May 11, 2020
Stars Gary Cooper, Madeleine Carroll, Akim Tamiroff, Porter Hall, William Frawley.
As a standout film or close in the borderline screen career of Lewis Milestone that additionally features the first screenplay of playwright Clifford Odets’ career, 1936’s The General Died at Dawn has more going for it than the cosmetic magnitude of its two impossible-looking lead actors captured here in a new 4K mastering that shows how great ’30s Paramounts used to look. But let’s face it: most people who see this prime example of the kind of adventure film that used to be called “crackling” will exit marveling the rarely paralleled looks of its co-stars.
We have 30-year superstar Gary Cooper, who as a woman friend said to me multiple times: “He was a great-looking young man and a great-looking old one.” Opposite him is Madeleine Carroll, whose career was cut short for personal rather than professional reasons, but for frame of reference, this was her first Hollywood movie since scoring a huge international success the year before with Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. In other words, we are on the level here of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, and Alain Delon and Roxy Schneider in anything. Add to this Akim Tamiroff’s not underserving Oscar-nominated supporting performance from the first year the Academy ever awarded them, and you’ve something — though Tamiroff is under so much Chinese warlord makeup that it could be Ronald Colman under there.
Not to equate it with one of my favorite movies of all time, but Dawn’s portrayal of an American caught up in exotic Chinese locales captures my imagination a bit like Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles does. One huge difference, though, is that Steve McQueen’s character in Pebbles (his greatest performance) is a green forced Navy enlistee who’s in way over his head when it comes to political machinations he doesn’t understand. Cooper, by contrast, is older, savvier and knows what’s going on with warlords’ exploitation of peasants all too well. It would be wrong to call him merely a mercenary because he believes strongly in the peasants’ cause and really wants to stick it Tamiroff (as “General Yang”). And he knows where the money is necessary to plot an insurrection.
One place is in his possession, the peasants having scraped together everything they have (a la Seven Sumurai or The Magnificent Seven) to fight Yang in their own modest way and placed in Cooper’s possession. Unfortunately, too many others (not the most savory bunch) know Cooper has it somewhere and are trying to get their grubby hands on it. One of these is a gunrunner and middle-man played by, of all people, William Frawley, prepped to take the money by arrangement with Cooper and instructed to sell to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, he is a hopeless drunk: Fred Mertz practically in the gutter.
Another is an American with not long to live and played Porter Hall in one of his prototypical wormy roles. Though a couple years before he died, Hall did deliver one of best performances (thanks in part to Billy Wilder’s flawless casting instincts) in a highly sympathetic role as the Albuquerque newspaper editor who makes the bad decision to hire reporter Kirk Douglas (and is it ever) in the Wilder masterpiece Ace in the Hole). Hall is traveling with daughter Carroll — though there were one or two stray lines of dialogue that made me wonder if this were true (I may have missed, or misinterpreted, something).
Naturally, Carroll’s instantaneous good vibrations with Cooper complicates things, which initially leads to no small amount of intrigue on a train. A curiosity here is the surprise appearance, as a reporter, of John O’Hara — a novelist who’s out fashion these days other than his short stories, though I still like him. In any event, his appearance here was close enough in proximity to his first and best novel Appointment in Samarra (1934), which even his detractors give him, so this would have been a fun casting coup for the year. Eventually, Cooper (whose character name is also named “O’Hara”) ends up on Yang’s ship, which is impressively shot by an Oscar-nominated Victor Milner. The two key antagonists here don’t have any perversely tortured liking for each other, but Cooper/O’Hara knows how to press Tamiroff/Yang’s buttons, while Yang at least thinks he knows how to press O’Hara’s.
Historians Lee Gambin and Rutanya Alda share the Blu-ray commentary, and one thing they touch upon is Odets “going Hollywood” over the purity of the theater, or so said detractors who preferred to grouse on the sidelines instead of accepting work during tough times. This kind of thing plagued Odets throughout his career, but fairly late in the game he became the dominant writer of Sweet Smell of Success — and, say, what have you done lately? The director here was Lewis Milestone, who though he never topped the still very powerful All Quiet on the Western Front, did have other successes or near-misses of interest throughout the 1930s, through, say, 1949’s The Red Pony. His direction is creative, and even the opening credits are novel for their day. My mother told me Dawn was one of the favorite movies of her early adolescence, and I remember watching it with her in the early 1960s on the late show.
In the ’50s, Milestone’s career completely went to hell, a possible exception being Pork Chop Hill, but it’s been too many decades since I last saw it to say for sure. In terms of features, he ended up trying to direct the Rat Pack and then Marlon Brando at his most career-killing (for a long while) impossible — not a fate I’d recommend for those easygoing twilight years.