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The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) was one of the most elaborate and costly productions of independent producer Samuel Goldwyn; it also became one of his biggest money-losers upon release when it failed at the box-office. The film was criticized for many reasons but chief among them was the casting of Gary Cooper in the lead role - many felt the part called for a brash, swashbuckling hero rather than the low-key cowboy persona that Cooper exemplified. It is interesting to note, then, the man who first brought the idea to Goldwyn: Douglas Fairbanks. The swashbuckling silent era action star had written an outline for a script in the mid-1930s, intending to produce the film and perhaps cast his son in the lead. He went to Goldwyn for assistance, and Goldwyn soon took control of the project, tossing out the preliminary work by Fairbanks and buying a story treatment by N. A. Pogson. Goldwyn brought in the esteemed playwright Robert E. Sherwood to write the screenplay.
The real Marco Polo was a Venetian who lived from about 1254 to 1324, and while he probably wasn't the first Western man to travel to China, he was the first to have his travels recounted in print. Polo dictated his adventures to Rusticiano of Pisa while imprisoned with him in Genoa. The resulting book, Tracci di Marco Polo, was published around 1300 and no doubt contains its fair share of embellishments. Sherwood was free to make his own embellishments as well, so he turned out a free-wheeling, tongue-in-cheek screenplay. In it, Marco Polo (Gary Cooper) is sent by his merchant father Nicolo (Henry Kolker) on a trade mission to China. He is accompanied by Nicolo's burly accountant Binguccio (Ernest Truex), who proves to be more of a burden than a help. The travelers brave shipwrecks and sandstorms during the long trek; by the time they pass though the gate in the Great Wall, Polo is carrying Binguccio on his back. Polo makes friends with Chen Tsu (H. B. Warner), an inventor and thinker who introduces the westerner to a pasta they call "Spaghett," and to a mysterious exploding powder; Polo dutifully puts samples of these new wonders in a pouch to bring back to his father. Marco Polo is called before the court of emperor Kublai Khan (George Barbier), where he meets and begins a relationship with the emperor's daughter, Princess Kukachin (Sigrid Gurie). Polo introduces her to a Western wonder: kissing. Khan's advisor Ahmed (Basil Rathbone) has his own designs on the Princess, as well as extracurricular political ambitions: he plots behind Khan's back to stir up the Mongols and take over the Empire, and hopes to eliminate Polo in the process. (Ahmed has a handy pit full of man-eating tigers for just that purpose).
John Cromwell began directing The Adventures of Marco Polo on June 15th, 1937. He left the project after just five days of shooting, due to "differences of opinion on story treatment," according to a press release. A. Scott Berg, in his biography Goldwyn, writes that "...Cromwell was playing Sherwood's tongue-in-cheek script completely straight. A shouting match in Goldwyn's office ensued, from which the director emerged announcing his resignation." Goldwyn next turned to William Wyler, but the director refused the assignment and advised the mogul that the problem was with the lead, and that the role required "a swashbuckler like Fairbanks or Errol Flynn." Goldwyn had no intention of replacing Cooper in the role; he had just settled a dispute with Paramount Pictures, who held Cooper's contract, and as a result he was allowed to borrow the star for one picture a year. Director John Ford had recently helmed The Hurricane (1937) for Goldwyn, so he was enlisted to shoot some action sequences for The Adventures of Marco Polo, including scenes of the travelers crossing the Himalayas. Finally, Archie Mayo was signed to direct the bulk of the film; Mayo had earlier directed The Petrified Forest (1936), adapting Sherwood's famous play of the same name.
The Adventures of Marco Polo was the film debut of a Goldwyn discovery named Sigrid Gurie; interestingly, she did not rise up through the ranks by starting out as a "Goldwyn Girl." For her first film she was given the lead role of Princess Kukachin. Gurie had an exotic look, and Goldwyn hyped her as "The Siren of the Fjords" and called her "the Norwegian Garbo" in press releases. The ballyhoo backfired when intrepid reporters discovered that Gurie actually hailed from the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Columnists had a field day with this story, providing more bad press for the movie just prior to release.
One of the featured beauties in The Adventures of Marco Polo was Lana Turner, appearing in her third credited role. She didn't think much of the makeup required for the part. As quoted in Jeffrey Meyers' Gary Cooper - American Hero, Turner recalled: "I was a Eurasian handmaiden who had caught the eye of a warrior chief, played by Alan Hale. I wore a fancy black Oriental wig, which had to be glued around my face with spirit gum. I didn't mind the wig so much... but the costumes made me feel too undressed. And, worse yet, they shaved off my eyebrows, at the insistence of Goldwyn himself, and replaced them with false slanting black ones."
In spite of some exciting action scenes during the finale and a memorably villainous turn by Rathbone, The Adventures of Marco Polo performed poorly at the box-office, becoming the biggest flop to date for both Cooper and for Goldwyn; it was estimated that the picture lost $700,000. The pair bounced back with their next film, The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), a romantic western co-starring Merle Oberon. Cooper was obviously more comfortable trading in his Chinese robes for a cowboy hat, and audiences proved more responsive as well.
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Associate Producer: George Haight
Director: Archie Mayo
Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood, story by N. A. Pogson
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate, Archie Stout
Film Editing: Fred Allen
Art Direction: Richard Day
Set Decoration: Julia Heron
Costume Design: Omar Kiam, Marjorie Best
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Special Effects: James Basevi
Cast: Gary Cooper (Marco Polo), Sigrid Gurie (Princess Kukachin), Basil Rathbone (Ahmed), Ernest Truex (Binguccio), Alan Hale (Kaidu), George Barbier (Kublai Khan), Binnie Barnes (Nazama), Lana Turner (Nazama's Maid), Stanley Fields (Bayan), H. B. Warner (Chen Tsu).
by John M. Miller