you have to take him seriously. He captures Cooper thanks to Carroll’s luring and from there we have many reversals of fortune and funds, the reunion of Cooper and Carroll, their imprisonment, several deaths and an exciting climax with Carroll about to be executed. Whether aboard a train, in a fancy hotel, on a ship, in the rain, or on a balcony overlooking busy and troubled Shanghai, Carroll is dressed to the nines and never looks less than devastatingly beautiful.

Written by Clifford Odets and directed by Lewis Milestone, The General Died at Dawn is generally well paced and interesting. A big flaw of this movie is that, for something that mostly has the energy of a pulpy serial adventure, it goes on way too long and there’s a good half hour that could be cut. Much time in the movie’s middle part at The Mansion Hotel is spent waiting, arguing, eavesdropping and double-crossing. Carroll spends sleepless nights regretting her betrayal of Cooper, Dudley Digges speculates on Cooper’s whereabouts, and ammunitions dealer William Frawley waits, drinks and sings “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” to the stuffed moose head hanging above his table at the hotel bar.

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However boring some of those parts may be to me, I will say they are totally watchable because of good dialogue, the stars’ beauty and the director’s clever visuals. Milestone does some amazing things here with editing, zooms and tracking shots that really stand out as different for the era, and the whole picture has a rich, glowing silver look that’s quite beautiful. In one neat trick, all four corners of the screen peel back to reveal little scenes of what all the other characters are doing at that moment. The opening credit sequence is very nice, with cast and crew names written on the sails of passing boats. Milestone also smartly pulls in extra close to Cooper and Carroll almost every time, having them stand within an inch of each other, embrace and almost kiss very often. With their chemistry it adds heat to the movie and they look so gorgeous you want the slow scenes to go even slower.

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Carroll is breathtaking and luminous in this movie, lit so her sharp cheekbones stand out and her eyes are sad and longing. Her look and performance here must be among the best of her career; she’s guilty, angry, ladylike and tough (she can beat any man at billiards with the cue behind her back), but when it comes to Cooper she melts and wants him to understand her actions and love her. There’s a fun scene where Digges quizzes her on the whereabouts of Cooper because she has his pet monkey Sam (who does some fine acting of his own). Digges knows it’s not her monkey and asks her to call it to her. She thinks for a second and makes a pathetic excuse for a whistle, realizing that Digges wants her to admit she doesn’t even know “her” pet’s name. In another great scene she rages at her father, freely telling Hall she hates what he’s done and made her do and will kill him with her bare hands if Cooper dies. And you believe her.

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Cooper makes a great hero, with a fun introduction where he decks a man for laughing at the unfortunate refugees and teaches him a point about how those people were treated. He believes in equal opportunity, punching Carroll just as hard after she sells him out. He brings that stoicism he did so well, but he combines it with a dangerous streak, a deep suspicion, rich sarcasm and high intelligence which make his character fascinating. He finally softens once he believes Carroll loves him and hears she’s willing to give her life to save his, and relies on his talent for fast talking when her life depends on him.

There are a few other things to look for in this movie. First a cameo by writer John O’Hara on the train, insulted by Cooper as a journalist who can be bought “for a bag of salt.” Right on cue, when the General apprehends Cooper, the real O’Hara (that’s also the name of Cooper’s character) makes a deal to favourably cover Tamiroff on the front page and gets his freedom, practically skipping off the train with a smile and a wave. The other thing to notice is Cooper’s line “we could have made beautiful music together,” which movie fans have heard in countless variations in the years since. It wasn’t wishful thinking; these stars really do make some nice music together.

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This post is part of the Madeleine Carroll blogathon & birthday party hosted by Tales of the Easily Distracted (read the announcement post here) and Silver Screenings.

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21 thoughts on “The General Died at Dawn (1936)”

  1. Really enjoyed this piece – I’ve got to see this now, not just for Carroll but also for Cooper, and to hear “that” line! Great contribution to the blogathon.

    1. Yes that turned out to be a famous line didn’t it? Definitely check it out if you like those stars, as I say she is stunning here and does some of her very best acting, so I can overlook what other weak spots I found. Thanks for reading!

  2. Good review, very enjoyable reading! I think you’re right on target as to the strengths (and weaknesses) here.

    And golly, did Cooper have a “talent for fast talking.” I think his character had a future as a high-powered salesman. He could have sold rain gear in the Sahara!

    1. Right, it’s fun to see him in this type of role, because he’s so known as the man of few words, but here he’s kind of a dashing hothead, quick with an insult and a witty remark, and has that scene where he has to talk “for her life” and sway a nutjob like the General. Thanks!

  3. I’m another one who wants to see the Moose Head Serenade. I also want to see the range of emotions Madeleine exhibits in this film.

    This sounds like an interesting premise in an exotic location – and with Madeleine Carroll and Gary Cooper, what’s not to love!

    Thanks for joining our blogathon!

    1. Exactly, with a gorgeous couple and a pulpy story, not to mention a really great Madeleine performance, it’s worth looking for! Thanks for hosting such a nice event!!

  4. Holy cats, Kristina, you’ve given me not only a great film with the amazing Madeleine Carroll, but also supporting characters like Porter Hall! Our Maddie would surely be glad to join in the celebration! Great post, my friend, as always! Have a wonderful weekend and enjoy the rest of Madeleine Carroll’s birthday! 😀

    1. Thank you, Porter Hall is such a weasel here using his daughter this way. He gets to ham it up and does a great job. Best! And thanks so much you two for hosting this nice event spotlighting a lady who deserves the attention 🙂

      1. Aw, Ruth and thank you kindly for your most kind praise, my friends; we’re happy to give the amazing Maddie her due, especially on her birthday! Have a wonderful weekend, and thanks again! 😀

  5. Great post! Despite the flaws, I think I’d go as far to say this is one of my favourite Carroll roles – her charactered is so nuanced yet not overly complex. I agree that the hotel scenes drags on, but a part of me enjoys them as the dialogue is so sharp.

    1. I agree it’s one of her best, her work and their beauty and the style make up for any slow bits. An essential for Carroll fans. Thanks for reading!

    1. Avoid it no longer! Thanks, I hope I could get more people interested in it, definitely an eyeful of beauty and adventure 🙂

  6. You did such a great job describing this movie. I have always loved Gary Cooper, and didn’t know anything about Carroll, but would love to see this movie with both of them in it. She sounds like a very versatile actress. It was fun to learn interesting details like the one about the writer John O’hara being on the train. Thanks so much!

    1. Thanks so much and if you make the rounds to check out all the other Carroll movies people wrote about for this event, you can find she was very good at many genres and types of movies. It’s always fun to discover new people to catch up on! From my tiny amount of research I read that O’Hara was at the time working on script doctoring and treatments for MGM and Goldwyn so I gather just by being around ended up with the cameo.

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