Early & Silent Film

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Mistinguett – two dramas.

Posted by keith1942 on February 17, 2020

Poster for ‘La Glu’

This performer and star featured alongside Suzanne Grandais in the ‘French Stars’ programme at the 2019 Giornate del Cinema Muto.

“Mistinguett, “Queen of the Paris Music Hall,” “Queen of the Paris Night,” and affectionately known as ‘”La Miss”, is a French show business legend, famous for her stunning legs (Insured for half a million francs in 1919), incredible costumes and headdresses, and a long career as a star in the realms of music hall, revue, and film.”

She established herself on the French stage, including the Moulin Rouge. She started in film in 1908 and was still making appearances in the early 1950s. Little her of her famous legs were seen in the early films though she carried over her ability to use notable costumes and to play a variety of character types. What impressed in the film dramas was the intensity of her performances.

L’épouvante [in USA Terror-stricken] France 1911

Mistinguett made several films with Albert Capellani who was a noted and innovatory director in the early teens. This short film, running 10 minutes in a digital transfer, was described in the Press as a “terrifying cinemadrama”. It is minimal both in the time span and in the settings.

Mistinguett plays a music hall actress returning to her apartment in the evening. As she prepares for bed a burglar (Émile Milo) enters her apartment. When the actress realises she closes the inner door of her rooms. The burglar takes her jewels. As he leaves the police arrive and there is a chase with the burglar climbing up on the roof, and, then unseen by the police, climbing down the house but the guttering on which he hangs come away. Crying out for help the actress come out on the balcony and, moved by pity, lowers a curtain so he can climb to safety. Before he leaves he drops her jewels back on the table.

Mistinguett’s performance is impressive. Her panic, then her pity, are powerfully conveyed. The film also benefits from Capellani’s direction and the uncredited cinematographer’s skill. As the actress prepares to read before sleep there is a forward track as she lights a cigarette. And during the burglary there are a couple of high-angle shows which increase the dramatic effect.

La Glu, France 1913.

This film was scripted and directed by Albert Capellani. It was adapted from a novel [later a play] by Jean Richepin. Mistinguett plays a femme fatale, not in the emotional manner of ‘terror-stricken’ but a cold and calculating sexual predator. The film’s title comes from a description she offers of herself in the film:

‘Who brushes up against me gets glued ..’.

The Catalogue notes that the term is

“a scurrilous bit of slang for an immoral femme fatale, a seductive siren who captivates and victimises all manner of men.” (Richard Abel and Victoria Duckett).

The films open with Mistinguett as Fernande, a young woman living at home with her bourgeois parents. She is already a flirt, meeting young men in the garden. Her father is visited by Doctor Pierre Cézambre (Henry Krauss). Fernande sets her cap at the doctor and they are soon married. Fernande caries on seeing other men. But

‘suspicion and jealousy assail the unhappy groom’

And when he searches Fernando room he finds notes from

“Jules, also Arsene and from Georges.”

The doctor beats Fernande whose response is to leave for Paris. Here she is able to live in luxury thanks to her many admirers. In one characteristic scene she dances for them at a boulevard café. These Paris sequences cove full rein to Mistinguett’s star persona.

“With her bright eyes, wide mouth, long legs, and limber body, Mistinguett is a perfect choice for the role. By turns vivacious, mischievous,impudent, and flaunting her allure, she commands the screen. (Catalogue).

One particular smitten admirer is the young Adelphe des Ribiers, a Breton aristocrat and presumptive heir to a fortune. But when Adelphe’s grandfather objects to the relationship Fernande leaves Paris. She rents a villa in Brittany on the coast. Here she vamps and bewitches a local fisherman, Marie-Pierre (Paul Capellani). This affair takes up the whole of the latter part of the film. Marie Pierre is already engaged and his fiancée and his parents are all appalled by this seduction.

There is a very effective beach scene where Fernande, dressed in a one-piece black swimming costume, toys with Marie-Pierre. Then he carries her from the sea. There follows the complete seduction. The sequence has an ellipsis but it is clear from the morning when Marie-Pierre rises in Fernande’s room that sex has taken place.

Marie-Pierre’s mother attempt too intervene to break up the relationship. Then the setting moves to a nearby town where Adelphe with his aristocratic uncle re-appears. This sparks Marie-Pierre’s jealousy and there is an intense and melodramatic sequence back at the villa where the uncle threatens Marie-Pierre with his gun. The latter collapses and he is taken back to the fisherman’s cottage of his parents. With the coincidence familiar in me,melodrama Doctor Pierre has moved to the village and is assisting the family. When Fernande appears at the cottage in pursuit of her victim the mother, now almost hysterical with anger, strikes Fernande with a mallet. She falls dead. But the noble doctor, who presumably feels some guilt for the subsequent events claims to have struck the fatal blow. The film end of this downbeat note.

This is a full-blooded melodrama dominated by the character of Mistinguett. The narrative travels from a small town to the metropolitan capital and then on to the rocky coast line of Brittany. The director Capellani made goods use of actual locations

“in the novel’s Brittany setting: the fishing village of Le Croisic, a nearby villa, and Guérande [the small town. This often gives exterior scenes a striking sense of deep space…” (Catalogue).

This can be seen in the early scene when Fernande lounges in the garden and then makes trysts with her lovers. It is noticeable in the beach sequence and in the several scenes set on the rocky cliffs. There is a strong spatial sense in the action in Guérande.

There is also an effective use of light and shadow. The scene where the doctor discovers the letters from Fernande;’s lovers has fine chiaroscuro. And there is similar low key lighting when we see Marie-Pierre after his night of passion with Fernande.

We enjoyed a 35mm print of 1951 meters with tinting, running at 18 fps for 95 minutes. This was an early and impressive feature. Both titles were accompanied by John Sweeney at the piano.

 

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