Beau Geste (1926) Famous Players-Lasky. Distributor: Paramount Pictures. Presenters: Adolph Zukor, Jesse L. Lasky. Director: Herbert Brenon. Screenplay: Paul Schofield. Adaptation: John Russell, Herbert Brenon. Photography: J. Roy Hunt. Art Director: Julian Boone Fleming. Musical score: Hugo Riesenfeld. Assistant Director, Ray Lissner. Cast: Ronald Colman, Neil Hamilton, Ralph Forbes, Alice Joyce, Mary Brian, Noah Beery, Norman Trevor, William Powell, George Rigas, Bernard Siegel, Victor McLaglen, Donald Stewart, Paul McAlister, Redmond Finlay, Ram Singh, Maurice Murphy, Philippe de Lacey, Mickey McBan. 10-11 reels, 9,900 ft.
Copies of this film are preserved at the Library of Congress (35mm.), Museum of Modern Art, New York, National Film and Television Archive (London), Cinematheque Royale, Brussels, Cineteca Italiana (Milano), and at George Eastman House (unpreserved). It is available on video. The film originally had Technicolor sequences. It was remade with Gary Cooper in 1939, directed by William Wellman.
See also a Lantern Slide advertising this film from the collection at the Cleveland Public Library
Thanks to Derek Boothroyd for these scans of the photos with Alice Joyce. Click on thumbnails for larger view
|Could the gallant "Beau" be the thief?|
|At last the mystery is cleared.|
Thanks again to Derek Boothroyd for these scans. Click on thumbnails for larger view
|The 15th anniversary referred to in the caption refers to Paramount, not to the film itself|
|Joyce and Colman.|
|A panel of stills from the film.|
|Another panel of stills.|
|A family gathering|
|Mary Brian with Joyce|
|Ronald Colman in uniform|
Famous Players' picture and a Herbert Brenon production featuring Ronald Colman, by arrangement with Samuel Goldwyn. Adapted from P.C. Wren's novel of the same name with Brenon the director. Cameraman, J. Roy Hunt. At the Criterion, N.Y., for a run commencing Aug. 25. Running time, 129 mins.
|Michael "Beau" Geste||Ronald Colman|
|Digby Geste||Neil Hamilton|
|John Geste||Ralph Forbes|
|Lady Brandon||Alice Joyce|
|Sergeant Lejaune||Noah Beery|
|Major de Beaujolais||Norman Trevor|
A corking picture, but as a road show special not entirely surefire. The idea is that it will have to hold to just a few cities outside of New York to have a chance at $2. As a straight program leader it can't miss, although the running time of 129 minutes may keep it from equalling house records.
It's a "man's" picture, much more so than "The Big Parade." The story revolves around three brothers and their love for each other. And a great looking trio--Colman, Hamilton and Forbes. Beyond that the love interest is strictly secondary, practically nil. Which brings up the question as to how women are going to like it.
The picture is all story. In fact, only one cast member seems to get above the scenario. This is Noah Beery as the bestial sergeant-major. A part that once comes along every so often, and Beery gives it the same prominence in which Wren, the author, conceived it. It's undoubtedly one of the best portrayals Beery has ever turned in.
When all is said and done, Colman, in the title role, hasn't so very much to do. Hamilton equals him for footage and Forbes exceeds him. But that's a natural result of the script, as both Beau and Digby die before the finish. Colman's work invariably being even, he makes no deviation here but with the limited footage and action it serves to throw Hamilton and Forbes to the fore. Forbes, understood to be in his first picture, impresses all the way and will probably develop a future in celluloid. Hamilton also gives a sincere performance to leave his mark. But there can be no question that Beery is the outstanding figure of the picture.
The story smacks of rank melodrama, is just that in fact, but is so dressed up and served in film form that the hoke is dyed another color. "Beau Geste " is a well put together mystery story working backward to its solution. First you get the mysterious happenings and then the story which explains the solution after you've seen the finish. It's programmed in those three parts--mystery, narrative and solution with the picture run off that way. A brief interlude of seconds marks the division between the mystery and the story, while a full intermission precedes the solution. Under that routine the film took 97 minutes to reach the rest period and 32 to unfold the answer. Rather complicated and away from the conventional formula.
It starts out with Major de Beaujolais (Norman Trevor), heading a rescue battallion of the Foreign Legion, reaching the desert fort which as sent for him. The only response to his signals is a single shot from the fort. Closer examination reveals that the inmates of the fort are standing at their firing embrasures, but are all dead. Sending a bugler to scale the wall is a loss for the trumpeter fails to reappear. The major then conducts a personal examination, finding a deserted stronghold with the sergeant-major, senior man in the fort, lying dead, pierced through the chest by a French bayonet, and still no sign of his bugler. From the cold hands of a private, lying beside the sergeant, he takes a note admitting to the theft of a famed diamond known as the Blue Water. His men, becoming nervous before this deserted tomb, the major opens the gates and asks for volunteers to make further inspection. When again inside the walls he discovers that the bodies of the sergeant and the private, from which he took the note, have disappeared. His men, now approaching panic, he withdraws, intending to further investigate in the morning when suddenly the fort bursts into flames.
This passage of the troops becoming unnerved at the uncanny happenings is not as stressed in the film as in the book. However, this ends the mystery section, with Brenon questionably having tacked on dramatic sub-titles in an attempt to emphasize the unnatural series of incidents.
From here the tale goes back 15 years to an English estate where the Geste boys (Beau, Digby and John) are children companioned by Isobel. They are the wards of Lady Brandon (Alice Joyce), who is rearing them. A truant husband, unseen is referred to as a spendthrift with the family's main possession being a magnificent diamond called the Blue Water. A wealthy Hindu bargains with Lady Brandon, and Beau overhears the conversation. At this point the story jumps ahead to show the children fully grown and played by the Messrs. Colman, Hamilton and Forbes, with Mary Brian as Isobel.
A cable from the erring husband says the Blue Water must be sold and the stone is brought to the table. The lights suddenly go out and come on again to reveal the diamond missing. Only the immediate family, plus Lieutenant de Beaujolais and a minister, are present. Lady Brandon orders the lights put out so that the guilty party can replace the jewel, but relighting shows the stone still missing.
The brothers laughingly admit in their rooms that each in turn has taken it. John awakes in the morning to find a note from Beau saying he has stolen the gem and has gone away with a postscript from Digby reading not to believe Beau, that he (Digby) has the diamond and has left. John packs, and also leaves to share in the blame, despite he and Isobel have been life-long sweethearts.
The next jump is to the barracks of the Foreign Legion's receiving post in France, where John, having joined, sees Beau and Digby already in uniform. Here the trio come across the despicable Lejaune, who breaks up the combination by dispatching Beau and John to a desert fort and keeps Digby behind. Lejaune is after the diamond, having forced the information from Boldini, a private, caught in the act of snatching Beau's money belt after overhearing the brothers still chafing each other about the Blue Water. Boldini has his hands pierced by bayonets for the attempt, a gruesome spectable [sic], but excellently played by William Powell.
Shortly following a couple of anti-Lajaune incidents comes the high point of the picture in an Arab attack upon the fort. Swarms of them, and attacking from all sides. Picturesque and an applause winner at the premier. The attack comes just as a mutiny within the fort is about to break against Lejaune, but this is put off because of the Arabs. Picked off one by one, the soldiers are stood up in their embrasures after they've been dropped by Lajaune to fool the attacking force. All drop, including Beau, which leaves John and the sergeant as the survivors. Lejaune is rifling Beau's person, the Arabs having withdrawn, when John pulls a bayonet. Lejaune is about to shoot him, but Beau grabs the killer's leg, the shot goes wild and John thrusts the bayonet through the hated officer's chest. Beau then dies in John's arms, leaving a letter for Lady Brandon. This terminates the story portion.
The solution part opens by again showing the arrival of the rescue battallion, with John firing the one shot at the column to give him time to escape in lieu of being tried for the murder of Lejaune. The bugler sent over the wall is Digby, who finds Beau dead, no trace of John, and is determined to carry out a childhood pact of giving Beau a Viking funeral. Digby hides while the Major makes his first inspection, and, as the latter is asking for volunteers outside the fort, carries Beau's body into the barracks room and prepares a bier. A Viking funeral demanding a dog at the feet of the deceased, Digby hauls the deal Lejaune into that position and sets fire to the cot, escaping over a back wall.
John and Digby meet in a depression of the sand dunes, and later run into two American members of the Legion sent back by the Major for reinforcements. The quartet becomes lost, one of their two camels dies, and Digby, knowing the four can never get through with one animal, leaves a note and plunges off into the desert to die.
The next migration is back to England, showing John on the Brandon estate to tell of Beau and Digby being dead and to deliver the former's letter. Beau's epistle informs Lady Brandon that, having overheard her conversation with the Hindu and knowing she had sold the Blue Water, he had stolen the imitation stone to save her from embarrassment when her husband demanded that it be turned into cash. And that's the "beautiful gesture."
Brenon seemingly has followed the book very faithfully. So much so there are only two laughs during the entire film. One is when a close-up shows Lejaune being called names that can't be misinterpreted. And that's one fault with this release. There is no light and shade to it.
That many didn't like it at intermission but changed their minds about it at the finish, due to the story's composition arrangement, may be the tip-off on what is likely to keep it from being a "special." Nevertheless, the compound theme has been held together extraordinarily well, and it must have been a nightmare to the cutters. Brenon has taken one liberty in making the purchasing Hindu, for no apparent reason, wink at the family minister carrying the famed jewel during that early portion, and he may also be said to have left unexplained how the lights go out at the time Beau takes the stone. But they won't think of that till afterward, and if the picture draws that much afterthought it can't be a bad picture.
Scenically "Geste" is about the best example of desert shooting that has come along. J. Roy Hunt is flashed as the photographer, and has made an excellent job of it.
Alice Joyce is superb as Lady Brandon, with her dignity and poise, while Mary Brian means little or nothing as Isobel. William Powell as the stool pigeon, Boldini, and Norman Trevor as the major are really the only outstanding figures other than the bothers and Lejaune.
Electric letters 14 feet in height proclaim "Beau Geste" as being at the Criterion, and it's liable to stay awhile. It's a well-done mystery-melodrama. The men will like it, but it's doubtful if the women will care for Beau dying with the sympathy in the character revealed by the climax after his death. Besides which there's that lack of change of pace and its length. Brenon has given too much time to planting the brother-love theme when the Geste boys are pictured as children Any further cutting will likely be done through this sequence.
Either way, a great "break" for P.C. Wren, the author, as this is his first novel, and F.P. has also bought his second book.
Through the Box-Office Window
Reviewers' Views On Feature Films
Edited by C.S. Sewell
Epic of French Foreign Legion Directed by Herbert Brenon Offers Superb Entertainment
Reviewed by Epes W. Sargent.
|Michael "Beau" Geste||Ronald Colman|
|Bigby [sic] Geste||Neil Hamilton|
|John Geste||Ralph Forbes|
|Lady Brandon||Alice Joyce|
|Sgt. LeJaune||Noah Beery|
|DeBeaujalais [sic]||Norman Trevor|
Based on novel by Sir Percival Christopher Wren.
Scenario by Paul Schofield from adaptation by John Russel and Herbert Brenon.
Directed by Herbert Brenon.
NEXT Spring, when fan magazines, trade papers and the daily press proceed to hold inquest on the waning season by naming the "ten best" films, it seems reasonably certain that "Beau Geste" will appear on most lists because it has the three vital elements of story, production and playing to a marked degree. In spite of the fact that there is only a passing allusion to love interest, and while women appear in only a few of the scenes, there is a sweep to the story that grips the interest to the last scene.
Reformers who storm against the invariable custom of a misguided industry in playing and overstressing the sex appeal are cordially invited to see "Beau Geste." It has the sex appeal of a scenic, the spirit of a Western action story and the grip of a politely told serial.
There have been other stories of the French Foreign Legion; well told and interesting. Since before the days of "Under Two Flags," the Legion, rendezvous for adventure, has intrigued writers, but there has been screened no more appealing story than this of intelligent and artistic translation of Wren's story into the language of action.
And yet a vastly different estimate might have been written but for the whetting of the curiosity through the prologue. Without this teasing interpolation from the latter scenes, it would be two reels or more before the real interest of the spectator could be gained. Eliminate the prologue and the development of the interest would be too slowly achieved.
As it is the mystery is exploited in the first section. You get the thrill of the vast desert stretches, of the Citadel of the Dead, the seemingly mysterious happenings within the fort and then, with the curious interest aroused through a genuine appeal, the narrative reverts to the childhood of the three men whose fortunes the spectator is asked to follow.
The first scene shows the stretches of the desert with a body of the Legion moving to the relief of a beleaguered garrison. Camel trains and foot troops people the snowy sands, distributed with the skill that marks the best work of the European producers The fine handling of the mobs in "The Loves of the Pharaoh," which were so widely acclaimed at the time, gave us nothing better than the effects achieved by Herbert Brenon in this and later scenes. He crashes in upon the minds of the spectator through the very immensity of his appeal and then sweeps on to the little desert outpost where the dead Legionaires still man the battlements, achieving in death the victory that was denied them living.
A trumpeter is sent forward to scale the walls. He gives no sign once he passes the battlements. His superior officer follows, and can find no trace of the missing man. He throws open the gates and calls for volunteers to aid his search. Meanwhile the bodies of the Commandant and a soldier disappear. The startled men rush back to the safety of their companies. The apparently deserted fort bursts into flames. It is nearly two hours later that you arrive at the simple and natural solution of the mystery.
And right here occurs the one slight blot on the perfection of the production. A set of leaders flash, designed to arouse interest. They are all worded in the best style of the long-defunct Fireside Companion. They would serve well on a trailer, perhaps, but they are wholly unnecessary here. It requires no sub-titles to arouse interest. That was created by the prologue itself.
Then the story goes back to the boyhood of the three Geste boys, opening with a charming sequence in which they play at war. At the time this seems to be merely an appeal with the always reliable "child stuff," but when the picture ends you realize the need for just these scenes, since they motivate much of the later action. The plot marches rapidly to the enlistment of the three in the French Foreign Legion, each acting alone and yet actuated by the common childhood memory of Major de Beaujolais. Then come long sequences of stark realism; unlovely sections from the life of the Legionaire [sic] mounting to the deviling by Sergeant Lajaune which leads to mutiny interrupted by the attack of the Touaregs.
Not for a moment does the interest lag, it grows in increasing volume to the denouement, two more scenes, and the story has been told. The continuity writer has done in the action what the author has accomplished in words. The scenario itself is an achievement.
Ronald Colman, in the title role, is not permitted to overshadow the others to the detriment of the story. He gives a sincere and convincing picture; one that adds much to his artistic stature. Noah Beery as the evil genius is very little like his usual self. He is not Beery playing just another character. He is Lajaune brought to screen life. A limited amount of comedy relief is injected by Victor McLaglen and Donald Stuart, and Norman Trevor is splendid as the Major. But it is unfair to select certain players for especial mention. Each of the cast contributes to the general effect. It is the ensemble which makes the greater impression. It is one of the best balanced casts we have observed in a long time; notable both for the absence of poor acting as well as for the competent assumption of the various roles.
Much of this credit must go to the director. Mr. Brenon has risen splendidly to the situation. He has developed his opportunities to the utmost. The result is an artistic success that is almost equally certain to be a financial triumph.
The action is divided between the English home of the Geste and the Sahara. The former are typical of the old manors which are the results of centuries of intensive care, but these, beautiful as they are, lack the appeal of the desert sequences.
It is desert and not a sandbank, interminable miles of gleaming white sands that fairly seem to radiate their heat.
Many of the shots have the artistic value of paintings and the disposition of the players follow the lines of artistic composition.
And with singular restraint the scenarist and the director have omitted a sandstorm. There was none in the book. It is not dragged into the screen drama. It is not needed to give punch. That rises from the story itself.
"Beau Geste" should enjoy a long run on Broadway. It should do equally well in its out-of-town showings.
Not since "The Covered Wagon" has Paramount achieved as great a picture.
Joyce essentially has a supporting role in this popular action/adventure/mystery, but it is a key one. She provides the springboard for the plot as the beloved aunt who is the keeper of the stolen jewel. She appears at the beginning and end, quickly switching to a grey wig when the boys grow up. She doesn't have a chance for much acting, but her presence is necessary to give credibility to the notion that these noble but foolish young men would give up their lives to save her from embarrassment and each other from accusation. The film is superbly done as far as acting, direction, suspense, and setting are concerned, but goes to show that women's films don't have a monopoly on themes of pointless and destructive self-sacrifice.
This film is available from Grapevine Video. The print is a bit soft and somewhat worn, but generally acceptable. The organ score is good, and the film runs 100 min.
More information on this film can be found in the following sources:
Franklin, Joe (with William K. Everson), Classics of the Silent Screen. New York: Citadel Press, 1959.
Magill, Frank N., ed., Magills Survey of Cinema: Silent Films. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Salem Press, c1982
Last revised February 24, 2009