Early & Silent Film

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Honoré de Balzac in early films.

Posted by keith1942 on October 19, 2018

This was one of the programmes in an impressive Giornate de Cinema Muto, 2018. Audiences enjoyed a series of adaptations from the work of the great French novelist; what higher praise can there be than that both Frederick Engels and Karl Marx revered his works. There was a full and really informative introduction in the Festival Catalogue by Anne-Marie Baron. She wrote,

Cinema, searching for storylines and legitimacy, embraced Balzac from the outset, just as it did the Bible. [Both offer a great treasure trove of dramatic stories]. The Comédie humaine was a true goldmine, containing all the ingredients for success: dramatic events, emotions, and a sharp-eyed look at society. There were also decidedly commercial reasons for producing these scenarios – Balzac was widely read, and his cachet elevated the level of popular entertainment.”

The opening screening offered three one-reel films from 1909. In this period the large and complex novels were reduced to bare outlines. These three had slightly more body as they were adapted from a 1831 short story by Balzac, ‘La Grande Bretèche’. The basic story is well known, one of macabre revenge on illicit lovers. In the original story characters and their actions are recounted by four narrators, three in flashbacks, explaining events in the past which occurred a now-ruined mansion, its name the title of the story.

1909 was the year when everyone was scrambling to adapt Balzac’s short story “La Grande Bretèche” for the screen. The Italians got there first in July with Spergiura! (Literally “Swear that!”) … “ (Jay Weisberg in the Festival Catalogue).

The film was produced by the Ambrosio studio, directed by Luigi Maggi and adapted by Arrigo Frusta. The film was shot on a real location, the Villa della Regina in Turin.

No more sunbeams and mirrors, painted backdrops, no more windows and doors made of stage flats; but real rooms, windows with glass, genuine columns, tiled pavements, polished floors. And real furniture, gilded, and silk curtains, and expensive rugs, luxury, a never before seen display …. (Arrigo Frusta quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

The settings of the film are impressive. However the intertitles are missing so one had to infer some of the plot from what was depicted. We see first the Bianca Maria (Mary Cléo Tarlarini) on a balustrade whilst a young officer of the Dragoons (Alberto A. Capozzi) stands below her making passionate gestures. The balustrade leads to a grand staircase into the grounds of the mansion. Here we see the Marquis Croixmazeu (Luigi Maggi) carrying a bouquet for his wife. He apparently does not see the Dragoon. There follows a letter sent by Bianca to her lover. He visits her in her boudoir. A servant, spying the couple, rides to his master with the news of the illicit affair. Both return to the mansion. Warned by her maid Bianca hides her lover in a walled closet. When the husband enters he finds his wife standing before the closet. He demands she takes an oath that there is nobody in the closet, which she does at a prie dieu. Despite this the husband locks his wife’s room and goes to fetch two workman. They are ordered to brick up the closet, sealing in the Dragoon. We see a shot of the unfortunate officer as he realises what is happening and sinks to his needs. The appalled wife collapses, she may even have died from shock.

The film only runs for twelve minutes but the story is presented with real style. Apart from the impressive sets there is a build-up of tension as the film cuts between settings when the servant fetches the master and their return. The scene where the servant informs the master of the dalliance has a red tint, presumably metaphoric. And at the wife’s oath,

the tableau (in extreme close-up) of the swearing hand was a new thing” … (Arrigo Frusta quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

La Grande Bretèche (also titled ‘Immured’] was produced by Les Films d’Art [part of Pathé] and directed by André Calmettes. They were also the company and director of the ‘ground-breaking’ L’Assassinat du duc de Guise (1908). The screenplay was by Paul Gavault,

the French version … takes a less censorious approach to the adulterous couple than either the Italian or [American [USA] versions. …

In keeping with Pathé’s aspirations towards prestige, the actors elected were taken from the top theatre companies … (Jay Weisberg in the Festival Catalogue).

La Grande Bretèche

In this version the married couple are Monsieur de Merret (André Calmettes) and |Madame de Merret (Véra Sergine) and the lover is Comte de Férédia (Philippe Garnier). After our initial sight of the characters a month passes, and the Comte visits Madame. A maid informs the husband and a title informs us of ‘The Revenge’. On this occasion the husband requires the wife to swear on a crucifix. The husband now orders workman to brick up the closet where the Comte is hiding. The wife tries to bribe the workmen to break the wall but then husband sees that it is finished. Later the wife vainly tries to smash the brickwork whilst the imprisoned Comte kisses a locket with the wife’s portrait. He endures his death throes whilst in the room the wife collapses and is laid on her bed by the husband and the maid, still holding the crucifix.

This film is the closest to that part of Balzac’s story of the events that occurred in ‘La Grande Bretèche’. It is also the most horrifying,. The cutting between the husband, the wife and her lover builds up the tension and the final death throes of the Comte are vividly portrayed. The print was about a hundred metres shorter than the original release. The plot is quite clear but presumably in its original form the paroxysms of jealousy and despair were even more fully played out.

The Sealed Room USA.

As Jay Weisberg notes this Biograph production did not credit Balzac for the source story. Directed by D. W. Griffith the film makes considerable changes and, as in the other versions, concentrates on the events in the past in the mansion, here more like a castle. In fact the film uses only interiors as settings. The king (Arthur Johnson) has a ‘favoured one’, (Marion Leonard). However, she is soon in the arms of an Italian troubadour (Henry B. Walthall). In his revenge the king has both the lovers walled up in a small ‘new room’ built for the favourite. He also forces the hesitant workmen at pistol-point to complete the work. Whilst the king gloats outside we see the interred couple become hysterical with the troubadour apparently turning on the woman as they expire.

The Sealed Room

This seems to be the most sadistic of the film versions. It is also the most melodramatic with the actors declaiming their actions and the shots mainly tableaux style with none of the dramatic cross-cutting of the European versions. The continuity seems a little lax. We see the Troubadour’s guitar outside the room, a clue for the King; but then he also has a guitar in the room with his lover. Both sets are strewn with flowers, which may be a metaphor of sorts.

This title was screened from a DCP, a copy of a 16mm version, itself a copy of a Paper Print survival from the period. Both European titles were on 35mm prints and were tinted. All three titles were accompanied by John Sweeney at the piano. His accompaniment increasing in dramatic flourishes as the melodrama on screen increased.

What is noticeable about all three versions is that they have a more moral tone than in Balzac’s original story. Jay Weisberg comments in the Festival Catalogue,

To the modern reader, Balzac’s refusal to condemn feels revolutionary, yet this was the quality that made many Victorians deeply uncomfortable, such as Margaret Fuller, writing in 1845, “he has no hatred for what is loathsome, no contempt for what is base, no love for what is lovely, no faith in what is noble. To him there is no virtue and no vice.”

The writer of this quotation clearly did not engage with the depth and complexity of Balzac’s writings. In the films his particular social commentary is lost due to the reduction of this story [and similarly in other adaptations] to a single narrative voice in linear fashion. Much of the complexity of ‘La Grande Bretèche’ stems from the main narration, by a Doctor, which then includes three other narrations as part of a flashback. The distance created has a quality later associated with Brecht.

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