Prestige (1931) Poster


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Kudos for the director
jaykay-1023 February 2002
Like virtually all films of its era that deal with Africa, the Middle East and the Far East, this one is totally matter-of-fact about the impact of colonialism on the affected nations and their people, and instead concentrates on the hardships suffered by Europeans assigned there. Melvyn Douglas, ordered to command a penal colony in French Indo-China, falls victim to heat, boredom, loneliness; so severe is his decline into alcoholism and despair that not even the arrival of his beloved, Ann Harding, is able to pull him out of it for long.

The prisoners would gladly trade his problems for their own. What lifts this melodrama out of the realm of the ordinary is the outstanding work of director Tay Garnett, particularly his use of a very mobile camera and the construction of perhaps a dozen long tracking shots that are stunning to behold. It is always notable when conventional material is transformed into on-screen excellence by the talent behind the camera, as well as in front of it. Here is a prime example.
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Somebody got Tay Garnett a crane and a dolly for Christmas
marcslope16 October 2008
The mostly B director, who made a lot of exotic back-lot adventures (his amusing memoir is called "Light Up Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights"), is blessed with the most mobile camera 1931 could offer in this impressively atmospheric melodrama, set mainly in an Indochine penal colony, where bride Ann Harding has come to help commanding officer Melvyn Douglas. Garnett and his DP roam all over the place, with some tracking shots that are quite amazing for their time--one, taking Harding and Adolphe Menjou from a hotel lobby to a train station, lasts a couple of minutes and takes in every word of dialog, and is perfectly framed. Some of the tracking isn't to any particular purpose, but it's a lesson in how versatile the sound camera had gotten in just two years (compare this to anything from 1929). The premise is offensively racist and may have raised some eyebrows even in its day: As Harding's stiff-upper-lip father tells her, in so many words, she and Douglas are fighting for the white man's prestige and dignity, by proving their ability to lord it over all other races. But if you can put up with that, you get a sweaty, compelling little picture with some show-stopping set pieces. Harding is, as always, womanly and unforced, with an innate calm, and Douglas, replacing Robert Williams, who died unexpectedly, convincingly goes through some awful mood swings. It's very well and innovatively shot on what may be an RKO back lot but sure looks like the real thing. The climax strains credibility, and Garnett pushes harder for atmosphere than he absolutely has to, but it's interesting throughout and quite different from much of the assembly-line studio product of the day.
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"Tracking" through the jungle
goblinhairedguy3 May 2005
This is RKO's entry in the "White Man's Grave" genre. Being an Ann Harding (queen of the women's picture) vehicle, it lacks the ineffable luridness of most early Hollywood jungle melodramas (White Woman, Red Dust, Panama Flo, etc.). Instead, it generally takes the high road in delineating a French colonial officer's descent into despondency and alcoholism in a sweaty Southeast Asian outpost. Enough politically-incorrect dialog and flouting of accepted morals does creep into the picture to place it in the pre-code realm, but much less than one might expect.

Although long-forgotten, the film definitely has many points to recommend it. The ever-reliable Hollywood helmsman Tay Garnett here evinces a startling obsession with keeping the camera moving -- it's just one complex tracking shot after another, with several long pans thrown in. When the camera does remain static, it's often to emphasize a dramatic moment, and quite effectively so.

Also, long before the infusion of liberal ideals into Hollywood's view of third-world relations, this picture's take is surprisingly modern. The protagonists learn their lesson in dignity from a remarkably loyal and noble native servant (played by the great thespian Clarence Muse). At the same time, the clearly delineated incompatibility between the French and the natives shows the futility of the "white man's burden" philosophy.
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Lost gem worth seeing, Melvyn Douglas...
MarieGabrielle7 April 2011
Is very good as Verlaine, military man assigned to field outpost in Saigon circa 1900's. His wife, Therese Verlaine is portrayed by Ann Harding, whose father is in charge of her husband's assignments.

When she first embarks to join her husband, her father issues the speech as quoted on title page. ..."It is their job to uphold higher standards to restore rise up to the upbringing and status of the white man"... . This he says is "prestige" (which today is rather out of context, the word prestige in America has been decimated to a materialistic meaning and has nothing to do with honor or pride in today's America. Sadly, I might add.

However, it is an interesting antiquated viewpoint. Verlaine is in charge of a rather ramshackle bamboo prison in the third world country then known as, Annam (later North and South Vietnam). Captain Verlaine tries to rule with an iron fist at first as we see a prisoner is executed for a petty crime in the most brutal fashion. There is some sort of gallows device made of bamboo. The scene is very effective and believable.

Then Captain Remy Baudoin arrives as he is friends with Therese and wants to see if she is surviving the jungle and heat. He somewhat cheers her up, to which Verlaine becomes drunk, jealous of his wife's friendship and angry at his overall job requirements. Douglas is believable here, while very young and unless most of us check the credits we would not be sure this was him.

The natives eventually revolt, as Therese first visits the prison and is shocked at the conditions. She is disturbed that her husband maintains such a facility, for native peoples whose primary crime is poverty. They eventually revolt but succumb in the end, Captain Verlaine has restored order.

While the story is a bit unreal at times, the photography (mostly filmed in Venice, FL) is intriguing and realistic, we can feel the heat and what it must be like to live in a bamboo hut in 104 degree, humid temperatures.

Well worth seeing for the era, the dialog and Douglas in an early dramatic role. 9/10.
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jotix10020 September 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Therese Des Flos, a beautiful young woman, is in love with Andre Verlaine, a captain in the army. She is also pursued by another officer, Remy Baudain. When Andre is assigned to a post in Indochina, Therese's world goes to pieces. Andre has not married her because of his impending stint, but Therese convinces her father, who is in charge of this division, to let her follow Andre.

Things aren't exactly easy for Andre, who falls into a despair by the heat and perhaps his boredom at this forsaken place. He doesn't endear himself to the native troops he commands to guard the prisoners at the lock up. When Therese arrives, she is horrified to see the change in Andre, but they go ahead with the plans to marry. Remy, who has come to the compound, is also completely surprised by what's going on and asks Therese to go back to Saigon with him. As she is about to leave, she discovers that Remy has been killed. Everything points to Nham. Ultimately, Andre gets some of his all self back when he is wounded and he and Therese come to the realization they belong to one another.

"Prestige" is a curiosity film directed by Tay Garnett, a man who always delivered. This RKO-Pathe picture belongs to an era when stories such as this one had no interest in being politically correct, as shown by Andre's attitude toward the natives, who he seems to hate. Even his loyalty toward his servant is put to a test where he shows no compassion either. The film portrays the native men in silly costumes, and even Nahm is black, something that might have been quite a shock for the Indochina of those years. The costume department decided to dress the women in Jantzen swimwear instead of the traditional robes.

Ann Harding is appealing as Therese. Adolph Menjou also has some good moments. We didn't care much for the Andre of Melvyn Douglas, but this is only our opinion. Rollo Boyd, Ian McLaren and the great Clarence Muse are seen in key roles.

"Prestige" is a film to watch by fans of Tay Garnett.
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About as Vietnamese as Enchiladas!
MartinHafer13 April 2013
Melvyn Douglas and Ann Harding star in this odd little outing. I say odd because it's supposed to take place mostly in Vietnam at Lao Bảo Prison. But, it makes you wonder why some of the 'natives' are black---such as Clarence Muse! I wonder if folks back in the 1930s had no conception of what Southeast Asians looked like or if the studio was just being extremely sloppy. The film is also odd because it was filmed about 20 minutes from my house--in Venice, Florida. Considering all the palm trees, it probably was a pretty good substitute for going overseas for the filming.

The film begins in France. A commandant of an overseas French penal colony is being court martialed and Douglas is one of the judges. Ironically, after finding this man derelict in his duties, Douglas himself is sent on a similar assignment to run a prison along the Mekong River. This means his fiancée will have to eventually join him--and Harding's character arrives more than a year later. By then, her sweetie has degenerated significantly--showing serious signs of mental illness and alcoholism. Apparently he is NOT adjusting well to this life. What's next? See the film.

"Prestige" suffers mostly because the acting is a bit too florid--with Douglas showing a lot of googly eyes and looking pretty goofy. In addition, you are expected to like the French but can't help but see them as interlopers--and the characters aren't all that likable either. And, oddly, despite the crazed performance, the film is often a bit dull. Not a terrible movie---but also not a particularly good one, either.
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Good Cast Buoys B-Film
adamshl5 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Five years after the advent of the sound era, Tay Garnett directed this B-film. It's about heat getting to a French officer after his wife joins him as he heads a remote jungle penal colony.

There's nothing special about this, except for an uncommonly fine cast. Melvyn Douglas, selected to replace a deceased actor, is a genuine talent who brought power and authority to everything he did. Whether heavy drama or light comedy, Douglas always shines.

Ann Harding, looking old for her young years, is quite adequate as the wife and Adolphe Menjou is his usual solid self. Director Garnett's deliberate pacing and camera work seem rather self conscious, yet it's clear Tay's trying to make a good film.

Unfortunately, the script lets everyone down a bit, and the ending looks like the writers didn't exactly know what to do. All in all, a fair film, peopled with actors whose work is worth watching.
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when racism was acceptable
mukava9919 November 2006
For those interested in prevailing (or at least socially acceptable) American attitudes toward Third World colonial territories and non-white races in 1932, this film is a potent educational tool. Melvyn Douglas plays a French army officer who is assigned to supervise a prison camp in the boonies of Indochina, the inmates of which seem to spend half their time drinking and gambling and the other half lying on their backs in a barracks with their feet manacled. Douglas, whose character disintegrates into alcoholism from the relentless heat, humidity, isolation and boredom of his post, leaps from one emotional state to the next; he hits each note with power and gusto, but there is no gradation between the notes, giving his behavior an unstable, almost schizophrenic effect; one wonders if this was the fault of the script, the director, the editor or Douglas himself. Ann Harding as the sweetheart who follows him to Indochina and Adolphe Menjou as a rival French officer deliver their standard performances. Director Tay Garnett indulges in frequent tracking shots and almost constant dollying and wobbling around furniture, doorways, mirrors or whatever is available. Yet somehow the film has a sluggish feel. The soundtrack of the print I saw on TCM has deteriorated so that some dialogue exchanges are difficult to understand.

Early on Ian MacLaren as Harding's father (also an army officer) explains to her that the most important thing to remember while in Indochina is the "prestige" of the white race. This concept echoes throughout the film as Harding repeatedly reminds Douglas to keep his head up, i.e., physically embody his racial prestige. Indochina itself, as represented on what must be the RKO-Pathe back lot, is populated mostly by not only Asians but also by other non-white races. Douglas's personal servant (Clarence Muse) is black. Perhaps the French, for their own reasons, shuffled their non-white subjects from one colony to another or the filmmakers ran out of Asian extras and thought any other non-Caucasians would do as "natives." For tropical atmosphere, there is the inevitable brief shot of crocodiles plopping into a river as well as a shot of a swarm of ants on a table where Harding has left an open box of chocolates (why the candy hadn't melted to syrup in the umpteen hours/days she has been traveling upriver in the tropics is not explained). Toward the end, during a mutiny, Douglas manages to intimidate an armed, seething mob by holding his head up, removing his gun and marching through them, swiping various menacing individuals on the face with his whip, causing them to draw back. For some reason never made clear, there are repeated shots of natives operating a huge water wheel; it's picturesque. All of the characters except Harding and Menjou are seen sweating profusely in every shot. Strange, because these two actors are the most overdressed for the climate.
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Depressing Film
whpratt123 October 2008
This 1931 film held my interest for about 30 minutes into the film which was filmed on location in Venice, Florida instead of a Indochinese jungle location. Lt./Capt. Andre Verlaine, (Melvyn Douglas) intends to marry a woman he is very much in love with and is given news that he is going to be assigned to a penal colony and there is no place for a woman to live. The woman is Therese Du Flos Verlaine, (Ann Harding) who is very upset about this assignment by the British Army. However, Capt. Remy Boudoin, (Adolphe Menjou) is very interested in Therese and is the man sending Andre to this penal colony to separate him from his love and seek her attention for himself. This story drags on with lots of boozing by Andre and he begins to lose respect from his fellow soldiers who are all natives. If you like Ann Harding and Melvyn Douglas, this is the film for you.
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This was Vietnam?
blanche-218 June 2015
I think what one reviewer said is true - people in North America in those days had not a clue what Vietnamese looked like, as many in the penal colony shown in "Prestige" are black.

This film has to do with colonialism, and the power or prestige, if you will, of the white man. It was filmed in Florida; somehow Hollywood often made you believe their sets or U.S. locations were Europe or the Tropics or the jungle.

Prestige is not in great shape and some of it was difficult to understand. Melvyn Douglas is a French officer in the army, assigned to oversee a penal colony in Indochina.

Capt. Andre Verlaine (Douglas) is engaged to marry the lovely Therese Du Flos (Ann Harding), but when he finds out where he's going, the marriage is put off. She has another man interested -- Remy (Adolphe Menjou). After a while, though, Therese talks her father (Ian McLaren), a Colonel, into letting her join Andre.

Unfortunately for her, Andre is a bit like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. He gets where he's going and turns into a whack job almost immediately. When Therese arrives, he's passed out on the floor from booze. He's been driven crazy by the heat, the bugs, the humidity, and the isolation.

He and Therese marry and he makes an attempt at straightening himself out, and Therese tries to adapt to the country. Meanwhile, Andre is trying to get a transfer.

When Remy arrives and informs Andre that he has to stay at the post indefinitely, he snaps and becomes jealous of Remy and Therese, believing she wants to be with him.

Tay Garnett, who directed, was trying out some new camera work in this film, doing tracking shots and using a lot of dolly shots. Originally in films, the camera couldn't be moved - I think many directors were experimenting with this new freedom.

I did see some criticism of the acting. Let me say it was very 1930s. Melvin Douglas had many mood changes, and they were very dramatic ones No matter what his instinct told him -- and I feel he was one of the greatest actors ever -- the style in those days was way, way over the top as compared to now.

If he came off as unstable and almost like a multiple personality, it's because, let's face it, the character probably was just that. Not a well man by any stretch. Douglas had so few opportunities to do anything with a range in it until his older years, it was kind of nice to see him do this.

Odd movie, depressing in spots, its point of view strange, but it's a good study of what colonialism was like.
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What a drag it is being imperialist
ScenicRoute12 September 2011
Yes the movie is full of racists, has racist language but I wouldn't call the movie itself racist - the whites are shown no mercy. This movie is worth seeing for its realism, and the way it ends. No spoilers here, but I found the ending eminently satisfying, unlike other reviewers. And Ann Hardy is such a gem - so much better than the stars who held the screen for longer than she (Crawford, Davis etc). Adolph Menjou is a perfect snake. Melvin Douglas captures arrogance - and its consequences perfectly - and the "natives" are brilliant in their forceful presence.

Another pre-code movie that is startling contemporary (except for the "racist premise") in its depiction of how the relationship between a man and a woman can be impacted by events beyond their control, especially if they ignore their environment.
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The "Prestige" of the White Man
LeonLouisRicci7 October 2014
"Race" has become a Hot Topic in the Media brought to the Forefront by the Election of the First Black President of the United States. Of Course the Scourge of Bigotry is Still Around, but We sure have Come Along Way.

Colonial Rule in South East Asia is On Display in this Pre-Code Film and is Considered Honorable, Patriotic, and the Movie Makes it Clear that to Uphold the "Prestige" of the White Man is a Noble and Proud Thing, and the Darker Races are Less than Human.

Director Tay Garnett Makes All of this "Artistic" with a Fluid Camera. Like a Kid with a New Toy, He uses the, Recently Released from its Immobility, Camera to Dolly Continuously and it Adds a New Dimension to the Art of Cinema and Considering the Cumbersome Technical Tools of the Time, it is Rather an Amazing Display of Daring.

Overly Empathetic Viewers will Cringe and May have a Tough Time Sitting through the Ethnocentricities of the Film. There is Torture, Executions, and Generally the Locals are Treated like Animals. There's Some Creepy Stuff here and it Reminds of "Island of Lost Souls" (1933) with its Third Act as the Natives become Restless and are Out for Revenge.

The Power, or "Prestige" if You will, of the White Man is Brought Home with Melvyn Douglas Beating Off a Horde of Haughty Types with Nothing More than a Belt and a Dirty Look.

The Movie is So Much a Sign of its Time and is Recommended for a Sweaty and Sometimes Depressing Peak at Attitudes of the Day through the Adventurous Setting Worlds Away from the Homeland, but Not Really.
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