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teaser Kidnapped (1938)

Twentieth Century-Fox made certain to emphasize the source for their late-1930s adaptation Kidnapped (1938), starring young Freddie Bartholomew. The studio went so far as to depict author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) at the top of the credits, in an elaborate illustration depicting him lying in a bed while writing. Additionally, a large screen credit spelled out the source and a more accurate title: "Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped: The Adventures of David Balfour." All of this extra attention paid to Stevenson may have been something of an apology to the beloved author on the part of the studio, because in the hands of Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck and a team of seven writers, the screen story deletes many well-remembered scenes from the novel, has a large romantic subplot tacked on, and retains little in the way of action. While the resulting film is still an effective showcase for Bartholomew, critics of the day pulled out all of the stops in blasting the effort for its lack of faithfulness to Stevenson.

Synopsis: In 1747 in the Scottish Highland, young David Balfour (Freddie Bartholomew) attends class at Dominie Campbell's School for Boys in the rural countryside. Balfour is a supporter of the English rule, and feels that the Rebel leader (and local hero) Alan Breck (Warner Baxter) is a traitor; this puts him at odds (and in fights) with other local boys. At home, David learns from his guardians that his far-away father has died. Since his monetary support is gone, David is sent to Edinburgh to live with his rich uncle Ebenezer (Miles Mander). Along the road to Edinburgh, David witnesses the shooting of a tax collector in a village and soldiers chase the boy, thinking he was planted there as a diversion. David is saved from the soldiers by Breck; James (Ralph Forbes), one of the Rebels in his group, fired the fatal shot. Breck insists that James leave for America to escape, but he refuses to leave without his fiance, Jean MacDonald (Arleen Whelan). Alan, Jean and David travel through the countryside posing as a family to elude the Redcoats, and along the way David comes to admire Breck, and Breck and Jean fall in love. Eventually, David arrives at his uncle's spooky castle, where Ebenezer tries to kill David to win his estate. After a failed attempt, Ebenezer pays Captain Hoseason (Reginald Owen) to kidnap David and take him on his ship bound for the Carolinas. As a cabin boy on the ship, David eventually runs into Breck and Jean again.

The romantic plot that the screenwriters added to the story was geared toward newcomer Arleen Whelan, appearing in her first major film. She had been a manicurist at a Hollywood Boulevard salon, where she was discovered by director H. Bruce Humberstone, who suggested her to Zanuck. Whelan was signed to a 7-year contract at Fox in 1937 and within a year was deemed prepared to appear third-billed as the female lead in Kidnapped. She handles the task well, even surrounded by veteran ace supporting players (and scene-stealers) like C. Aubrey Smith, John Carradine, Nigel Bruce and H.B. Warner.

Otto Preminger was the director originally assigned to helm Kidnapped. It would have been only the third American feature for the Austria-born director, and certainly his first big-budget picture. Biographer Chris Fujiwara wrote (in The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, Faber & Faber, 2008) that in 1937 Fox signed the director to a prestigious new $1,250-a-week contract and that, "'my status was changing from an untried employee to a favorite,' Preminger noted; he began receiving regular invitations to Zanuck's dinners." In November 1937, Preminger was given the Kidnapped assignment, one of the biggest films on the studio's schedule. As quoted by Fujiwara, Preminger was wary of the property: "I considered myself a literate man but I hadn't even heard in Vienna about the writer or his book. The whole idea of Scotland, the Highlands, was something foreign to me - except I knew the Scottish wore kilts. Even my English at that time was not far enough advanced for me to be able to read the book." Preminger's friend Gregory Ratoff talked him into taking the prestigious job. Preminger shot for two weeks, while Zanuck was in New York on business. Zanuck viewed the rushes when he returned to Hollywood, and blew up at Preminger. "He didn't like what I had done," Fujiwara quotes the director, "and I don't blame him. I think it wasn't very good. We got into a fight about a scene with a dog. I don't remember the details any more, but I know that Zanuck claimed there was a scene in the script which I said wasn't in the script, and we go into a tremendous shouting match. I was right, it wasn't in the script. But he got so mad that he threw me out and assigned another director." That new director was Alfred L. Werker, a workaday Fox contract director whose previous best-known picture was probably The House of Rothschild (1934). Preminger was effectively dropped from Fox for yelling at the boss, although there was still nine months left on his contract. He returned to stage work and did not direct another movie until 1943. (All would be forgiven, though; he returned to Fox and would soon direct the enormous hit Laura [1944] for them).

Critical reaction to Kidnapped at the time of release was predictable; almost every notice commented on the changes made to the plot of the novel. The critic for Time magazine assigned some possible motives, writing, "producer Darryl F. Zanuck, the better to display a fine figure of a lass named Arleen Whelan, has shifted many of the novel's best scenes to strange and shadowy positions, has relegated to the attic the memorable ball-and-cutlass siege of the Brig Covenant's roundhouse [and] has made storied Patriot Alan Breck play nursemaid." This writer also highlighted Bartholomew's performance, noting, "As the solemn Whig lad, David Balfour of Shaws, 14-year-old Freddie Bartholomew may be a shade on the jackanapes side for those who want their Stevenson straight, but he fits this feckless Fox version. Gibbous nose aloft and in fine priggish voice, Master Freddie imparts phonetic reality to an age when Britishers wrote s's that looked like f's."

The critic in Newsweek magazine had similar complaints about the plot, writing, "Hollywood has changed [Stevenson's] book - as well as history - almost beyond recognition." The writer goes on to say, "...the quartet of screen writers who inflate the Scotch rebel Alan Breck to heroic proportions as he rouses the clans against the tax-collecting English, and then burden his swashbuckling career with an unconvincing love interest, fail to improve on Stevenson. ...The studio has been careful in its reproduction of a colorful period and has enlisted more capable actors... than there are good roles to go around. Nevertheless, by reason of an indifferent script, Kidnapped is historical melodrama of only average appeal." Writing for The Spectator, famed critic Graham Greene hated the movie: "I doubt if the summer will show a worse film than Kidnapped; the only fun you are likely to get from it is speculation, speculation on the astonishing ignorance of filmmakers who claim to know what the public wants. The public will certainly not want this Kidnapped, where all the adventures which made them read the book have been omitted. Is it even honest to bring in Stevenson's name? (There should be a society for protecting authors who may be out of copyright)."

Lovers of the Stevenson novel would have plenty of options to choose from in the years following the Fox film. The oft-filmed story first turned up again in an elaborate 1960 live-action adaptation from Walt Disney, starring James MacArthur as an older David Balfour and Peter Finch in the Breck role. A Delbert Mann-directed British adaptation in 1971 starred Michael Caine as Breck and Lawrence Douglas as Balfour, while a 1995 TV-movie featured Armand Assante as Breck (Assante stepped in after Christopher Reeve, who was originally cast in the part, was injured in the horsing accident that resulted in his spinal injury). As of this writing, the most recent adaptation of Kidnapped is a 2005 BBC mini-series with James Anthony Pearson as Balfour and Iain Glen as Breck.

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Alfred L. Werker; Otto Preminger (uncredited)
Screenplay: Curtis Kenyon (contributor to treatment, uncredited); Walter Ferris, Richard Sherman (both uncredited); Sonya Levien, Eleanor Harris, Ernest Pascal, Edwin Blum (screenplay); Robert Louis Stevenson (novel)
Cinematography: Gregg Toland; Bert Glennon (uncredited)
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Mark-Lee Kirk
Music: Arthur Lange, Charles Maxwell (both uncredited)
Film Editing: Allen McNeil
Cast: Warner Baxter (Alan Breck), Freddie Bartholomew (David Balfour), Arleen Whelan (Jean MacDonald), C. Aubrey Smith (Duke of Argyle), Reginald Owen (Capt. Hoseason), John Carradine (Gordon), Nigel Bruce (Neil MacDonald), Miles Mander (Ebenezer Balfour), Ralph Forbes (James), H.B. Warner (Angus Rankeiller)

by John M. Miller

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