Rouben Mamoulian was assigned to direct “Becky Sharp,” when the original filmmaker, Lowell Sharman, died.
Miriam Hopkins plays the titular (anti) heroine of William Makepeace Thackeray’s well respected novel, “Vanity Fair,” an enchanting woman who intrigues her way around Europe during Napoleon era.
The film’s chief fame derives from its claim to be the first Hollywood feature to be shot in three-color Technicolor process. The new, untried process may explain the lack of fluency in the camera work and the often too strong and harsh lighting, which overshadows the sets and costumes.
The third (and best) screen version–Joyce Compton and Myrna Loy had previously played the part–of “Vanity Fair” was a troubled production from the get-go. Begun in 1934 with Lowell Sherman as director, “Becky Sharp” was forced to shut down production when Sherman died. As a drama, this curiosity item is too episodic—its narrative unfolds as a series of set pieces lifted from the much-honored book.
A resourceful, self-abosrbed young lady, Becky Sharp manages to survive all kinds of setbacks and deprivations in the years following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. In her efforts to advance herself, Becky meets several men, including the Marquis of Steyne (Cedric Hardwicke), Joseph Sedley (Nigel Bruce), Rawdon Crawley (Alan Mowbray), and George Osborne (G. P. Huntley Jr.). In due course, she rises to the top of British society, only to tumble and fall into the humiliation of singing for her supper in a cheap beer hall.
However, Becky is not the type of woman to be defeated or stay down for long. The tale ends on an ambiguous note, never suggesting that Becky would eventually settle down to a life of piety, as she does in the novel.
Mamoulian, an inventive director who had a short but impressive Hollywood career, exploited the new color process to the utmost, especially during the opening Brussels Ball sequence.
Hopkins excelled in playing strong, often predatory roles, but her character here, as scripted, is over the top and not modulated enough. Even so, Hopkins received a Best Actress Oscar nod (her only nomination).
Ultimately, this “Becky Sharp” was not good enough to lure audiences to see it—despite the innovation of color.
Oscar Nominations: 1
Actress: Miriam Hopkins
Oscar Awards: None
The winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Bette Davis for “Dangerous.”
Until its archival restoration, “Becky Sharp” was available only in a shortened, two-color version, which had the negative effect of diminishing the film’s strengths and overemphasizing its weaknesses.
Running time: 83 Minutes.
Screenplay: Francis Edward Faragoh.
Miriam Hopkins as Becky Sharp
Cedric Hardwicke as Marquis of Steyne
Nigel Bruce as Joseph Sedley
Billie Burke as Lady Bareacres
Frances Dee as Amelia Sedley
Alison Skipworth as Miss Crowley