THE LIGHT THAT FAILED succeeded with critics in 1939, one more of that year’s astounding crop of noteworthy productions. A $3,500,000 gross logged a respectable 58th in the horde, another success for star Ronald Colman, and for director William A. Wellman, who scored even bigger in ’39 with Beau Geste. Like that desert adventure, this was partly set in Africa. Here it was the Sudan, and its colonial context, from Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 debut novel, fit in with 1939’s volley of ‘Hail Britannia!’ salutes, forming square with Gunga Din, Raffles, The Sun Never Sets, The Four Feathers, Goodbye Mr. Chips and The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex. The talent-becomes-gallant chestnut also served to give a determined 21-year-old Ida Lupino her breakout role after eight years toiling through two dozen thankless parts.
The story begins in England in 1865 with a boy and girl swearing allegiance to one another “forever and ever.” Years on, the boy is a now a man, fighting Mahdist warriors in the Sudan. ‘Dick Heldar’ (Colman) receives a head wound while saving a comrade during a battle. Recovered, he finds success as a painter and briefly reunites with ‘Maisie’ (Muriel Angelus), also trying to make her way as an artist. His combat mate ‘Torpenhow’ (Walter Huston) becomes his roommate, repaying Dick by providing a studio place to work in. Dick’s output is profitable, but creatively indifferent, until Torp brings home needy, low-class ‘Bessie’ (Lupino) who inspires Dick to create his ‘masterpiece’ which he titles “Melancholia”. Then the old battle wound kicks in and Dick’s vision begins to go. He ultimately finds an answer to his despair: more war.
The old-fashioned meller gets off to a rocky start with two poor choices for child actors, and Robert Carson’s script makes a rapid skip through the Sudan (long enough for a rousing, well-designed battle scene) and back to London. Huston’s British accent is sketchy, and Miss Angelus lacks charisma (she later observed “I was caught up in the glamour, but once in Hollywood I was nothing more than a tiny craft battling in an ocean beside much weightier ships”). But Colman’s innate charm and panache holds, delivering his customary fine work even though he and director Wellman were at odds from the get-go. The “find” is Lupino, who rips into her bitter street tart with fury, cinching a contract with Warner Brothers that gave her memorable roles in They Drive By Night, The Sea Wolf and High Sierra. *
Though the storyline’s on the quaint side and the rushed handling creaks some, once Bessie shows up and Dick’s affliction comes into play, the film develops a hold; it’s easy to see how it would have played to good effect in an earlier day and age. Nothing like a good suicidal cavalry charge to set everything right.
“Painting is seeing, then better remembering what you saw.”
New Mexico stood in for the Sudan. Music by Victor Young. With Dudley Digges, Pedro de Cordoba, Halliwell Hobbes, George Chandler. 97 minutes.
* Though 26-year-old Rudyard Kipling’s first novel was poorly reviewed when it came out; 47 years on, this movie version drew a good deal of praise. It had been done twice in the silent era.
Wellman: “Ronald Colman and Wellman, an odd combination to say the least. He didn’t like me; I didn’t like him—the only two things we agreed fully on.”