Two films, made decades apart, that deserve to be better
known are playing on Turner Classic Movies this week: King Vidor’s The Stranger’s Return (1933), which airs
on Tuesday, and Bob Rafelson’s Mountains
of the Moon (1990), on Friday. I’ve written about the Vidor film before,
most recently when it screened at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival. I first
saw it decades ago, when William K. Everson showed a 16mm print, and fell in
love with it then. It’s a surprisingly adult film for its time, and showcases
Miriam Hopkins, Lionel Barrymore, and Franchot Tone in tailor-made roles,
alongside a fine supporting cast. Vidor never mentioned it in his
autobiography, and I always wondered if its commercial failure led him to make
his next film (the ambitious Our Daily
Bread) away from the studio system.
The Stranger’s Return
has been out of circulation in recent years because MGM didn’t renew its rights
to the original story, by Phil Stong, the man who wrote State Fair. Its current owner, Warner Bros., recently cleared the
rights, paving the way for TCM to bring it back. But another challenge
presented itself: when I borrowed the 35mm vault print from MGM for a showing
at the Denver Film Festival some time back, there was a jump cut in the final
scene. This was not so easily resolved. A fire long ago at the George Eastman
House destroyed the original camera negative, so we had to use the same 35mm
print—possibly the only one extant. Fortunately, I was able to consult the
original editor’s cutting continuity and learned that the missing footage was
brief and didn’t affect or alter the conclusion of the story. I don’t know if
that final scene has been restored in the version that will air on Tuesday, but
I’ve got my fingers crossed. Incidentally, TCM blogger Jeremy Arnold did
extensive research for his essay about the film and read an oral history with
Vidor that’s quite revealing. I encourage you to read it HERE.
Mountains of the Moon
completely disarmed me when I saw it twenty-four years ago, and I included it
in my book Leonard Maltin’s 151 Best
Movies You’ve Never Seen. It’s a sleeper that’s still waiting to be
Nothing in the portfolio of talented writer-director Bob
Rafelson would lead anyone to expect a film as grand, or far-reaching in its
ambitions, as this. A handsomely-mounted, epic saga, photographed by the great
Roger Deakins, it turns back the clock to a time when the English-speaking
world was captivated by daring explorers like Sir Richard Burton. At a time
when travel was arduous and methods of communication primitive, he didn’t
hesitate to leave Victorian England, and his wife, behind to embark on bold,
dangerous expeditions. (He had many other talents and interests, including
linguistics and a fascination with erotica that inspired him to translate the
Kama Sutra.) This film focuses on his search for the source of the
the strength of this performance, is a charismatic
John Hanning Speke, the ambitious dilettante who accompanies him.
Historians have speculated about the relationship between
these two disparate men—one a genuine adventurer, the other an opportunist—who
eventually became bitter enemies. Each man also flirted with homosexual desire
for the other, although to what degree, we’ll never know.
Because the screenplay for Mountains of the Moon is based in part on the men’s surviving
journals, there are vivid, eye-filling details of their exploits in Africa.
Their groundbreaking exploration of that continent is a major element of the
film. It is also inspired by a biographical novel written by William Harrison,
who collaborated with Rafelson on the script, so we cannot take everything we
see as gospel truth. But what makes this film so special is that it manages to
embrace the sweep of an epic with the compelling details of a highly personal
story. It isn’t an old-fashioned “boys’ adventure” like King Solomon’s Mines, but a realistic drama about the hardships
these men faced on their journeys, and the equally trying problems they had to
confront upon their return.
It certainly captures the spirit of its time, when men like
Burton defied the constraints of Victorian behavior and Speke sought personal
gain in a way that seems curiously modern.
For more details, go to tcm.com,
and don’t miss either of these exceptional films.