THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO has been adapted many times on screen: following numerous silents, the first sound version in 1934 distills the massive 1845 novel by Alexandre Dumas into 113 minutes of screen time, a very free adaptation, but successful with critics and audiences. Though it can’t help but show its age, particularly in some of the more broadly stroked supporting performances, it’s still a rouser of ingenuity and resolve overcoming injustice and despair, with a wronged man turned avenging hero and swinish villains in line for long-overdue just deserts. *
France, 1815. Napoleon is in exile, but loyal followers plan to bring him back to power. This involves a letter, whose delivery is entrusted to merchant sailor ‘Edmond Dantès’ (Robert Donat, 29), but jealousy and treachery reward his trust and innocence with solitary confinement to a dire island prison. After 14 years, during which those who betrayed him prospered, one of them even marrying Dantès forlorn fiancée, providence offers Edmond a desperate, near miraculous escape. Back from the dead, he embarks on a path to riches and revenge.
No-one would finance or sit through a 9-hour movie, which is what the novels hundreds of pages would require if done with fidelity, so the cinema solution was to sacrifice the extraneous for the essential. Handsomely produced, while it boasts a few action highlights, it isn’t a swashbuckler, instead building in measured pacing to a satisfying payoff. Alfred Newman’s score provides extra zest during the costume ball “reveal”. As the lost love, Elissa Landi is a weak link: her poses and diction theatrical and stilted. The three major villains are in the plus column, as done by Louis Calhern (lawyer ‘Raymond de Villefort’, risen to State Attorney), Sidney Blackmer (“friend” and wife-stealer ‘Fernand Mondego’) and Raymond Walburn (envious seaman ‘Danglers’, now a banker). But the showcase role is rightly Donat’s, and he carries it off with passion, elegance, eloquence and conviction. The finale duel of oratorical flourish between Donat and Calhern is bravura stuff.
Rowland V. Lee directed. Philip Dunne (his first screenplay) wrote dialogue for the script conceived by director Lee and Dan Totheroe. Cogerson pegs box office at $1,600,000, but IMDB cites $3,270,000: given the film’s reputation, the latter seems more likely. With O.P. Heggie, Louis Alberni, Leon Ames and Paul Fix.
* After appearing in four British films (including the very popular The Private Life Of Henry VIII, Donat came to America for this one. He didn’t care for Hollywood and his health (suffering from asthma) made extensive travel a torment, so while he would star in other Hollywood-produced pictures, they were all filmed in England. He only made 20 movies before dying in 1958 at the age of 53, but the small list includes real gems like The 39 Steps, Knight Without Armour, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Adventures Of Tartu and Perfect Strangers. For generations of filmgoers, his work in The Count Of Monte Cristo personified Edmond Dantès. One neat hand-of-fate touch was that by returning to England after this wrapped he turned down Captain Blood, which made a star of an unknown 26-year-old Australian rascal, Errol Flynn. En garde!
1934’s other notable adventure epics: Cleopatra, Treasure Island, Tarzan And His Mate, Viva Villa!, The Scarlet Empress, The Scarlet Pimpernel.