Son of Monte Cristo

The Son of Monte Cristo
Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1940
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Source: American Home Treasures DVD

Independent producer Edward Small’s biggest hit was The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) with star Robert Donat. Small planned to follow up with a sequel, but Donat bailed and went back to England, so the producer set the project aside until he found a charming new star in Louis Hayward. Sadly, this mediocre sequel doesn’t live up to its memorable predecessor, never really rising above Pretty Good. Much of the problem lies with screenwriter George Bruce’s story, a predictable cape-and-sword potboiler that’s more Anthony Hope (i.e., Zenda) than Alexandre Dumas, with a proto-fascist villain anachronistically thrown in for good measure.

At least the proto-fascist, General Gurko Lanen, is played by the lethally arrogant George Sanders, the only man in Hollywood who could out-sneer Basil Rathbone. The tale is set in 1865 in the fictional Balkan country of Lichtenburg, whose young ruler (Joan Bennett) is Grand Duchess Zona, a name that cannot be improved upon. Lanen and his jackbooted thugs threaten to usurp Zona’s power, so she attempts to escape to Paris to call for French intervention. Though her attempt is foiled, it’s stopped in a border incident that draws in the dashing Count of Monte Cristo—or his son, anyway, who now bears the title. Zona is taken back to Lichtenburg, and Monte Cristo, smitten, follows her.

The ensuing intrigues in Lichtenburg, though predictable, are entertaining enough, but the only thing Monte Cristo-ish about them is that the count adopts several guises and impersonations in his campaign to rescue Zona and her grand duchy from Gurko Lanen. The film plays genre-convention bingo by checking off secret passages, a masked outlaw, a grim castle dungeon, a fop with a quizzing glass, a secret treaty, a slimy sewer, a treacherous servant, forged documents, an interrupted wedding, and plenty of lively swordplay—nothing new here, but at least it’s enthusiastic. Hayward is likeable and energetic, Bennett is appealing and determined, and Sanders steals his every scene with sheer supercilious effrontery. Director Rowland V. Lee, who helmed the original, keeps the sequel moving along, and it’s a good time, mostly. Watch for Clayton Moore—yes, the Lone Ranger—as an earnest young guard captain loyal to Zona who allies with Monte Cristo.

Return of Monte Cristo

The Return of Monte Cristo
Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1946
Director: Henry Levin
Source: Firecake Entertainment DVD

The Return of Monte Cristo

Louis Hayward spent the war in the U.S. Marines, and was at Tarawa; afterward he returned to making swashbucklers, but with an edge he hadn’t had before. Interestingly, though produced by the same company and with the same star, The Return of Monte Cristo is not a sequel to 1940’s Son of Monte Cristo. The latter, set in 1865, featured the late count’s son (obviously), while Return, which begins in 1868, is about another heir entirely, the count’s grand-nephew. Thus Edward Small, who produced the hit 1934 Count of Monte Cristo, made two alternative and mutually-exclusive sequels to it in the ‘40s. Do their inconsistencies matter? Not at all!

The intro to Return features a bogus letter from Alexandre Dumas explaining why he decided to tell this story—which he totally didn’t, but it’s a pretty good Dumas pastiche, crafted in emulation of the original Count of Monte Cristo (1844). When the count’s grand-nephew and heir, also named Edmund Dantés, goes to court to claim his vast inheritance, he’s cheated of it by three corrupt officials, and sentenced, under a false name, to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. The French tropical penal colony is even worse than the Château d’If (which will make an appearance in act two), and there’s no Abbé Faria to help him, so this Edmund Dantés is on his own. Spoiler: he manages to escape, and returns to France to commence his campaign of revenge. With the help of a master actor, who escaped Devil’s Island with him, Dantés, to fool and entrap his prey, begins assuming various guises, such as a bank auditor, an Imperial nobleman, and a hunchbacked private investigator. To give Hayward his due, these impersonations are pretty entertaining, but they can’t quite carry the film, which is fairly pedestrian otherwise.

The Return of Monte Cristo is a darker film than Son, or even Count, almost a historical film noir in feel. In fact, it’s probably the least swashbuckling Monte Cristo film of all its many adaptations and sequels. That said, its emphasis on vengeance certainly fits more thematically than the Zenda-esque Son of Monte Cristo, though that film was a lot more fun—and it had a top-notch villain in George Sanders, something this movie lacks. In short, though Louis Hayward does his best, this isn’t a very successful film.

Count of Monte Cristo (1913)

Count of Monte Cristo
Rating:
 **
Origin: USA, 1913
Director: Golden/Porter
Source: Grapevine Video DVD

The Count of Monte Cristo

Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo is a long and complicated novel, one of our greatest revenge fantasies, and even if you were adapting it from a truncated theatrical play version (as this was), trying to tell its story in just over an hour necessitates stripping it down to its barest skeleton. James O’Neill, who plays Edmond Dantes/Monte Cristo, had been famous for his stage production of the novel, and this is what he brought to the screen. The story moves right along (it has to), they moved a lot of the scenes to appropriate external locations, and it ends with some brief but satisfying swordplay. Still, as Monte Cristo adaptations go, this one’s pretty perfunctory.

Count of Monte Cristo (1934)

Count of Monte Cristo 
Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1934
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Source: Hen’s Tooth Video DVD

The Count of Monte Cristo

English stage actor Robert Donat had garnered acclaim playing opposite Charles Laughton in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, and was brought over to Hollywood to star in the first talkie version of Monte Cristo. This is the first of director Rowland Lee’s spate of swashbucklers, and he does an able job, supported by a stirring soundtrack from Alfred Newman. The story is necessarily streamlined from that of the lengthy novel, its European politics simplified for an American audience, and the plot pared down to its essence of triple revenge. It’s pretty tight, and there’s a desperate urgency to Edmond Dantes’s escape from the Château d’If that’s missing from the earlier silent versions.

In due course Dantes finds the buried Spada treasure and utters Dumas’s immortal line, “The world is mine!” The film’s final hour is the clockwork accomplishment of his vengeance. Transformed by the Spada wealth and the Abbé Faria’s wisdom, Donat looks tremendous as the Count de Monte Cristo, silver-haired and rigid with purpose. Elissa Landi plays Dantes’s old love, Mercedes, and when she first meets the count after twenty years of believing Dantes dead, the scene is genuinely affecting. After that the count’s shocking revelations follow one upon the other, and it all ends as it should, with flashing swords and pistols at dawn. This was the definitive Count of Monte Cristo for a generation.

After this film’s success, Donat was offered the lead in Captain Blood, but he didn’t like Hollywood, and went back to Britain to work with Alfred Hitchcock. (And the part of Peter Blood, of course, went to Errol Flynn.) Monte Cristo’s producer, Edward Small, went on to make eight more swashbucklers over the next fifteen years, mostly starring Louis Hayward, including two more Monte Cristo sequels.