Early & Silent Film

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The Woman Disputed, United Artists 1928.

Posted by keith1942 on September 19, 2017

The film stars Norma Talmadge as Mary Ann Wagner, the prostitute with the conventional ‘heart of gold’. She is wooed by two army officers Gilbert Roland as an Austrian Lieutenant, Paul Hartman and Arnold Kent as a Russian Captain Nika Turgenov. The scenario was adapted from a story by Guy de Maupassant, ‘Boule de Suif’. This was possibly De Maupassant’s most famous story it has had numerous adaptation on film. The French title, one version of which is ‘Dumpling’, is the name in the short story of the French prostitute. This film has changed the setting from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to World War I and the Austrian / Russian front. Predictably it has also changed the ending of the story.

The film was directed by Henry King and Sam Taylor [according to King] directed three scenes that were reshot, including a new ending [though I doubt they ever considered using De Maupassant’s]. . The cinematography was by Oliver Marsh. And the key member of the production was William Cameron Menzies, credited with Set Design. The film, a 35mm silent print, was screened as part of the programme of his film work at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017.

Paul meets Mary in the street at night as he runs from the police. James Curtis describes the moment in the Festival Catalogue.

“Momentarily stunned, he grimaces in pain, then notices a pair of legs in a darkened doorway. The camera tilts up to reveal Mary Ann Wagner, her makeup exaggerated after the manner of a cabaret dancer, her battered hat and polka-dot blouse advertising the fact that she is open for business.”

Mary assists Paul and later contacts his friend Nika who will establish his innocence. However. Mary is questions by the police and consequently loses her rooms. So she is accommodated by Paul at his apartment. This however is chastely done. Both Paul and Nika are smitten by Mary and we see their wooing over several weeks; the most delightful scenes feature the preparation and consumption of meals. However, Mary is most attracted to Paul and their planned union is cemented by Paul presenting Mary with his mother’s wedding ring. Nika is outraged by the preference for Paul.

War erupts. The battles we see are waged over the town, Lemberg [Lvov]. When the Russian army occupy Lemberg we come to the part of the plot taken from the DE Maupassant story. In this case the Russians are searching for a spy and seize several men and Mary on the road out of town. Nika is in charge of the investigation and Mary [as in the story] is pressurised by the men, including a priest, to grant Nika’s desires. She finally succumbs.

However, retribution is swift. As the Austrians retake the town Nika is fatally wounded by a shell. Paul finds both Nika and Mary in a partially ruined church. And Nika, with his dying words, exposes Mary’s fall from grace. Paul is now devastated. However, the Austrian spy, one of the trio of hostages, is able to reveal the nature of her sacrifice. James Curtis describes this dramatic tableaux, somewhat different from that of De Maupassant.

“the final shot presenting Talmadge’s magdalen from a balcony as a grateful army kneels at her feet, an absurdist conceit made credible by the star’s soulful performance – possibly the finest of her career – and the artful culmination of a near-perfect mise-en-scene.”

Paul, of course, is among the troops and as he too kneels the promise of a fulfilled union ends the film.

As Curtis notes, this is a fine performance by Talmadge, moving from the insouciant through romance to the sacrificial. Roland is convincing as the romantic hero whilst Arnold develops from romance to malevolence with aplomb. There is a good supporting cast and the priest [one of the trio of hostages- Michael Vavitch] is especially unctuous as he sermonises Mary. The film has some excellent cinematography with occasional expressionist touches.

What does stand out is the design of the production. Curtis notes in the Catalogue;

“The extant drawings for this sequence [the encounter between Paul and |Mary] show that Menzies effectively directed it; the set-ups are virtually identical to his visualisations. The Woman Disputed is a full of complex imagery – breakfast on a balcony with the city bustling below, the attack on Lemberg, a travelling shot past the massive columns of a church interior, the battlefield crossing of an Austrian spy through the great jumble of gnarled trees and barbed wire.”

Curtis also attributes the expressionist touches to Menzies and notes that this was when Hollywood was absorbing the impact of the great German films , in particular F. W. Murnau and Karl Freund’s The Last Laugh (1924). The latter two were among those actually recruited by Hollywood from the German film industry. The film was released in both silent and sound versions, apparently both running at 24 fps. The sound version offered a musical score including a song specially written for the film, ‘Woman Disputed I Love You’. However, at Pordenone we enjoyed a piano accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau, which I reckon was most likely superior. The print was just over 200 feet shorter than the original and offered English title cards.

This was the happy final 35mm feature screening before the evening event with a live orchestra, The Thief of Bagdad (DCP – 1924).

 

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