Weekend Film Recommendation: The Count of Monte Cristo

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In the 1930s, film studios made a run of lavish historical costume dramas based on best-selling books (Some of them literary classics, others meretricious tripe). The majority were set in Europe and a few were even made there, including prior RBC film recommendation The Scarlet Pimpernel. But most were produced on Hollywood back lots, such as MGM’s Tale of Two Cities, Warner Brothers’ Anthony Adverse and RKO’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This week’s film recommendation is another classic from RKO made in this period: 1934’s Count of Monte Cristo.

Dumas’ thrilling tale of romance, revenge and redemption is catnip for filmmakers. It had been adapted to the silver screen several times before 1934 and has been filmed many times since (and referenced in other films as well). But the 1934 version is arguably the best of the bunch and certainly holds up very well today.

The key presence is British actor Robert Donat, who made his only trip to Hollywood to make this movie (he did not care for it, returning soon after to spend the rest of his life in England). As the Count (nee Edmund Dantes), he’s dashing, eloquent, passionate and also manages to make the credibility-stretching aspects of the plot believable. His lady love is played winningly by Elissa Landi, who like Donat is so agreeable to the eyes that it’s easy to miss her acting talent. The two performers bring across their aching romance as much through non-verbal gestures and anguished looks as with dialogue, reminding us that this was the era in which most actors were used to working without sound (The previous adaptations of this story in fact were all silent movies). Watching Donat and Landi today exerts an extra tug on the heart because modern viewers will know that both of them died young, given them a tragic air that makes them even more romantic as couple.

As was the norm for these affairs, the studio spared no expense on set designs, costumes and props, producing a spectacle that must have given Depression Era audiences some wonderful moments of escape. The sumptuous scene in which the Count throws a ball as part of his plan to avenge himself on those who betrayed him is a particularly memorable “film in a film” sequence. The cast at the ball gawps as elaborate tableau after tableau is revealed on a grand stage, and the movie audience gawps at them gawping. It’s a visual feast.

Director Rowland Lee had a touch for this sort of material and brought out the best in the talented cast. There isn’t a bad performance in the movie, and there are several powerful ones. The result is pure escapist entertainment of the first order.

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p.s. As of this writing, this movie is free on Amazon Prime.

p.p.s. If you like Robert Donat in this movie, you will probably also enjoy his performance in a prior RBC film recommendation The 39 Steps.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Count of Monte Cristo”

  1. Oooh, something to look forward to! I loved the Gerard Depardieu video version (but be careful, there was something weird about the ending on the dvd version – I don't recall exactly what, just that back in ___? when I watched it, the videos were better). I hear the book is good too.

    1. You hear right.. the novel will catch you up for a couple of weeks.. if you are a fast reader. Enjoy it!!

  2. Yeah, this movie is a corker. I think you mentioned something along these lines in a review of the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood, a couple of months back….but it's refreshing to see an escapist film, chockful of bravado and derring-do and heroism, without the modern inclination to insert hipster darkness (a la, the Count in a modern version would need to be a secret opium addict, or considering suicide, or have flashbacks to his father beating him and his mother). And, ya know, Landi wasn't contractually obliged to show her nipples during a kinky sex scene.

    If your kids don't leave the room after they perceive it's a black-and-white film, this is a really fun flick for grade-schoolers.

    1. Thanks for this. Hipster irony complicates things too much, especially for kids. Films that speak out against greed and in favor of compassion need no subtext or deconstruction.

      1. Good point. Robin Hood was also decidedly leftist, Maid Marian being sort of a Greedy Inherited Privilege Libertarian who gradually converts to socialism. There was a lot of compassion for the poor in those great 30s films. The bulk of Chaplin, of course. In fact, before last month's win for Inarritu, I believe the last director to win Best Director two years in a row was Ford, with Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley (Zinneman won Best Film two years in a row, but Ford beat him for Best Director one of those years, The Third Man over From Here To Eternity, I think). The 1950s sorta put the kibosh on that sort of film-making, for a good long while.

  3. I am new to the word "hipster" and old fan of the " Conde de Montecristo".. will it be shown in TV?

  4. " … lavish historical costume dramas based on best-selling books (some of them literary classics, others meretricious tripe)…"
    Does Dumas' novel count oxymoronically as meretricious tripe, or a literary classic, or possibly both? Compare Tamburlaine and Lady Chatterley's Lover. Opinions on the shape of Deimos differ.

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