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Posts Tagged ‘Production Design’

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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Tempest, USA 1928

Posted by keith1942 on April 28, 2017

This film was part of the programme dedicated to William Cameron Menzies at the 2016 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. Apart from Menzies the film had a fairly mixed group of filmmakers contributing. James Curtis, in the Festival Catalogue, records this:

When first announced, the John Barrymore vehicle Tempest was an original story by Mme. Fred de Gresac. Directing the script would be Frank Lloyd, late of Paramount. The title stuck, but little else did. Lloyd fell away sometime over the spring of 1927, as did Mme. de Gresac’s material, and Russian émigré Viktor Tourjansky, under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer replaced him. The news story, set in the time of the Russian revolution was supplied by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Tourjansky’s mentor at the Moscow Art Theatre.  … As veteran scenarist C. Gardner Sullivan got down to work on the screenplay, Menzies began the process of illustrating key sequences with Tourjansky.”

Slow production led to Tourjansky being ‘assisted’ by Lewis Milestone. There were changes to the cast and then Sam Taylor was bought in as director.

“”I don’t know anything about Russia,” the former gag man for Harold Lloyd to Considine.”

But producer John W. Considine of Feature Productions. Inc. kept him in charge. Taylor junked nearly all the material already filmed and working closely with Menzies and Sullivan directed the film that we now have. [a 35mm print 9203 feet long, it ran for 102 minutes at 24 fps, [we are entering the sound era].

The film was designed for John Barrymore and he dominates the story and the screen. There is even an exterior scene by a river where he is able to bare his manly chest. The 1920s was Barrymore’s heyday in film. The other casting changed several times but the romantic interest was finally played by Camilla Horn. Horn, a German actress, came to fame in F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), which led to a Hollwyood contract. Alongside Barrymore in the film is Louis Wolheim, who worked with the star on both stage and screen. The film’s villain was actually a Russian actor working in Hollywood, Boris de Fast. And there are other familiar faces among the supporting cast including g George Fawcett, a silent regular as authority or patriarchal figure.

The plot is simple and conventional. Sergeant Ivan Markov (Barrymore), is of peasant origin, but excellent at his work. He aims to become an officer, and despite the class hierarchy in the Tsarist army, he succeeds. This is partly due to the General (Fawcett) who has a high opinion of Ivan. Sergeant Bulba (Wolheim) is Ivan’s friend and confidant. However, now promoted Lieutenant, Ivan is treated with disdain by his fellow Officers. More wounding is the disdain shown by the General’s daughter, Princess Tamara (Horn). Falling in love with Tamara, despite her arrogance, Ivan gets drunk and is found ‘in flagrante delicto’. He is court-martialled and sentenced to five years in prison. Whilst incarcerated World War I breaks out and Ivan watches his troops march off through his prison bars.

All this time Ivan has been pursued and cajoled by a peddler, in reality a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Now Ivan is suffering the treatment the Peddler predicted. Moreover, now the prophecy of the ‘Red day dawning’ comes to past. Freed Ivan becomes a leader among the revolutionaries. He now takes revenge on his former arrogant officers, presiding over the court [in black jacket astrakhan hat] where they are sentenced to death as members of the hated aristocracy. But then, first the General and then Tamara are bought for trial. Ivan’s heart overrules his head. He outsmarts the Peddler turned Commissar. Whilst he is too late to save the General, He, Tamara and Bulba flee the new revolutionary state.

Tempest (1928)
Directed by Sam Taylor
Shown from left: Boris de Fast, John Barrymore

Given the presence of at least two ‘white Russian’ émigrés the finale of the film is not surprising. And I do not know whether Nemirovich-Danchenko was asked or paid for his story. Indeed, how faithful the film was to its source. Curtis notes that Taylor

“began anew, working more closely with Menzies’ illustrations than with the script Sullivan had fashioned.”

In fact, it is a very conventional Hollywood narrative, with the new Revolutionary and free Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. An opening title offers,

” a red tempest of terror’.

Ivan is never a card-carrying revolutionary. He is misused and abused by the military hierarchy. When the opportunity arises he takes revenge, but then his love for a ‘good’ [and suitably chastened] woman saves him. Needless to say the likeable General dies but the likable Bulba leaves with the romantic couple.

The style of the film is fairly conventional but it enjoys some excellent cinematography by Charles Rosher: he, among other accolades, was the favourite cameraman of Mary Pickford. There is some excellent use of chiaroscuro, especially in the prison sequences. And there are some very effective use of insert shots for flashbacks experienced by Ivan.

What stands out about the film is the design of Menzies. Curtis notes:

“For Tempest, Menzies rendered a less-stylised version of Russia that he had for The Eagle (1925, set in the time of Catherine the Great], but on more comprehensive. He would later speak of the importance of setting and lighting in securing a desired emotional effect, and how, in many cases., authenticity was sacrificed and architectural principles violated for the sake of the emotional response being sought.”

So the film offered not an authentic Russia, not an accurate history, certainly not a detached view of the revolution. One anomaly is a picture of Joseph Stalin on the wall where Ivan and the Commissar confer: presumably in 1917.  Menzies work was praised by critics, [presumably mainly anti-Bolshevik] and the film apparently did good business in the cinemas.

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