Strange Beauties, Surreal Worlds: Four Films by Rowland V. Lee

Rowland V. Lee (1891-1975) directed some of the more colorful films produced in Hollywood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. While his name may have faded from moviegoers’ memories, his prominence during the Golden Age was evident: he worked with many of Tinseltown’s most interesting stars, particularly actresses, including Pola Negri (Barbed Wire, The Secret Hour, Three Sinners, Loves of an Actress), Fay Wray (The First Kiss), Olga Baclanova (The Wolf of Wall Street, A Dangerous Woman), Mary Astor (Ladies Love Brutes), Maureen O’Sullivan (Cardinal Richelieu), Ida Lupino (One Rainy Afternoon), Frances Farmer (The Toast of New York), Ruby Keeler (Mother Carey’s Chickens), Constance Bennett (Service de Luxe) and Joan Bennett (The Son of Monte Cristo). This post, however, is about four other films directed by him, all of which have been cemented in my mind as examples of intriguing direction, cinematography, costume design and women’s presences: Loretta Young in Zoo in Budapest (1933), Lilian Harvey in I Am Suzanne! (1933), Elissa Landi in The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) and Joan Lorring in The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944).

Zoo in Budapest (1933) – Loretta Young is at her most luminous in this romantic fantasy. Young had previously worked with Lee on the crime drama The Ruling Voice (1931), co-starring Walter Huston, but Zoo is in a class by itself. By turns innocent and risqué but always enchantingly photographed by the incomparable Lee Garmes, Young and Gene Raymond fall in love as a runaway schoolgirl and an easygoing zoo handyman respectively. They do their best to hide themselves from the rest of the world, finding a little paradise in the lush forests of the sanctuary at night. Melodramatic subplots conspire to tear the lovers apart, but the film’s magical-realist plot allows the fairytale to end happily ever after.

I Am Suzanne! (1933) – Rarely will you come across a more unusual story than this one, even during the Pre-Code era. London-born, Germany/Switzerland-raised actress Lilian Harvey plays the title character, a dancer whose injury to her legs leads to a job working as a puppeteer alongside a young man (Gene Raymond) whose love for her sometimes borders on obsession, perhaps never more than when he creates a marionette likeness of Suzanne that the real woman grows extremely jealous of. The line between human and nonhuman blurs in a bizarre dream sequence near the end of the film, in which Suzanne imagines that she has been captured and put on trial by an all-puppet court. Harvey’s beauty is obvious in the way that Lee Garmes’ cinematography displays her face and especially her legs – which move in a manner similar to Raymond’s marionettes – in complimentary angles and lighting, and Rita Kaufman’s costumes show off Harvey’s figure to the best possible advantage, but Rowland V. Lee’s direction of the film is what allows the whole thing to make sense (somehow).

The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) – In the May 30, 1931 copy of the Ohio newspaper Wilmington News-Journal, playwright Guy Bolton was quoted as saying that “there is some sadness, much gladness, a touch of madness and just a bit of badness in the eyes of Elissa Landi” and composer George Gershwin was reported to have said that “Elissa Landi is a symphony of emotions. There is music in her every expression.” Landi portrays the beguiling Mercedes Mondego in Rowland V. Lee’s lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas père’s classic novel The Count of Monte Cristo, a film that is better remembered for making a star out of Robert Donat, who played the title role. Landi’s character ages from dewy twentysomething maiden to married fortysomething mother, but throughout the narrative she retains her elegance, intelligence and spirit.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944) – Seventeen-year-old Joan Lorring is not the lead in this mystical drama based on Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name (the starring role belongs to Lynn Bari), but Lorring is quietly lovely and tragic as Pepita, the adopted daughter of the Marquesa (Alla Nazimova). Pepita breaks your heart when she realizes that she will never have the love that the Marquesa has for her long-lost, natural-born daughter, whom Pepita has tried (but failed) to replace.

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