Douglas Fairbanks Jr. loses his status and finds love during the Russian Revolution.
In Scarlet Dawn (1932) Douglas Fairbanks Jr. plays a Russian officer and aristocrat who flees during the chaos of the Revolution. While he was a member of the ruling class, Fairbanks lived it up and romanced courtesan Lilyan Tashman, but he has to hide and don a disguise to survive the riots. When his sweet and faithful servant Nancy Carroll saves him from a blown cover and helps him evade the Bolsheviks, they grab some valuables and run away together. On their way to Istanbul they’re robbed, have to sleep in fields, endure long walks and slowly fall in love. Better to say, Carroll is clearly more in love than Fairbanks, who spends much of their time on the journey trying to figure out why she’s following him, and trying to convince her to go back and enjoy the promised spoils and power, now that her class has upended society, destroyed order and driven out the “haves.” Carroll vows to stay with him and she wants more than a roll in the grass, like the one he insistently tries to initiate.
Once in Istanbul they live in a tiny flat while Carroll washes floors at the hospital and Fairbanks washes dishes at a ritzy hotel till his hands are raw and cracked. They’re married in a cute scene where Fairbanks races around grabbing random people off the street to act as witnesses, and they seem very happy in their little world of few material but many simple treasures. Then one day, Fairbanks, in his new position as waiter, runs into Tashman. He doesn’t tell her he’s married but she tells him she has a great scam in the works in Paris, where he can dress up in his old uniform, act as a tourist attraction and use his charms to sell fake baubles to rich gullible women. He finds the job crooked, distasteful and below him, but he’s not above accepting the offer anyway, to get away from hard work and poverty and go back to living in the glamour to which he was accustomed.
He leaves Carroll, promising her he’ll return when he makes more money, and takes it as a bad signal when she fails to wave goodbye at the window as he departs. Little did he know she collapsed from pains that we are correct to assume are related to the pregnancy she didn’t have the heart to tell him about. Will Fairbanks return to Carroll, or stay with the shallow Tashman as a crook in Baron’s clothing? Will Carroll survive childbirth? Will the new crackdown on Russians in Turkey mean deportation and death for Fairbanks? Watch Scarlet Dawn and find out.
I’m a huge fan of Fairbanks so I‘ve seen this movie a few times and I enjoy his performance and handsome, dashing look here, so it’s a definite recommend for his fans. Objectively speaking though, I can see people might find a few weaknesses, like an underdeveloped role for Carroll and a pace that skips across some major historical and personal events like a well-pitched rock on a pond. At 57 minutes this movie just flies; for me the speed is fine, light and busy, nothing out of the ordinary for a pre-Code. A full love story during the Bolshevik Revolution is a tough one to condense (or even get factually right, which this couldn’t) but director William Dieterle does a good job of fitting it all in, keeping us interested and making the studio sets look suitably glamorous, epic or hovel-like. He even includes a spectacular car crash that serves as instant karma for some opportunistic thieves as well as an opportunity to see the cold side of Fairbanks’ character. This cast is fun; besides our leads there’s also Guy Kibbee, Mischa Auer, Mae Busch and Frank (King Kong) Reicher (all in very small roles). Scarlet Dawn is a rewarding view if you don’t expect to get a history lesson or a drawn out Zhivago-esque love story (I prefer this to that anyway), and it’s entertaining if you want to watch Fairbanks in his prime, playing a flawed and shallow fellow learning how to be a responsible man and good husband.
This post is part of the Russia in Classic Film blogathon hosted by Movies, Silently