Stanley and Livingstone (1939)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Adventure Drama, British Empire Film, Biopic [feature]  |   Release Date - Aug 18, 1939 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 101 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Craig Butler

Stanley and Livingstone is perhaps more faithful to its historical source than most Hollywood biopics, but even so it completely whitewashes the character of Henry Stanley. This is particularly true at the end, when Stanley returns to Africa, presumably a changed (and religiously inspired) man. It's totally false as history, but it makes for a great movie; for once, the studios' insistence on adding significant amounts of fiction to their fact-based products produced good drama. And Stanely is definitely a good drama, as well as a rousing adventure and an intriguing character study. The team of screenwriters have crafted a narrative that is totally engaging and peopled it with characters that leave their impressions on you, none more so than the two title characters. Henry King has directed with finesse, making sure that there's an excellent balance of action, adventure and inspiration, and even making the extraneous romantic subplot work fairly well. Of course, he's aided enormously by Spencer Tracy's towering yet nuanced performance. Tracy gets to play it both rough and pious, the adventurer and the thinker, the amoralist and the moralist, and he does so superbly. No other actor could combine gusto with restraint in the way that Tracy could, and watching his transformation from the beginning of the film to the end is a true treat. Cedric Hardwicke is also in top form as Livingstone, celebrating the man's deep religious faith without ever commenting upon it. The supporting cast is good, the cinematography evocative (even if the rear screen projections are occasionally obvious to modern viewers). All in all, Stanley is a joy to watch.