A loose, simplified adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Becky Sharp is best known as the first feature film to be shot in Technicolor, assuring it will never be forgotten, but not that it is watchable as anything better than an antique. If the cinematography were indeed the measure of its appeal, Becky Sharp could easily be dismissed as a step somebody had to take before moving on to better things. In fact, it has much to offer besides its “first” status.
The selection of Rouben Mamoulian to direct it, best known for other technical “firsts,” reinforces the expectation that the technology is the only memorable thing about Becky. Mamoulian assured undeniable invention, but his work often alternated unpredictably between vivid formal flourishes and numb mediocrity. Perhaps because of the Technicolor challenges, his work here is more focused and sustained than usual, executed with a smooth confidence that belies whatever difficulties the technology may have presented. The soft, modulated colors (in the restored version) that carefully coordinate the costumes and sets create a lovely, pastel-mint vision of Regency England. In particular, the stylized color in the Duchess of Richmond’s ball before the battle of Waterloo is justly famous and ably demonstrates imaginative control.
Charming as it may look, however, what makes Becky worthy of more than a footnote is that it has to be one of the most cynical films ever to come out of Hollywood. The cynicism derives from Thackeray, of course, and while Becky has been cleaned up a little to make her more attractive, the characters’ motivations and behavior remain far from Hollywood’s usual squeaky clean morality and optimism. In fact, the book’s most “moral” characters have either been eliminated or significantly reduced in importance.
With the help of Miriam Hopkins’s energetic performance, we see the world through the wide-open eyes of an opportunistic con artist who has no compunction about exploiting the hypocrisies of her time and place for personal advancement. With the exception of the menacing Lord Steyne (Cedric Hardwicke) all the other characters are duped by Becky at one time or another. The bumptious, cowardly Joseph Sedley (Nigel Bruce), brother of Becky’s friend Amelia (Frances Dee) is particularly gullible. The film fairly dances with her through the spare period decor with a winking panache that complements the Technicolor tour de force. (You need only watch Barry Lyndon to see how Thackeray’s corrupt characters can produce a far more morose take on human behavior.)
Becky Sharp is nonetheless no neglected masterpiece; its primary significance will always be because of its lucky status as the first Technicolor feature. To be honest, I probably would not have watched it unaware of its historical importance. Still, by using a new technical process without intimidation and by treating a literary classic more as a starting point than as holy writ, Becky Sharp shows that even the most famous films can provide happy surprises beyond their renown.