SHE (1936) dir. Lansing C. Holden, Irving Pichel
Starring: Randolph Scott, Helen Gahagan, Helen Mack, Nigel Bruce
“She” is based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard, the Victorian pulp novelist famous for adventure stories such as “King Solomon’s Mines”. The filmed version was a collaboration from two of the members of the ‘King Kong’ family – co-director Irving Pichel, and Kong producer Merian C. Cooper. I’ve only seen three of their films (inc. “Kong” and “The Most Dangerous Game”), and "She" is by far the pulpiest and hokiest so far and for curious cinephiles only.
This tall tale has Horace Holly (Nigel Bruce), Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott) and Tanya Dugmore (Helen Mack) traveling to the treacherous arctic in search of the eternal flame of life that will bring man everlasting life. Vincey is drawn to the expedition to discover the fate of his great great grandfather John Vincey who went on a similar trip in the 1700’s but never came back. After crossing dangerous frozen waters and avoiding bone-crushing avalanches, they reach magnetic north and follow the path of myth that will lead them to a lost world of paradise. Indeed, the team finds this lost world, which is inhabited by an unruly group of natives, and led by a cruel female despot uncreatively named ‘She’.
Many years ago ‘She’ had been tempted by the eternal flame herself and now lives a doomed life of everlasting life. With the arrival of the hunky Leo Vincey, she discovers a mate who can live with her in lifelong harmony. But over the past 300 years She has gone a little nutty and has taken to authoritarism including ritualistic human sacrificing. Vincey and the bunch have to find a way out before they are all thrown into the volcanic pit of death.
“She” is grand scale hokum. The young squared-jawed Randolph Scott delivers his lines with the golly-gee-wiz intensity of Burt Ward from the Batman TV series. Helen Mack (from “His Girl Friday”) is quite yummy as the damsel in distress. And Helen Gagahan is alluring but inert as “She”. But you’re not watching a Merian C. Cooper production for the dialogue. There are a handful of exciting action sequences, including a very convincing avalanche sequence and a lengthy ritualistic dance/human sacrifice sequence that are worth the price of admission.
The film is watchable only for its pedigree (the ‘King Kong’ connection) and it’s influence on modern adventure cinema – specially “Indiana Jones”. Though Jones was inspired by film serials, “She” is also closely tied to the series. The “Temple of Doom’s” Volcanic sacrifice scene is lifted directly from here, as well the dramatic ceremonial finale in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.
“She” is also worth a look for its fantastic Art Deco production design and special effects which are as good as anything of its day, and in fact better than most for decades. Black and white film allows traditional matting photography to blend in better with shot footage, than colour film. So, ironically when studios started making colour films, it took decades for the special effects departments to catch up to the days of Merian C. Cooper.
The storytelling has the ‘White Man’s Burdon’ superiority of British colonialism. The natives of the arctic lands are like untamed animals who do the bidding of the all-powerful white woman – She. It was still the prevailing world view at the time among developed nations, so you must look past this ignorance.
Merian C. Cooper was never good with subtlety. Like Carl Denham’s final words in “King Kong” - “No, it was beauty that killed the beast”, we are given an equally blatant reiteration of the film’s theme – “the flame of life exists here, in any fireplace in any home where two people live and love each other.” A terrible ending, but cudos to Legend Films for bringing it back on DVD. I don’t regret watching it. Enjoy.
Buy it here: She