Thursday, March 19, 2015

Another Dawn (Warner Bros., 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the film Another Dawn, a quirky 1937 Warner Bros. soap opera starring Kay Francis and Errol Flynn (billed in that order!) in an “original” story and script by Laird Doyle (who, ironically given the subject matter of the story, died in a plane crash before the film was released), though the American Film Institute Catalog and both claim it was based on a work by W. Somerset Maugham (AFI says the source was a novel called Caesar’s Wife and says it was a short story called “The Ambassador’s Wife”). If Maugham had anything to do with this, it was probably something he tossed off for a quick pound and didn’t really care about the way he did with Of Human Bondage or The Letter — two of his stories filmed with Bette Davis, who was apparently up for the Francis role but was fortunately spared this one. It takes place mostly in an Arab principality called “Dikut” (though gives the locale as “Dubik” and what the actors actually say is “Dicket,” which sounds risibly preposterous as a name for an Arab country), where Col. John Wister (Ian Hunter) is the head of the local British occupation force and Captain Danny Roark (Errol Flynn) is his assistant. An American widow, Julia Ashton (Kay Francis), whose husband was an airplane designer and test pilot who was killed in a crash over the Irish Sea, turns up in Dikut and is immediately attracted to Captain Roark when they meet at the airport, though nothing comes of it. Instead both she and Col. Wister go to England, ending up on the same ship, where Col. Wister poses as her partner and thereby helps her fend off the advances of a repulsive guy named Victor Romkoff (Ben Weldon, whom I joked was cast only because Peter Lorre hadn’t started working for Warner Bros. yet). They meet again at his English country estate, start dating for real and ultimately get married.

Only when she returns with him to his post in Dikut, he’s constantly being called away to lead his men on some expedition or another, mostly to control a local sheik named Achaben (not shown as an on-screen character, but played by actor George Regas in some footage that didn’t make the final cut) who’s determined to starve out his rival sheik by damming up a river and thereby cutting the rival’s country off from the water supply it needs to grow cotton. (Charles was startled that a local sheik would have access to the resources to build a dam — he joked that the Soviets must have been helping him 20 years before they bankrolled the real Aswan High Dam in Egypt — but the film does take place in 1937, not 1837, and there didn’t seem any reason to me why he couldn’t have had a dam built.) While Col. Wister is off on a military mission, Captain Roark encounters Julia in a garden (lovingly photographed by director William Dieterle and cinematographer Tony Gaudio) and they kiss. Then, this being a Production Code-era movie, they’re both immediately guilt-stricken over it. The next time the British army needs a raiding party, Captain Roark volunteers to lead it himself so Col. Wister can stay home and reconcile with his wife, and they end up trapped in an ambush by Achaben’s men — leading to a quite poignant death scene for comic-relief character Wilkins (Herbert Mundin), who previously had been given a box of chicken feathers symbolizing his cowardice but redeems himself by sacrificing his life to get Roark an ammunition drum for his machine gun, allowing Roark and the four remaining men in the unit to hold out long enough for Wister’s relief troops to rescue them. The film lurches to its climax when both Wister and Roark realize that the only way to save the good Arabs from the bad ones is to launch an air raid and blow up Achaben’s dam, even though that’s almost certain death for the pilot. The original script called for Roark to sacrifice himself to accomplish this mission and therefore remove himself from romantic contention and allow husband and wife to reunite according to Production Code diktat, but when the film was previewed audiences — especially women — didn’t like seeing Errol Flynn die, so the ending was rewritten to have Wister fly the suicide mission and Roark and Julia get together at last, saying as they stand on the deck of an ocean liner looking at the sunrise (a pretty phony-looking matte painting) that by his sacrifice Wister has given them “another dawn” — the only explanation we ever get for the film’s title. (Apparently for years Warner Bros. had been using “Another Dawn” as a faux movie title every time a Warners film showed a movie-theatre marquee, and at a loss for what to call this one they trotted out Another Dawn and actually released a film of that name.)

The one person who remembered Another Dawn with any degree of fondness was its composer, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who for the most part wrote schlocky “Middle Eastern” cues but came up with one love theme of such ravishing beauty that whenever we hear it, we wish the actors would shut up and allow us to hear Korngold’s glorious music instead of Doyle’s schlocky soap-opera dialogue. Korngold must have felt the same way, too, for he used the Another Dawn love theme as the opening of his 1947 Violin Concerto, his first piece after he decided to let his Warners contract expire and quit the world of film music so he could regain his stature as a classical composer. (Indeed all the themes of the Violin Concerto were originally composed by Korngold for his film scores, though most of them were for more famous films than this one, like Anthony Adverse and the 1937 Warners version of The Prince and the Pauper.) It’s an obvious knock-off of Tristan und Isolde (as was Bernard Herrmann’s big theme for Vertigo — which is why I wasn’t upset when the Vertigo music appeared in the recent film The Artist; I said, “So what if Ludovic Bource ripped it off from Bernard Herrmann — Bernard Herrmann ripped it off from Wagner!”) but, like the Herrmann theme, it’s at least a good knock-off of Tristan even though oddly it’s deployed for scenes between Kay Francis and Ian Hunter as well as scenes between Francis and Flynn. Other than Korngold’s score, Another Dawn is just another movie, competently acted — in Flynn’s case, a bit better than competent; interestingly they seemed to be trying to give Flynn the same sort of insouciant charm as Cary Grant, whereas two years later in the 1939 Gunga Din RKO tried to turn Grant into their own Errol Flynn, an action hero fighting for British imperialism in the Third World — and atmospherically directed by Dieterle (the actual combat scenes in the desert — shot in Yuma, Arizona, Hollywood’s all-purpose stand-in for the Sahara ever since Rudolph Valentino and The Sheik — are especially impressive) but with a leaden soap-opera script by Doyle. Frankly, I think I would have liked Another Dawn better if they’d kept the original ending — not only because Flynn flew a suicide mission a year later in a much better film, the 1938 Dawn Patrol, but because five years later Warners got the balance right in Casablanca, for which two endings were written (one in which Bogart and Bergman get together) with the intent of shooting and previewing both and using whichever one the audience liked better — but the moment they shot the first ending, the one we all know, they realized that the film had to end with the nobility of the leading man’s sacrifice and they didn’t bother to shoot the other one.