Sunday, May 4, 2014

Tyrone Power Blogathon: Son of Fury

This entry is happily part of the Power-Mad blogathon to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of Hollywood's most enduring stars, Tyrone Power. Other entries can be found here:

For me, SON OF FURY (1942) is a prime representation of Golden Age Hollywood. Impossibly beautiful leading men and ladies, luminous cinematography, a haunting music score, studio craftsmanship able to convincingly recreate 19th century London, an English country manor house and a South Seas island paradise on the Fox back lot, and a seemingly never-ending cavalcade of unforgettable character actors.

SON OF FURY is a perfect vehicle for star Tyrone Power. Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was always on the look out for suitable stories for his top male box office attraction, and while Power may have blanched at some of these roles, Zanuck knew his audience and what to give them – and he did, in some of the best adventure films ever made.

Tyrone Power had that rare talent to wear period clothing and making it look completely natural. He inhabited those costumes like 007 wearing a tuxedo. And his beautiful speaking voice with clear diction made him an ideal fit for these roles.

Based on the 1941 best-selling novel “Benjamin Blake” by Edison Marshall, SON OF FURY tells the story of young Benjamin Blake (Roddy McDowall), the illegitimate son of an English landowner who is brought up by his grandfather (Harry Davenport). His estate has been stolen from him by his uncle Sir Arthur Blake (George Sanders).

Blake works at the estate as a stable boy where he grows up to become Tyrone Power, falling in love with his cousin Isabel (Frances Farmer) and tormented on a regular basis by his cruel uncle. Finding Ben and Isabel together, Arthur whips Ben unmercifully. (Power seemed to get beat up or tortured by quite a bit in his adventure films, such as here and in THE BLACK SWAN the same year).

With the help of kindly tavern keeper (Elsa Lanchester), Ben flees England and stows away on a ship headed to the South Seas. Upon discovery he is beaten up some more by the captain, but allowed to work his way for his passage. He befriends Caleb Green (John Carradine) who tells him of an island whose sea beds are loaded with pearls.

Ben and Caleb jump ship at the island, where they find a fortune in pearls. Ben falls in love with one of the girls on the island who he names Eve (Gene Tierney). After an idyllic time spent on the island, Ben returns to England, where he enlists the aid of London's sliest lawyer Bartholomew Pratt (Dudley Digges) to reclaim his birthright and extract revenge on his uncle, not only in court but in a well-staged bout of fisticuffs.

While Marshall set his novel in the 1770s and early 1780s, Zanuck was having none of that. A July 1, 1941 memo from script coordinator Dorothy Hechtlinger wrote: “Mr. Zanuck is against using any kind of wigs in the motion picture. For this reason, we will change the period of the story proper to 1810, the period of LLOYD'S OF LONDON (Power's first starring role in 1936), which is a very good period. The prologue would take place around 1795.”

Not only was the novel's setting changed, but so was the title. Though “Benjamin Blake” had been a best seller, Zanuck wanted a punchier title. Zanuck liked one of the suggested titles, SON OF FURY, enough to keep it. Other titles considered were HE WHO CAME BACK and SON OF THE STORM. But “The Story of Benjamin Blake” was retained as a subtitle on the film's promotional materials and on the film's title card, to help rein in the book's many readers.

Though Power was always set for the lead, some of the initial casting ideas for the other roles are very interesting. Laird Cregar was penciled in for Sir Arthur and Ida Lupino as Isabel. Though Lupino was under contract to Warners at the time, she still owed Fox a picture in a contract dating back to her role in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939). Instead, Fox cast her opposite Jean Gabin MOONTIDE (1942). Maureen O'Hara was then slated until she was felled by appendicitis which required surgery and recuperation. Next up was Fox contract player Cobina Wright Jr., until a serious throat infection caused her to drop out. In desperation, Fox borrowed from Paramount the troubled but very talented Frances Farmer, in what proved to be her penultimate film appearance.

For the role of Eve, Ben's South Seas love interest, Zanuck suggested “If we don't use a real native girl, Gene Tierney.” We now know Tierney from such roles as LAURA (1944) and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1946), but at this point in her career being cast as a South Seas maiden likely didn't seem so odd. She had been already cast as an Arab in SUNDOWN (1941), and Asians in THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941) and CHINA GIRL (1942). She makes a most fetching Eve, especially when so lovingly photographed by ace cinematographer Arthur Miller on those moonbeam-drenched beaches. If Tierney in a sarong was enough to bring in the men, the ladies got Tyrone Power spending most of his South Seas scenes in his bathing trunks. Something for everyone.

It's easy today to be critical about Gene Tierney cast as an island maiden, but context is everything. As socially conscious as he could be (and Zanuck was the most socially conscious of all the studio heads), there was no way Zanuck the businessman wasn't going to showcase his newest exotic-looking contract player and potential star opposite the studio's biggest leading man in what was sure to be one of the year's smash hits.

Because he was a former screenwriter Zanuck had an unusually acute sense of story structure. He was critical of screenwriter Philip Dunne's initial drafts, telling him in a memo:

“You have Blake running away from social injustice so he can come back some day and cure the horrible conditions. We don't want to tell that kind of a story. We don't want this to be a social document. It must be a personal story – the story of a bastard who has the moral right to an estate using his wits against another man who has the legal right. It must be told with gusto – swashbuckling. It is a Monte Cristo setup and should be treated as such.”

Novelist Marshall seemed somewhat ambivalent about the final film and its many changes from the book, saying at the time of the film's release, “I wrote a book to be read; Fox has made a picture to be seen, and I think they complement each other nicely.” (I don't know what he thought of the adaptation of his 1951 book “The Viking” which was made into “The Vikings” (1958) with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. Hardly anything of Marshall's book is found in the movie.)

The film is loaded to the brim with great character actors. It's one of John Carradine's most appealing characterizations – it's such a pleasure to see him play a good guy for a change. Dudley Digges steals every scene he's in as the wily lawyer, and Elsa Lanchester delivers one of her loveliest and most understated performances here. No eccentricities, just a decent woman trying to do the right thing.

George Sanders delivers his usual venom-dripped performance. One senses Sir Arthur enjoys every aspect of stealing his nephew's inheritance, and even when it looks like all is finished he's still trying to finagle matters to his advantage. Any movie is better with George Sanders in it. His wife is played by Kay Johnson, wife of director John Cromwell and mother to actor James Cromwell.

Cromwell does a splendid job here. I've always thought he was a most unheralded director, based on his beyond marvelous THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937) and that small jewel of a movie THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE (1945). While not as good as those two masterpieces, SON OF FURY impresses with its sweep and lack of padding. There's a lot of story told in 98 minutes.

The film is also helped immeasurably by Alfred Newman's musical score. The film's major love theme – and its a beauty – had lyrics added to it by Mack Gordon and titled “Blue Tahitian Moon.” It achieved a modicum of success via recordings by Kenny Baker and Frances Langford, but without the smash success of Newman's haunting “The Moon of Manakoora” from John Ford's South Seas epic THE HURRICANE (1937). (While most famously used in the Ford film, that melody was originally composed for MR. ROBINSON CRUSOE (1932) starring Douglas Fairbanks.)

SON OF FURY was successful enough to warrant a remake, TREASURE OF THE GOLDEN CONDOR (1953), with Cornel Wilde, George Macready, Anne Bancroft and Constance Smith in, respectively, the Tyrone Power, George Sanders, Frances Framer and Gene Tierney roles. Filmed in Technicolor and moved to Guatemala, it's not a bad little film (the Sol Kaplan score is first-rate, one of his finest), but can't compare with SON OF FURY. The Power film remains as watchable today as it did when it was first made.

I know Power wished for more challenging roles from Zanuck, but he did exceptional work in the swashbuckling/adventure film genres. I've always felt he gave an Academy Award nomination-worthy performance in THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940) – it's probably my second favorite performance after his very atypical role in the classic NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947). But Power, like Errol Flynn and to a lesser extent Stewart Granger, had the unheralded talent to look at home in other eras. It's much harder than it looks (ever see Brad Pitt in TROY(2004)? I think he's a terrific actor, but he was so out of place there).

It's a tragedy that Power died so young. It would have been nice to see him make it to the nostalgic boom of the 1970s, become a respected character actor, and look at his past films and say, “Boy, those were some pretty entertaining films after all. Not bad. Not bad at all.”

Happy 100th Birthday to one of the great ones, an actor whose performances have given and continue to give enormous pleasure over the decades.

(Background information on SON OF FURY came courtesy booklet notes from the SON OF FURY soundtrack CD, a Screen Archives Entertainment Production.)


Caftan Woman said...

The stage door area of Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre, which opened in 1907, has a little room where stage crew would place pictures of visiting actors whom they genuinely liked. Tyrone Power's picture can be found there. He must have been a grand fellow, not just a fellow who appeared in grand movies. You chose a dandy to write about, and did it justice.

Clayton @ Claytonology said...

Nice! Benjamin Blake is a fave read of mine, but I didn't know that it had been made into a film! I knew Marshall's other movie adaptation, Yankee Pascha (also a great read), but this one was off my radar...I've put it on my must-see-asap list.

Too be honest, I'm scandalised that I haven't seen it already. Thanks for the longs and detailed write-up!

Patti said...

Kevin, what a terrific entry to the blogathon. "Son of Fury" is a very enjoyable movie. Sometimes, I consider it my favorite of the Power/Tierney pairings. They were both so incredibly beautiful!

Indeed it was a tragedy that Power died at such a young age, and not just for movie audiences. Sadly, his 2 daughters would barely know him, and his son never would. Given that my dad will observe his 77th birthday later this week, I feel very keenly that Power's children missed out one of life's best blessings---growing-up with a wonderful dad.

Thanks so much for taking part in the blogathon.

The Lady Eve said...

Wonderful take on Son of Fury and its back story, Kevin. It always interests me, too, to know about the changes that occur when stories are taken from bestsellers and adapted to the screen. The author of Benjamin Blake seems to have been more agreeable about what happened to his book than many others have been.

It has been said that Tyrone Power felt trapped by his stardom and his looks and felt these things prevented him from being cast in roles more to his liking - and his abilities. But I think, had he lived, he would've eventually been cast in the kind of roles that eluded him in his brief lifetime.

Kevin Deany said...

CW, Power seems to have very few enemies, if any, during his career and seems to have been well loved by all he worked with. That can't be said about too many performers, it would have been a small club with Power, Peter Cushing and a few others.

Clayton, I've never read any Marshall save for THE VIKING, which I enjoyed. I have read several Samuel Shellabarger novels, of which Power starred in two - CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE and PRINCE OF FOXES. Marvelous reads. I'd like to read more Marshall though and I'll look for his book in the second hand book stores.

Patti, it is a tragedy he died so young and like the Lady Eve said, I think he would morphed into a wonderful character actor. It's interesting to see Power cast with Errol Flynn in THE SUN ALSO RISES. I think Power understood Flynn's Mike Campbell role quite well and would have provided a very interesting take on the character.

Cliff Aliperti said...

This is a favorite for so many of the reasons you mention but thank you for the background on the novel, which I was not at all familiar with. As you pointed out Son of Fury has such a loaded cast, but I think my favorite of the entire bunch is Dudley Digges, who beyond being a total hoot plays his part with enough of a shade to keep me wondering if he's going to help Blake or stab him in the back. And man, Gene Tierney is absolutely gorgeous here. There's a lot to talk about with this one, such an entertaining movie!

John/24Frames said...


After looking at the list of TP films, I realize how few of his works I have seen including SON OF FUR00Y. And if the movie is as entertaining as your review it will be worth catching up with. Nice job.

Kevin Deany said...

Cliff, I agree with you about Dudley Digges. He's such fun to watch here. Just when you think the movie is wrapping up, they introduce the Pratt character and the film becomes even more enjoyable.

John, I hope you get the chance to see it. It's a terrific example of the Hollywood studio system at work.

Jeff Flugel said...

Nice job on this title, Kevin! Enjoyed all the production background. Zanuck was one of those story-savvy producers, so rarely found in today's Hollywood.

I have this one on that Tyrone Power swashbuckling set, but have yet to watch it all the way through...bad Jeff, bad. For me, the South Seas interlude (with the luminous Gene Tierney and John Carradine as Power's pearl diving buddy) is the film's highlight. Movies back then really knew how to pack a ton of story into a short running time, didn't they?

Tyrone Power might have been getting tired of all these swashbuckler-type parts, but you're right, he was so very good in them. I for one am very glad he made so many.

Kevin Deany said...

Jeff, I know what you mean. The day before I watched SON OF FURY, I went to see DIVERGENT, for me a particularly dopey piece of dystopian science fiction. It ran close to two-and-a-half hours but the main plot didn't seem to kick in until the two hour mark.

Contrast that with SON OF FURY which packs in an amazing amount of story in 98 minutes. And some kids say older movies are too slow? Not hardly.

Hamlette said...

John Carradine as a good guy? Awesome! I need to track this down post-haste.

You said, "Tyrone Power had that rare talent to wear period clothing and making it look completely natural." I love that! You're so right -- he can really inhabit any era, right down to their clothes. I hadn't really noticed that before, but now that I think of it, yes and yes and yes.

Great review!