I can see how H. Rider Haggard’s novel She might be difficult to adapt to film; the book is half description of scenery and ruined civilizations and half conversation with the mysterious She. But that has not daunted filmmakers. Beginning in 1899 with Georges Méliès, there seems to have been nearly ten film adaptations, many from the silent era. But the most famous are the 1965 version by Hammer Film Productions with Ursula Andress (and Peter Cushing and Christoper Lee) and the 1935 version, produced by Merian C. Cooper (creator of King Kong).
Apparently there are actually four books that comprise the Ayesha Series (though I would not have the fortitude to read three more books featuring the supremely narcissistic and irritating Ayesha), but apparently Merian C. Cooper’s film version draws on elements from all four books, which explains why the movie is rather hit and miss about following the book (though admittedly most movies are rather hit and miss about following books).
Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott) is the American nephew of scientist John Vincey (Samuel S. Hinds), who calls him to England to entrust him with a mission. John Vincey is dying, but he wants Leo to travel with his friend, Horace Holly (Nigel Bruce), to the Arctic (changed from Africa) to search for a flame that gives eternal life, which was supposedly found in the fifteen hundreds by their ancestor, who never returned (but his wife did).
Leo and Holly set out, managing to pick up a woman along the way (as heroes usually do). Tanya (Helen Mack) is the daughter of the man they hire to lead them, but when he dies, she carries on with them. She also falls rather seriously in love with Leo, but before their romance can progress, they arrive at the lost civilization of Kor. First they must make it through the cave, which is inhabited by cannibalistic natives (lead by Noble Johnson, who played the native chief in King Kong). Once through the cave, they arrive at a palace (Art Deco is how it is usually described) and meet She (Helen Gahagan), who is instantly convinced that Leo is her long lost reincarnated love (who was John Vincey from the fifteen hundreds, who she killed when he didn’t return her love). But Tanya does not let Leo go without a fight. And She’s minister, Billali (Gustav von Seyffertitz), doesn’t seem exactly pleased that She has a new love interest, either.
The core plot of She is a pretty irresistible one that catches the imagination, hence all the film adaptations, not to mention the extreme popularity of the novel through the century, but this film never quite seems to go anywhere. Perhaps it’s because I’m comparing it with Merian C. Cooper’s earlier hit, King Kong. In She, there is none of that inevitable buildup to a thrilling finish. There is still a lot of talk. There is a ceremonial dance that looks like it’s choreographed by a Busby Berkeley wannabe (and looks like they raided props used for Egyptian, Japanese and Indian films), there is a small chase at the end, a few moments of peril. Mostly, it is She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed trying to convince Leo that he is her lover returned to her. He doesn’t seem convinced, but he is attracted by her promise of immortality.
Immortality is a change from the book, where the flame only gives long life. Another significant difference is the nature of She. In the book, all she has to do is show her face and men turn into her unwilling, stuttering lovesick slaves. No one can resist her beauty and it’s only by an apparent fluke that she dies. In the movie, it’s the reverse. She is supposed to be beautiful, but she never really has a chance. She’s desperate to win Leo’s love, but she cannot command it. All she has to offer him is immortality. Tanya, the spunky one, ultimately wins easily.
It’s quite fun to see Nigel Bruce in a relatively capable role as the scientist Holly. The dialogue is pretty stiff, which you can sometimes get away with if the action is exciting enough or sufficiently grand, but it stands out more in this film. Nigel Bruce seems to come out the best, though. He’s the least stiff and least theatrical of the bunch. Though I had to admire Tanya’s pluck.
She was the only movie Helen Gahagan made (who was married to Melvyn Douglas). She was a Broadway star who also sang some opera, but the lackluster success of She seems to have ended her career. She’s not bad at all in her role. She brings a good deal of desperation to the character – you feel for her because you know she’s going to lose (unlike in the book, where there was no reason for her to lose). But perhaps she made no more movies because she was more interested in politics. She entered politics in the 1940s, served as a senator for California and popularized the designation of “Tricky Dick” for Richard Nixon.