In the 1930s, film studios made a run of lavish historical costume dramas based on best-selling books (Some of them literary classics, others meretricious tripe). The majority were set in Europe and a few were even made there (including my recommendation The Scarlet Pimpernel). But most were produced on Hollywood back lots, such as MGM’s Tale of Two Cities, Warner Brothers’ Anthony Adverse, RKO’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Selznick/United Artists’ Prisoner of Zenda (my recommendation here). Another classic of the form was made in 1934 by RKO: The Count of Monte Cristo.
Dumas’ thrilling tale of romance, revenge and redemption is catnip for filmmakers. It had been adapted to the silver screen several times before and has been filmed many times since (and referenced in other films as well). But the 1934 version is arguably the best of the bunch and certainly holds up very well today.
The key presence is British actor Robert Donat, who made his only trip to Hollywood to make this movie (he did not care for it, returning soon after to spend the rest of his life in England). As the Count (nee Edmund Dantes), he’s dashing, eloquent, passionate and also manages to make the credibility-stretching aspects of the plot believable. His lady love is played winningly by Elissa Landi, who like Donat is so agreeable to the eyes that it’s easy to miss her acting talent. The two performers bring across their aching romance as much through non-verbal gestures and anguished looks as with dialogue, reminding us that this was the era in which most actors were used to working without sound (The previous adaptations of this story in fact were all silent movies). Watching Donat and Landi today exerts an extra tug on the heart because modern viewers will know that both of them died young, given them a tragic air that makes them even more romantic as couple.
As was the norm for these affairs, the studio spared no expense on set designs, costumes and props, producing a spectacle that must have given Depression Era audiences some wonderful moments of escape. The sumptuous scene in which the Count throws a ball as part of his plan to avenge himself on those who betrayed him is a particularly memorable “film in a film” sequence. The cast at the ball gawps as elaborate tableau after tableau is revealed on a grand stage, and the movie audience gawps at them gawping. It’s a visual feast.
Director Rowland Lee had a touch for this sort of material and brought out the best in the talented cast. There isn’t a bad performance in the movie, and there are several powerful ones. The result is pure escapist entertainment of the first order.
p.s. If you like Robert Donat in this movie, you will probably also enjoy his performance in another of my recommendations, The 39 Steps.