“The Man in the Iron Mask” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St. Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film sereies Hollywood’s Greatest Year, which offers movies released in 1939.
“he Man in the Iron Mask” (1939) is the sort of rousing historical swashbuckler that Hollywood turned out with regularity during its so-called Golden Era.
In this adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ novel, Louis Hayward stars as both the foppish, corrupt King of France and as his twin brother, an honest and charming young swordsman. The royal twins were separated at birth (to avoid competing claims for the throne that might destroy the kingdom) and grew up unaware of each other’s existence.
Louis XIV is a very bad ruler who amuses himself by hanging peasants. His brother Philippe is raised in rural Gascony by D’Artagnan (Warren Williams) and the other swashbucklers introduced in Dumas’ earlier novel The Three Musketeers.
The setup allows Hayward to play two very different characters. The film’s title springs from a late-breaking development: learning of his twin’s existence, the evil Louis has Philippe imprisoned in the Bastille, his head encased in a metal mask that, with time, will choke the prisoner on his own growing beard and hair.
Not to worry. D’Artagnan and the other musketeers will come to his rescue and ensure that Philippe is reunited with his true love, Maria Theresa of Spain (Joan Bennett).
“The Man in the Iron Mask” is the last great gasp in the career of director James Whale, who rose to prominence with Universal’s horror pictures and then found himself more-or-less blacklisted because he was openly gay.
Whale grew up an artistically inclined youth in a factory town in the English West Midlands. Even before he recognized his own homosexuality, simply by wanting a career in the arts the working-class Whale marked himself as an outsider. In fact outsiders – alcoholics, prostitutes, mad scientists, monsters – were to be the primary subject of his movies.