When I was preparing to watch “Viva Villa,” I was bracing myself for Wallace Beery playing the title hero, Pancho Villa.
I’m not sure anyone, when thinking of the Mexican revolutionary, would immediately say, “Oh, Wallace Beery would be perfect for that.”
Well, my apologies to the late Mr. Beery, because I thought he was wonderful in the role. In fact, I would dare say it was one of his best performances. Perhaps this is because he surprised me so.
As for the rest of the film, I must admit that it didn’t hold my attention as strongly as it should have. This biography, released by MGM in 1934, has the feel of something important, but it’s not always compelling. It has that scope of an epic, and that may be attributed to producer David O. Selznick. You can see that sweep of storytelling that Selznick was fond of, the narrative style that Selznick would employ so well with the release of “Gone With the Wind” five years later.
It also has that stereotypical “cast of thousands” look to several of the scenes, although I was struck by how the film managed to intersperse the battle and crowd scenes with more intimate set-ups of smaller groups in single-room settings. Famed cinematographer James Wong Howe, known for his deep focus work later in his career, was just starting to work on this look (based upon existing technology at the time), and he filmed all close-ups with wide-angle lenses.
I just wish the story had more to engage me. The screenplay by Ben Hecht fictionalizes Villa and turns him into a folk hero, skipping over anything in his life that would turn the audience against him. It starts with young Villa killing a man in revenge for his father being killed. The rest of the screenplay follows a familiar cycle – Pancho getting mad, fighting, loving, being attacked, fighting again, loving, being attacked. Perhaps watching it all these years later, we can see the Hollywood machine working predictably on this film, although in 1934 it was one of a rash of prestige biographies, like “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” “Cleopatra,” “Queen Christina” and “House of Rothschild.”
But “Viva Villa” does have Beery. Big loveable Beery who was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars at this point. He really sinks his teeth into the role of Pancho Villa, bringing strength to the title character while cutting back on his trademark blustery persona. He receives good support from the rest of the cast, including Fay Wray and Stuart Erwin.
“Viva Villa” was an Oscar nominee for best picture in 1934, a year that saw 12 nominees in that category. Not for Beery, though, as the lead acting categories saw only three nominees. Regardless, if you’re a Beery fan, then definitely check out “Viva Villa.”