The Adventures of Marco Polo 
Page Two

It appears that Basil Rathbone was second choice for the role as Ahmed. The June 23, 1937 issue of Variety listed the cast of The Adventures of Marco Polo as follows: Gary Cooper, Sigrid Gurie, Ernest Truex, Veree Teasdale, Alan Hale, George Barbier, John Carradine, Harold Huber, J.B. Warner, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Robert Grieg.

At some point in June or July, Basil Rathbone replaced John Carradine. In July Binnie Barnes replaced Veree Teasdale, who withdrew from the cast because of illness.

Lana Turner was also in the cast. She can be seen as the young girl that Kaidu (Alan Hale) admires.

Ahmed informs the princess that she will marry him.

Ahmed receives disturbing news.

Sigrid Gurie, a Norwegian, was a bizarre choice to play a Chinese princess in The Adventures of Marco Polo. Though ethnically miscast, she did well. She was exotic, delicate, and subtle.

Sigrid Gurie was presented to Hollywood as Samuel Goldwyn's discovery and hailed as "the siren of the fjords." There were few details available about her—only that she was a great Norwegian actress miraculously found and persuaded to lend her luster to the American screen. Goldwyn had kept her hidden for months, forbidding her to visit a night club or a popular luncheon spot or meet any picture people. 

Shortly before the premiere of The Adventures of Marco Polo, Sigrid's true past was disclosed.  She was Norwegian, true enough, but born in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were Norwegian and the family moved back to Norway when Sigrid was three years old. She grew up in Oslo, Norway. Sigrid came to Hollywood in 1935, and tried to break into the movies. So she was not a star, after all, but a novice!

A Life magazine article reported, "Mr. Goldwyn's picture of a new Norwegian Garbo was badly jolted in March when Miss Gurie filed suit for divorce from a hitherto unsuspected husband. It speedily became known that not only was she married to an American luggage-maker, but that her birthplace, far from romantic Norway, was the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, NY. The stunned Mr. Goldwyn recovered in time to snatch victory from defeat by proclaiming 'the greatest hoax in movie history.'" ("Flower of Flatbush," Life, April 18, 1938)

But did Sam Goldwyn indeed perpetrate this hoax, or did Sigrid pretend to be a Norwegian star and fool Mr. Goldwyn?


Sam Goldwyn's latest excursion into the mists of long ago "with a cast of five thousand" is that delight of my childhood's days, The Adventures of Marco Polo. He had to fit Gary Cooper with a part, and having conjured up from the wilds of Brooklyn a new Norwegian glamour girl in Sigrid Gurie he was by some singular persuasiveness of his own able to enlist the help of one of America's finest playwrights, Robert E. Sherwood, in carrying out his singular and original ideas. The result is one of the most extraordinary and unintentional stimulants to laughter ever known to cinema-goers. It combines spectacle with absurdity, and has such a defiance of period in manner and speech, and so reckless a disregard of probability and the original facts as to enable the most uninstructed to derive cinematic enjoyment. In fact, the less sensitive the spectator the greater the pleasure. For there can be small satisfaction in all this medley of extravagant nonsense for anyone of extreme sensibility or with a regard for truth.

—Sydney W. Carroll, Sunday Times, April 1938


The cost of producing The Adventures of Marco Polo was about $2,000,000. The budget for settings alone amounted to $600,000. Samuel Goldwyn built a replica of a two-hundred yard long section of the Great Wall in China. That replica cost $72,000.

One thousand extras were used for location shooting at Malibu Lake, causing a shortage of extras elsewhere and a hold-up on several Western pictures.

In order to forestall possible rumors of cruelty to animals, a committee from the SPCA was invited to witness battle-scene rushes involving 250 horses.

Ahmed orders Khan to sign a decree naming Ahmed as the rightful heir to the Khan.

In order to force the Khan to his will, Ahmed has chained the princess near hungry vultures.

The Adventures of  Marco Polo was at first scheduled to be released during Christmas week, 1937. The release was pushed to January 1938, and then to February. Difficulties in affecting a nationwide, simultaneous boost in admissions was apparently the chief obstacle in setting a definite date for the release of the film.

The Adventures of  Marco Polo was finally released in New York City on April 15, 1937. Twenty-three thousand people attended the premiere at the Radio City Music Hall. More than 140,000 people saw the movie during the first week of its presentation. On Broadway The Adventures of Marco Polo earned $92,000 the first week, and $100,000 the second week. During the third and final week at the Music Hall, the film earned $70,000.


Because no movie boasting the combined talents of Gary Cooper, as a reckless adventurer-lover, and Basil Rathbone, as a sinister villain, an fail to furnish more than commonplace excitement, MARCO POLO rates well up among recent adventure films. Unfortunately, the flow of action is too often interrupted by injections of farce that are ill-timed and quite dull in contrast to the film's more dynamic sequences. It should attract good grosses generally, but the word-of-mouth reaction will be mixed.

Acting honors go to Rathbone. The scenes in which he appears are invariably fraught with a tension that is gripping. He gives the picture all its suspense. Cooper plays in his usual forthright and appealing style. Sigrid Gurie does an oriental princess with charm, and she gives much promise for the future. One of the season's most atrocious bits of casting placed genial George Barbier in the role of a mighty Chinese emperor—which he least represents. Ernest Truex and Alan Hale are two other farceurs who were misplaced and weaken the melodrama.

Archie Mayo's direction suffers in the film's lighter moments, simply because those scenes are pitifully weak in contrast to the action scenes, which he handled very well.

The story opens with Marco Polo (Cooper) being sent by his father from Venice to negotiate a trade treaty with the Chinese. His perilous journey is sketchily portrayed. In Pekin he is led to Khan Barbier, to whom he is attracted, but he encounters sinister opposition from Rathbone, the Khan's unfaithful adviser. Cooper meets and falls in love with princess Sigrid. Rathbone, eager to ascend the throne and marry the girl, sends Cooper on a mission into the camp of Alan Hale, where he is certain to be killed. Binnie Barnes, Hale's wife, saves Cooper's life and proceeds to make love to him. Meanwhile, Rathbone has urged the Khan to attack Japan, which results in annihilation of the Chinese forces. When Cooper learns that Rathbone has seized control and intends to marry the princess, he persuades Hale to help him attack the palace and restore the Khan. The plan succeeds, aided by Cooper's use of gunpowder, about which he had learned from the Chinese.


—Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin, March 12, 1938


Earnings for The Adventures of Marco Polo in other cities:

  • Baltimore — $12,000 the first week (April 20, 1938).
  • Philadelphia — $15,000 the first week, and $9,800 the second week (April 27, 1938).
  • Chicago — $4,000 (May 4, 1938) 
  • Detroit — first week $6200, second week $4500 (May 11, 1938)
  • Boston — In a double bill with Gaiety Girls, $15,600 (May 18, 1938)
  • San Francisco — first week $10,000, second week $9300, third week $7500, fourth week $5500 (beginning May 18, 1938)
  • Washington DC — $13,000 (May 25, 1938)

The Adventures of Marco Polo had a strong start, with record breaking attendance figures in key cities throughout the country, and appeared to be a hit, but it fizzled fairly quickly. It ended up being a flop, and losing about $700,000.

From his balcony Ahmed looks over the city.

A guard brings news.

In spite of having flopped at the box office, The Adventures of Marco Polo, won for its maker, Samuel Goldwyn, two gold medals. The first was awarded by the League of Nations Picture Committee in June 1938. The second was awarded by the International Committee for Motion Picture Arts and Letters in July 1938.


Expert performances and a lavish production are the highlights of this adventure-comedy. But its entertainment value lies in the comedy more than in the adventure, for, with the exception of the thrilling closing scenes, the story lacks fast action. Because of this, its appeal should be directed more to sophisticated audiences. There is no doubt, however, that it will draw well at the box-office, first, because of Gary Cooper's popularity, and, secondly, because of the fame of the character he portrays. The picture is "big" from a production standpoint—that is in sets and mob scenes. The romance is handled in good taste, and with an eye to comedy. The action unfolds in ancient times:—

Marco Polo (Cooper), in company with his trusted bookkeeper Binguccio (Ernest Truex), leaves Venice for China, there to open up trade between the two nations. Marco and Binguccio go through storms, shipwrecks, sandstorms, and much hardship until they, bedraggled, finally arrive in Pekin, their destination. Marco is received by the great Kublai Khan (George Barbier) and his right-hand man, a cruel Saracen, Ahmed (Basil Rathbone). Marco meets and falls in love with Princess Kukachin (Sigrid Gurie). When this becomes known to Ahmed he contrives to have Marco sent to the camp of the enemy Lord Kaidu (Alan Hale), as a spy. Kaidu sees in Marco a chance for release from his marital slavery, and orders him to keep his wife (Binnie Barnes) amused, so that he might carry on other affairs. In the meantime, Ahmed tricks Kublai Khan into leading his Army in battle against Japan, knowing it was a losing battle. With the Khan gone, he takes over the powers, and informs the Princess that she would have to marry him. The defeated Khan returns, helpless to assert his authority against Ahmed. The princess send word to Marco to help her. Marco induces the over-taxed Kaidu to attack the Palace. Ahmed tricks them, and for a time it looked as it they would all be killed. But Marco, succeeding in blowing up the Palace Gates with gunpowder, leads the army in. He rushes into the palace in time to stop the wedding ceremony between Ahmed and the Princess. In a fierce fight with Marco, Ahmed falls into a pit of hungry lions and is devoured. Marco restores peace between the Khan and Kaidu. He obtains the coveted trade agreements, and then sets sail with the Princess, presumably to escort her to her fiance, King of Persia. But Marco and the Princess had other ideas; they would make it their own honeymoon trip.

—Harrison's Reports, March 19, 1938


Comments from motion picture theatre owners in 1938:

"I must say that this is one of the best pictures that I have seen this year, filled with plenty of action, with romance closely woven so as to make it enjoyable for everyone." —Alex Hilton, Pal Theatres, Inc., Vidalia, Georgia

"We thought this splendid entertainment but it flopped badly. We expected this would draw quite well but were very much disappointed. Cooper was in top form in this. Miss Gurie was liked by those who were here." —L. A. Irwin, Palace Theatre, Penacook, New Hampshire

"This proved a box office disappointment to us. We really took it on the chin. A fair picture that did not draw." —Harland Rankin, Plaza Theatre, Tilbury, Ontario, Canada

"A swell show and my customers raved about it. The only thing they didn't like is that it was too long." —Ray S. Hanson, Fox Theatre, Fertile, Minnesota

Ahmed tries to force the princess to marry him.

The wedding is interrupted by Marco Polo!

"Personally, I thought this great. Comments from patrons were mixed. It don't seem to be a ladies' picture." —K. A. Spears, Roxy Theatre, Winlock, Washington

"My guess is that this picture will not break any records in a small town. But make no error, it is great in all ways. Lavish in its settings, good story, care in direction and Miss Gurie has that something. You'll have to hand it to Goldwyn, he goes the whole way in finishing anything he starts. Not all of the patrons will go for this type of a picture, but when you have run it, you know that they have seen a picture, whether they like it or not. Sure it costs more money, but I would rather have less business than have to apologize for what I run. It has everything, comedy and drama." —A. E. Hancock, Columbia Theatre, Columbia City, Indiana

"Send Bob Sherwood back to the magazine writing field if this is the best he can do for the movies. I remember how caustic he was in his comments upon the movies when he was critic upon the staff of a leading publication. Will someone step forth and give Bob a taste of the same kind of medicine he formerly gave out? 'Marco Polo' would make a good two reel subject. Gary Cooper wasted." —Harry M. Palmer, Temple Court Theatre, Washington, Indiana

"Liked by all. Extended runs in any spot." —W. E. McPhee, Strand Theatre, Old Town, Maine


Against some of the most beautiful backgrounds given any picture in years, and tempered with rare good humor, Samuel Goldwyn makes his first presentation of Gary Cooper. Without Cooper this super-epic would be impressive entertainment; with him the adventure of a romantic stalwart who opened new trade routes from Europe to Asia and became one of history's most glamorous personalities becomes extraordinary filmfare. As Polo, Cooper brings to a role that might have been bloodless a warmth that is most engaging.

When Polo comes to ancient China from Venice he incurs the enmity of Ahmed, favored of Kublai Khan's advisors. In teaching a princess (Sigrid Gurie) how to kiss, he finds unexpected thrills, romance and intrigue. After Ahmed's men attack his caravan, Polo strikes up a friendship with Kaidu (Alan Hale), a robust chieftain and the much henpecked husband of Nazama. Since Nazama finds Polo entertaining, Kaidu agrees to be his friend. A bit perplexed, but a scholarly soul, Polo follows instructions. His efforts to evade the pursuing Nazama and to rescue the Princess from Ahmed given Polo much to do in the final reels. The outcome is exciting and frequently extremely funny.

Sigrid Gurie, as China-doll-like as Lillian Gish, proves worthy of her energetic sponsorship. Rare beauty is hers and her naturalness should win many future opportunities. Alan Hale's scenes are outstanding. Fascinating entertainment.

—Photoplay, April 1938


"Personally, I thought very interesting, but my patronage stayed away from this one." —Ouida Stephano, Grove Theatre, Groveton, Texas

"This is a fine picture, good in every detail and excellent entertainment. Miss Gurie made a very favorable impression. You can't go wrong on this one." —Bill Simon, Rialto Theatre, Saguache, Colorado

"Good picture of its kind but most of the movie patrons do not care for this type of picture." —P. G. Held, New Strand Theatre, Griswold, Iowa

Ahmed attacks Marco Polo with a knife.

Ahmed and Marco wrestle near the trap door opening to the lion's den. Marco gets the upper hand and Ahmed falls to the lions.

*  *  *  *  *

Back to Page One for reviews and pictures from the film. See Page Three for pictures of posters, lobby cards and promo photos.


The Adventures of Marco Polo is available on DVD

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All original content is © Marcia Jessen, 2017