The Count of Monte Cristo (1934)
Donat's early stage work brought him to the attention of British film mogul Alexander Korda, who signed him for a three-year contract leading to a notable role in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1934). Hollywood quickly came calling, and Donat went stateside for The Count of Monte Cristo. The picture was a critical and commercial success, named one of the Ten Best of the year, and big offers quickly came to the 29-year-old actor. Yet Donat's distaste for the Hollywood scene and the debilitating asthma that plagued him all his life led him to turn down the highly touted lead in the seafaring adventure story Captain Blood (1935) - a lucky break for minor Warner Brothers contract player Errol Flynn, who became a star in that role. Donat returned to England immediately after The Count of Monte Cristo to work with Alfred Hitchcock in The 39 Steps (1935). He would do future productions for Hollywood studios-The Citadel (1938), his Academy Award-winning role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), and his final film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), opposite Ingrid Bergman, but he required they all be filmed on his native soil.
Because his illness and preference for stage work led him to make a relatively small number of films, and due in part to his refusal to work in America, Donat is not as famous today as he might have been, considering his talent and appeal. He was also not the typical star and was genuinely modest, even lacking in self-confidence (which was most likely the result or cause of a terrible stammer in his youth); he once confessed his long feeling of insecurity and the slight boost he received from what he called "the false security of stardom." He was known to be critical of his own work, particularly as a young actor, and later remarked that he thought he spent a great deal of time trying to appear dashing: "I distinctly remember in The Count of Monte Cristo pulling my shoulders back and trying to look handsome." It must have worked - after seeing this film, the young Judy Garland wrote him a fan letter and confessed he was her favorite actor throughout her life. He was also a favorite of and an influence on Peter Sellers, who said he thought of Donat as "a god."
Contrary to his own opinions, Donat's work in The Count of Monte Cristo was judged very favorably by the New York Times as "lean, intelligent and quietly overwhelming...unmarked by hysteria or the grand ham manner which the part invites." The production, guided by director Rowland V. Lee and producer Edward Small, was also given raves for being "passionate and grand" and called "a walloping melodrama of revenge."
This last aspect was greatly aided by Dumas père's book, ready-made for a film scenario with the major change being a happy ending to the thwarted central romance. The plot involves the arrest and imprisonment of an innocent sailor for alleged Bonapartist scheming. Languishing in the infamous island prison of Chateau d'If, Edmond Dantes barely clings to life but holds on to hope, driven by his thirst to get even with those who set him up. One day, hearing a tapping on his cell wall, he begins to dig with a spoon until he breaks through and discovers another prisoner, a saintly cleric who imparts to Dantes information about a hidden treasure on the island of Monte Cristo. The two begin to dig a tunnel together, and when the other prisoner dies, Dantes takes his place in the body bag. Struggling free after being thrown into the sea, he makes his escape and sets about to find the treasure and execute his elaborate revenge plot.
Dumas thoroughly researched his tale on a visit to Marseilles in 1844. The writer hired a boatman to guide him around nearby islands, inspecting Elba, site of Napoleon's first exile, and the mosquito-infested malarial island of Monte Cristo itself, long rumored to harbor decades-old buried pirate treasure. The novel was published a year later, further adding to Dumas's laurels and financial success, which arrived fast on the heels of his most famous work, The Three Musketeers.
The Count of Monte Cristo was filmed several times in the silent era, including a 1913 production featuring stage star James O'Neill, father of playwright Eugene O'Neill, and a 1922 version with John Gilbert. This 1934 production spawned a sequel, The Son of Monte Cristo (1940), also directed by Lee and starred Louis Hayward as Dantes's son and Joan Bennett as his lady, and another, The Return of Monte Cristo (1946), with Hayward again, but as Dantes Sr. this time (a situation that must have been slightly confusing for audiences). The original story was also filmed in Mexico (1942) and France (1943 and 1954, the latter starring Jean Marais), a number of times on television (including a 1975 version starring Richard Chamberlain), and most recently (2002) starring James Caviezel as Dantes, Guy Pearce as his nemesis Mondego, and Richard Harris as the aged fellow prisoner Abbè Faria. In V for Vendetta (2005), the title character claims it as his favorite movie, proving the enduring appeal not only of Dumas's story but of the revenge motive as a driving force in literature...and life.
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Producer: Edward Small
Screenplay: Philip Dunne, Dan Totheroh, Rowland V. Lee, based on the novel Le comte de Monte-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père
Cinematography: Peverell J. Marley
Editing: Grant Whytock
Art Direction: John Ducasse Schulze
Original Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Robert Donat (Edmond Dantes), Elissa Landi (Mercedes), Louis Calhern (De Villefort), Sidney Blackmer (Mondego), O.P. Heggie (Abbè Faria).
by Rob Nixon