BLOOD AND SAND and eye-gazing Technicolor stirred the passions of crowds in 1941, when they shelled out $5,600,000 worth of tickets, the 20th most popular flick of a hit-stoked year. Third of four versions of “Sangre y arena”, a 1908 novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, this one was written up by Jo Swerling, boasts a winning cast and was most fortunate to be directed by the painstakingly precise stylist Rouben Mamoulian.
The rise and fall of a bullfighter. A group of adolescents determine to become matadors, led by the boasting ‘Juan Gallardo’ (young Rex Downing, 15, is hard to take, clanging on the ears—suffer through him). Years pass, the boys are now men, still led by the arrogant but generous Juan (thankfully now Tyrone Power). Loved since childhood by ‘Carmen’ (Linda Darnell, only 17—what the hell?—the studio said she was 22), the brash but naive Juan is seduced not just from fame & glory but away from Carmen by matador-devouring ‘Dóna Sol’ , played by Rita Hayworth, 22—man your addle stations!. Cynical ‘El Nacional’ (John Carradine) spouts enough about social injustice to mark him as some kind of plaza Red, while jealous ‘Manolo’ (Anthony Quinn) waits for an opening. Preening egotist critic ‘Natalio’ (Laird Cregar) says catty things about Juan like “I predict he will make his exit in a cloud of rotten oranges and dead cats.” This lets Ty/Juan reply “As for you, you’ve probably never been baptized. I’ll baptize you now. I christen you liar, and your second name is swine!”—then pour a bottle of wine over the loudmouth’s head.
The plot is obvious stuff, but the top-notch cast deliver the goods (sorry, Rex), basking in the glorious color palette designed by director Mamoulian. Quoted “I consider that color on the screen must be used as an emotion”, he guided cameramen Ernest Palmer & Ray Rennahan in reproducing the look and feel of great Spanish artists—Murillo, Goya, Velázquez, El Greco, Sorella, Titian, Veronese—seducing the senses with shadows, lighting patterns, and compositions so elegantly rendered they weave an emotive sheen around the dramatics. This often-ethereal beauty drenches sequences, accentuated by Alfred Newman’s caressing soundtrack of familiar, blood-coursing Spanish themes. Mamoulian again: “The greatest truths are conceived intuitively, not through the brain. The greatest truths can never be proven, but they can be felt.” For sure, plus you’ve got to like a guy astute enough to understand that “The most important critic is time.” Producer Darryl F. Zanuck may have wondered if the director was losing it when Mamoulian used a spray can to dye flowers for effect and to swirl patterns on the sets, but Rouben knew what it would look—and feel—like: Palmer & Tennahan shared a much-deserved Oscar for their magnificent cinematography and the superb Art Direction was nominated.
Mamoulian also insisted Hayworth dye her brunette hair red for effect: she kept it so for the rest of her career. She and Tony Quinn get a hot dance number. Power was no fan of bullfights (do you know anyone who really is?) but, to be convincing, he trained diligently under tutelage from the renowned Carlos Arruza and his apprentice, future director Budd Boetticher, who a decade later would make the best movies about the sport, The Bullfighter And The Lady. Not wishing to run afoul of the ASPCA, the company made sure not to torment bulls, who were draped with thick hides to prevent injury. Sources indicate versions for Latin American markets had more ‘authentic’ footage. You need not be a fan of this ancient barbaric ‘sport’ to enjoy the romantic movie, a gleaming gem of Old Hollywood craftsmanship.
With the legendary, flamboyant Nazimova, the always sturdy J. Carrol Naish, plus Lynn Bari, Monty Banks, George Reeves, Pedro de Cordoba, Fortunio Bonanova, Ann E. Todd and Charles Stevens. Stellar costume design was by Travis Banton. 125 minutes. **
** Playing Darnell as a little girl, opposite the tasking Rex Downing, charmer Ann E. Todd, all of 9, wasn’t all that wild about acting: “Except for my fifteenth year, I never wanted to be an actress–I just thought it was something one did. My grandparents plopped me into the movies when I was about 6. My ambition as a child was to be a pilot, like Amelia Earhart.” A distant cousin to Mary Todd Lincoln, she did feature in 39 films, before ditching Hollywood for a Masters Degree in Music History from Berkeley and a career as a librarian. After giving Rex Downing a bad time, we must acknowledge that he served in the Navy in WW2 and later became a teacher. Probably a better bet than bullfighting.