Thursday, August 6, 2009

Forgotten Masters: Rowland V. Lee

This week I saw two Rowland V. Lee adventure films, back to back; one Son of the Monte Cristo and the other, Captain Kidd.

For me the most interesting part, especially in the current situation of my country, lies in Lee's fascination with romantic rebellion against tyranny and oppression; changing the old formula of 'matser swordsman vs. badguys' into fighting for freedom and country in both Son of the Monte Cristo and Captain Kidd.

These picture have all we expect from a escapee film and at the same time they have all we need to remember how somber is the situation, because there won't be any master swordsman in the streets of pain and anger (sorry, I can't explain more than this!)

Rowland V. Lee (September 6, 1891 in Findlay, Ohio - December 21, 1975 in Palm Desert, California) was an actor, American director, writer, and producer. He has directed 59 features and Captain Kidd is the last one of them, in 1945. Eight of these titles has been released on DVD, and only one of them in a decent condition. Most of these available titles transferred from the fading copies of public domain territory. Also horror fans will recognize him for his two important entry in the genre, Son of Frankenstein and Tower of London (With Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Vincent Price)

Because many of his films dealt with British themes or characters, some historians have incorrectly referred to Rowland V. Lee as a British director. According to McMillan, he was born in Ohio. Coming from a show business family (his parents were stage actors), he began his career as a child actor in stock and on Broadway. He interrupted his stage career for a stint as a Wall Street stockbroker, but gave that up after two years and returned to the stage. Educated at Columbia University, and spent several of his early professional years as a Broadway actor. After a brief "intermission" as a Wall Street stockbroker, Lee entered films as a member of producer Thomas Ince's stock company. His showbiz career was interrupted again by World War I; afterwards, he returned to Ince, this time on the directorial staff. Lee's silent and sound output was varied if nothing else, embracing war melodramas, romances, musicals, westerns and horror films. He was obviously influenced by the "Germanic" school of the late 1920s, carrying over this impressionistic style into such sound films as Zoo in Budapest (1933), Love From a Stranger (1937) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). He functioned as producer on several of his films, notably the 1935 version of The Three Musketeers (a foredoomed effort, wherein Lee was denied the cast and production facilities he'd asked for), 1938's Service Deluxe, and 1939's The Sun Never Sets and Tower of London (the latter a marvelous example of how to do a Shakespearean film without one single word from Shakespeare). Inactive in films between 1945 and 1959, Rowland V. Lee made a comeback as producer of The Big Fisherman (1959), a splashy adaptation of Lloyd C. Douglas' book about Simon-Peter which suffered from threadbare production values, a largely uninspiring cast, and the blockbuster competition of another 1959 Biblical epic, Ben-Hur.

Left to Right: Leslie Fenton, Lane Chandler, Gary Cooper & Rowland V. Lee (The First Kiss, 1928).

One of the legends about him is his ranch! He had his own 214-acre movie ranch, located in the San Fernando Valley in California. He purchased the property in 1935 and called it Farm Lake Ranch, but the film industry always knew it as the Rowland V. Lee Ranch, with its pale brown hills of barley chaff and olive and eucalyptus trees and two scenic lakes, but for some reason it wasn't used much for westerns. For I've Always Loved You (1946), Republic Pictures built an extensive farmhouse and barn set. It also constructed a stone and wood bridge over one of the lakes, which would usually be photographed as a river. The farmhouse set would be adapted and modified over the years. RKO used it as a period French farmhouse for its modest swashbuckler At Sword's Point (1952). Its most famous use was as an Indiana Quaker family farm during the Civil War in Allied Artists' Friendly Persuasion (1956). To give it that "Indiana look", director William Wyler had cornfields planted, sycamore trees brought in and huge areas covered with green grass. The wooden farmhouse was also given a fake stone facade. You'll also see the ranch used to great effect in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) and in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955). After Lee died from a heart attack at the age of 84, the ranch was developed into an expensive gated community called Hidden Lake Estates.

This gentleman has taste and it's evident in the way he uses his camera and its relation with decor (the marvelous sets of Son of the Monte Cristo was nominated for Oscar). I recommend watching his two sons, The son of Monte Cristo and Son of Frankenstein to those who are looking for pure entertainment, made by the modest professionals of the golden age. And like any other piece of work from that period, it's carrying lot of underneath meanings that most of them, like fairy tales and folklore, do not reflect the auteur and creature's real intentions, but it is the unavoidable attachments of the time that speak to us.

--E. K.

  • Rowland V. Lee's filmography at Allmovie. [1]
  • In IMdb [2]

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