Juárez (1939)

Juárez (1939)

Synopsis:

In 1864, Napoleon III (Claude Rains, Casablanca) of France seizes control of Mexico and establishes a monarchy with the help of puppet leader Archduke Maximilian of Austria (Brian Aherne, Merrily We Live) and his wife Carlota (Bette Davis). Mexico’s elected president, Benito Juárez (Paul Muni, Bordertown), goes into hiding, but he soon organizes his sympathizers and mounts a campaign to win the country back.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Democracy! Government of the cattle, by the cattle, for the cattle!”

This is essentially two movies in one. In fact, the movie was based on two sources: Bertita Harding’s 1934 book The Phantom Crown (the film’s original title), about Emperor Maximilian and his wife, and Franz Werfel’s stage play Juárez and Maximilian.

Directed by William Dieterle (Portrait of Jennie) from a screenplay by Aeneas MacKenzie, Wolfgang Reinhardt and John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Juárez goes back and forth between Maximilian’s attempts to rule the country and Juárez’s struggles to regain power. This kind of narrative device requires fine balance. You don’t want one story to overshadow the other. You also want the interaction between the two stories to create sparks — I thought that the ambitious stunt worked exceedingly well.

Bette Davis and Brian Aherne star in section number one, while Paul Muni dominates the other section of the movie. In her autobiography The Lonely Life, Davis accused Muni of trying to upset the film’s fine balance by demanding cuts that favored his section of the movie. I’m not sure I believe that because the Davis-Aherne section has as much screen time as Muni’s — it wouldn’t have worked any other way.

All actors are at the top of their games here. It is true that Muni’s once celebrated “method acting” hasn’t aged well. Not as well as Bogart’s or Cagney’s less naturalistic styles anyhow. But I do like him and I thought he did a very good job as the beloved Mexican leader (Perc Westmore’s meticulous make up helps a great deal). Aherne’s Oscar-nominated performance is even better, though. He beautifully brings to life the character of Maximilian — it’s probably Aherne’s very best screen performance.

Claude Rains almost steals the show as Emperor Napoleon III. He’s unforgettable as the cunning, manipulative French monarch. Rains has an electrifying confrontation with Davis near the end of the movie — it’s by far my favorite moment in the entire film. The impressive cast also includes Gale Sondergaard (The Letter) as Empress Eugenie and  John Garfield (Body and Soul) as Porfirio Diaz. Also with Donald Crisp (How Green is My Valley) as Marechal Bazaine, Gilbert Roland (The Bad and the Beautiful) as Col. Miguel Lopez, Henry O’Neill (Anchors Aweigh) as General Miguel Miramon and Harry Davenport (Gone with the Wind) as Dr. Samuel Basch.

Juárez (1939)

Juárez is a grand spectacle like only Hollywood knows how to make. Warner Bros., the film studio behind the movie, didn’t cut corners. It’s a lavishly-mounted super-production with the best talent that money can buy.

Juárez is a gorgeous-looking production. Tony Gaudio (The Life of Emile Zola and The Adventures of Robin Hood) is responsible for the fantastic camera work. The impressive sets were designed by Anton Grot (Anthony Adverse and Mildred Pierce). Orry-Kelly’s (Les Girls and Some Like it Hot) costumes are particularly ingenious. For example, Carlota’s wardrobe matches her state of mind: white for the early happy scenes, darker colors as her mind begins to deteriorate. Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Kings Row) wrote the truly majestic music score.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Like most Hollywood historical epics, Juárez has some gross inaccuracies. While the details are mostly the product of Hollywood minds, the movie does capture somewhat the essence of real historical events. Overall, Juárez is an underrated historical drama with a fantastic cast and top production values. B&W, 125 minutes, Not Rated.

2 responses to “Juárez (1939)

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