THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (United Artists/Reliance, 1934), directed by Rowland V. Lee, from the immortal novel by Alexandre Dumas, and personally supervised by Edward Small, capitalized on the current trend of literary works adapted to the motion picture screen. It stars British import Robert Donat, making his Hollywood debut, in fact, his only one as a leading performer on U.S. soil. He would spend the duration of his career in British-made productions, thus, later winning an Academy Award as best actor in another memorable performance in GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (MGM, 1939) opposite Greer Garson.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with either the book or the motion picture(s), here is a brief summary: The story, which begins in 1815, finds Edmund Dantes (Robert Donat) a young sailor on a French ship who has honored the dying request of his captain, LeClere (William Farnum), to carry a private letter to Napoleon on Elba. While ashore, he meets with Mercedes De Rosas (Elissa Landi), the woman he loves. Because Fernand (Sidney Blackner) loves Mercedes, he, along with others in his scheme, succeed to have Dantes arrested for carrying a secret letter and for this reason, unjustly imprisoned in the Château d'If. While in prison, Dantes is treated harshly and cruely by the guards, and Mercedes, although still in love with Dantes, finds herself marrying Fernand, later to bear him a son. Later, Dantes encounters Abbe Faria (O.P. Heggie), an old man imprisoned there for many years who spends his free time cutting his way through prison walls and digging a tunnel that would someday get him through to freedom. Over the years, Abbe Faria educates his friend Dantes by showing him a chart of the location of fabulous treasure on the island of Monte Cristo. While digging through the tunnel, there is a cave-in that crushes Abbe Faria's ribs, later the cause of his death. As the guards prepare to take the old man's body away, Dante switches places with the deceased, and hides himself in the burial sack. After being thrown into the ocean, Dantes breaks himself free.He is then rescued and picked up by Captain Camp (Mitchell Lewis), who makes him part of his crew. After shaving off his long beard, Dante locates the island of Monte Cristo and he goes ashore to possess the treasure, making him a very rich man. He then returns to France in the guise of The Count of Monte Cristo to then avenge his three enemies, Fernand, Raymond DeVillefort (Louis Calhern) and Danglars (Raymond Walburn), the men who had him unjustly sent to prison where he stayed for twenty years. How Dantes achieves his vengeance adds to the suspense and pleasure of the avid "revenge is sweet" viewer.
Also seen in the supporting cast are Georgia Caine as Madame De Rosas; Luis ALberni as Jacopo; Clarence Muse as the muted Ali; Douglas Walton as Albert De Mondego; Juliette Compton and Lionel Bellmore, among others. The memorable musical score by Alfred Newman would be repeated in latter films, notably the "Ave Maria" underscoring portion used for LES MISERABLES (20th Century, 1935) starring Fredric March.
Hailed by many as the very best and most memorable screen adaptation to the Dumas novel, this obviously goes without question. Aside from it being faithful to the book, the movie itself holds interest throughout, and Robert Donat's performance, ranks one of his best in his long but occasional screen career. Had this movie been produced a few years later, chances are that the Dantes character would have been played by the likes of future swashbuckling kings as Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power, or even Douglas Fairbanks Jr., for example, but although Donat's Edmund Dantes is one of the best ever to be recaptured on film, asthma and ill heath would prevent him from performing similar duties in future Hollywood swashbuckling adventures.
Unfortunately, film prints to THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO that have circulated on television and video since the early 1980s was the abridged 97 minute version, eliminating about 20 minutes worth of footage. If one were to locate a rare video copy either at a local library or a video store, chances are they would acquire a 1990s VHS format from Video Treasures, also being a shorter and "colorized" copy. While it's hard indicate what's been actually edited, the cuts are obvious, particularly through sudden blackouts during the plot followed by fade-ins to the middle of scenes that play like reading a middle of a chapter of a book without a new beginning. Also missing from those VHS copies is the cast of actors and their roles, something that existed on TV prints prior to 1980. Restoration to the film's original length (114 minutes) and crisp black and white photography finally turned up on Turner Classic Movies on July 6, 2008.
The success of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO spawned sequels "in name only" in later years, including THE SON OF MONTE CRISTO (United Artists, 1940); THE RETURN OF MONTE CRISTO (Columbia, 1946), both featuring Louis Hayward as a descendant of Edmund Dantes; among others, as well as countless remakes and imitations, but this 1934 version still should hold interest today. Rarely seen in recent years, it did have a "colorized" television presentation on the Disney Channel in the early 1990s as part of its "Best of Hollywood" program, but like the Video Treasures copy, was not the complete version.
Regardless of print availability, the 1934 first sound version to THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO remains an adventure classic from the "golden age of Hollywood" that has stood the test of time. (***1/2)