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Thornton Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1927. It was only his second novel and came ten years before his best known work - the play Our Town in 1938. It took just two years for The Bridge of San Luis Rey to make it to the big screen. The 1929 silent version starred Lili Damita. The story got its first sound treatment in 1944 and starred Lynn Bari, Akim Tamiroff and Alla Nazimova.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey features a deceptively simple plot. Wilder sums it up in the novel's first line, "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below." The story of the bridge collapse, and the five fated to die there, is told in flashback. A Franciscan missionary who witnessed the tragedy tries to makes sense of why it happened. Among the five killed are: singer Micaela (Lynn Bari), her Uncle (Akim Tamiroff), twin brothers Manuel and Estaban (both played by Francis Lederer) and the scheming Marquesa (played by Russian diva Alla Nazimova).
For Nazimova, The Bridge of San Luis Rey was something of a swansong. The silent screen legend had abandoned Hollywood in 1925 to return to her roots in theatre. Nazimova got her start in Stanislavsky's famed Moscow Art Theatre as a student of method acting. She toured Europe en route to Broadway fame, where she starred in Ibsens Hedda Gabler and A Dolls House. Nazimova made her screen debut in the 1916 film War Brides and in 1918 Metro Pictures signed her. She made 11 films over the next three years, including Camille (1921) opposite Rudolph Valentino. Nazimova continued to appear on Broadway and soon began producing her own films. But after the 1925 film My Son, she didnt make another movie until 1940. The Bridge of San Luis Rey was the second to last film Nazimova appeared in (and her last substantial role). Her final screen appearance was a small part in Since You Went Away (1944).
But Nazimova was still a force to be reckoned with. She managed to steal the show in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It might've been a breakout picture for Lynn Bari, who was a leading lady in B-movies at Fox, but Nazimova overshadowed her. Nevertheless, the film fared poorly at the box office and critics were particularly harsh; The New York Times proclaimed it "clumsy and long-winded" and "a sad mockery of the original." The film was to have been filmed in Technicolor, but director Rowland Lee ran out of money. Also, the narrative, which addressed philosophical and religious themes, failed to translate well to the screen. Still, the movie earned a Best Score nomination for composer Dimitri Tiomkin.
A third adaptation of The Bridge of San Luis Rey was undertaken recently. It stars Robert De Niro as the Archbishop, Kathy Bates as the Marquesa (Nazimova's role), Harvey Keitel as Uncle Pio and Gabriel Byrne as Brother Juniper. The new version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey will be released in 2005.
Producer: Benedict Bogeaus
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Screenplay: Howard Estabrook, Herman Weissman, Thornton Wilder (novel)
Cinematography: John W. Boyle
Film Editing: Harvey Manger
Art Direction: Charles Odds
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Lynn Bari (Micaela), Akim Tamiroff (Uncle Pio), Francis Lederer (Esteban), Alla Nazimova (Dona Maria), Louis Calhern (Don Andre), Donald Woods (Brother Juniper).
BW-89m. Closed Captioning.
by Stephanie Thames