THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, good-looking melodramatic adventure tosh, did well in 1936, pleasing audiences with its attractive stars, earning three Oscar nominations. Visually, it’s a winner, and boasts one memorable performance, but otherwise it’s a dated relic, thanks to the cornball writing. It actually contains the line “We could’ve made wonderful music together.” Whether that came from Charles G. Booth (he wrote the novel) or stage-rage Clifford Odets (his first screenplay in Hollywood) is up for grabs. My guess would be Odets, since the script is stuffed with people saying things to each other in ways that people don’t say things to each other.
Revolt-beset China. Mercenary-with-a-conscience ‘O’Hara’ (Gary Cooper) gets captured trying to smuggle money to procure arms for honest citizens to use battling cunning warlord ‘Yang’ (Akim Tamiroff). O’Hara makes the mistake of falling for elegant dish ‘Judy Perrie’ (Madeleine Carroll), being used by her weakling father (Porter Hall), an agent for Yang. Others caught up in the snare include wisdom-dispensing ‘Mr.Wu’ (Dudley Digges), blowhard drunk ‘Brighton’ (William Frawley), slithery ‘Leach’ (J.M. Kerrigan) and cool cucumber ‘Oxford’ (Philip Ahn).
Fun, with a shaker of salt, a joke if taken straight. Cooper and Carroll look movie-star stunning, though their romance angle is cardboard silliness, particularly considering how fast they make up after Gary plugs her dad! Cooper, 35 in ’36, was on a roll that year, knocking out Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Desire and The Plainsman, and Brit import Carroll, 30, was in the process of winning America over with her blend of poise and beauty. The O’Hara character was based on the real-life Anglo-Canadian adventurer Morris Abraham “Two-Gun” Cohen.
Acting-wise, the honors easily go to Tamiroff’s slyly powerful work as the general: he nabbed one of the Oscar nominations, in the new category of Supporting Actor, helping secure a long and colorful career. As directed by Lewis Milestone, starting with the titles sequence the film displays some inventive visual touches, including a nifty scene where two characters speculate about the fates of others in the plot. The answers to their questions appear in screen segments, rolling down in the corners of the frame, a swell use of split screen to link narrative. A concluding scene with opposing two lines of Chan’s men doing joint revolver suicide is pretty wild. Victor Milner’s camerawork is of high-caliber: it accounted for one of the nominations. So did Werner Janssen’s score, which tends to be too busy.
Grosses came to $4,500,000, clocking 24th for the year. 98 minutes, with Lee Tung Foo, Leonid Kinskey, Russell Hicks, Willie Fung and author John O’Hara, who does a bit as a reporter. Plus Gary has a pet monkey named ‘Sam’. Best line of dialogue—“I like people too much to shoot. But it’s a dark year and a hard night.”