“Who are you?”
“I am yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I am sorrow and longing and hope unfulfilled. I am She Who Must Be Obeyed!
—spoken by She, aka Queen Hash-A-Mo-Tep of the land of Kor
Not even the big ape himself could have saved Merian C. Cooper’s She, the 1935 film the legendary producer made after King Kong and Son of Kong, from its unintentionally funny dialogue and ridiculous plot. With his Kong screenwriter Ruth Rosen along for the ride, Cooper took on another adventure story—this one based on a novel by H. Rider Haggard (the late 19th century author best known for King Solomon’s Mines)—and set it in the Arctic north.
But She still retains interest—and not just for historical reasons as a representative of Hollywood fantasy filmmaking in the mid-‘30s. There are scenes and sets in the land of Kor that are nothing short of mind-boggling, as art deco collides with ancient Egypt and exotic dances leave a viewer either in stunned silence or out-of-control laughter.
She is out in a well-made, two-disc DVD, which includes both its original black-and-white version and a newly colorized version supervised by special-effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen.
Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott) and Horace Holly (Nigel Bruce) seek to find a mysterious northern land where Scott’s lookalike ancestor had disappeared 500 years earlier while searching for the “Flame of Life”. Accompanied by an attractive young woman named Tanya (Helen Mack, a dead ringer for Audrey Tautou) who lives in the Arctic outposts of civilization, they discover amid the frozen land a mysterious thermal cave. In this underground environment they battle unfriendly primitive caveman types with long hair, loincloths and clubs. They’re saved by soldiers in Egyptian-Roman-Aztec garb who bring them to the land of Kor, an oasis where the queen’s sumptuous castle is a modernistic, art deco-ish construction of marble.
Kor is ruled tyrannically by Queen Hash-A-Mo-Tep, known as She, who’s played by Broadway actress Helen Gahagan in her only film role. (Fans of American politics might recognize that name: As Helen Gahagan Douglas, married to actor Melvyn Douglas, she became a three-term Democratic congresswoman from Southern California who was defeated in a 1950 race for the US Senate by her red-baiting Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon, who charged that she was “pink right down to her underwear.”)
Anyway, She, who in one costume looks like the model for the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, takes one glance at Leo and recognizes him as her long-lost lover, Leo’s ancestor, and wants him to stay with her in Kor for eternity. That’s because she is, as you might have guessed, in possession of a source of eternal youth, the Flame of Life.
But She gets jealous of Leo’s obvious affection for Tanya and decides to get rid of her as a human sacrifice. This sets up the highlight of the movie, an amazing dance sequence set to a pulsating Max Steiner score, in the giant Hall of the Gods.
The dances, part of the human-sacrifice pageantry, are a stupendous amalgamation of modern dance, faux Egyptian and Busby Berkeleyesque choreography, all done by dancers wearing some of the most grotesque masks and bizarre costumes I have ever seen.
She. as Harryhausen, Cooper biographer Mark Cotta Vaz and James V. D’Arc, curator of Cooper’s papers at Brigham Young University, explain in DVD interviews and commentaries, was originally intended to be a big-budget extravaganza, filmed in the new Technicolor process. But Cooper’s studio, RKO, was in financial difficulty and decided to cut the budget in half. Out went the color, and a lot else.
Cooper wasn’t able to hire his first choices of Joel McCrae and Frances Dee as Leo and Tanya, and getting either Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich to play She was out of the question. And, according to Cotta Vaz in his book Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper - Creator of King Kong, Cooper also had to jettison his ideas for a herd of wooly mammoths and vicious predators; he had to settle for a motionless saber-toothed tiger, frozen in glacier ice.
Harryhausen defends the DVD colorization of She on the grounds that this was Cooper’s original plan. He also believes the film’s initial failure at the box office was due to audiences’ not being able to relate to its reincarnation theme. The movie did far better when it was re-released in the late ‘40s. I think the problems of She have more to do with its lack of innovation—there were no creatures like Kong or the various dinosaurs encountered on Skull Island—and the silliness of its story, dialogue and acting.
The suspension of disbelief is essential to any fantasy adventure, and a viewer can be persuaded to do so through the believability of the characters, the creativity of the special effects and the excitement of the story. She may be fun to look at, but the story is far-fetched—and not in a good, imaginative way—and less than thrilling. (And judging from the woodenness of her performance here, Douglas was wise to go into politics.)
But during at least one lengthy scene—the dancing at the human sacrifice—She achieves a sort of ludicrous brilliance. And how often do you see that in a movie?