Sep 10, 2014

On DVD: Gary Cooper in The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938)

Welcome to 13th century China, Samuel Goldwyn-style. There's a Chinese princess played by Norwegian-American Sigrid Gurie, Kublai Khan is Philadelphia-born George Barbier and the devious emperor's advisor is Brit-to-the-bone Basil Rathbone. To be fair, there are a wide array of Asian faces among the extras and supporting cast.

With syrupy-strings alternating with jauntily "Asian" music and by-the-numbers romance and intrigue, this is glossy Hollywood product all the way, with a few surprise punches, and it's now available in a clean, sharp print from Warner Archive.

Though the Goldwyn take on the adventures of the first European to explore China is not the strongest work of its talented cast, it's a well-crafted flick, dutifully presenting the best traits of all involved.

Uncomfortably cast as Polo, Gary Cooper gamely alternates between his gentle romantic and sturdy action personas, while Rathbone is magnetic and reliably evil. In her screen debut, Gurie's take on an Asian princess is to generally play her as if she is a bit slow, but she is lovely in an otherworldly way. Alan Hale is especially amusing as a barbarian more charismatic than threatening. In an early bit role as a maid, Lana Turner already exudes budding star power in her towering dark wig.

Polo unrolls in a pleasantly efficient way. The high-spirited explorer discovers spaghetti and gunpowder, gets moony over the princess and bunks with barbarians. In an especially thrilling final sequence he even storms the castle.

The music sparkles, the costumes are impeccable and each scene is set with a perfect balance of light and shadow. There's also a tinge of darkness that gives the gloss a much needed-edge, such as the vultures threatening to feast on a chained princess, or the pit of lions that hungrily waits for human flesh.

Though a box office bust on original release, it's still a fun diversion, best suited to fans of its stars or devotees of carefully-calibrated classic Hollywood tales, though the exciting action scenes do widen its appeal.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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