Richard Thorpe | The Wizard of Oz
| Above Suspicion | The Unknown Man
| The Prisoner of Zenda | Knights of the Round Table
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Richard Thorpe is a Hollywood film director.
Some common subjects in the films of Richard Thorpe:
- Upper crust, proper Americans who discover sinister worlds (Nazis: Above Suspicion,
mob corruption: The Unknown Man)
- Stuffy business people who discover delightful eccentrics (artists: Double Wedding,
health food enthusiasts: Athena)
- Royalty and commoners in love (Her Highness and the Bellboy,
The Prisoner of Zenda, The Student Prince)
- Social encounters between aristocrats and commoners (Above Suspicion)
- Idealized, aristocratic students (Above Suspicion, The Student Prince)
- Sisters (Double Wedding, Athena)
- Brilliantly colored costumes (The Prisoner of Zenda, Knights of the Round Table)
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.
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 (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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
- In Double Wedding,
the woman is successful in business as a dress designer, the man
is an eccentric artist.
- In Athena, the man is the stuffy
but kind hearted lawyer, the female is a member of a family that
promotes health foods and exercise.
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
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.
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.