‘Juarez’: German Expressionism Down Méjico Way

Original poster.

Original poster.

I can’t claim it’s a great picture, but “Juarez” (Warner Bros., 1939) is a lot of fun. It’s probably much better than it has any right to be. Claude Rains as Louis-Napoléon is funny every second he’s on screen.

Here’s his first scene; it opens the picture. Rains was rarely so hammy as he is in “Juarez,” but the vigorous way he attacks the lines is exactly what his scenes call for. In this barely disguised expository scene, he’s saddled with the nearly impossible task of playing both Emperor of France and Chorus (i.e., telling us that which we need to know, but which his onscreen colleagues know only too well). He solves the problem by hamming it up to a fare-thee-well. I find it hilarious the way he flashes his eyes and emphasizes his royal displeasure by making full-arm jabbing motions at the members of his cabinet — with an overlong cigarette burning at all times. And keep your ear peeled for the first time Rains says “Monroe Doctrine.” As a boy, Rains had a terrible stammer that he worked hard to overcome, but he never quite mastered the letter “R,” which, when he was insufficiently vigilant, came out as a “W.” “Monroe Doctrine,” which is often spoken of in “Juarez,” presents an almost insuperable obstacle to him, with those two R’s in such close proximity: in this instance, it comes out as “Monroe Doctwin” (or nearly so: there is a hint of an “R” in there). This is funny in itself, but because he follows it with one of his lunging swordsman’s gestures, crying in a loud voice: “YOU!” — it’s even funnier. (It is a testament to Rains’ hard work that he only slips up once or twice on “Monroe Doctrine,” and only when he has a full head of steam up.) Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score also adds to the comedy. (To my ear, it sounds like orchestral acid indigestion: one can imagine its accompanying Elmer Fudd’s discomfort after, say, swallowing a bowl of mashed potatoes that Bugs Bunny has laced with chilies, nitroglycerin and alum.) As the Empress Eugènie, Louis-Napoléon’s dragon-lady helpmeet, Gale Sondergaard is also superbly funny. That such was almost certainly not her intention makes no difference at all: she’s a riot. Claude Rains drives every scene he’s in; because he’s such a tremendous clown, everyone who comes into his orbit automatically becomes either his comic conspirator or his stooge — including Bette Davis, as you will see for yourself in a minute.

Rains doesn’t appear again for almost an hour, and when he returns he puts on a good show. The image of him astride that wooden horse makes me laugh before he even opens his mouth. And of course, he’s still got one of his overlong ciggies going. That’s Hugh Sothern who plays the American Ambassador, John Bigelow, a representative of William Seward. Sothern looks so much like Seward, it’s a shame he never played the man. He only appeared in two dozen pictures, mostly in westerns — he played Old Hickory in two pictures (“The Buccaneer” and in one short). He’s good in this small part, but Rains wipes the floor with him, and all the while he’s atop that wooden horse.

Here’s his great scene with Bette Davis, the first one they ever played together. You can see from the still below that hers is not (ahem) a subtle performance: how could it be, with Rains’ shoveling up mountains of comedy for her to play against? She was extremely shy around him during the shooting of this picture. When she appeared on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971, she described it this way: “He was the King of France, who loathed Carlota, and I was a kid and petrified of Mr Rains. So I thought he hated me; I didn’t know he was playing the character. I thought he thinks I just STINK — what am I gonna do? But eventually we worked together quite a lot; eventually we became really great friends. We were really great friends.” What Davis didn’t tell Cavett (and no reason that she should have done) was that, like many of his co-stars, she fell madly in love with Rains, a feeling he did not return. She often sought refuge with him after the smash-up of her latest love affair or marriage, but he never gave her a tumble romantically. “Frankly,” he said, “I’m terrified of her!”

The ending of that scene, when Carlota’s fragile mind cracks and she goes tearing off helter-skelter into the void, is visually the most interesting moment in the picture, though there are many interesting cinematographic moments scattered throughout. The cinematographer is Tony Guadio: he was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Gregg Toland for “Wuthering Heights.” The director, William Dieterle, brought German Expressionism to Old Mexico, and the combination is often arresting — even stunning. The final shot in the picture — Carlota, now forever lost in the steepy night of lunacy, while the sun streams in on her — is also a stunner. Twenty years passed before I saw the picture for the second time; it was the one image that I never forgot. Such moments are enough to make me forgive a lot of misfires. Much of this picture uses distinctly Germanic lighting, which looks like ghost stories told round the campfire with flashlights under chins. Some of it is pretty arbitrary and foolish, but when it works, it works brilliantly — trouble is, it doesn’t work often enough. (Dieterle’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” photographed by Joseph August, uses the campfire bit even more luridly and often.)

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown! Bette Davis as the Mad Carlota.

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! Bette Davis as the Mad Carlota.

Although Bette Davis feared that Claude Rains hated her, she seems never to have given a second thought to Brian Aherne, who played her uxorious husband, the Emperor Maximilian von Habsburg. The thin-skinned Mr Aherne roundly detested her. Some years later, he observed, “Surely nobody but a mother could have loved Bette Davis at the height of her career.” In their scenes together, he gazes at her tenderly — love-besotted — while she rarely looks at him except as a means of putting exclamation marks on the ends of her sentences, or sometimes in the middle of them. She was a very great actress; her performance in “Juarez,” however, is not one of her best. It is certainly one of her busiest.

The biggest surprise in “Juarez” is that Brian Aherne gives a first rate performance. For once, his tree-top height and fey superiority don’t work against him. In comedies like “The Great Garrick,” he’s too diffident and self-conscious to be droll, and in drama, he’s too lightweight to be taken seriously. He’s rather good in the late-fifties sudser, “The Best of Everything,” but only by accident, I expect. In that one, he plays a boozy, ass-pinching, over-the-hill paperback editor — boozy, he can do; ass-pinching, less so — but in “The Best of Everything,” his reminiscences of long-ago days with Fitzgerald and Perkins, of how with them he heard the chimes at midnight, are what work best in his performance; they’re strangely effective, precisely because you don’t believe a word of them. His inability to make the tawdry third-rate stuff seem credible works in his favor. This must surely be an accident: I make no doubt that we’re supposed to believe his tales of his youthful triumphs and escapades; we’re supposed to pity the man because his success came too early and has been followed by an unbroken string of failures and humiliations: we’re to imagine that he became a soak somewhere along his sad and messy descent into has-been-hood. But Aherne’s performance suggests that he’s a glassy-eyed boozer because he’s a never-was, and that he never knew any of the literary celebrities who are the supporting players in his tippler’s tales of salad days that never were. At any rate, it’s a more interesting story that way. And I like to give second-raters like Aherne the benefit of the doubt. I’m also well-disposed toward Aherne because he wrote a charming book about George Sanders entitled “A Dreadful Man.” (Indeed he was.)

In “Juarez,” however, Aherne’s feather-weight superciliousness and scarecrow physique are perfectly suited to the Emperor Maximilian, an unwitting puppet of Louis-Napoléon. Maximilian is the most interesting and complicated character in the story — perhaps the only one who isn’t a Classics Illustrated cartoon. Maximilian’s unimpeachable integrity and unshakable belief in absolute monarchy as the wisest form of government are undermined by his incompetence as a leader and naïveté as a politician. When he learns that he has been duped by the petit-bourgeois French king, his agony is incredibly moving, but his attempts to set things right are doomed to fail, even pathetic. It takes a weak sister like Aherne to make this predicament tragic instead of merely ridiculous. For Maximilian is a ridiculous character, with his Viennese dandyism ludicrously out of place under the burning eye of the Mexican sun. Quite apart from the fussiness of his attire, he sports the most extravagant tonsorial fashion: the Emperor Maximilian and that year’s other cinematic would-be autocrat, the Cowardly Lion, appear to give their royal custom to the same barber.

Separated at Birth? 1939: The Year of Royal Oddballs; the Emperor of Mexico, da King of da Fores'.

Separated at Birth? 1939: The Year of Royal Oddballs; the Emperor of Mexico, da King udda Fores’.

Aherne’s performance was the only one in “Juarez” to receive an Oscar nomination, but he lost to horrible Thomas Mitchell, who won for his performance as the drunken sawbones in “Stagecoach.” Poor Brian Aherne! How terrible to lose to a performance so low as that one!

Since the picture is called “Juarez,” I suppose I should mention Paul Muni, who plays the title character. Oh, God . . . Well, he’s less terrible than usual. He plays the role under many pounds of makeup. In some scenes, he looks like the shorter brother of Boris Karloff as the Monster in the first two Frankenstein pictures. He looks as if Wile E. Coyote had dropped an anvil on his head. As Benito Juarez, Muni is a whole lot less animated than was his wont; in many scenes, he indicates gravitas by becoming nearly catatonic. It’s beyond me how he can be absolutely motionless and say almost nothing, yet still come across as an incorrigible ham. And to tell the truth, I dislike the guy so much, I haven’t been willing to do enough homework to unravel this mystery — I’d rather accept it as an unknowable perplexity than put myself through the punishment of figuring out how he does it. Of course it’s possible that I’m too prejudiced against him to accept that his performance is not hammy. But I sincerely doubt it. His makeup does a lot of hamming for him: his eyebrows have been concealed under some sort of prosthetic skin, and a pair of furry nubbins, like a black caterpillar cut in half, have taken their place. Muni manages to pull the corners of his mouth down so low that he often reminds me of the churlish apple tree on the Road to Oz.

Separated at Birth? Paul Muni and twin.

Separated at Birth? Los Dos Sourpusses: Paul Muni and twin.

The nadir comes when he interviews a spirited young peón named Pepe (Manuel Díaz in his only movie role), who is so animated, one may be forgiven for imagining his name is Peppy. Juarez asks the young shepherd boy how his dogs fought off the depredations of a ferocious timber wolf; Pepe tells him the tale of the war of attrition against the marauder, with much exasperating pantomime: Muni’s slit eyes go evermore slitty till he says, “Jes, Pepe! Dat is de right way to fight a wolf!” And from this interview, the President of Mexico derives his ingenious strategy for the campaign which will eventually rid his beloved republic of the European overlords. It’s damned silly stuff. And I may say, not Muni’s fault. But why not blame him anyway?

The screenplay is by John Huston, with help from Æneas MacKenzie and Wolfgang Reinhardt, and is based in part upon a play by Franz Werfel and a novel (“The Phantom Crown”) by Betina Harding. In the circumstance, this has not proved to be too many cooks, though the quality of the script varies from scene to scene. Huston & Co. get through a lot of exposition in a hurry — it’s not good, but at least it’s fast, which is more than can be said of most historical pictures from the Studio Era. Muni’s scenes veer toward sanctimoniousness and sentimentality, but I’m unprepared to say whether this is the fault of the actor or the writers; it is probably a combination of both. Rains’ scenes are the funniest, though I doubt they’re intended to be; Aherne’s are the most touching — especially those with his Mexican cohorts who stand by him when the French withdraw their support. His romantic scenes with Davis aren’t entirely satisfactory, partly because she doesn’t bother to work with him and partly because I find it hard to take the tune that underscores their love scenes, “La Paloma,” seriously as a harbinger of tragedy. The orchestration is beautifully reminiscent of Puccini; the unidentified singer is a mezzo with a fast, tight vibrato (very much of the old school); she sings it ardently and with perfect simplicity, but the tune is — I don’t know — too familiar, too on-the-nose; it has underscored too many corny scenes of gay caballeros and their dreamy, hot-blooded señoritas Down Mexico Way.

The supporting cast includes a lot of famous actors, who give solid support. John Garfield plugs away at his role, but is miscast and affects an unfortunate accent that comes and goes without warning. It doesn’t help that we are treated to the sight of him in prison eating a raw ear of corn like an animal . . .

Oh, for corn sake, Porfirio! John Garfield as General Dìaz.

Oh, for corn sake, Porfirio! John Garfield, being all insolent and bestial as General Díaz.

Here’s an exchange between Garfield (as General Porfirio Díaz) and Aherne: the Emperor Maximilian visits the captured Díaz in prison to seek his help in restoring peace and order to the country. Garfield slices the baloney as thin as his talent will permit, but he’s quite hopeless. I don’t buy a word of it. His little stabs at a Mexican accent — on “Benito Juarez” and “constitution,” for example — make the whole thing seem idiotic, yet for all its silliness, I still find it mildly rousing: I know what it’s supposed to do, and am able to indulge Garfield’s incompetence. (I’d much prefer to see Gilbert Roland as Díaz, though he was perhaps far too aristocratic for the role.) Much of the picture is in approximately the same vein: constantly aiming high and missing the mark. But I like the ambitiousness of it. And in some scenes, it actually works just as it’s supposed to do.

Díaz: How can I help you?
Maximilian von Habsburg: By bringing peace to Mexico.
Díaz: Only one man can bring peace to Mexico: Benito Juarez.
Max von H: What is he, Benito Juarez, that he inspires men such as yourself, General Díaz? Tell me.
Díaz: What is he? He’s an ugly little man in a black frockcoat. He is Benito Juarez. He was born in misery, to live on a few grains of corn a day. He labored for an education; he used it to help his own people, and they elected him as a representative. He was imprisoned and exiled by a dictator, but he helped to destroy the dictator and free Mexico. He wrote the constitución. He became President of Mexico. He ruled it justly and well. Till traitors and landowners and speculators brought the French to depose him and put you in his place! YOU! Maximiliano von Habsburg!

I particularly like Gilbert Roland as Colonel Miguel López; Roland was one of the few Mexicans in the large cast. He looks great in military uniform and has authority and real finesse in a fairly underwritten part. He’s a perfect foil for Brian Aherne and Bette Davis, and a handsome devil.

Hola, guapo! Gilbert Roland as Col. Lôpez.

Hola, guapo! Gilbert Roland as Col. López.

Davis always had a soft spot for Roland: when she was first making her way in Hollywood, over at Universal in 1931, she was hired to be a “test girl,” which position sometimes required her to lie on a divan and be kissed by dozens of hopeful young actors. Kissing onscreen is a complicated business; not everyone can do it right so that it looks smooth and romantic. The first day on the job, she said she almost died of embarrassment — but the one young actor who was a marvellous kisser was Gilbert Roland. He got the part. Eight years later, they worked together in “Juarez”; they have only a few brief exchanges, but she has better chemistry with him than with Aherne.

Joseph Calleia, as the villainous vice president, Alejandro Uradi, who has designs on Juarez’s presidency, is almost as hilarious as Claude Rains, and like Rains, he steals every scene he’s in.

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