Cast & Crew
William A. Wellman
While covering the war in the Sudan, newspaper illustrator Dick Heldar is struck over the eye with a spear when he attempts to shield his friend and fellow correspondent Torpenhow from a native attack. After a short stay in Port Said, Dick is summoned back to London by Torp, and returns home to discover that he is now an acclaimed artist. In London, Dick achieves great success for his paintings of the war, but succumbs to the lure of easy money and allows his work to become commercial and superficial. His success in painting is not paralled by success in love, for when he meets his childhood sweetheart Maisie, she refuses to relinquish her career as a painter for marriage. After Maisie leaves for France, Torp introduces Dick to Bessie Broke, a cockney bar maid, and Dick, inspired by her air of melancholy, decides to paint her. As Bessie models for Dick, she falls in love with Torp, but Dick intervenes and destroys her chance of romance. Meanwhile, plagued by headaches and blurred vision, Dick visits the doctor, from whom he learns that he is going blind as a result of the blow he suffered in the Sudan. Spurred by the desire to paint one last masterpiece before he loses his sight, Dick summons all his talents to repaint Bessie's portrait, the last work he will ever paint. He finishes the masterpiece just as he loses his sight, but Bessie, bent on revenge because he ruined her romance with Torp, destroys the painting. When Torp is called back to the Sudan, he summons Maisie to care for Dick, but Dick turns her away and later sends Torp off to the Sudan. Dick, now totally alone, meets Bessie, who unwittingly informs him of the destruction of her portrait. Learning that his masterpiece no longer exists, Dick loses all desire to continue living. As his final act, he returns to the Sudan to gallantly ride to his death in a cavalry charge.
William A. Wellman
Pedro De Cordoba
Major Sam Harris
Clara M. Blore
William S. Hurley
Capt. Jack R. Durham-mathews
A. E. Freudeman
William A. Wellman
The Light That Failed
Based on the 1891 Rudyard Kipling novel of the same name, The Light That Failed follows the adventures of Dick Heldar (Ronald Colman), an artist working among the British armed forces in Sudan who makes a name for himself with his vivid visual depictions of battle. While later enjoying success as a painter in England, Dick becomes reacquainted with his childhood sweetheart Maisie (Muriel Angelus) and tries to win her heart. When an old war wound begins to slowly rob him of his eyesight, however, Dick races against the clock to paint one final masterpiece before going completely blind. He enlists a striking but surly cockney prostitute, Bessie (Ida Lupino), to model for the painting, and complications soon arise when she strikes up a romance with his best friend Torpenhow (Walter Huston).
The Light That Failed was one of several films made during the late 1930s that were inspired by Rudyard Kipling's exotic adventure stories including Captains Courageous (1937), Wee Willie Winkie (1937) and Gunga Din (1939). The Light That Failed was Kipling's very first novel, published when he was just 25 years old.
Kipling originally wrote a tragic ending to the novel in which the hero, Dick, intentionally marched into certain death on the Sudan battlefield after learning of his masterpiece's destruction and being rejected by Maisie, the woman he loves. However, Kipling was persuaded against his better judgment to give the story a happy, though less authentic, ending in which Dick regains his eyesight and becomes engaged to Maisie.
Although Kipling's original ending was restored to later editions of the published novel, Hollywood opted to film the version with the happy ending for two early silent film adaptations. The first in 1916 starred Robert Edeson, and the second in 1923 starred Percy Marmont. Eventually, director William Wellman's 1939 sound version for Paramount would be the first faithful film adaptation that remained true to Kipling's original tragic ending.
Wellman, who had already distinguished himself directing such classic films as The Public Enemy (1931) and the Academy Award-winning original version of A Star Is Born (1937), started working on The Light That Failed while still in post-production on another classic, Beau Geste (1939). The star of Beau Geste, Gary Cooper, had at one point been attached to star in The Light That Failed, but Paramount ultimately assigned leading man Ronald Colman to the film. It would be Colman's second film for Paramount (the first being If I Were King ) under a two-picture deal with the studio.
There was friction immediately between Wellman and Ronald Colman on the production. They were polar opposites in terms of their personalities and temperaments. "Ronald Colman and Wellman, an odd combination to say the least," said the director according to his son William Wellman, Jr.'s 2015 biography Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel. "He didn't like me; I didn't like him--the only two things we agreed fully on." In one of his final interviews, Wellman explained, "I was a kind of wild guy...the time duirng which I directed Light was my wildest time of all. A lot of people didn't want to work for me, nor did I want to work with them...When they called me in and said they wanted to do this film with him, I said I loved the idea of doing Light but I thought Wellman and Colman wasn't such a good idea. It was a most unusual combination! I was a crazy guy, and he was very much the gentleman."
Colman further irritated Wellman when he began lobbying for his friend Vivien Leigh to play the pivotal role of cockney prostitute Bessie. The British Leigh was still relatively unknown to American audiences at the time and was in the midst of shooting a little film called Gone With the Wind. While Wellman had nothing against Leigh, he had never met her and was put off by Colman's insistence on casting her.
While the character of Bessie was technically a supporting role, it was far meatier than the female lead of Maisie and had the potential to get an actress noticed. One person who understood that was actress Ida Lupino. The sultry ingénue had been working steadily in Hollywood for years up to that point, but fame still eluded her, and she was not yet considered a serious actress. When she heard that Wellman was making the film version of The Light That Failed, she knew immediately that Bessie was a starmaking role, and she was willing to go to great lengths to get it.
Lupino marched on to the Paramount lot and into Wellman's office unannounced. The two had met briefly once before, but Wellman barely remembered her. "You're doing Kipling's The Light That Failed," she said to him, "and this is my part. You have got to give me a chance. I know [the part] right now."
Startled, Wellman told her that she couldn't read for the part right then because Colman wasn't present to read with her. Instead, Lupino insisted that Wellman himself read Colman's part. For the impromptu audition, she chose to read the film's most challenging scene in which Bessie grows increasingly hysterical as Dick verbally torments her while she models for his final painting.
Wellman was knocked out by her fiery performance and offered her the role on the spot. The Paramount studio brass supported Wellman's decision, agreeing that Lupino would be perfect for Bessie. However, when Colman objected and continued to push for Vivien Leigh, the studio balked. Wellman, however, stood his ground. He fought for Lupino, and Paramount finally relented. It was a show of support that Lupino never forgot.
The location shooting for The Light That Failed commenced in June 1939 in and around Black Mesa, New Mexico, 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe. Hundreds of locals were hired as extras, and a 90-foot steel tower with cameras on three levels was constructed to shoot the complex battle scenes.
While on location in New Mexico, Wellman and his production team had a complicated process to view rushes at a local theater in Santa Fe. As described by William Wellman, Jr., "The film was flown to Hollywood each night, developed, printed and returned in time to be shown the following day, travelling over 2,000 miles in less than twenty-four hours."
After location filming was completed, the cast and crew returned to Hollywood to shoot the remainder of the film on the Paramount lot. While Wellman and Lupino got along swimmingly, Colman harbored resentment towards his director and co-star. Tensions reached a fever pitch during the filming of one of the film's most crucial scenes in which Dick verbally torments Bessie while she is posing for him - the very scene that Lupino had performed in Wellman's office during her impromptu audition. As Lupino reached the character's emotional climax in the dramatic scene, Colman blew his line. And Colman, according to Wellman, never blew his lines. "Cut!" the director yelled, bringing an abrupt halt to the scene in progress. When Colman continued to falter, Wellman believed he was intentionally sabotaging the scene, not just to throw his co-star off, but also to protest Wellman's fast one- or two-take method of shooting. "I walked over to him and said, 'Let's you and I take a little walk'," recalled Wellman. "We walked behind the set and I said, 'Look, Mr. Colman, once more and I will make a character man out of you. I will kick the hell out of you. That pretty face of yours is going to look awful funny.'" With that, Colman immediately ceased flubbing his lines. "They played it beautifully," said Wellman. "Colman was wonderful. But he didn't talk to me again during the picture, except when necessary."
The Light That Failed was released in theaters during the Christmas season of 1939 and was a solid box office hit. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive. The New York Times called the film "letter-perfect" and said, "Mr. Colman has rarely handled a role with greater authority or charm...And he has splendid support. Ida Lupino's Bessie is another of the surprises we get when a little ingénue suddenly bursts forth as a great actress." The Los Angeles Times said, "The Light That Failed wings its way to idealistic heights, and sounds psychological depths as one of the finest pictures of its type...This is truly a worthy contribution to a banner season of the cinema." Variety said, "Ronald Colman's top characterizations of the past fade into memory's background when paraded alongside his brilliant portrayal in Light. Light, too, marks a broad forward step for William A. Wellman as a producer-director."
By Andrea Passafiume
The Light That Failed
Painting is seeing, then remembering better than you saw.- Dick Heldar
The opening credits of the film read "Rudyard Kipling's The Light That Failed." According to a 1935 news item in Hollywood Reporter, Gary Cooper was considered for the lead in this picture. 1939 news items in the Hollywood Reporter add that the film was shot on location around Black Mesa and Santa Fe, NM. Technical advisor Alf Nicholson was a veteran of the Boer War. Modern sources add that the Hindu music in the film was actually "Yankee Doodle Dandy" played backwards. Other films based on the same source were Pathe's 1916 version of the same name starring Robert Edeson and Jose Collins and directed by Edward Jose (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.2390); and a 1923 Paramount film of the same title directed by George Melferd and starring Percy Marmont (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.3071).