Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Scarlet Dawn (1932)

SCARLET DAWN is a compelling and rather unique pre-Code drama set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, anchored by a charismatic performance by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

This sweeping drama packs a rather amazing amount of story into its scant 57 minutes. (Alas, 19 minutes are said to have been cut since the initial release; I assume that footage is gone forever.) Filmed a mere 15 years after the Russian Revolution, SCARLET DAWN tells the story of Baron Nikita Krasnoff (Fairbanks), an officer in the Tsar's army. When his regiment is gunned down by Bolsheviks, Nikita manages to escape; endangered once again when he returns to his estate, Nikita is saved by his loyal servant Tanyusha (Nancy Carroll), and together they flee across the border to Constantinople.

The film blends exciting, suspenseful action sequences with quieter and more touching moments. The extended depiction of an Orthodox wedding ceremony is one of the film's highlights. The movie's final scene is both lushly romantic and haunting, as the joyously reunited Nikita and Tanyusha face an uncertain future.

Fairbanks was at the height of his dashing appeal in this film. The New York Times in 1932 noted that "The handsome Mr. Fairbanks talks and laughs like his father, but he is a far better actor." More recently, blogger Doug Johnson termed Fairbanks' performance "magnetic and lively," a description with which I concur. Thanks in part to his charisma, Fairbanks' character maintains audience sympathy despite engaging in several less-than-admirable actions.

Carroll is touching as the brave Tanyusha, who aids and later loves Nikita, even when he doesn't deserve it. Nikita eventually comes to appreciate Tanyusha's steadfast, unquestioning love. The Times accurately noted Carroll was "graceful and appealing."

This film was of particular interest to me as I came close to a second minor in Russian Studies when I was in college. (I majored in History and minored in Political Science.) I was fascinated to realize just how close in time this film was made to the historical events it depicted. The Russian Revolution was nearly a century ago, yet for those who made the film it had happened in the fairly recent past.

SCARLET DAWN was directed by William Dieterle. The screenplay by Niven Busch and Erwin Gelsey was based on the novel REVOLT by Mary McCall Jr. IMDb says Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was an uncredited contributor of dialogue.

The film's supporting cast includes Lilyan Tashman, Guy Kibbee, and Sheila Terry.

This movie is available on video. It can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies, which showed the film last week as part of its "Shadows of Russia" series. The trailer is available here.

I'm glad to see that Moira Finnie and John DiLeo like this one too; Moira writes "love this movie" and DiLeo says it's "Flavorful and romantic, and with genuine suspense and adventure."

SCARLET DAWN is an obscure gem which deserves a wider audience. Now if someone could only locate that missing footage...


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