Deco Fantasia: the 1935 “She”

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

The 1935 version of the H. Rider Haggard perennial “She” is an eye-popping display of Art Deco misc-en-scene by Van Nest Polglase with a bit of Mummers’ Parade razzle-dazzle thrown in for good measure. The first twenty minutes or so of the film are set firmly in the present and promise a straightforward tale of adventure as a small party of intrepid explorers with mixed motives of scientific curiosity and greed for gold set out to find a fabled kingdom in the far north. In this section of the film we meet Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott, on leave from the Wild West) who happens to be the exact double of an earlier Vincey, John Vincey, who also explored the far north in the 1500s, Holly (Nigel Bruce) a burly, bluff fellow who assisted Leo’s recently-deceased uncle in his research into radioactive elements, Tanya (Helen Mack), a comely but spunky waif and Dugmore (Lumsden Hare) a brutal, greedy trader who may or may not be Tanya’a father. The party make it to the very gates of the hidden land they seek when disaster strikes in the form of an avalanche, set off by Dugmore’s digging for a golden chain on the neck of a frozen corpse that results in his death.

The trio of survivors now find themselves in a warren of tunnels and caves inhabited by 1935 Hollywood version of primitives and lorded over by Noble Johnson, on leave from Skull Island. Their idea of hospitality is a quick meal for the guests followed by a lengthy feast on the guests. They are saved from the white-hot cooking pot by the timely arrival of a troop of vaguely Roman-looking soldiers, led by veteran heavy Gustav von Seyffertitz as their leader, who we will later learn is She’s High Priest, Billali. Thus far we have been watching a slightly-shaggy dog adventure tale, but now everything will change as we leave the caves and enter Kor, the walled domain of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.

She (Helen Gahagan) is given a suitably impressive entrance. Dimly glimpsed through a barrier of smoke or fog she issues her orders regarding the guests and the captured cave people with a command and dispatch that one can only wished she had used seventeen  years later on a young Richard Nixon. Once she discovers that one of the guests is the man whose reincarnation she has awaited for centuries, she undertakes a full-press charm offensive. Unfortunately for She, history is cyclical. John Vincey had a wife who was loathe to surrender her man, Leo Vincey has Tanya, a little less than a wife, a little more than a travelling companion. Leo can’t quite wrap his head around the fact that he is John Vincey reborn, even though he had been shown a portrait of his ancestor in the opening scene and his embalmed corpse in She’s sanctuary to her lost love. Leo also fails to grasp the essential fact of She–that she is centuries old despite her youthful appearance. His obtuseness on this point is odd in that the whole point of Leo’s and Holly’s quest was to learn the truth about a legendary Flame of Life that would confer immortality on any who bathed in it. This, Holly believes, is a hitherto unknown form of radiation.

Amid the deco splendors of She’s kingdom we see history subtly repeat itself. Initially charmed by She’s beauty and her promise of immortality and youth, Leo is slowly put off by her brutality and her disregard for mere humans. When he learns that she killed his ancestor because he ultimately chose his wife over her, this does not further endear her to him. She’s downfall comes when she listens to the advice of Billali that Tanya be offered as a sacrifice, thus removing her potential rival forever.

After a sacrificial ritual dance that would have done Cecil B. DeMille proud, Leo cottens to the plot, rescues Tanya and introduces She’s spear-wielding guards to the wonders of the revolver as he flees with Tanya and Holly. (This was one of those films in which Bruce was actually allowed to have a brain and even be handy with his fists.) The trio flee into the waiting arms of She and her Eternal Flame. In a last attempt to woo Leo away from Tanya she offers to enter the flame herself to show how harmless it is. Instead she ages into a crone, collapses and dies, leaving poor Billali in an advanced state of shock at seeing his immortal goddess perish.

The film concludes with a brief coda in England. Tanya and Leo are now Mr. and Mrs. Vincey and Leo puffs contentedly on his pipe as Holly reads to them the closing passages of the ripping yarn  he has written about their experiences. Tanya finally buries the hatchet with her deceased rival by allowing that it couldn’t have been pleasant living for centuries craving a love she could never have.

This version of “She” would make an interesting double-bill with Hammer’s 1965 version of the tale. By allowing Leo and She (here officially called Ayesha) to meet in 1918 Palestine and for Leo to accept her challenge to travel over the Mountains-of-the-Moon to Kuma to find her again and claim her as his own, it offers a Leo who knows that She-who-waits is real, not a mere legend, and is already smitten with her. It offered a younger, more commanding  Billali whose outward obedience conceals the truth that he really wants to be She’s eternal co-ruler, and a Leo who is less of a simon-pure hero. He doesn’t do much to spare this version of Tanya, here called Ustane,  from She’s wrath and he actually enters the flame with She with the tragic result that he now has eternal life and youth–but without the woman he craved, who has turned to dust before his eyes.

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