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: http://eves-reel-life.blogspot.com/2014/03/celebrating-tyrone-powers-100th-birthday.html.
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.)