Thursday, 30 May 2019

Becky Sharp (Rouben Mamoulian, 1935)

Becky Sharp

A restored version of Becky Sharp will be screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2019. For the screening date, check the Cineteca's website mid-June. -- EK

Becky Sharp, the protagonist of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, is a golden-haired gold digger, a flirt and social climber of early 19th-century England. Mamoulian’s portrayal of Becky in this satire of aristocratic life shows her not as an opportunist but a woman mischievously reversing gender power relations, a bon vivant – with three-strip Technicolor advocating her excessive world. This colour process, previously used only in shorts or for certain sequences in black and white features, was used here for a feature film for the first time. Shooting began with actor and (rather dull) part-time director Lowell Sherman handling the project. When Sherman died during the production Mamoulian was brought on board, starting from scratch. Having made a succession of great films since 1931, the Tbilisi-born Armenian had one of the most consistent bodies of work in post-sound American cinema, known for his ability to encode his vision in light, movement, and now colour. Technicolor wished to seduce the viewer; Mamoulian wanted to tell the story via the colour. The continuity of colour temperature was of no concern. In the ball sequence, a sudden shot from above also marks a shift like that from an oil painting to a watercolour, with colours leaking from the edges of the figures. The palette is dominated by pale blues, tawdry yellows, royal reds and light greys mostly for backgrounds. Critic Tom Milne notes how the colours define Becky's moods with “soft blues for melting ingenuousness, bright yellow for moments of triumph,” or more generally, when in the ball sequence “the blues, greens and yellows are gradually drained away to leave the screen suffused by a crescendo of red.” The initial box office failure and later availability of poor prints only (using the inferior two-colour Cinecolor process) created the impression that Becky Sharp wasn’t worthy of its director’s name. This definitive restoration finally reveals it as one of Mamoulian’s finest works of the ’30s.

Ehsan Khoshbakht

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