I heart John M Stahl. He’s revealing more and more to me with each movie I watch. But I have to be honest. For me, the Lincoln Cycle has gone off the boil – too much folksy moralising, not enough of either cute childish antics or actual grownup politics. Perhaps tomorrow morning’s final instalment will change that…
Today’s Stahl feature was the very definition of a kitchen-sink drama, with the director abandoning his customary upper-class milieu for The Song of Life (1922). He’s establishing himself in my mind as a first-rate New York filmmaker, but here he abandons the lavish Park Avenue apartments for cramped tenements, where life is hard and people live so cheek-by-jowl that their darkest secrets can deep through the floorboards. A hard-pressed housewife, sick of spending her day with her hands sunk deep in the dishwater abandons husband and child in a fit of dissatisfaction with the rural life. But years later we find her still living in the city, all alone, but still doing the dishes to get by. She’s on the verge of saying goodbye to it all with a bottle of Lysol, when the novelist downstairs takes her in as housekeeper to himself and his, yes, dissatisfied wife. Maybe it’s the Bess Meredyth screenplay, or just Stahl honing his skills, but this was a neat and to-the-point melodrama, despite the crashingly improbably coincidences powering the story. And strong performances all round too, especially from Georgia Woodthorpe as the mother and Gaston Glass as the novelist.
I have seen a few Stahl films with novelists in by now. Interesting – are they auteur stand-ins, model storytellers, or is this a nod of self-consciousness? With plots that hinge so much on chance, do we need to have a “meta” figure to shepherd us through the narrative? Answers on a postcard please.
Although I have to say, much as I enjoyed it, fair play to anyone who gave the Stahl the time of day after seeing the new restoration of Carl Th Dreyer’s sublimely funny The Parson’s Widow (1920), complete with freshly reinstated tinting and toning, and John Sweeney on piano. What a mid-morning treat!
After lunch, a very different kind of cinematic beauty. We went back to Balzac with two adaptations of The Duchess of Langeais, one a fragment and one a German 1927 feature directed by Paul Czinner, Liebe. Elizabeth Bergner is radiant as the coquettish duchess, who falls for a repressed marquis. This is a rich study in sexual frustration and prolonged yearning, stretched out to every inch of its possible emotional impact, They smoulder, but theirs is a fine romance, as they say, all meaningful looks and heaving bosoms, but no action. Until the Marquis takes what his pal describes as a “less platonic strategy … more efficient”. Suddenly the tables turn, and the duchess is pursuing the marquis to no avail. It ends in misery, and in a nunnery too. A lush piece pased solely on in character and mood rather than action, this was a beguiling piece, if indulgently long. Bergner is wonderful; her lover Hans Rehmann more than a little wooden, but that kind of worked. I can’t deny I hoped for something a little more passionate, though.
For afters, we were treated to more Gertie in the shape of Donald Crafton’s lecture on Winsor McCay and then what was by all accounts a surprising and ripe Mario Bonnard feature, I Promessi Sposi. Sad to miss this one, though I suspect one would enjoy it more if one knew the novel it was based on, apparently a very popular text in Italian schools.
A short day for me, but a rich one. I am keeping my silent powder dry for an epic Thursday. See you tomorrow!
- Intertitle of the day No 1: “This is where the mother becomes an angel. We need the money.” The Song of Life indulges in some cynical foreshadowing.
- Intertitle of the day No 2: “A kitchen knife is no good … unless you have a cabbage” – Orizuru Osen, the late-night Japanese film that seemed to be almost universally baffling.
- Sick burn of the day: Lincoln’s messenger returns from giving a note to the Secretary of War– “What did he say?” “He told me to go to the devil.” “And you came to me?”
- Scene-stealer of the day: it has to be Richard Headrick, popping up as a mischievous poppet for Stahl again in Song of Life, right? Wrong. The organ-grinder’s monkey carries off the prize like a hot biscuit.
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