Watching 1939: Beau Geste (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
Beau Geste (1939)

Release date: 
July 24, 1939

Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, J. Carrol Naish, Albert Dekker, Broderick Crawford, George P. Huntley, James Stephenson, Albert Dekker, Charles Barton, James Burke, Heather Thatcher, Henry Brandon, Harold Huber, Harvey Stephens
Leads as children: Donald O’Connor, Billy Cook, Martin Spellman, Ann Gillis, David Holt

Paramount Pictures

William A. Wellman

Three brothers Beau Geste (O’Connor/Cooper), Digby Geste (Spellman/Preston) and Michael Geste (Cook/Milland) were orphans, adopted and raised by their aunt Lady Patricia Brandon (Thatcher). Lady Brandon also raises her nephew bratty (Holt/Huntley) and her ward Isobel (Gillis/Hayward). Augustus Part of the Brandon family fortune is a large sapphire, the Blue Water. Lady Brandon is going to have to sell the Blue Water to give money to her absent husband. But before it could be sold, one of the young adults steals the Blue Water. Beau and Digby both leave that same night to join the French Foreign Legion, and upon discovering, Michael follows his brothers to Algeria. There the brothers and the rest of the legionnaires suffer under the sadistic and abusive Sergeant Markoff (Donlevy). Markoff targets the brothers after Markoff’s stooge Rasinoff (Naish) overhears the brothers talking about the sapphire.

1939 Notes:
By the numbers:
• William Wellman directed two films released in 1939.
• Gary Cooper was in two films released in 1939.
• Robert Preston was in three films released in 1939. He had only entered films in 1938.
• Ray Milland was in three films released in 1939.
• Brian Donlevy was in six films released in 1939. He received his only Academy Award nomination for his role in “Beau Geste.”
• Susan Hayward’s second credited role. She was in three films released in 1939.
• Broderick Crawford was in eight films released in 1939.
• James Stephenson was in 15 films released in 1939.
• Harold Huber was in nine films released in 1939.
• Ann Gillis was in two films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• Based on the 1924 novel “Beau Geste” by P. C. Wren.
• One of several film versions of the book. The others include:
– Beau Geste (1926) starring Ronald Colman, Neil Hamilton, Ralph Forbes, Mary Brian, William Powell.
– Beau Geste (1966) starring Guy Stockwell, Doug McClure, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Wolders, Telly Savalas
– Beau Geste (1982) – A UK TV mini-series starring Benedict Taylor, Anthony Calf, Jonathon Morris
• Filmed on location in Yuma, AZ, and at Buttercup Dunes in California, which is where the 1926 version was also filmed.
• The heat of the Yuma desert sent several members of the cast and crew to the hospital. The wind shifted the terrane so tractors were brought in to recreate dunes that were in establishing shots, according to the book “Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel” by William A. Wellman.
• The film was originally set to be directed by Henry Hathaway in color, but Hathaway dropped out, according to Brian Donlevy, the Good Bad Guy: A Bio-Filmography by Derek Sculthorpe.
• When shown as a double feature with “Lives of a Bengal Lancer” (1935), six minutes of “Beau Geste” was cut from the film and hasn’t been recovered, according to film historian Frank Thompson.

Ray Milland, Robert Preston and Gary Cooper in “Beau Geste.”

Awards and Nominations:
• Brian Donlevy was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
• Hans Dreier and Robert Odell was nominated for Best Art Direction.

Brian Donlevy in “Beau Geste”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
In the first few stunning moments of “Beau Geste,” I sat stunned with my mouth open in shock and confusion. A major played by James Stephenson approaches a fort in the Algerian desert, realizing that the men he is shouting too are all dead, resting on parapets.

It’s mysterious and eerie. Composer Alfred Newman adds choral notes to this portion of the score as Stephenson’s character is trying to figure out what happens. It adds to the uneasiness of the scene.

Then, slowly, the film tells the retrospective story that leads us to this moment.

Near the end of the film, as the story re-enters where the film began, I sat shaking my head voicing what we all know: “Man, Wellman is good.”

“Beau Geste” is a 1939 film that isn’t as well known as “Ninotchka,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “Gone with the Wind.” But it should be.

William Wellman directed and produced a gorgeous adaptation of P. C. Wren’s 1924 adventure novel.

While you may look at this and think, “Oh, another 1930s French Foreign Legion desert snooze,” this film isn’t that. This adaptation of Wren’s book is an adventure film but focuses largely on what happened to the missing sapphire. It also has themes of loyalty to family and making sacrifices (that can harm your reputation) for the people you love.

When “Beau Geste” was released in 1939, it was praised, but unfortunately compared to the 1926 silent version, which at the time was seen as superior.

While both are good and have a nearly identical first scene, there is something more gripping and alarming about Wellman’s.

The film is gorgeous to look at, especially on Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release.

Cinematographers Theodor Sparkuhl and Archie Stout photographed the film gorgeously, with fabulous use of light and backlighting. I’m thinking specifically, as Ray Milland runs down a sand dune after his brother Robert Preston near the end. And when Heather Thatcher, who plays Lady Brandon, comes down the stairs at the end of the film with light streaming through windows behind her. It’s gorgeous.

Kudos also go to art directors Hans Dreier and Robert Odell, who were nominated for their work. Their efforts can be seen from the design of the fort down to the Foreign Legion bayonets that were selected.

The film is also gorgeous to look at because of it’s three leading men: Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston. Cooper was a screen veteran by this point, but these were early leading roles for Milland and Preston. The trio plays wonderfully off each other. They all can go from laughter and humor to serious drama throughout the film. It’s also fun to see a young Donald O’Connor as child Gary Cooper.

Actor Brian Donlevy really steals the show as the evil sergeant who rules with an iron fist and has a near mutiny on his hands. Donlevy is the only person who walked away with an Academy Award nomination. Donlevy didn’t make many friends on the set. According to William Wellman Jr.’s book, his father said that no one liked Donlevy and there was only tension on the set with him. However, Wellman also said Donlevy brought out better performances in the other actors. He went on to cast him in other films.

In a Screenland magazine interview, Donlevy said following this film, children and adults would stop him in the street and yell at him for his character in this film. Even if he wasn’t pleasant on the set, this made me feel sad for him.

“Beau Geste” also provided early roles for Susan Hayward and Broderick Crawford.

Simply put – this is an outstanding film. It should be better remembered today, and I hope this new Blu-ray release helps that.

In this sweeping adventure, I was never bored once. It grips your attention until the end.

Ray Milland, Gary Cooper and Robert Preston in “Beau Geste.”

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1 thought on “Watching 1939: Beau Geste (1939)

  1. Very much agree with you on this film. I think if it was released in a different year, it would get much more attention. But you can say that about a lot of 1939 films. This is one of the great – and most shocking – openings to a film at that time. I believe Donlevy should have won Best Supporting Actor.


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