Scarlet Dawn: An Exercise in Narcissism and Escapism

For the Hot & Bothered blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Movie Screen and CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch, I chose a lesser known film called Scarlet Dawn, starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Nancy Carroll.

In 1932, as the Great Depression raged on, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., was looking for an escape from financial and personal struggles that were beginning to creep up on him. At seemingly just the right time, he was offered the the role of Baron Nikita Krasnoff in Scarlet Dawn, a sultry tale of betrayal and romance set during the Russian Revolution. The film served as the perfect escape for Fairbanks when he needed one most.

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Nancy Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in “Scarlet Dawn.” (Source: x)

The story is rather simple: a love story between two unlikely lovers set in a tumultuous landscape. Baron Nikita Krasnoff (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is part of the Russian army and must escape Russia as the revolution escalates. He escapes by the seat of his pants and only with the help of his loyal servant, Tanyusha (Nancy Carroll). Much to the Baron’s surprise, Tanyusha insists on leaving Russia with him despite her unwillingness to give into his sexual advances. He tries to brush her off by insisting that the revolution is for people like her, people of her class. However, being his servant is all she knows and she has no intentions of giving him up. It is evident that deep down she feels a great love for him but is cautious of acting upon it. The Baron accepts this and leaves behind his lover, Vera Zimina (Lilyan Tashman), and makes his way to Constantinople with Tanyusha by his side.

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(Source: x)

He is relentless in his pursuit of Tanyusha who eventually gives in to his sexual prowess and the two marry. The sexual tension in this film is strong.  For awhile, all is well between the lovers who live in a meager flat and must work laborious jobs to make ends meet. The Baron takes a job as a dishwasher and eventually works his way up to being busboy but he absolutely hates the job. Heaven forbid such a distinguished man should have to serve others! For Tanyusha, her life in Constantinople differs very little from her life in Russia. She still takes care of the Baron as if she were still his servant rather than his wife and her job as a floor scrubber at the city hospital is not unfamiliar to her. But the Baron continues to grow more and more restless.

Eventually trouble comes a-knockin’ when the Baron’s former lover Vera shows up in Constantinople. She seduces him back to the lifestyle of the rich and the famous. In a heartbreaking scene, he tells Tanyusha that he must leave to make better money and promises to send her money every month. Tanyusha knows what is going on beneath the surface but submissively accepts his departure by helping him pack and letting him go. For a brief moment, the Baron stops on the steps outside their flat and calls her name as if he’s changed his mind but at that very moment, she faints. He leaves looking a bit disheartened that she did not come running or call back to him.

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Lilyan Tashman as Vera Zimina. (Source: x)

ScreenshotfromScarletDAwnThe Baron returns to his former lifestyle and lover until he learns that all unemployed Russians are to be deported and sent back to Russia. He immediately thinks of Tanyusha and realizes that it was a great mistake to ever leave her for such a superficial existence. He rushes back to Tanyusha only to find that she is no longer there and has a condition (presumably she’s pregnant). In the final scene, the Baron finds her in a crowd of Russians boarding trains to be sent back to Russia. He takes her into his arms, kissing her all over, then swoops her up into his arms and carries her to the train. It’s a beautiful but heartbreaking scene as the Baron discovers the true meaning of love just as they are being forced to return to an uncertain future in Russia.

Fairbanks recalled the film as being an escape from real-life problems that were plaguing him and tearing down his ego. He later wrote, “I enjoyed the picture as an exercise in narcissism – and escapism.”1 By 1932, Warner Bros. was feeling the effects of the Great Depression. The studio had recently cut the salaries of actors and other contract workers by 50%. As Fairbanks later wrote, the reduction was pretty stiff. “There was still no such thing as the dole or unemployment insurance and the film community suddenly found out what the rest of the country had painfully known for sometime: depression plagued the world.”2 And while Fairbanks and then wife, Joan Crawford, were certainly doing well enough, financial obligations to family and a lack of work was taking its toll on the young couple. Furthermore, Crawford was being paid more than Fairbanks and as a man of his time, he struggled internally over his inability to provide for his wife. Making matters even worse, Fairbanks was forced to ask his father for a loan of $1,000, an act that shamed him until he was able to repay the loan four years later. This toxic mixture of real life issues drove Fairbanks’ portrayal of Baron Nikita Krasnoff. The Baron oozes with sex and has a chauvinistic aggression that gives him the proper balance of sexy but dangerous. The role most certainly gave a boost to his faltering ego.

Fairbanks also used the role to escape by hiding behind the character. Rather than playing the Baron with his own unique style, Fairbanks borrowed heavily from John Gilbert in The Merry Widow. He attempted to emulate his mannerisms and even shaved the sides of his head to look like Gilbert. Fairbanks stated, “A psychologist might have suggested I was hiding myself and my anxieties in the guise of a shadow-play character I admired.”3 Either way, he pulled it off and played the Baron with style and made the character believable.

Like I said before, the entire film exudes sex which really is one of the most appealing aspects of the film. Fairbanks, Jr., plays the part of an aggressive seducer exceedingly well and Nancy Carroll’s submissive, sweet nature as Tanyusha provides a perfect counterpart to the Baron. And even though she appears weak against his power, it is she that softens his heart and helps him discover true love. While the story is not complex, it is sweet and  leaves you wishing the best for the lovers despite their iffy circumstances. Beyond the acting, one of the outstanding features of this film is the direction by William Dieterle. It is beautifully photographed and has several marvelous camera shots such as one in which the Baron gazes lovingly at Tashyuna as she undresses behind a sheer curtain (see photo above). Dieterle’s creative use of shadows throughout the film stands out as well. Overall, Scarlet Dawn is an enjoyable film that will keep you riveted from start to finish. The performances of Fairbanks and Carroll and the direction of Dieterle is enough to make this movie worth the watch.

 

***This piece was written for the Hot & Bothered: The Films of 1932 blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch.

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Sources:

  1. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. The Salad Days: An Autobiography (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 177.
  2. Ibid, 176.
  3. Ibid, 177.
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5 thoughts on “Scarlet Dawn: An Exercise in Narcissism and Escapism

    • Thanks so much for reading and I am happy that you’ve learned of a new film! Sadly, the only way to watch it is on VHS or possibly online somewhere. It was part of the Forbidden Hollywood series on video but hasn’t made it onto the DVD series. I wish it would be released on DVD!

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