Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Mysterious Lady (1928)

“No man knew what she really was. And no man could resist her exotic beauty. A famous Russian spy, moving through the lives of men, in a maze of intrigue, passion and love. “

I just saw The Mysterious Lady starring Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel, a splendid MGM production that originally opened in august of 1928. Here in Stockholm, Garbo’s hometown, it was released January 31st 1929. In my opinion it’s one of director Fred Niblo’s best works. Niblo is mostly known for his other Garbo movie - The Temptress, and even more so for Ben Hur with Ramon Novarro. The Mysterious Lady is beautifully photographed by William Daniels who did so many of the really stylish MGM productions during the late 20’s and early 30’s, The Kiss and Their Own Desire to name a few. The sets are naturally signed by MGM’s house designer, the magnificent Cedric Gibbons. The Mysterios Lady is more or less a run of the mill MGM production of 1928 with the exception that it was MGM’s first movie to be released with a synchronized score. MGM was the last of the big studios to be wired for sound. Some say The Mysterious Lady served as a blueprint for Mata Hari which is basically the same story.

The movie is set in pre-First World War Vienna. An Austrian Captain, Karl von Raden (Conrad Nagel) attends the opera one evening and finds himself being seated next to a woman, Tania Fedorovna (Garbo) expecting the arrival of her cousin who never comes. After the opera, Karl notices the attractive woman he sat next to now standing in the rain. She informs him that she has no money for taxi fair, so he agrees to escort her home himself. While at her apartment, they immediately embrace and have a romantic affair. They even spend the next day on a romantic outing. That evening, Karl must deliver some important plans to Berlin. Just before boarding his train, he learns that Tania is really a Russian spy. She comes to see him aboard the train, and admits that she set things up on purpose so as to meet him, but she also insists that she truly has fallen in love with him. When Karl rebuffs her coldly, she steals the plans, which leads to him being court-martialed and imprisoned. Karl's influential uncle is able to provide him with one last chance to clear his name…

I was really surprised Conrad Nagel was such a good silent actor. I haven’t seen much of his early work. He has a minimalist style I really like and one can read his small expressions like a book. I always find Garbo a bit overly theatrical with a lot of "patent expressions" and sometimes she poses more than she acts. But here she's great, and really beautiful to. Her late silents are fantastic, she never was better than in those. A funny thing struck me, when making period pictures it's always important to get costumes and hairstyles right for the period. But usually the times when the film was made always shines through in some way, don't they? In this film however, they didn’t seem to have bothered with that at all. It's set just before the First World War which sets it no later than summer 1914. But Gilbert Clark’s magnificent gowns have 1928 written all over them! Brilliant!

I just love the silent movies use of historical and litterary references sneaked in here and there to emphasize the story. This picture of Tania betraying her emperor the tzar, just like Brute betryed Ceasar.

As a whole, The Mysterious Lady is a treat indeed, very nice camera work and an all over lush feeling about it. The print I have access to is frightfully scratchy at times. I guess this is the Turner “restored” version. Well, they certainly didn’t overdo it this time. To be honest, I find it hard to spot any signs of restoration at all apart from the music. The new soundtrack by Vivek Maddala is quite pleasing, but I must make one remark. When Conrad and Greta meet at the opera, the performance they attend seems to be Puccini's Tosca. Good choice, it makes sense to the plot. I think adding some Puccini music would have been appropriate. It could have added further to the story. Conrad is repeatedly playing tunes from the Opera throughout the movie, first at Garbo's home and later at the reception when he's an undercover musician. We even get to see a glimpse of sheet music from the opera in those scenes. The theme is love and betrayal, in the Opera as well as in the movie. Furthermore, the Puccini music lies in the public domain and could be used without restrictions. I don’t know whether the original score included any Puccini music. It would have been great to have the original score as an option but maybe it didn’t survive to our times. Luckily the movie did.

Let's try a few scenes with some music from the second act of Puccini's Tosca. I think it works really well.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Dust or DVD?

We all know how hard it can be to find odd movies on DVD. Well, I must admit there are great releases both here in Europe and most notably in the US. There is however one particular period that apparently is far too odd (or far out) to get good releases on either continent. The early talkies, my pet subject almost seems to be a forgotten era all together. When described in books or by film critics the movies from this particular period is often described as static, dull, racist or simply too bad to be taken seriously. Well, I don’t agree. I think this common misconception very well may be the main reason so few of these movies are released to the public. Therefore I have made a little list of which early talkies I believe must get a general DVD release in the near future.

The Singing Fool (1928) The follow up to the Jazz Singer, a part talking, part singing, not much dancing Vitaphone triumph and one of the biggest moneymakers during the 20’s. Apparently it survives intact with both picture and sound elements in good working order. Where is the “80th anniversary special 3-disc edition” of this? It was a much bigger hit than the Jazz Singer (which has a really nice box-set, since it is considered the first talking picture). A follow up would be appropriate.

Eddie Cantor - The Goldwyn Years (1930-34) Whoopee!, Palmy Days, The Kid From Spain, Roman Scandals and Kid Millions, This bunch once was out on Laserdisc in the early 90’s but has never been released in any form since. These five films are comedy classics. They are in every way as good as the Marx Bros films of the same period. However, I know there is a problem. Eddie always has a few scenes in blackface in all of them. I guess this can be a reason not to release them in a time when everything public has to be politically correct. I am not American so I may not understand these issues completely but for Eddies sake, it was almost 80 years ago, times were different back then and Eddie proved to be a good person all his life, it’s time to honor him with a release of his best work.

Rio Rita (1929) The 1929 original 140 minute version. This was the big Christmas blockbuster of 1929 and a grandiose spectacular it was indeed. Music, song, dance and comic relief from Wheeler & Woolsey. What more can one ask for? The common version of this film is the badly cut 1932 re-release with many of the best numbers, including the Kinkajou cut. I have quite reliable information from different sources about an existing print of the 1929 European release. So a little research in that direction might give us a complete Rio Rita to feast our eyes Swell!

Follow Thru (1930) This is said to be one of the best preserved two- strip Technicolor films of this period. Follow Thru has been restored from the original negatives by the UCLA some ten years ago. This is frustrating when all you can get your hands on is a 14th generation copy of a VHS made in Japan back in 1984, you can imagine the blur. I haven’t seen the restored version since it’s only shown on remote festivals on what seems to be the other side of the world. DVD – Now!

Paramount On Parade (1930) Also a restored film which is almost intact, apart from some color footage that had to be presented in b/w. I can’t see the use in restoring a film only to keep it locked up. Sadly, Paramount On Parade is hardly ever shown at all. The restored print runs 102 minutes whether the print in circulation among collectors is a totally mutilated 77 minute (sometimes even shorter) version with no color at all made for TV in the early 50’s. Paramount On Parade also exists in different languages. It’s especially interesting for me since it’s probably the only early talkie that was made in a Swedish version. Some of the Swedish footage have survived and could serve as bonus material. I think there is existing footage from the Spanish version as well.

Glorifying The American Girl (1929) The same goes for this “milestone”. It has been restored to its former glory but is naturally collecting dust on a shelf somewhere instead of being given a second life on DVD. OK it’s not a great movie, but it has really good bits in it. We get to see what a Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza could have looked like, in color, with Ziegfeld himself supervising. In my book that is far more interesting than collecting dust in the dark, unseen by millions…

These are only a few of all the movies that could change the common point of view that the early talkies are something to forget about rather than to celebrate.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Myrna Loy (1929)

I just colorized this picture of Myrna Loy when making a DVD label for a friend. It's a publicity still from The Desert Song from 1929 in which Myrna plays the mystical native dancing girl Azuri. I have tried to recreate a desert feeling to the picture using earthy tones, but Myrna was no Moroccan native, her colors gives that much away. Maybe I should have made her darker, more tan... Anyway, Her famous green eyes are there, the rest is a wild guess, maybe too wild.

The Desert Song was released in April 1929 and naturally it featured sequences in Technicolor. All color scenes are lost in surviving prints so there's no way we can see what Myrna looked like in color in this particular role. Several other scenes were cut as well. After 1935, the original 1929 version became illegal to view or exhibit in the United States due to its Pre-Code content which included sexual innuendo, lewd suggestive humor and open discussion of themes such as homosexuality. Consequently, a cleaned-up version was made in 1943 and again in 1953. The version I have is probably the 1953 version made for TV. The Desert Song is a rather typical 1929 movie operetta, the basic plot was used many times. Most notably in Rio Rita, the big success of december '29, which is basically the same film plus Wheeler & Woolsey.
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