She (1935)

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Randolph Scott finds the fire of eternal life and She Who Must Be Obeyed.

This was a rewatch of the type of movie adventure I love: a hero in quest of some lost item, world or secret. In our age of fast travel and satellite images, anything remaining as undiscovered, inaccessible or unknown as the land in which She (1935) dwells, is a concept even more enticing, especially when that place is given full movie treatment to look like the best Deco villa that Cleopatra never had.

Randolph Scott is summoned to a dying relative’s side and arrives just in time to hear the juicy and horrific story of his ancestor, an eerie lookalike who 500 years ago discovered the flame of immortality in a remote place. Accompanied by family friend Nigel Bruce, Scott travels to follow his ancestor’s last known trail to that secret location and strange treasure.

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When they arrive in the far North they pick up two travelling companions, a crusty and greedy old trader (Lumsden Hare) who’s certain they’re after gold and wants a share, as well as his daughter (Helen Mack). Hare’s greed gets him killed early on and the remaining three find inside the mountains a fantastic, vast, lush, tropical valley that sustains a whole civilization. The reigning queen of this land is an ageless woman (Helen Gahagan) who got that way by bathing in that very thing they seek: the magical flame of eternal life.

She is thunderstruck at Scott’s arrival because of his resemblance to that ancestor, who she long ago kissed then killed, but never stopped loving. She tries to convince Scott to step into the flame to gain immortality and stay there as her replacement lover and slave for all eternity. The problem is that Mack loves Scott too, and quickly develops from a meek, abused flower into a steely heroine who stands up to her furious and controlling rival. With her defiance and statement about an “old” heart being unable to truly love, Mack earns herself a heaping helping of Gahagan’s jealous wrath and a date with the sacrificial fire pit.

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This was one of many screen adaptations of H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She: A History of Adventure. Co-writer Dudley Nichols telescoped the time She lives by thousands of years and switched Africa for the Arctic, but that setting change made for some great visuals. Director Irving Pichel handled the actors while co-director, designer and illustrator Lansing C. Holden created the art effects. All the ice and snow gives us memorable sights like Scott in furs, a dogsled trek and a giant sabretooth tiger frozen in mid-maul, hovering over someone Scott recognizes as one of his ancestor’s crew, a man horrifically suspended in mid-scream. You also get an effective avalanche triggered by Hare’s pickaxe hammering (to see what the frozen man has in his satchel). The cold makes the contrasting fertile, hot valley all the more stunning, and the impressive scenery looked even more fantastic, more like comic panels, in the Ray Harryhausen colourized version I watched.

There’s a very good bit at the end when Scott, Bruce and Mack are fleeing from Gahagan’s valley and leap across a bottomless crevasse to land on a massive boulder that’s loose and teetering. The whole scene is captured in extreme long shot (it looks like a side-scrolling early era video game) so the people are almost dots but you can tell who’s who, and do you ever feel the suspense as they jump across, beset by clinging enemy soldiers and then, with great effort, tip the boulder over to send those pursuers to their deaths.

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Great stuff, and it’s not just the exteriors that look good. The lost world’s buildings are dizzying monumental skyscrapers with steep and endless steps and labyrinthine passageways. The rooms are a cross between deco and ancient Egypt, and the High Priest (the commanding and scary Julius Adler) leads a troop of guards dressed like Roman sentry. The women get a gorgeous selection of slinky gowns and capes, and apparently one Gahagan outfit directly inspired the Evil Queen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The impressive visuals make up for the lulls in the plot once the heroes enter Gahagan’s domain and are either expressing disbelief at the sights or debating their next move. The Max Steiner music is as lush as the valley, dramatic and swelling as you might expect from him, and to go with it, there’s an elaborately costumed, extended, artful and dramatic dance sequence leading up to Mack’s sacrifice.

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Nigel Bruce fans like myself will enjoy him here as he plays a great companion, a smart and loyal action hero, and seasons his performance with just the right amount of his trademark bumbling. He adds much amusement to the disturbing scene when they’re first “greeted” by the outer circle of lost world natives. In the spirit of being open and friendly to this newly discovered people, Bruce insists that their creepy dance around the fire pit, in which they’re heating up an oversized, full-face metal helmet, must be some kind of welcoming ceremony (it sure is warm). He politely plays along and assures a skeptical Scott, until the natives restrain him with giant forks and prepare to lower the red hot container over his head.

In her only movie, Helen Gahagan fit the requirements for She Who Must Be Obeyed: imperious, dictatorial, snooty, wicked, frightening and ultimately petty, insecure and weak. More nice effects and aging makeup convince you that all those years of cruelty and beauty have finally caught up to her. She decays in a way that would make Dorian Gray scream. She is pulpy adventure fiction as grand spectacle, a fun must-see.

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25 thoughts on “She (1935)”

  1. Have never seen this. Sounds exciting. Wonder why Helen Gahagan ( wife of Melvyn Douglas) never made any other films.

    1. That’s right, she was on Broadway and early on went into politics. This is a lot of fun, safe to say if the adventure part of it doesn’t do it for you, you are sure to get a kick out of the visuals. I was really bowled over by several of the FX and the design. Thanks!

  2. I remember this one very fondly — far more so than the Ursula Andress/Hammer one that most people think of as the default.

    Great writeup, Kristina! You’re good at this, aren’t you?

    1. Well thanks for saying that, I try to have fun with these, which is easier when the movie is fun. I first saw this in B&W and this time colourized which was much better than I expected. It makes the place look much more idyllic and unreal, and the flames are blue, nice choice.

    1. It’s fun and where it stalls a bit in the plot I felt it made up in sheer spectacle, you just can’t believe all the sets and the FX–very well done. It’s like a cross between KING KONG and LOST HORIZON!

  3. Produced by Kong creator Merian C. Cooper this is a wonderful follow up to his earlier hit. It should be more widely known from the era it was produced. The sets are outstanding. Time for a rewatch!

    1. Yes I neglected to mention that it was Cooper producing! They really had a way with grand fx to blow the viewer away, some of it looks real and even the stuff that doesn’t is still awesome. Good stuff that can be done without cgi!

  4. Wow, I read about this YEARS ago in one of my first film books — 50 Classic Motion Pictures by Zinman. I’ve always wanted to see it, but the book said it was a lost film! You HAVE this?!?

    1. but the book said it was a lost film

      Oh, lordy, how wrong the book was. I had no difficulty at all in finding it when I had to write about it for the Clute/me Encyclopedia of Fantasy in the mid-1990s, either on VHS or on t’telly (my personal catalog’s unclear). There’s now even (just checked) a copy on YouTube (though I’m not certain as to the legality or how long it’ll stay there!).

      1. The book came out in 1970 — maybe it was “found” after that. I am SO glad to know that it’s available! This is amazing to me. Y’all don’t even know. I am heading over to YouTube this instant! 😉

    2. yes I also had a vhs transfer, pretty bad, so I ended up rewatching the coloured version that’s on YT, so check that out while you can! it looks pretty magical in colour.

  5. Hi 🙂
    I found your blog thanks to a post by Niall from The Fluff is Raging about the 1947 blogathon.

    ‘She’ has been on my TBR least forever, but sounds like the film is worthy of watching too.

    1. that’s cool, always nice for new blogs to find each other! SHE has a lot of movie versions, all a bit different from the book apparently, so I would love to read that someday and see the inspiration. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Thanks for the tip re: streaming it on YouTube. I’ve not seen this, but now I have to, along with my husband. He sometimes jokingly refers to me as “She who must be obeyed.”

    1. haha! I seem to remember Roseanne wore a tshirt that said that too, back when I had no clue where it was from, I always loved the sound of it (who wouldn’t!). Stay tuned tonight for something related to this one…

    2. He sometimes jokingly refers to me as “She who must be obeyed.”

      Did he perhaps pick it up from John Mortimer’s re-usage in the Rumpole novels and ensuing TV series?

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