As another example of a film that seems to slip through the cracks among so many produced in the mega movie year of 1939, The Light That Failed is a dramatic gem. Made at Paramount, it featured distinguished actor Ronald Colman, whose appearance in the film continued his recent string of historical costume dramas which included The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and If I Were King (1938).
The failing light of the title was caused by blindness and the blindness caused by a blow to the head of the films' main character Dick Heldar (Colman) during a military skirmish in the Sudan in the late 19th century. The Light That Failed tells of painter/soldier Heldar whose battle wound blindness doesn't show itself until several years later, after the artist has established his reputation and gained creative fame in London. Riding the laurels of his first successful works, Heldar begins to paint popular prettified pictures depicting his time in the Sudan, regal, bloodless paintings for British periodicals. His faithful friend and fellow fighter on the foreign battlefield, Torpenhow (Walter Huston), insists that he stop wasting his talent and get back into the painting game with some serious work. Torpenhow soon introduces Heldar to callous cockney streetwalker Bessie (Ida Lupino) whom he finds faint from starvation out in the gutter. The painter sees in her gaunt, dark desperation, the inspiration he needs to paint his masterpiece, "Melancholia." It is during this process that he realizes he is going blind. Can he finish the work which could immortalize him in time?
Based on a novel by Rudyard Kipling, it was one of several Kipling inspired films made in the late 1930's including Wee Willie Winkie and Captains Courageous (both 1937) and Gunga Din, also made in 1939. Kipling's works were male driven and full of adventure. Accordingly, The Light That Failed was produced and directed by the macho man's man William Wellman, who excelled at male dominated films. But be not fooled, the films strong female was no shrinking violet. Ida Lupino, like Ronald Colman, was British born. She came to Hollywood in 1934, but it wasn't until this film that she burst upon the scene and the following year, she would begin her long tenure at Warner Brothers, where she would make her cinematic mark. Not a glamorous role by any means, Ida's Bessie chews up the scenery and steal every scene she's in. By contrast, the other female lead, Muriel Angelus, who plays Heldar's childhood love as an adult, is both bland and forgettable.
A true professional, Walter Huston consistently gave excellent performances throughout his career. As Torpenhow, his sense of compassion and camaraderie toward his friend is touching and thoroughly believable. As he thrusts his foot through a newly finished painting for which his artistic friend will receive a pretty penny but is creatively beneath him, we know we are witnessing "tough love." Finally, the always debonair Ronald Colman is suave as the doomed artist. Colman played his affliction with much panache, not pity, no Dark Victory here!
The Light That Failed is not Ronald Colman's best film nor his most memorable, but when taking motion picture inventory of 1939, it needs to be on the honorable mention list. In comparison, it holds up just as well if not better than some of the better known, more easily accessible movies of that illustrious year.