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The Son of Monte Cristo

The Son of Monte Cristo(1941)

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teaser The Son of Monte Cristo (1941)

It took six years, but director Rowland Lee returned to the scene of his earlier triumph, 1934's The Count of Monte Cristo with The Son of Monte Cristo (1940), another of Alexandre Dumas' swashbuckling adventure tales. Even though World War II was raging on the battlefields of Europe, movie audiences could still immerse themselves in the fictional and flamboyant exploits of Napoleonic Era heroes and heroines with no less important struggles of their own.

Movie producers were especially successful with Dumas' trio of historical adventures The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, and The Man in the Iron Mask, all three of which have been adapted for the screen dozens of times in many languages.

For this adaptation of the Dumas novel, director Lee turned to the acting team Louis Hayward and Joan Bennett -- who had captured the audience's fancy two years previously in the James Whale-directed The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). South African-born Hayward had come to Hollywood five years previously after successes on the London stage, several under the supervision of legendary playwright/performer Noel Coward. After a dozen small movie roles he made a splash appearing as the titular character's father in the prologue of Anthony Adverse (1936) and his emergence couldn't have come at a better time. Handsome lads with English accents were all the rage, and if a fellow also looked great in ruffled shirts and could swing a saber with grace and elegance, so much the better. Louis Hayward was that kind of guy, and more, getting the Bronze Star for his real-life exploits as a Marine during WW II, where he was instrumental in the filming of the harrowing Tarawa battle. He also had a solid head for business, setting up profit percentage residual deals for his TV work that ultimately provided financial security for him.

Actress Joan Bennett was born into an acting family; her father Richard was a hard-working stage and later movie actor, and her sister was the glamorous Constance who is probably best known for her portrayal of the ghostly Marion Kerby in Topper (1937). Joan's first major film role was opposite Ronald Colman in Bulldog Drummond (1929), and in a steady stream of ever more major parts, including Amy March in Little Women (1933) and her role as the Princess opposite Louis Hayward in The Man in the Iron Mask, Joan Bennett was a genteel audience favorite. Her movie career skidded to a scandalous halt a decade later when, in 1950, her then-husband, producer Walter Wanger, shot her lover, Hollywood agent Jennings Lang, in the groin. After that, TV was her primary medium and soap opera fans still lovingly recall her pivotal presence in the gothic drama Dark Shadows.

Director Rowland Lee, who knew how to squeeze a lush production out of a less-than-A-picture budget, was coming off a string of solid commercial and artistic successes, including The Toast of New York (1937), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and Tower of London (1939). Lee's producer Edward Small was one of the most fertile of independent producers, shepherding over seventy-five motion pictures to completion over a long career which he began as a talent agent while still only a teenager. Primarily working with United Artists to release his films, Small later branched out to become a pioneer in the television syndication business, earning him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Screenwriter George Bruce was brought in to recreate the magic touch he had brought to his The Man in the Iron Mask script; he would later return to the genre to write The Corsican Brothers (1941) and The Return of Monte Cristo (1946), and many others including Shirley Temple's Miss Annie Rooney (1942) and the WW II naval comedy/drama Stand by for Action (1942).

In addition to Louis Hayward as the second Count of Monte Cristo and Joan Bennett as Grand Duchess Zona of Lichtenburg, the cast was a collection of familiar faces which remain familiar today, many of them venerable character actors who made careers out of their ability to capably slip into countless roles in a wide variety of film genres. The chief villain of The Son of Monte Cristo was the dapper and nonchalant George Sanders, who at the time was still ten years away from his best-known role in All About Eve (1950). Still, he had already gained a reputation as an actor who could play both a hero, as in The Saint Strikes Back (1939), or more mysterious and morally-ambiguous types such as his roles in Alfred Hitchcock-directed Rebecca (1940) and The House of the Seven Gables (1940). Sanders' dastardly General Gurko Lanen, whose ultimate plans for Duchess Zona's country and her lovely self were strictly dishonorable, was a classic villain complete with all the flourishes and sneers expected of the role.

Smaller roles were equally ably cast, with formidable and unforgettable Florence Bates as a countess, the future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore as a friendly guard, the future B-movie Dick Tracy Ralph Byrd as a would-be assassin, and the you've-seen-him-everywhere Ian (Mac)Wolfe -- who made his last movie (his 270th!) at the age of 94 in 1990 -- as Stadt.

Solid actors, sumptuous production values and the appropriate amount of multiple-identity/devious schemes/court intrigue-brand panache made The Son of Monte Cristo a satisfying costume romp, and if it wasn't quite up to the extremely high standards set by The Man in the Iron Mask, it was still a first-class swashbuckler. At the 1942 Academy Awards John DuCasse Schulze and Edward G. Boyle were nominated for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White, but the pair lost to How Green Was My Valley.

Producer: Rowland V. Lee, Edward Small
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Screenplay: George Bruce
Cinematography: George Robinson
Film Editing: Arthur Roberts
Art Direction: John DuCasse Schulze
Music: Edward Ward
Cast: Louis Hayward (The Count of Monte Cristo), Joan Bennett (Grand Duchess Zona), George Sanders (Gen. Gurko Lanen), Florence Bates (Countess Mathilde), Lionel Royce (Colonel Zimmerman), Montagu Love (Baron Von Neuhof).

by Lisa Mateas

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