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.
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.
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.
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.
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.