The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

#1 by Robert Crewdson , Tue May 29, 2018 5:16 pm

In 1939 independent producer Edward Small decided to bring out a new version of 'The Man in the Iron Mask' . The screenplay, written by George Bruce, was based on the Dumas novel; it not only differed from the novel, but also from the 1929 version, which had starred Douglas Fairbanks.

The man chosen to direct the film, was British born James Whale (1889-1957); he had made his name directing such horror classics as Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), and The Invisible Man (1933); he became tired of being pigeon holed as a director of horror movies, and wanted to branch out, and had some success with the musical Show Boat (1936). After Charles Rogers arrival at Universal Studios, production of horror films ceased , and Whale's contract was ended. Whale made a series of box office failures. His openly homosexual lifestyle was not appreciated by all, some were discriminatory towards him, such as Columbia boss Harry Cohn, and some big name actors refused to work with him. It was new agent, Phil Berg, who got him the A project, 'The Man in the Iron Mask'.

Whale wanted Douglas Fairbanks Jnr for the main role, but Edward Small overruled him and gave the part to Louis Hayward (1909- 1985); South African born Hayward, began his theatrical career in England. It was for Noel Coward that he did his most notable stage work. He played the Marquis of Sheere in Coward's romantic comedy 'Conversation Piece' (1934) wearing Regency costume gallantly, he impressed Coward sufficiently to be cast in the American production of his play 'Point Verlane' ; his performance won him the New York Critics award for 1935. When Hayward played King Louis XIV he did it as an impersonation of Coward.

James Whale is rightly credited for the success of this film; shot on a low budget, but giving the appearance of an expensive production; he has also received praise for his use of light and shadow, particularly in the Bastille sequence, where amid flickering shadows and the groans of emaciated prisoners, Louis 14th personally applies the thumb-screw to his victims and supervises the making of the iron mask. Photographs of the interior of aFrench palace was taken so that it could be faithfully reproduced inside a studio, also many antique pieces of furniture were obtained. I think the film also benefited from using actors who were not so well known as the major studio players; although one or two big names are in the film, namely Alan Hale, who had been in the earlier version, and Joan Bennett; one of the biggest female stars of the 30s; other actors include Warren William, who had been a stand in for John Barrymore ; he plays D'Artagnan, Joseph Schildkraut at the evil Fouquet, British born actors Walter Kingsford as Colbert, the trusted advisor of Louis 13th and Miles Mander as Aramis. The part of Louis 13th went to Albert Dekker, who made a career in horror films, such as 'Dr Cyclops' Each actor played their part to perfection. This film is notable for being the first film appearance of Peter Cushing. While Cushing was working in repertory theatre he dreamed of travelling to America. His father George purchased a one way ticket for him, and he arrived in New York on the SS Champlain on February 10th,1939, He purchased a train ticket to Los Angeles, hoping to find work. Before leaving, he managed to get a letter of recommendation from Larry Goodkind of Columbia Pictures. He presented his letter at the gates of Edward Small Studios; this letter, and Cushing's determination, earned him his first film role.

The plot centres on twin brothers , the evil Louis 14th, and his twin, Philippe , who was removed at birth and given into the care of D'Artagnan. The Evil minister Fouquet, who wants to be the real power behind the throne, knows the identity of Philippe, and hatches a plan to have him removed. Philippe and the Musketeers, who Fouquet calls Gascon rebels are brought to the palace for execution. Colbert, the trusted minister of the previous king, tells Louis about the remarkable likeness of one of the prisoners, who is then brought to the king. He decides to use the likeness to his advantage; Philippe is made to impersonate the king at official functions, risking assasination attempts, due to unpopular taxes suggested by Fouquet. The real king spends time with his mistress, while being betrothed to Maria Theresa, the Spanish princess, played by Joan Bennett.

While the king is spending time in the country with his mistress, Philippe, posing as Louis, uses his power to release the Musketeers from the Bastille, where they have been languishing. Learning this upon his return , Louis orders the execution of Philippe, it is then that Colbert discloses that Philippe is really his twin brother, and the aged mother of the twins is brought in to confirm the story. Louis decides that he can't hang Philippe, as it would be like hanging himself, so he has a blacksmith create an iron mask to his design. Philippe, wearing the mask, is sent to the Bastille, where there are strict instructions, that he must always be treated with respect, spoken to as if he were a king, and his mask must never be removed. When the Musketeers learn what has become of Philippe, they enlist the help of Maria Theresa to remove the key to the mask that Louis wears on a chain around his neck. She does this while he is sleeping after drinking with his mistress. The Musketeers manage to free Philippe, and give him the choice of being free, or being King of France, he chooses the latter. They enter the bedroom of Louis through a secret passage; on being woken, he offers to recognise his brother and offers the others two million in gold, which they refuse. He is forced to wear the mask, and by the same route, they return to the Bastille, and put Louis in the cell formerly occupied by Philippe.

Louis, now wearing the mask, insists he is the king, much to the laughter of his jailers. After throwing his dinner at a warden in a temper, he uses a knife to scratch a message on the gold plate and throws it out of the window, where it is found by a shepherd, who reads the message, takes it to Fouquet to collect his reward of forty thousand Franks.. The message reads 'Philippe of Gascony sits on the throne of France'. Then Fouquet understands why the changes in the personality of the king, and the abolishment of the unpopular taxes. This incident happened to the real Man in the Iron Mask; the plate was found by a fisherman, whose boat was moored close to the foot of the prison walls. The fisherman took the plate to the governor of the prison, who asked if anyone other than himself had seen it. The fisherman declared that he could not read, and no one else had seen it. After the governor had satisfied himself on those points, he released the fisherman , saying 'It is well for you that you do not know how to read'. Fouquet makes his way to the cathedral to try and stop the Coronation, declaring Phillipe an imposter, at the same time he has arranged for Louis to be released from the Bastille. After firing his gun in the cathedral, Fouquet flees the scene, and the Musketeers, joined by Phillipe pursue him and try to stop the arrival of Louis. The Musketeers meet up with the coach carrying Louis, still wearing the mask, and shots are fired; D'Artagnan is seriously wounded; the other Musketeers are killed; as is the evil minister Fouquet. The driver of the coach is killed, leaving a runaway team of horses. The coach harness starts to break up, the horses flee, and the driverless, horsless carriage runs over a cliff and into the sea; and the last we see of Louis is being pulled under the water by the weight of his mask. The remaining Musketeer D'Artagnan accompanies Philippe back to the cathedral where the coronation ceremony continues; D'Artagnan dies from his injuries, but France has a new king.

Cushing was hired for seventy-five dollars a week to act with Hayward off screen, so the star's performance of playing identical twins would have more conviction. The penny pinching budget included the special effects; a process screen was used, a much less expensive technique than the photographic double exposure used in 'The Corsican Brothers' from the same studio. Whale gave Cushing a small speaking role as the second officer who comes to arrest the heroic Musketeers. Even in this, his first screen appearance, he looks very comfortable on the screen, and delivers his lines in a relaxed manner. However, to get this part Cushing had exaggerated his duelling skills, but later confessed the deception to Fred Cavens, the fencing instructor for the film. Cavens admired Cushing's honesty and taught him how to properly handle and fight with a sword. The actor would
use his new found skills in other films, such as 'The Gorgon' and 'Trial by Combat'. Soon after this, Cushing learned that Hal Roach was looking for English actors for his new Laurel & Hardy film 'A Chump at Oxford', the rest is history.

There was an unpleasant atmosphere on the set; Whale was at odds with producer Small, who made his presence known on the set where he would sometimes interrupt takes and yell 'That's not right!'. Whale was also cool to the star Louis Hayward, 'I think he disliked me; I thought he disliked everyone' Hayward later mused. Whale would behave arrogant and indifferent on the shoot, sitting under the camera and smoking a cigar, not caring if the smoke wafted in front of the camera, this, coupled with going over budget, caused Small to fire him and install writer George Bruce to shoot nine days of retakes at the end of the production. The humiliation of being fired coupled with some box office failures, caused Whale to retire from the film business two years later.

The film opened in London in September, 1939, at the Odeon, Leicester Square, where it was described as 'The screens greatest achievement'. The film was also nominated for an oscar for best music and original score at the 1940 awards ceremony. The film critic of 'The Times' was less than enthusiastic; in the issue of 4th September he described it as 'Lamentable treatment of Alexander Dumas's novel' and 'It ranks very low among attempt to film historical novels', he goes on to say 'The great virtue of the book is that once begun it must be read from start to finish. In this film the intrigue is unfolded in such a way that it seems positively tedious. The whole thing is as dull as a fancy dress dance at which everyone is too conscious of his costume to let himself go. The familiar faces of the players frequently wear the strained expression of those engaged in country house charades'. The main complaint, was not so much the American accent from some of the players, but that they never struck the right balance between the free and easy mode of today and the flourish and flummery of period tradition. Others have described it as 'The sort of film that gives historical drama a bad name'.

Personally, I don't agree with any of these comments; the critic of 'The Times' wrote similarly about Flynn's 'Charge of the Light Brigade', describing it as 'an inferior version of 'A Bengal Lancer'.

A fine British version of the story was made in 1977 , starring Richard Chamberlain, and another version starring Leonardo DiCaprio in 1998. The 1939 version is generally accepted to be the best, and Louis Hayward's greatest performance. The scene where Hayward is thrown into the cell wearing the mask, coupled with the music written by Lud Gluskin and Lucien Moraweck, is the most moving and powerful scene I have seen in any film.

Very few, if any, films follow a novel exactly; but if you are looking good clean wholesome adventure, then this film will meet that requirement. This film is one of the gems of my collection.

Robert Crewdson
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Last edited 05.29.2018 | Top

RE: The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

#2 by Tom Photiou , Tue May 29, 2018 10:57 pm

What a superb review Robert, very well written. I have never seen this original version,
We had the walton super 8 version which was a 3 x 400 version, we wernt too impressed by it, (quality was very good) so we sold it on.
This version looks more like it. you do have some great classics in your collection.

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Tom Photiou
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RE: The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

#3 by Mark Mander ( deleted ) , Tue May 29, 2018 11:07 pm

I've not seen this version either,I would imagine it has a much better feel than the remakes mentioned, the earlier black and white films normally do,Mark

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RE: The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

#4 by Robert Crewdson , Wed May 30, 2018 10:25 am

I would say, as so many of the old films are classics, that this one is a masterpiece.

Robert Crewdson
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