26 October 2009 | Steffi_P
"Words are but little thanks"
You see, it's not so much the stories that count, it's the way they're told. Becky Sharp, the motion picture, came to be by a convoluted route. William Makepeace Thackeray's mid-19th century novel Vanity Fair was used as the basis for Langdon Mitchell's late 19th century stage play, which was in turn adapted for this 1935 movie. What have we lost and what have we gained?
Of course, books, plays and pictures are very different things, and certain changes have had to be made so that each adaptation works for its particular medium. Becky Sharp bears all the hallmarks of a lengthy novel reworked for the stage. A play can't be over a certain length because it has to be seen in a whole evening, and yet individual scenes tend to be fairly long because of the disruption of having to change sets. Becky Sharp, perhaps surprisingly, changes very little of the basic plot, but it condenses the entire (900+ page) tome into a series of dramatic vignettes. Because the novel tends to tell of many important events in a by-the-by fashion, Mitchell was also forced to come up with a lot of his own dialogue. Finally, the play differs from the novel in that every episode is told from Becky's point-of-view, whereas Thackeray's narrative travels with a range of characters.
So far, so disappointing (perhaps). But what was most important here was not that the story survived intact, but that the tone of Thackeray's masterpiece carried through. What is so special about Vanity Fair is the author's cynical, sarcastic tone, which makes a comedy out of these unpleasant goings-on. This is not an easy task in a motion picture, unless you were to resort to voice-over narration with passages from the novel (not especially en vogue in the 30s). But as it happens this motion picture does not do a bad job.
Firstly, we have the right cast. Miriam Hopkins's Oscar nomination has raised a few eyebrows here and there, and it's true her performance is hysterically hammy. But that is Becky Sharp, a cheat and a liar whose entire life was an act. When she breaks down in false tears over her late mother's possessions, the moment seems silly, but it is supposed to be funny. The bulk of the cast are overblown caricatures, but again this is faithful to the novel. Thackeray wasn't subtle. Look at those names – Pitt Crawley, Lord Steyne
even a minor character who didn't make it to this version called Sir Huddleston-Fuddleston. And most of the players are spot-on. Nigel Bruce simply is Jos Sedley, and George Hassell is perfect in his unfortunately brief appearance as Sir Pitt.
Then there is Rouben Mamoulian's direction. His flamboyant visual style could be disastrous in the wrong picture, but here all his extroverted camera moves and trick shots pay off. With the condensed storyline, the overt technique helps to keep the flow. We are brought closer to the spirit of the original text by the fact that we are constantly aware of the director's touch, just as Thackeray constantly addresses his reader with a sly wink. This again highlights the fact that Becky Sharp is more enjoyable if it is taken as a comedy, not as a drama. It's just as well – Mamoulian let loose on a pure drama could be awful.
This was famously the first picture in three-strip Technicolor, and as the use of colour here is especially good I'll devote a few lines to that too. Whereas some early colour pictures used blaring shades, Becky Sharp is filled with subtler tones – for example those rusty browns and greyish blues in the opening scene, much more effective than bold blue and red. And rather than simply colour-coding a character's costume or a set, we here see the tones flowing on and off the screen. To again take that opening scene, we begin with the warmer hues of Amelia and her friends, and then slowly move, via various different shades of dress and the growing amount of the stark wall that can be seen, to the cold blue-grey of Becky. Later in the first scene at the Crawley residence, all the colours are very plain, which gives more impact when Rawdon walks in in his bright red uniform. It's hard to say who is responsible for this smart handling of colour. Production designer Robert Edmond Jones is the celebrated inventor of "simplified realism", whereby sets complement action, but Mamoulian appears to have done a very similar job with the colour on the 1941's Blood and Sand. We'll assume it was a joint effort.
Really, the only major flaw in Becky Sharp (and it is, I'm sorry to say, a very major one), is that the paring down of the narrative to 84 minutes without actually cutting much of the plot makes for somewhat confusing viewing. It's difficult to keep up with time and place, and the novel's legion of characters pop up then disappear before they have made an impression. Personally, I found Becky Sharp fun to watch because I am familiar with the novel and it was nice to see these figures brought to life so accurately. However, I first saw it before I read the book, and recall finding it bizarre and boring, as I suppose would the majority of viewers. For this reason, it fails in itself as a motion picture.