It took me several decades, but I finally got to see LADY IN THE IRON MASK (1952) which for many years was one of my most sought-after titles.
It wasn’t under idyllic circumstances that I saw it. The bootleg DVD of this color film was in black and white, and was eight minutes shy of its 78-minute running time. But my curiosity has been satisfied and I was glad to finally see it under any circumstances.
Was it worth the wait? I would say yes. I didn’t have particularly high expectations of it and its less than perfect version is not the ideal way to judge it.
But what I saw I enjoyed.
Why did I want to see LADY IN THE IRON MASK so much? Well, it’s a swashbuckler, one of my favorite genres, and starred Louis Hayward, one of my favorite actors in that genre.
For many years I assumed it was a Fox film, so couldn’t understand the difficulty to see it. But the credits read a Walter Wanger Production - a little easier to understand its relative rarity. Independent films often fall through the cracks. Still, the film was distributed by Twentieth Century Fox, so I assumed the production values would be high, as other Wanger productions were. .
Plus, it had a Dimitri Tiomkin score and I was very interested to hear how the Russian maestro would handle a swashbuckling film.
I must say, Dimitri didn’t disappoint as the main title is a marvelously rousing piece, and sets the stage for the adventure to follow, which, let’s face it, is really nothing more than what the title explains, a distaff version of the famous Alexandre Dumas novel “The Man in the Iron Mask.”
Instead of a king being kidnapped and having his head wrapped in an iron mask, it’s a queen this time. Patricia Medina plays twin sisters Queen Anne and Princess Louise. John Sutton plays the Duc de Valdac who replaces the Queen with her sister.
The musketeers, including D’Artagnan (Hayward), Porthos (Alan Hale, Jr.), Aramis (Judd Holdren) and Athos (Steve Brodie) are charged with finding the real queen before the coronation can take place, and strop the Duc de Valdac’s plans to be the real power behind the throne. One of the clues is the placement of a birthmark on the real queen. There’s some innuendo as to where the birthmark is located, but this being the 1950s, its locale is not as salacious as one led to believe at the beginning.
Nothing new here, but it’s played with the right amount of gusto. Director Ralph Murphy has a decent eye for composition that I could discern through the murky bootleg quality of the DVD. There are some effective tracking shots during a chase on horseback and some inventive staging during a duel scene in a torture chamber. Said chamber is manned by the massive Tor Johnson. It’s always fun when he turns up.
LADY IN THE IRON MASK was filmed using a cheaper color process called Naturalcolor, one of the cheaper processes and one I am not familiar with. Due to the DVD being in black and white, I can’t judge what the color was like.
Still. I’m a fan of these medium-budget swashbucklers, and Louis Hayward is the first name that comes to mind with them. He starred in quite a few gems, especially his first forays into the genre, THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1939) and my favorite, THE SON OF MONTE CRISTO (1940).
He may not have had the cache of a Flynn, Power, Fairbanks or Granger, but if producers wanted a swashbuckler hero to carry their “B” swashbucklers, then Hayward was the man.
In addition to being a hero on screen, Hayward was a World War II hero in real life, though at enormous personal cost. Compare the pre-war Hayward to the post-war one, and one can see the effect his war service took on him. The swashbuckling portrayals he did after the war are less ebullient, more grounded.
I can think of few actors whose portrayals before and after the war are so stark in their contrast. The vivacity on display in THE SON OF MONTE CRISO is considerably muted in such roles as THE RETURN OF MONTE CRISTO (1946) or THE BLACK ARROW (1948). I’m not implying he’s moping around, but there’s a weariness and ennui not present in those earlier roles. The post-war Louis Hayward would not be able to give as appealing a performance as he gives in THE SON OF MONTE CRISTO.
“Stars in the Corps: Movie Actors in the United States Marines” by James E. Wise, Jr. and Anne Collier Rehill (Naval Institute Press, 1999) gives a very interesting account of Hayward’s wartime service.
The South African-born Hayward became an American citizen on Dec. 6, 1941, one day before Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Marines on June 8, 1942. Because of his film background, he was commissioned on July 1, 1941 as a first lieutenant, in the Marine Corps Photographic Section.
He and his camera crew filmed the Marines landing at Tarawa. Not from a ship, but Hayward and crew jumped from the landing craft onto the beach along with the Marines, cameras running the whole time through a gauntlet of bullets and explosions from the defending Japanese. Their footage found its way into the documentary film WITH THE MARINES AT TARAWA which was awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary of 1944.
Despite the film’s success, the experience took a heavy toll on Hayward. As Wise and Rehill write:
“He came home a changed man: pale, withdrawn, deeply disturbed about the violent death he had managed to crawl away from while leaving so many others there forever. From time to time he began to tell (then wife Ida Lupino) about some things about Tarawa, but then he would fall suddenly silent….He was then assigned to assist in processing the film footage for the final cut of WITH THE MARINES AT TARAWA. Day after day he had to relive the battle, shown in grotesque scenes that the general public would never see. He grew even more moody and nervous at home and suffered severe asthma attacks. In the end, he and Ida, unable to recover their former intimacy, separated, remaining on friendly and mutually supportive terms.”
In June of 1944, Hayward suffered a complete physical collapse, and he spent his remaining two months in the Corps as a patient in naval hospitals.
He was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps on November 9, 1944. He was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat “V” with the following citation:
“For meritorious service as Assistant Intelligence Officer in Charge of Combat Photography of the Second Marine Division, prior to and during operations against Japanese forces on Tarawa, Gilbert Islands, from 20 to 28 November 1943. Personally going ashore with the assault units of the division despite grave hazards, Captain Hayward skillfully and daringly directed his men in their efforts throughout the battle and afterwards while photographing the enemy defenses for intelligence studies. By his efficient preparation in training his men in all phases and techniques of combat photography and his tireless leadership ashore, he succeeded in producing a comprehensive and technically excellent coverage of our forces in battle. Captain Hayward’s professional ability, courageous conduct and tireless devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. Captain Hayward is authorized to wear the Combat “V.”
He resumed his film career with one of his finest films, the best adaptation of the famous Agatha Christie mystery AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945). Few actors were as lucky Hayward for their return to the screen.
Hayward’s last film before joining the service showcases probably his best performance in LADIES IN RETIREMENT (1941), a terrific melodrama that ranks with one of the best movies in one of the greatest movie years ever. Like Tyrone Power’s greatest performance in NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), Hayward demonstrated his acting talents by playing against type. Both actors seem to relish the opportunity these roles offered and really deliver the goods.
Costume adventure films were big in the post-war years. The European markets were again open and these types of films always played very well overseas. So Hayward again donned sword and cape for these medium-budget swashbucklers, many of them for Columbia.
Four of them co-starred raven-haired Patricia Medina, making them a B-team Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Ironically, their first film together was FORTUNES OF CAPTAIN BLOOD (1950), echoing the first film Errol and Olivia made as a team. This was followed by THE LADY AND THE BANDIT (1951), LADY IN THE IRON MASK (1952) and CAPTAIN PIRATE (1952). Medina was pleasant enough, if lacking in the spirit de Havilland brought to her roles.
In yet another nod to the great Flynn, Flynn’s friend and frequent co-star Alan Hale played Porthos in Hayward’s THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK.
In LADY IN THE IRON MASK, Alan Hale, Jr. plays Porthos. The same year, he was the son of Porthos in RKO’s AT SWORD’S POINT, one of the liveliest of the “B” swashbucklers. He would play Porthos one last time, in THE FIFTH MUSKETEER (1979), another Iron Mask take-off which features a cameo by Olivia de Havilland as the Queen Mother. Kevin Bacon has nothing on these folks.
LADY IN THE IRON MASK is no world-beater, but I enjoyed it. I hope to see the complete film in color one day. It’s a nice showcase for Hayward, who for me remains one of those actors like Tom Conway. While they may have headlined their movies, they never attained the super star status. But I’m always happy to see them in a movie. Louis Hayward was one of the most appealing actors to ever wield a sword on screen and I was very glad to finally see this most elusive of titles.