When Myrna Loy first began her career she was continually cast as the exotic, vamp luring men to their edge of their sanity. By the early 1930s MGM let Loy tone down her vamp image but she was still playing women with some kind of exotic image and she was still luring them away from their sanity. If she was not being alluring she was being a brat who just wanted things for herself (Emma, Vanity Fair, Men in White for example). It was not until really Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man that Loy finally got out the selfish women and vamp roles. The Barbarian does not have Loy exactly playing the exotic nor is she intentionally alluring but she followed and humiliated by an obsessive Egyptian prince disguised as a tour guide.
Jamil (Ramon Novarro) is without a doubt a lady’s man. He is the best tour guide in Egypt with a specialization in helping out the female tourist. In the beginning of the film he is saying goodbye to two women. He tells each one of them that they will always be in his heart and he will always love them. Jamil even has a small bag full of the jewelry each woman he has been with have given him to remember them by.
A new train has just arrived and right away Jamil notices a stunning British woman depart from it. She is Diana Standing (Loy) who has come to see her finance Gerald with her uncle and companion. Jamil goes up to the party to help them with their luggage but they dismiss him. In ensure he sees Diana again he takes her dog when her uncle is not looking.
Later on as Jamil planned Diana cannot find her dog. Just in time he comes to the rescue with the dog in his hand. He lets her know that he is the best guide in Egypt and he would love to be hers and she accepts. Gerald finds Jamil a nuisance the guide never leaves he and Diana alone he is always right there or trying to get her alone without him.
An acquaintance of Jamil’s, named Pascha, who has a lot of money arranged for Gerald to be taken away on business which would leave Diana behind. Jamil knows what Pascha is up to and blackmails the man into letting Diana alone. Now Jamil has his chance to truly be alone with the woman he so greatly admires. He watches Diana as she sleeps dropping flower petals on her face. She wakes up in a fuss she does not want him in her room she does not want anyone getting the wrong idea. Before Jamil leaves her room he kisses her and Diana does not resist. She more upset that she did not resist than with the fact that she kissed him.
Diana fires Jamil and wants to leave immediately to be with Gerald. In the desert Diana gets the surprise of her life when she sees Jamil. He tells her that he threatened the other guide at knife point to leave. Furious she does not want to finish the trip to Gerald she wants to go back to Cairo. But Jamil has other plans for her, he tells the men to take the rest of the caravan back to the capital he wants to take her across the desert back to his tribe.
Jamil kidnaps Diana and Gerald and her uncle put out a manhunt for his death. While in the desert Jamil humiliates Diana he makes her walk beside his horse in the hot sun for hours and will not let her drink water before he and his horse have had some. The following day they arrive at his tribe. He asks her to marry him and she accepts. You know she has something planned when she accepts his proposal she is not doing so because she wants to. During the ceremony she embarrasses him by saying no and runs out. Before she can get out he whips her but then tells his men to take her back to her people in Cairo.
In the end Diana cannot resist Jamil and she runs away with him. As they sail down the Nile Diana tells Jamil that her mother was Egyptian. Before they runaway we can see that Diana is not exactly happy. Her mother-in-law is a total control freak trying to fix her Juliet cap the way she wants it not how Diana wants it and she will not listen that Diana does not want roses as her bouquet she wants gardenias. Her companion, Powers knows she is not happy and when Jamil comes back for her Powers trips the guards from going after them.
I loved the fact that it is such a pre-code film it is racy and actually disturbing. Myrna Loy is barely dressed for several of the scenes especially the ones where Jamil is stalking her in her room. She almost has a wardrobe malfunction when the strap to her slip falls off her shoulder. One of Loy’s most well known scenes is the one where she has a bath with flowers all around her, of course she was wearing a flesh tone suit but you can barely see it (in her autobiography Loy writes that the crew were getting overzealous with pushing the petals towards her and when she looked up they were all people she knew in Culver City where she lived. She said they were just trying to protect a local girl’s modesty). Ramon Novarro is disturbing as Jamil, the man is like a Peeping Tom. A reviewer on IMDB brought up an excellent point: in the end Diana is “only… happy with the man who has humiliated, beaten, abused [and] raped her.” That scene where Diana and Jamil are alone in the desert at night is unsettling; he kisses her then the screen fades to black, when the characters are shown again Diana is crying and holding her dress tightly around her.
Myrna Loy is fantastic (she was only part “exotic” since her character’s mother was Egyptian). Even broken down and beaten she looked beautiful. This is one of my favorite roles she played she was just so good. For the one thousandth time I will say just by looking at her face you know what is going on in her character’s mind. When Jamil kisses her and she does not resist but she is angry you can see it on her face before she even says anything. Another really great example is when she whips Jamil in the desert when he finds her and the caravan. She said that she is going to treat him like a slave and she takes his whip and whips him. No words could have explained her anger better than her face. This was my first Ramon Novarro film. I thought he was great. I can see why he was considered one of the greatest lovers of the screen he was so smooth and so outrageously charming. Loy writes her book that actresses dreamed of doing a film with Valentino or Novarro in the twenties and she was happy she got to work with him.
The supporting cast of C. Aubrey Smith as the uncle, Reginald Denny as Gerald (in case you cannot quite place him he was Frank Crawley in Rebecca), and Louise Closser Hale as Powers was perfect. Hale was so funny she had some of the sharpest and funniest scenes and lines in the whole film. Keep an eye out for famous movie gossip columnist Hedda Harper as the American tourist at the beginning.
Anita Loos wrote some of the screenplay and the dialogue. Whenever I think of Loos I always think of her as the writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. If you have ever read any of her work you can hear her touch of wit and biting dialogue and the words of women’s sexual freedom during this time.
Even though the plot of The Barbarian is so unbelievable I did enjoy the film. It is an amazingly well made romantic pre-code fantasy film that allows you to just escape for a while.