Richard Thorpe | The Wizard of Oz | Above Suspicion | The Unknown Man | The Prisoner of Zenda | Knights of the Round Table | Athena

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Richard Thorpe

Richard Thorpe is a Hollywood film director.

Some common subjects in the films of Richard Thorpe:


The Wizard of Oz

Richard Thorpe was a director attached to an early stage of developing The Wizard of Oz (1939). He was fired, and none of his footage is reportedly in the final film.

One can see some thematic links in The Wizard of Oz to Thorpe's other films. Several Thorpe movies have stuffy characters who discover other, far more colorful worlds. Sometimes this is comic and cheerful: business people who discover artists: Double Wedding, or health food enthusiasts: Athena. Other times it is grim, with Americans learning about sinister Nazis in Europe in Above Suspicion, or organized crime in The Unknown Man. All of these perhaps link to Dorothy discovering the highly colorful Land of Oz.

Oz is also a place, whose inhabitants wear a variety of brilliantly colored, exotic costumes. This too will be a Thorpe approach in such films as The Prisoner of Zenda and Knights of the Round Table.

Politics

It is easy to give political interpretations to The Wizard of Oz.

In Kansas, Miss Gulch represents the power of the rich, controlling the lives of ordinary people. But in Oz, her Wicked Witch is a tyrant, terrorizing MunchkinLand and the Emerald City. She represents Hitler and Stalin, and their attacks on small countries. 1939 was the year of the Hitler-Stalin pact, that enabled World War II.

Dorothy represents non-violence. She stands up to the Witch, and everybody else, but she never uses force. Instead, Dorothy offers a constant moral critique of everything around her, and persistent opposition. Her determination shows intelligence and relentless resistance against oppressive force.

Many films and books offer a contest between good intelligent non-violence, and violent evil force. The Wizard of Oz can be linked to many detective tales, such as The Big Combo, in which policeman Lt. Diamond works relentlessly and non-violently, against mob leader Mr. Brown, epitome of the violence = success school.


Above Suspicion

Above Suspicion (1943) is a spy thriller, somewhat in the mode of Alfred Hitchcock's 1930's spy pictures, mixing suspense and a serious background with light hearted adventure and comedy for its romantic leads. The film is a lot of fun, with an absorbing storyline. A scene at a concert recalls Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). The sophistication of the villains also seems Hitchcock like. The use of musical tunes as clues recalls Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938).

Here we have some of Thorpe's familiar subjects. Once again, we have ordinary, sheltered upper class Americans: in this case, an American who teaches at Oxford, and his new bride. A figure prods them to explore outside of their sheltered life: here an old friend from the British Foreign office. They get a chance to discover a whole new world. As in The Unknown Man, that world is completely evil: here it is Nazi-occupied Austria in 1939. But their works as spies leads to adventure, excitement and new horizons for them, as well as a socially useful result, the rescue of a scientist kidnapped by the Nazis. This is somewhat similar to the gratifying results breaking out of one's shell causes in Thorpe's comedies. We also see the heroine's stuffy family: they are from Boston.

The ordinary Americans here also get to mix with the aristocracy. This is not quite the royalty of Thorpe's royal comedies, but it is close enough: two counts in occupied Austria, one good, one evil. There is no romance between royalty and commoners, unlike other Thorpe movies, but there is plenty of social interaction.

The Austrian and German atmosphere is laid on thickly. Such later films as The Student Prince and The Prisoner of Zenda will also have elaborate European atmosphere and sets.

Both the Oxford scenes at the opening here, and the Heidelberg scenes in The Student Prince, evoke traditional life at famous old European universities. In both films, the aristocratic young men who are the students at these schools are depicted in an idealized way. They seem to be an ideal of the director. They are handsome, intelligent, graceful and fun loving. Above all, they want to be friends with the hero.


The Unknown Man

New Horizons for a Stuffy Hero

The Unknown Man (1951) is a modest crime thriller and courtroom drama. It shares a theme with some of Thorpe's comedies: that of a stuffy, proper WASP hero discovering a funky world he never knew existed. While in Thorpe's comedies this leads to liberation for the hero, here it leads only to horror. The new world discovered by the lawyer hero here is that of organized crime. Walter Pigeon's attorney here is a man of great rectitude who has spent his life as a corporate attorney, removed from all aspects of ordinary life. A chance encounter with defending a man for murder leads him to learn that the mob controls his city. Pigeon does not become corrupted or lose his ideals. But his involvement here leads to terrible tragedy.

The later attorney played by Edmond Purdom in Athena is equally isolated from the lives or ordinary people. For him, broadening out is a wholly good experience.

In most of these Thorpe movies about a business man getting new horizons, reasoned discussions play a key role. The business man and his new acquaintances are always talking about things, and his new friends try to persuade him to change his view. These discussions also serve as moral debates for the audience, alerting them to different moral and intellectual perspectives on the events they are witnessing.

Links to The Racket: Thrillers about the Mob and Corruption

This film shares some imagery with John Cromwell's The Racket (1951), of the same year. In both films, the mob controls a mid size city. In both, the head mobsters are men of suave social sophistication who mask themselves as respectable businessmen and social leaders. In both, there are also more traditional mob types working for them. These lower down mobsters even dress alike in both movies: here Keefe Brasselle's enforcer wears a fancy dressing gown, just like Robert Ryan in The Racket. Michael Nouri will also wear an elaborate dressing gown in The Gangster Chronicles (1981). On screen, such a costume seems to be part of the iconography of gangsters. All of these men are violent types; dressing gowns are also worn by prize fighters, and the costume seems to advertise aggressiveness.

Unlike The Racket, The Unknown Man is not really a film noir. The relentless gentility of the hero's existence generally keeps it out of the urban underworld that dominates much of noir. So does the film's courtroom drama approach. Still, the film's concern over gangsterism and corruption in American life links it to noir films such as The Racket and Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953). All of these films suggest that it will take terrible personal sacrifices by ordinary people to bring the mob down. Each can claim to be genuinely tragic in tone.

Richard Anderson: A Balanced Life

Both The Unknown Man and The Student Prince (1954) have Richard Anderson in a supporting role - here he plays the hero's law student son. In both films, Anderson plays a kind young man of aristocratic background, good breeding, and innate decency. Anderson is as refined and as genteel as Thorpe's heroes. But unlike them, he is not socially isolated. He has a girl friend here with whom he has a successful relationship, and in The Student Prince he is a social leader of his fellow students. In both films, he is an idealized image of what the heroes and the director regard as a happy life, albeit a bit sheltered and privileged one.

The Prisoner of Zenda

Color and Design

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) is the fifth version of the novel. It is a color remake of the 1937 talkie version, which in turn remade a very good silent film directed by Rex Ingram. Many textbooks on film aesthetics suggest that both color and sound are excrescences added to the artistic peak of the silent film. I love silent films, too, but would it be heretical of me to suggest that the color version is delightful? It seems fun in the way that the 1937 version does not.

The sets in this film are by Hans Peters, who also did Scaramouche (1952), one of the most elaborately designed of all films. The fancy comic opera uniforms are by Walter Plunkett. He would go on to do similar clothes for Thorpe's The Student Prince (1954). These outfits are wonderfully detailed.

Royalty and Commoners

Thorpe liked romances between royalty and commoners. In addition to the generally unsuccessful The Student Prince, he also made the charming Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945). As in his screwball comedies of eccentrics and business people, this gave him a chance to do an opposites attracts, two worlds in collision movie. People do have a complete "world" in Thorpe, one which recreates in lavish detail. In all of these films, the romance between the royalty and commoners does not succeed at the end; the barriers between them prevent it. This is unlike the business - eccentric movies, in which the romance is a final success. This might simply be a matter of the source material: both The Prisoner of Zenda and The Student Prince are based on famous, pre-existing works.

The hero of The Prisoner of Zenda is a nice guy, but one who lives a drab, lonely and ordinary life. He gets a huge chance to break out of this, and experience romance, glamour and adventure. It is a sort of reward for him for being a nice person. This is similar to the hero of Athena, who manages to break out of his stuffy lawyer's shell, and experience a completely new life with the eccentrics of the health food world.


Knights of the Round Table

Knights of the Round Table (1953) has spectacular costume design by Roger K. Furse. Furse is a British designer who did not make many films. He is best known for his work on Laurence Olivier's Shakespeare adaptations, such as Henry V (1945) and Hamlet (1948), as well as Thorpe's Ivanhoe (1952). Most of these films have a medieval look. Some of the early crowd and battle scenes in Knights of the Round Table are extraordinary color spectacles. There are hundreds of people on screen, each in their own brilliantly colored costume. The whole color effect is intoxicating. There are few things like it in all of the movies.

Athena

Comparison with Double Wedding: Stuffy Hero and Eccentrics

Athena (1954) has much in common with Thorpe's earlier screwball comedy, Double Wedding (1937). Both films contrast square, successful businessmen with zany eccentrics. Both films involve "opposite attracts", with a business person and a free spirit falling in love. Both films make much out of family relationships as well, with a pair of sisters in both works. In both films the business people are extremely decent, nice humans, if a bit stuffy. Their conventionality might be a bit funny, but the characters are genuinely sympathetic.

There is a gender reversal between the two films:

However, in both films it is the woman who has a younger sister, so the roles are not entirely switched around between the two films.

Athena is a musical, not a pure comedy. However, its songs are far more notable for their lyrics than for their forgettable if pleasant music. The lyrics carry forward the themes of the plot, so they seem more like an extension of the dialogue than anything else.

Much more important as a difference between the films is that Athena is in color. It is in the full 1950's MGM style, with eye popping color design in the sets, costumes and photography. The viewer feels they are being transported into another world, one extraordinarily colorful and delightful.

Health Food

In Athena, the health food enthusiasts eat yogurt and wheat germ. These were the two foods everybody in the 1950's people associated with the "health food" movement. I remember a whole episode of the 1950's TV series December Bride revolved around these two items, which the characters got in a health food store. Ordinary people in America rarely ate yogurt. I never had it while growing up, neither did any of my friends. As a grown-up, I've eaten mountains of it, and most kids today eat it by the carload. There certainly has been a revolution in American eating all sorts of good foods.