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.
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.
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.
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.
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.