On January 5th, 1923, VARIETY reported on behind-the-scenes negotiations about Rudolph Valentino’s future, between serious, heavy-hitting Hollywood power brokers. The names of the men mentioned are a revelation. Why? Because they feature so prominently in the future. Was Rudy’s career really in his own hands? It would seem not. Full article below:
The post here this month, is my contribution to the 2021 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon, hosted by Paul, from Silver Screen Classics. As His Fame Still Lives is focused monthly on Rudolph Valentino, it’s natural it’ll be one of his films that’s the subject. For the Blogathon last year I wrote at length about Camille (1921). This year I’m writing about The Conquering Power (1921); which, it just-so-happens, is 100-years-old this coming July.
In the October 1921 issue of THE PHOTODRAMATIST, in an essay, entitled, The Eternal Esperanto, Rex Ingram, one of the most innovative and talented film directors of The Silent Era, had the following to say:
“Great art belongs to the ages, and to the Universe; in it time and place are of secondary importance, for its message and its story are not of yesterday, today nor tomorrow, but of all time.”
That Ingram saw himself as an Artist is clear. In The Eternal Esperanto he presents himself as exactly this. Enjoying, immensely, his comparison of the creation of a sculpture with a group of figures, to the setting-up of a scene with a collection of actors. That he was considered one by his contemporaries, is proven by the fact that he’d recently been awarded an honorary Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree, by Yale University. (“… the first recognition of the photoplay as one of the fine arts.”) His Mentor there, Professor Lee O. Lawrie, who he’d assisted when younger, even going so far as to create (as a gift for him) an actual physical representation of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; for a period of time, openly displayed in a store window in New York. Yet, as much as seeing himself as an Artist and wanting his work to be seen to be Art, it’s obvious he sought to place himself on the same level as the artistic greats. And to raise the relatively new medium to that level. The question is: did he?
Having reached the vertex of artistic achievement with The Four Horsemen Ingram wasn’t about the slacken. Far from it. Neither was he going to tinker with the team which had helped him to deliver a masterpiece. So, with this winning formula, early in 1921, he embarked upon his next project, titled, The Conquering Power; a film again about France, but this time based on an older literary work: the Nineteenth Century novel, Eugenie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac. And a work, according to the writer of an article about him, in THE HERALD AND NEWS, he’d “long desired to film”.
In terms of audience Eugenie Grandet was a book with which North Americans were already generationally familiar. It had reached the shores of the USA, properly translated, by the late 1850s, when it sold for just 25 cents a copy. And, a decade later, was successfully serialized in The Chicago Tribune, between September 29th and December 29th, 1872. In the subsequent decade, in 1886, the New-York [Daily] Tribune, while minutely examining the tale, sincerely lauded it, stating it was: “… high tragedy in humble life; an epic of passion, as Taine styles it, but framed upon the simplest lines.” In 1899 the country’s press marked the Author’s centennial; the WATERTOWN REPUBLICAN trumpeting him as having been: “… the greatest writer of fictitious narrative of the past century, if not of all the centuries, and the greatest of all French writers…”
Curious it is, then, given his popularity and the richness of the narrative, that there were few attempts to translate this great work for the Silver Sheet, in the early years of U. S. cinema. Research has uncovered just two quite unambitious efforts: Eclair’s 961 foot Eugenie Grandet, issued on June 20th, 1910; and, a lengthier, seemingly independently created, three reel production, titled The Miser’s Daughter, shot in 1915, and advertised as for sale or rent, in the January 15th, 1916 edition of THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD. (The Miser’s Daughter was what a widely printed newspaper serialization had been called in 1904.) Was Rex aware of the mid. decade three reeler? Quite possibly. After all, he’d already moved on from acting and writing, to directing by that time, and was ever watchful, as he shifted at speed from one company to another, of the work of contemporaries. As they, likewise, observed him. Also, the piece, in THE HERALD AND NEWS, does emphasize the long-held wish to breathe life into the source material. And we can believe it to be true, if he’d known of, or even seen, either one or both of the earlier celluloid translations.
When we read Eugenie Grandet it’s easy to see the appeal. The simple, yet compelling central female character, and the refined and tragic central male character, were ideal parts for his established stars Terry and Valentino. (A pair of lovers already well-fixed in the minds of the cinema-going public.) Once again the story was about two sides of a family. Enormous sums of money – negative and positive – were also a theme. And, despite the rather static, one-location nature of the story, it included an array of interesting supporting personalities.
June Mathis, who’d expertly adapted the work of Vicente Blasco Ibanez the previous year, was tasked with creating the continuity. It being she, in her capacity as Head of the Scenario Department at Metro Pictures Corp., who’d pushed, hard, not only for Rex Ingram to direct The Four Horsemen, but for Rudolph Valentino to portray Julio, it was no doubt felt she was the safest pair of hands. (Which she was, though her past choices, while paying serious dividends, did sow the seeds of future issues; not only for herself, but also the two talented men she championed.) Her bold decision to root the action in the then present day, a full hundred years after the time in which it was set, and a move mirroring her concurrent interpretation of Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame Aux Camelias, was perhaps the most significant feature of her adaptation. And is explained in the opening of at least one surviving version, as being due to the “Great Public” not then being too fond of “the costume play”.
The first report we see about the planned sequel to The Four Horsemen, is in Wid’s DAILY, on April 29th, 1921. This basic paragraph, communicating the name, that it was to be Ingram’s follow-up to his Blockbuster, and that Cleo Madison had been added to the principals of that previous production, was superseded by a series of bulletins. Yet these weekly reports don’t give too much away with regards to progress. Something, it has to be said, that stands in stark contrast to its predecessor. What we do know, is that by the end of April, it was imminently about to commence. And, that by June 29th, eight weeks later, the Director was on his way East with the negative. Proving the whole project had been turned around in two months. Again, a serious difference to The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), which was a six month endeavour.
As studio records were long ago largely disposed of, we must look to later accounts for shoot information; accounts, often years and decades in the future. Alas, the picture they paint isn’t a pretty one, with discord being the dominant tone. The impression we get being there was, for one reason or another, or three, or four, a general breakdown in the bonhomie that had assisted prior success. The warmth and enjoyment, much in evidence in the many group publicity images in 1920, evaporated. To the extent there are almost no such photographs in existence from the following year. We get a good idea of how bad things got, when we look at a one page profile of Ramon Novarro, entitled, The Man from the Mob: How Rex Ingram Picked Ramon Novarro for Fame, which appears in the February 1924 issue of PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE. As follows:
“In spite of what the director was doing for him temperaments clashed and arguments arose between Mr. Ingram and Rudie. In the course of one of these arguments Mr. Ingram remarked one day: ‘You think I can’t get along without you, don’t you?’ Well, I’ll show you. I can go out onto the set, pick a man out of the mob of extras, and make him just as big a star as you are.”
Another version of this story is that Rudolph Valentino refused to work and Rex Ingram said he’d find an Extra and put him in his place.
Reasons for such outbursts do exist. One, from a reliable source, his Second Wife, Natacha Rambova, appeared six years after the PHOTOPLAY page, in her widely distributed The Truth About Rudolph Valentino By NATACHA RAMBOVA, HIS WIFE. In the FOURTH INSTALLMENT, Poverty-Stricken Days Prove Unhappy for Two Unknowns, in the Washington Evening Star newspaper, she explains:
“Many amusing incidents happened during the filming of this picture. I was not on the lot myself, but I heard all about them at luncheon or dinner, for Rudy continued to take most of his meals at my bungalow near the studio.
“One evening he stamped in in fury, eyes flashing, trembling with rage. Rex had insulted him! What should he do? Challenge him to a duel? In anger his thoughts always flew to a duel; his Italian ancestry cropped out with the force of a dozen Borgias: it was the only way to settle a quarrel.
“‘But, Rudy, how did Rex insult you?’ I asked when I could get in a word. At last the story came out.
“Rudy had been dressed in evening clothes for the midnight entertainment scene (he loved to wear his full dress clothes; he was so proud of them) when, just as they were about to start shooting, Rex suddenly stopped the cameras and bawled Rudy out before all the extras. He was wearing a white vest when it should’ve been a black one, or vice versa, I have forgotten. Anyway, it was not correct—Rudy the model of the well dressed man whose effects were always impeccable! Words flew.
“Rudy should know better, Rex declared, whereupon Rudy asked Rex what he knew about clothes—a trench coat was all he ever wore. More words, loud and angry. The question was finally decided by calling in Frank Elliot, an English actor, acknowledged to be the last word in gentleman’s attire. Mr Elliot, to Rudy’s delight, pronounced him perfectly turned out.
But this was not all. From that moment on Rex ignored his leading man completely. During the most important close-ups Rex sat cleaning his fingernails with a penknife. How could an artist act under such conditions? The matter called for a duel.”
In his autobiography, It Took Nine Tailors, written with M. M. Musselman and published in 1949, Adolphe Menjou gives us a little more insight, when he relates how it was that he came to work opposite Rudolph in The Sheik (1921). An opportunity which presented itself to him after Valentino had quit Metro Pictures Corp. According the Menjou, this was because:
“Rex Ingram, director of The Four Horsemen, convinced Richard Rowland, president of Metro, that Valentino was just a flash in the pan, that he was impossible to direct, and that he would never be successful in anything else. This, at least, is what Valentino told me. As a result, despite the tremendous success of The Four Horsemen, the star of the picture found himself out of a job and $4,000 in debt. It could only happen in Hollywood.”
That June Mathis was also a victim of Rex Ingram’s manoeuvrings, was put forth a few years afterwards, by Valentino Biographer Alan Arnold. Who, on Page 66 of his biography, Valentino (1954), stated:
“It was deplorable that his employers did not reward him for his fine work in terms of a much better salary. Furthermore, when he began work on a fourth film, The Conquering Power, he found that much of the original script prepared by June Mathis had changed, and he felt that this new version was inferior to the original.”
How true this is, is hard to say, without seeing the original script and any subsequent rewrites. However, it seems highly likely, when we consider that Mathis too would leave for pastures new. And that, ahead of his eventual departure for the South of France, the Metro studio was very much considered, by the industry, to be Ingram’s Private Kingdom. One likelihood, which is backed up as a theory when we view The Conquering Power (1921), is that there was initially far more of Charles Grandet, Valentino’s character, in the earlier scenario. In Balzac’s novel Eugenie Grandet is the more important of the two lovers. Yet, we see that there’s a serious effort on someone’s part to elevate Charles to the same level, and to achieve this by giving him more screen time — even placing him at the start of the story, when he’s not introduced until a later point by the Author. Which couldn’t be Rex given the antagonism between him and Rudolph. Antagonism, perhaps given life, when the Director saw that his Male Lead’s share of the motion picture was going to impact on his Female Lead’s share? And the closeups? Well, when we compare those of Rudolph Valentino’s and Alice Terry’s, there’s a definite difference. Valentino’s simply aren’t as stunning, or as lengthy, as Terry’s.
After incorrect credits – Rex Ingram would’ve been front and centre with Alice Terry placed before Rudolph Valentino in importance – the version I viewed on YouTube presents three frames of text. Text establishing who the story’s originally by; what it’s about; the dominant theme (all-conquering love); and where it’s located, in the present. (Though this will be tested at the conclusion.)
Present day France, an intertitle tells us:
As we picture her, with her
sparkling gaiety and irrepressible
spirit of youth.”
Following some surprisingly poor stock footage, of what seems to be a provincial street carnival, we launch into the story, and are introduced not to the Protagonist, but to the object of her affection: her Cousin, Charles Grandet. Who’s leading a: “… carefree life in the French capital.”
We fade in on an extraordinary scene. A Cecil-B.-DeMille-style party, crammed with beautifully-dressed celebrants, seen through almost frame-like parted, heavy drapery. The guests at the gathering are seated casually around a central indoor fountain and are obviously enjoying themselves. “Lavishly celebrating the twenty-seventh year of a pampered existence.” as the third intertitle reveals. (In the novel Charles is in his early twenties.)
Next we see Valentino, left, in full evening dress as Charles, talking to a woman, right, in a fantastic headdress. This is Annette. And he toasts her: “To Annette, the prettiest woman in Paris!” However we soon see that this prettiest woman isn’t faithful to the Banker’s Son who feels so strongly for her.
The party continues. (Though a little truncated if we’re to believe surviving stills.) An exotically dressed, half naked woman, carried into the crowded room on a massive platter, by muscular men, proceeds to dance on it. We see North African musicians. And we view Charles inviting his Birthday guests to pull on the ribbons in front of them, to see what gifts they’ll find inside of little boats and water craft, tucked into the base of the water feature. Faithless Annette receives a delicate, jewelled wristwatch. This is indeed a pampered existence!
Meanwhile, Charles’s Father, Victor Grandet, has returned home looking weary, and requested that a Servant ask his Son to come to talk with him. The Banker is then seen reading a dire telegram, that tells him that he can’t be rescued from his fatal financial situation, with an advance of the size he requires. As Rudolph Valentino apologizes to the partygoers, we finally see, in full, the white waistcoat that caused Rex Ingram to explode, during the shooting of this opening scene.
Tenderness between the stern and troubled Father and the frivolous and careless Son ensues. Showing the viewer, that that while the relationship might be fraught, there’s much love between widowed Husband and Motherless Child. (For me, this is beautifully played by Valentino, a person who lost his Father when young and had already lost his Mother by this point in time.) The Father gives his offspring his most precious possession: two gem encrusted portraits of himself and his late Wife. The parent next instructs his only child to travel to see and stay with his Uncle outside of the capital. Charles must depart the next morning for Noyant. (Saumur in Balzac’s original tale.)
The sleepy village of Noyant
basked in the sunshine of the
The action now shifts to the film’s main location, Noyant, nicely realized by Ingram’s team, headed by Ralph Barton. We see the inhabitants going about their day to day life. And then are shown the exterior of the home of the Grandets. A property, which is promisingly imposing from the outside, yet spartan and uncomfortable within. Inside we see the Father, Pere Grandet, the Mother, Madame Grandet, and a Villager. Pere Grandet is treating the Tenant poorly. (Which isn’t something that happens in the novel.)
And Eugenie? Rex makes us wait. Finally presenting Alice’s young Daughter in the garden of the home, basket over her arm, and surrounded by a hedge archway. After passing through the kitchen she’s again framed in yet another entrance way. This time the doorway to the main room on the ground floor. And this is a big close up that gives value not only to her as a character but also as the Star. Here she receives a gold coin on the occasion of her own Birthday — it seems the cousins were born just one day apart.
After affection between between Father and Daughter, which mirrors that between Father and Son, we have a light comedic moment, when the trusted family Maid, Nanon, almost drops a Birthday bottle of wine when she slips down a ladder. (The Birthday party that follows, is also a mirroring of the previous, far more extravagant and gathering.) Then the guests arrive with their gifts and alterior motives; namely: to marry the pretty Heiress. The rival factions being first The Cruchots, consisting of the Abbe, the Notary, and their rather unappealing Nephew. And second the des Grassins, Father, Mother and less slightly less unappealing Child. Both factions have brought gifts that reveal their differing personalities.
For dramatic purposes, and in contrast once more with the original material, we also see the arrival, in Noyant, of the Cousin, Rudolph’s Charles. An entrance that’s on another level entirely, in that he appears in a chauffeured vehicle, and is dressed in light, summery attire. On stepping out of the dusty auto. he’s greeted by locals and a deaf old citizen who attempts to assist him. The astonished Dandy, like a visitor from another planet, mistakenly imagines that his Cousin lives in the imposing castle, Chateau Froidfond. And absent-mindedly tips his cigarette ash into the man’s ear trumpet.
The Nephew’s Driver knocks at the Grandet’s front door and announces his Employer. And here, for the first time we have the amusing popping of the monocle, when Charles is confronted by not only his untidy and old-fashioned Uncle, but also the tatty decor of the house. After passing a letter from his Father to his Uncle, he enters this alien abode with his black French Poodle, and is introduced to those gathered. With another funny moment being his passing of his dog to the Son of Monsieur and Madame des Grassins. The introduction to Terry’s Eugenie is a significant moment. While this is all happening Pere Grandet’s reading the letter and we see that Victor Grandet has killed himself and placed his Son, Chares, in the care of his Uncle.
The preparation of Charles Grandet’s room’s faithful to that particular passage in Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet. Even to the use of a bed warmer, and over usage, in the Uncle’s eyes, of candles. (The second one is relit by his Nephew after he extinguishes it.) The lighting here, as in other sections so far, is gorgeous. And we have the second popping of the monocle; where Charles astonishes Nanon, when he allows it to fall from his eye to his breast pocket, just before he begins to undress. A trick for which Rudolph Valentino deserves some serious praise.
The next morning the terrible news of his Father’s death’s broken to the Son in the picturesque garden. Fine acting, in my opinion, from Valentino and from Terry, here, as one reacts and the other reacts to the reaction. Eugenie comforts her Cousin after her Father’s departure. And we next learn that Charles has gone to Paris. In his absence, while finding a way to secure his late Brother’s debts to his ow advantage, Pere Grandet tells the Notary and his Nephew:
“I would rather see my daughter
dead than married to Charles
Rudy’s character returns from Paris, and, we must presume, his Father’s funeral, more sober in dress and mood than when he arrived days before. The plan of his Uncle to restore honour to the family name is communicated to him, but fails to change his mood. And he retires to his room, to write letters, where he cries himself to sleep. This is faithful to Balzac’s original. And the move of Eugenie from her bedroom to his, is exactly as it happens on the novel; even down to her begging his forgiveness for reading his private correspondence, and her desire to help him to travel safely with her small hoard of gold. Gold she begs him to accept on her knees after he wakes up and sees her.
This scene is beautifully done, beautifully composed, and the exquisite lighting drew comment from contemporaries, who were mystified as to how the effect had been achieved, by John F. Seitz, the Chief Cameraman/Cinematographer. Alice Terry is saintly and almost ethereal, in a loose blonde wig, and hooded cloak. And Rudolph Valentino is equally stunning, positioned as an exhausted and worn out, grief-stricken young man, who’s cried himself to sleep. (We see the tears on his cheeks.) The luxurious, silken patterned dressing gown he wears, is as described by Honore de Balzac. And the exchange of the gold for the glittering box, that contains the portraits of the Aunt and Uncle of the selfless Niece, is also it happens in the book.
The next day, we presume, the pair have a tender scene in the garden. They view together a nest with eggs. And bill and coo. Attentions that are noticed from a window by Pere Grandet. He seethes. And is quick, before his Nephew’s leaving for a new and hard life in Martinique, to get him to sign over to him his dead Father’s estate. Something done with a certain amount of flourish by Rudy’s character, with a very smart fountain pen. As Charles readies himself to leave he notices, through her open bedroom door, his Cousin crying. He enters the room quietly and they embrace and kiss. A final kiss, so they imagine, nether knowing their eventual fates. She has placed the key to his spangled box on a chain and show it to him. Then she passes him her cross which he takes. And there’s a gradual fade out to black.
Time passes in a subtle manner. Life at the Grandet’s residence is the same but changed. At least Eugenie is changed. And we see this when Terry’s character visits the garden in Winter clothing, alone, clearly pining for her Cousin. The nest they saw together is now empty of course. We then cut to the equally lonely Valentino character, who’s writing her a letter, from a ramshackle hut thousands of miles away. The arrival of a letter from his Uncle telling him that his Cousin has been married results in a pained and bitter expression. He tears up the letter he just wrote. And we see that his hair’s roughened up. And he’s got Stubbly face. (Cue swooning.)
The change in her Father is manifested when he requests to see her gold and she tells him she no longer has it. His rage is enormous when he realizes, correctly, that she’s passed it to her Cousin. (In the novel he discovers that she’s received a box in return.) Naturally she must be punished for her betrayal and so he imprisons her in her room. A move which causes the death of his Wife, her Mother, Madame Grandet. (This almost instantaneous, quite violent death, is a long and drawn-out affair, in Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet.)
From this point Pere Grandet begins to go mad. A slowish descent that suddenly speeds up. He becomes even more obsessed by his money; yet, runs into an issue when the Notary arrives to inform him the village is gossiping about his treatment of his Daughter. Cruchot tells him he knows that she’s not his biological child, and, that she’s Heir to her late Mother’s considerable fortune. A fortune Grandet secured when he married her Mother. If, Notary Cruchot tells him, he gets her to sign a release, then she can’t divide the property in his lifetime. And this is what happens. (The idea that Eugenie isn’t the natural offspring of Pere Grandet isn’t once mentioned in the novel. So it’s a mystery as to why this was considered necessary.)
Grandet, who’s just tricked his Daughter, leaves the secret room to escort the Notary to the front door. This slip allows Eugenie to notice letters from Charles to her, when she replaces the inkwell and quill pen to the desk, and tries to move a spider from the papers collected there. On his return her Father sees her with the correspondence and angrily lunges at her. He then pushes her out of the room. And closes the door so violently, that he locks himself inside, when the safety lock falls on the other side falls into place. Neither his Daughter nor his Maid know he’s trapped there, and so can’t help him in his moment of extreme need. And while Eugenie reeds the communications that were denied her, and Nanon busies herself washing clothing in the stream, Pere Grandet expires, as a result of the exertion of trying to free himself from the room in which he’s trapped. A really remarkable and still eerie, almost Dickensian demise, that springs from either June Mathis’s, or, Rex Ingram’s imaginations. And isn’t to be found anywhere in Balzac’s original tale. In sequence the wronged Tenant, his late Brother, Victor, and his recently deceased Wife all return as apparitions to haunt him. The creepy embodiment of gold is played by the Actor who portrayed one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the earlier film.
The death of her Father leaves Eugenie Grandet a wealthy and much sought-after woman. Yet she prefers to stay true to the memory of Charles Grandet. That is, until she receives a letter back un-opened that she’s sent to him. This final humiliation makes her decide to marry one of the suitors. However, while the paperwork is being drawn up, and she takes the air in the garden, a figure emerges that she soon realizes is Charles Grandet, returned, one last time, to take a look at the garden where they enjoyed each other’s company, so many years before. When she tells him that she’s not married as he thought they have their happy ending. However, for the Notary, whose Nephew was to be married to the Heiress, it’s all too much, and he suffers a hilarious collapse, much to the amusement of rival family, the des Grassins.
Is The Conquering Power (1921) “Great art” that “belongs to the ages”? In my opinion, yes, it is. The majority of it remains a delight. There are standout performances. Though, we might wonder how much better it might’ve been, if it hadn’t been tinkered with. Certainly, even the altered version doesn’t exist to be viewed, today, online. (Is there a better one? In an archive?) And that’s a great shame. The Conquering Power I accessed is clearly a bit of a jumble. It’s also not particularly faithful to Balzac’s great story of suffering and redemption — though this didn’t seem to upset too many at the time, as far as I can see. The general consensus, in the Autumn of 1921, was that Rex Ingram had surpassed himself. And that’s quite possible for me, if that print, before the removal of certain portions by state censors, was a more fluid and flowing movie. One that had just a bit more to it. That wasn’t missing its initial intertitling and credits. And which was presented with the original score, rather than floaty flutes, which don’t suit a lot of the action. I hope that my look at it has piqued your interest. If so my time wasn’t wasted. And if you enjoy reading about Valentino, please follow this Blog, to be notified of future posts. Happy Easter!
Wonderful it is, to be invited to contribute to the April 3rd to 5th, 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon, hosted by Paul, from Silver Screen Classics. As His Fame Still Lives is focused monthly on Rudolph Valentino, it’ll come as no surprise that it’s one of his films that’s the subject. Which one? Well, read on and see!
It’s amazing, considering his on-screen persona, that Rudolph Valentino appeared in only two motion pictures that were adaptations of great classic works. After all, this was a Twenties Super Star that veritably dripped with: emotion, romance, tragedy and history. All of his post fame vehicles – there were fourteen in total – are seemingly crammed, at least in our minds, with everything that makes a written work eternally appealing; which, according to Esther Lombardi, is: “… love, hate, death, life, and faith…” In visual terms, we think of him classically — in fact, he was promoted thus. Astride a horse. On a throne. Brandishing a rapier. Masked. With Terry, Ayres, Swanson, Lee, Naldi, Daniels, D’Algy and Banky in his arms. Ageless, spine-tingling, resonant, reverberating imagery.
And yet, as I stated, just a pair. And from the same company and unleashed in the same year. Of these two productions, The Conquering Power (1921), based on Eugenie Grandet (1833) by Honore de Balzac, and Camille (1921), based on La Dame aux Camelias (1848) by Alexandre Dumas fils (both, incidentally, modern interpretations), I choose the latter. Not only is it, in my opinion, the better tale, it’s also the superior movie. And, as it has at it’s heart, as the Star and Anti-Heroine, the distinct, larger-than-life Silent Era personality, Alla Nazimova, it guarantees to be something of an information confetti bomb. (NOTE: while it’s true that the basis for, The Eagle (1925), Alexander Pushkin’s Dubrovsky (1841), is of the classic period, I don’t include it, due to it not only being an unfinished work, but also, because Pushkin wasn’t a novelist of the stature of either Balzac and Dumas fils. Also, it hasn’t reached the same heights, in terms of adaptation; as a ballet, an opera, or a play, for example.)
It was on Page Six of their Saturday, December 18th, 1920 edition, that Camera! THE DIGEST OF THE MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY revealed, in a brief sentence, that Alla Nazimova’s next vehicle for Metro Pictures Corp. was to be Camille. Her planned super-production, Aphrodite, based on the 1896 Pierre Louys novel, had been put to the side, and was expected to follow. According to the Star’s Biographer, Gavin Lambert, this change was due to the Director-General, Max Karger, being: “… shocked to discover just how perversely erotic and violent a movie…” had been outlined. Far more likely in my opinion is that it was shelved simply because Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount had secured “world rights” twelve months previously. Besides, a tale based on the brief life of a consumptive Prostitute, who’d died in Paris, in 1847, wasn’t exactly Sunday School territory. (Lynn Gardner’s excellent 2003 look at Dumas fils’ inspiration can be enjoyed here.)
Regardless of the reasons that La Dame aux Camelias was settled on – most likely at the suggestion of June Mathis – there’s little doubt the great Diva Nazzy sought to revive her flagging film career. To this end, it was seemingly decided, early in production, that the adaptation would break with previous picturizations (of which there had already been many), by being set in the then present day. And, that it would also, as Michael Morris points out in his biography of Natacha Rambova, Madam Valentino: The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova (1991), “… reflect the latest developments in European architectural and fashion design.” Something which wouldn’t only assist with promoting the motion picture, but also: “… foster in American film audiences a greater appreciation for art itself.” Nazimova’s other means of refreshing herself, was to secure a Leading Man of note, namely: Rudolph Valentino.
Valentino, who’d already completed work on the The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), the yet-to-be released Metro Pictures Corp. film that would make him a Star, was busy filming Uncharted Seas (1921), when he was brought to the attention of his future Wife. A moment she described in detail, exactly a decade later, in her serialized look at his life and career, and their life together: The Truth About Rudolph Valentino. ‘Mlle. Rambova’, who’d been been tasked, by Nazimova, with the design of both the costumes and the sets of Camille, hadn’t failed to notice her future Husband around the studio. Known to all as ‘The Wop’, he was an: “… aggressive, affable young man …. who, with his friend Paul, a young Serbian cameraman, was always under foot, determined to be seen.” (Natacha later heard from him that he’d bet Paul (Ivano) she would notice him one day. And that her chilliness and remoteness was a challenge.) Further:
“The introduction finally came while Mme. Nazimova, whose [Art Director] I was, was searching for a leading man. For weeks she had been combing Hollywood for the proper Armand for her “Camille.” Dozens of aspirants had applied, but something was wrong with each of them, until we had well nigh despaired of a hero. Then June Mathis, who had written the script of “Four Horsemen,” told us of the young Italian who had played Julio in that picture and whom she considered a genuine find. She suggested we give him a trial. Without much hope, we agreed to look him over.
One day, in Hollywood, the door of my office opened to admit Nazimova, followed by a bulky figure dressed in fur from head to foot. I had a glimpse of dark, slanting eyes between brows and lashes white with mica, the artificial snow of the camera world. Down his face perspiration was streaming in rivers, to complete the ruin of his makeup. The effect was not impressive. Here, I thought, is the very worst yet.”
Rambova goes on the explain how the “polar bear” shook her hand (a little too firmly), “apologized for his appearance”, and revealed that he’d been standing in the sun for two long hours “making close-ups of an Arctic scene”. Before dashing back, he asked her to: ‘Please say a good word for me to madame.’ Despite having noticed his “dazzling smile”, and having received, before his departure, a click of the heels and a polite bow, Natacha continued to be sceptical; that is, until they were forced together to see if anything could be done about his “patent-leather” hair. As she revealed later in the relevant installment: “The Armand of our script was an unsophisticated French boy from the provinces, who certainly had never seen hair pomade.” After much protestation, Rudy was persuaded to shampoo his locks, and then further persuaded to have his hair curled. “When finished the effect was not so bad.” Natacha explains. Adding: “Madame was delighted and even Rudy grew amenable when he saw the result of the screen tests. There was nothing he loved like characterization; to be all dressed up for a part fired his romantic imagination. It was agreed he should be our new leading man.”
Rudolph Valentino certainly had before him a great opportunity to become a character and to be dressed up. Likewise, there’s no doubt that, despite her waning popularity, the chance to work with the legendary Nazimova was indeed a once-in-a-life-time one. One which would enable him to improve himself, as well as to rise up a level in the business. Did Alla – Peter or Mimi to her friends – communicate to him what she communicated to Gladys Hall and Adele Whitely Fletcher in late 1921? That she’d planned never to portray the Lady of the Camellias until she had: “… forgotten how she had seen ‘Camille’ played.”? It’s hard to say. Certainly, she knew in him, as we see when we view it, that she’d found the sort of Armand Duval that her persona, Marguerite Gautier, could love. Yet, if she thought that she could overshadow the rising Star, and make him secondary to her, she was very much mistaken.
Camille (1921) commences with beautiful opening titles that immediately set the tone. The Camellia bordered text, after informing us METRO PRESENTS Nazimova, tells us, upfont, that it’s a modernized version. And then, after revealing that it’s Directed by Ray Smallwood, give us, one-by-one, the names of the triumvirate of women in reality responsible for the film. The Writer, June Mathis; the Art Director, Natasha Rambova; and the Star Producer, Nazimova. Interestingly, the tight cast of nine is headed by Valentino, as his name appears first in the list, followed by the other principals. Portrayed by: Rex Cherryman, Arthur Hoyt, Zeffie Tilbury, Patsy Ruth Miller, Elinor Oliver, William Orlamond and Consuelo Flowerton. With Alla’s main character, strangely, at the very end. If this was purposefully done, due to Rudolph’s fame by the time of release, or, was because he’s the first of the two main players to appear, is hard to say. Either way, it’s symbolic of her coming tumble from the top. (It could be that the version accessed was the later re-issue.)
After explanatory and scene-setting titles, the camera iris opens on an astonishing and eye-catching, fluid, marbled theatre staircase, apparently partly inspired by the style of Hans Poelzig’s recently completed, The Great Playhouse, in Berlin. At least two hundred extras descend the staggering construction. And soon we’re zooming in on Armand Duval and his good friend, Gaston Rieux; played, respectively, by Rudolph Valentino and Rex Cherryman. The pair chit-chat part of the way down as their fellow theatregoers pass them by.
We next see La Dame aux Camellias, Alla Nazimova, as she passes through an archway at the top of the steps, and pauses by the marbled parapet surrounded by men. An intertitle tells us: She was a useless ornament—a plaything—a bird of passage—a momentary aurora. This is an important moment already, as, when Camille is spotted by Gaston, and then by Armand, his friend, we see the instant fascination of the naive provincial with the decorative, and plainly worldly Marguerite. We also see Nazimova’s main character dressed in a striking, sheer, Aubrey Beardsleyesque, long-sleeved coat, covered in flowers, with a dramatic and over-long train, that appears to be edged with fur at its end.
When introduced on the staircase Marguerite is playfully dismissive of the – to her eyes and to ours – guileless new comer. As is her nature, she toys with him. And, after hearing that he’s a Law Student utters her first discernible line: “A law student? He’d do better to study love!” Armand is visibly pained, and yet remains so irresistably drawn to her, that, when the next character introduced reveals that the departing Camille will be hosting a supper party, he requests they go, which they do.
In a review, in the December edition of Motion Picture Magazine, Adele Whitely Fletcher declared, that she believed the settings: “… detracted from the characters and the action.” And it can be said, that the next scene, the party, is probably the best example of this competition between the decor and the players. The iris expands, this time, on the entry vestibule of Marguerite’s up-to-the-minute abode. And through a shimmery, see-through curtain, we see the Hostess and her animated guests arriving. After the curtain is parted, and they all pass through, we’re in the reception room; a space which forces the eye to move from the piano, to a pouf, to a rug, to an arch, to a day-bed, then back again, as the invitees enter before depositing themselves. (Rambova’s creativity hasn’t, however, yet run riot!)
Alla’s Marguerite escapes her pursuer (Hoyt’s Count), after being framed, nicely, in the largest arch of all, the dramatic, glass-doored entrance to her boudoir. Once inside, she manages to have a brief rest – her Servant, Nanine, tells her she’s ill and needs to call a Doctor – before the arrival of Rudy’s Armand, Rex’s Gaston and Tilbury’s Prudence. She initially looks exhausted, as she surely is, however, her look into the mirror, suggests an individual trapped, and unable to escape the whirl and tired of it. Yet emerge she must, and she does so, ready to entertain those gathered — something she’s clearly done many times before. Here, I love how she casually flicks the switch that instantly brings to life all of the decorative lights that edge the third archway; which is how a seated area, immediately to be put to use, is accessed. For me, the switched-on lights echo the way in which she switches on her own inner illumination, before exiting her bedroom.
The glassed-in alcove, with its food and drink laden tables, is where action is focused for the next few minutes. Armand, Gaston and Prudence arrive in a subdued manner, which contrasts nicely with the earlier, much more numerous arrivals. The party’s in full swing already as Marguerite rises to greet the trio. Then, learning that the muted and nervous Duval is crazy about her, she’s once more flippant. Saying to him, as she’d said already to her Lover, the Comte de Varville: “Not until you put a jewel in my hand.”
The supper party continues. Camille is frivolously solicitous of Armand, much to the distaste of the Count, who throws down his napkin angrily. Gaston, meanwhile, behaves like an expectant pet with Prudence, who denies him a forkfull of food at the last minute. To placate the unhappy Count, Marguerite Gautier rises from the seat she shares with the smitten youth, stands tall and breaks into a tributary, but unsatisfactory rhyme. Both the wording and her subsequent behaviour fail to alter the mood of her Sponsor. And, as she drains dry her glass, we see the fuming Count and the puzzled, confused Student Lawyer to her right. Two pathways: the current and the future.
An autobiographical song from the Hostess follows, which is interrupted by the arrival of Pasty Ruth Miller’s, Nichette; who, we discover, thanks to an intertitle: “… used to work in the dressmaking shop with Marguerite.” Alla and Patsy Ruth’s series of kisses on the lips are noteworthy here. As is her defending of her, against the really rather pathetic/sweet onslaught of Rex, as Gaston. Who, despite his drunken state, realises he needs to be more considerate and polite. (A look, here, between Cherryman and Miller, is all we need to see to know that something will develop between them.)
Next, both the intoxicated Gaston and the infatuated Armand are prevented, by Camille, from departing. The Hostess dances with Armand’s friend (much to the annoyance of the Count). The others occupy themselves. Then, the opening of a window, for air, induces a serious coughing fit, and Marguerite’s forced to retreat to her bedroom. Armand sees that she’s unwell and watches powerless. He approaches a drunken Prudence and says: “She is ill!” However, Prudence isn’t concerned, and tells him that: “She is always ill. Just when we are enjoying ourselves on comes that cough and our fun is spoiled!”
Feeling forced to act, Armand enters her sanctuary, and moves towards her once inside. It’s here, while outside the others distract the irate Count, by playing Blind Man’s Buff with him, that we have some of the most important exchanges between to two. Armand entreats her to allow him to call for help. Camille begs to differ. And warns him about who and what she is. Telling him to: “… forget that we have ever met.” At this he throws himself at her feet, saying, plaintively: “I wish I were a relative—your servant—a dog—that I might care for you—nurse you—make you well!” Again, Marguerite attempts to dissuade him, but fails. She accepts that he’s the key that unlocks the door to her prison cell.
It all reaches a terrific, dramatic peak, when Count de Varville finally breaks free from captivity, and bursts into Marguerite Gautier’s room, to discover her entwined with the young Law Student. He rages. She rages. While Armand Duval looks on, clearly pleased that she’s found the courage to break her chains, and to take control of her destiny. In a trice the partygoers – she calls them a “sponging pack” – are leaving. Allowing them to be alone together. And to enjoy a somewhat awkward embrace and kiss on which the iris this time closes.
The next, middle section of the film, is simpler, less artificial and almost dreamlike. We see the happy couple in an orchard in the countryside. (It’s plain that living away from the capital is agreeing with Camille.) Armand has bought and brought to Marguerite, the gift of a book; an antique leather-bound copy of Antoine Francois Prevost’s, Manon Lescaut, a story of doomed lovers. She asks him to inscribe it for her, and then to read it out loud, which he does. Which then leads to an extended imagining of action in the novel, almost a film within a film, with Alla Nazimova as Manon Lescaut, and Rudolph Valentino as Chevalier des Grieux. Except, that the imaginings are spoiled by Camille suffering a presentiment, where she sees herself and Armand as the cursed couple.
After being joined by the newly engaged Gaston and Nichette, who perhaps present to us an alternative, less unlucky union, the action moves from Spring to Summer. Marguerite is living quietly in a conventional house – in sin or not we can’t know – and preparing to sell her belongings, in Paris, to provide sufficient funds for her future. Prudence, who’s visiting her, presents a gift of fresh Camellias with the Comte de Varville’s card inside of the box. Yet Camille isn’t impressed. And tells her to: “Take them back to Paris, Prudence! They have no place in this house!” Prudence is then unsuccessful in trying to make her see sense, and return to her old, more certain if less free existence. An existence, for all its serious restraints, that will soon be seen to be more solid and dependable, than the one which has been hastily fashioned with her Student Lawyer Amour.
The arrival of William Orlamond’s Monsieur Duval, the Father of Armand Duval, is the point at which we see the bubble pricked with a pin. In a nutshell, the Parent requests that the Courtesan relinquish her hold over his son. Telling Marguerite: that the future happiness of both his children is at stake, due to the scandal created by her becoming involved with Armand. Learning, from him, that his daughter’s imminent marriage is in jeopardy, she seeks some way out, and suggests disappearing for a while. When this isn’t found to be acceptable, she falls to her knees, to beg that Armand not be taken from her. Yet she is answered by the Father with: “There is no future for your love—you must give him up!”
I’d say, that within the confines of this drawing room, constructed at the Metro Pictures Corp. plant, for the purposes of the movie, we get a very good idea of Nazimova’s style of performing on the stage; and see, I believe, her best acting in the entire film. How she moves about simply in her plain house dress, carefree, and focused on a new life. How she deals with the irritation of the Intruder Prudence. How she expects the arrival of Armand in the automobile and hides childishly and excitedly under a blanket. How she reacts when she sees that it’s not him but his Parent. And how she battles the inevitable, and finally accepts there’s no way forward, only the way back to who she was and is. We also see fine early acting on the part of Valentino; who arrives at the residence recently abandoned by Marguerite, and discovers her note, written in on the Count’s calling card in tiny but clear handwriting. (In a nice touch their cars pass on the road in the rain.)
In Part Three of her revelatory 1930 serialization, The Truth About Rudolph Valentino, By Natacha Rambova, His Wife, Natacha explained to her readers how Rudy prepared for an emotional scene, particularly during the creation of Camille (1921). As follows:
“I remember particularly one scene in ‘Camille,’ the high point of the picture. It is where Armand, grief-stricken by Camille’s death, rushes to her apartment, where an auction is being held of all her private things. Here he sees and bids on a book he had given her years ago and which she had kept until the last.
Before doing this scene Rudy asked if he might go away by himself for a moment; then he returned and the camera started clicking. It wasn’t interrupted once. When the scene was finished tears were streaming down the face of every one of us, from director to prop boy. As for Rudy, later, I found him in a chair behind the set, head buried in his arms weeping like a child. This wasn’t make believe grief but real emotion.”
That a change is wrought in Armand Duval, is apparent immediately the camera iris expands on the Hazard d’Or; which an intertitle’s informed us, is: “… the smartest gaming place in Paris.” It’s now Autumn, and we see him gambling, immaculately dressed, his hair slicked, and with a beautiful girl on his arm. The female, named Olympe, brilliantly portrayed by Consuelo Flowerton (of the Ziegfeld Follies Spring Frolic of 1920), clings to him in a vampish manner. Another intertitle explains that she is: “… a new Daughter of Chance, whose golden beauty bade fair to rival ‘the Lady with the Camellias.'” And we believe it!
It’s here that we should pause to consider what’s certainly Natacha Rambova’s most incredible interior. The dark, light-absorbing concave room, features, again, a series of arches that draw the eye. The central arch is a performance space, or mini stage, that’s covered by a cobweb scrim, behind which exotically dressed females perform strangely. Above, is another, smaller arch, where a group of African American musicians busily play their instruments; no doubt cranking-out Jazz. And the arches to the left and right are curtained with a gorgeous semi-sheer material that features iridescent woven leaves.
It’s through the right-hand curtained archway, that the Count and Camille enter the space and pause. De Varville points out to Marguerite her former lover at the gaming table. And wickedly says to her: “Look at your broken hearted lover!” This first view of Duval for months is too much, particularly when Armand sees that she sees him, and lays his hand, sensually, on Olympe’s bared back. The close-up of Alla Nazimova is filtered and strongly lit. Yet we see her pain. And then she covers her face with her beautiful feather fan. While the Comte de Varville descends the steps into the sunken room, to place bets and gamble, she retires behind the curtain, just as she did, earlier, at her home.
Sometime after, needing a break from the table (where he’s been enjoying a serious run of luck), Armand Duval parts the curtain behind which Marguerite Gautier is resting, and gets a shock, when he sees her alone and seated there. She, in turn, is startled, as she senses a presence and turns and sees him standing. What follows now is pure Silent Era acting. And from two of the greatest screen personalities of the period. The pair must convey, without words, what they think and feel, and they do. The few words spoken are provided as intertitles. But we barely need them, so perfectly do Nazimova and Valentino express themselves with movements, gestures and facial expressions alone.
Despite toing and froing, and Armand’s desperate attempt to win her back, Camille can’t find the strength to go against her promise to his Father. When she says aloud that she promised she wouldn’t be with him, he believes her to be talking about a promise to the Count, and demands that she: “Say that you love him and I will leave Paris forever!” With deep regret and without feeling she says exactly that. He then drags her out of her hiding place and into the gaming room and denounces her. Humiliating her further by tossing his winnings in her face — a sensational moment, perhaps the most sensational in the entire picture. After a brief flicker of remorse he declares he’s through with her and with Paris and departs. Allowing the Comte de Varville to move-in, and to claim and kiss openly, and triumphantly, Olympe, Marguerite’s successor.
We’re now presented with the extended death of Alla Nazimova’s Marguerite Gautier, known also, as Camille and the Lady of the Camellias. To modern eyes, certainly to mine, this is a somewhat static, and undoubtedly indulgent section. (And for some at the time it was as well.) The passing of nearly 100 years hasn’t made Nazimova’s preferred ending – going totally against the actual written conclusion – any more sympathetic or powerful. In fact, it’s done the exact opposite. And yet, it’s what it is, and must be accepted as it is, and seen in the context of the times. (For a lot of cinemagoers it would resonate a great deal, many of them having watched loved ones die, similarly, in the recent Flu epidemic. And tears were no doubt shed in that more sentimental time.)
For ten minutes, prone, in her stylish bed, Camille approaches the end of her life. While Nanine, her faithful Servant, attempts to make that end as comfortable as she’s able. Yet, Nanine is powerless to keep at bay a group of bailiffs, who represent her creditors and have arrived to satisfy a Court Order. Thus Marguerite is subjected to a final humiliation when they arrive to look over, assess, catalogue and remove her earthly belongings, so that they can be sold to pay-off her debts. To make the interminable exit more palatable we’re given a flash-forward, rather than a flash-back, of Armand receiving from Camille a heart-felt final epistle. And, after the cruelty of the bailiffs entering her room and their attempt to take every last thing from her, including the copy of Manon Lescaut, given to her by Armand, she’s visited by a distraught but tender Gaston and Nichette, who’ve just married that day. Already in a state of delirium, The Lady of the Camellias utters some final, coherent words: “Do not weep, Gaston. The world will lose nothing. I was a useless ornament—a plaything—a momentary aurora.” Surrounded by the pair of newlyweds and Nanine she then expires; while gently calling out the name of Armand, and seeing himself and herself as they were during their affair.
It was, perhaps, the review in the September 24th, 1921 edition, of industry title, Motion Picture News, that best summed-up the starring vehicle at the time. Lawrence Reid, the reviewer, was forthright and upfront about the fact that the great Nazimova had: “… come into her own again with this modern version of Dumas’ tragedy of passion.” And had been given “a picture worthy of her expression” by June Mathis. An adaptation that was: “… intact except for the final ending.” Reid believed this to be a flaw and said so. In his review, he wonders about the reason; if it was “the shadow of censorship”, or maybe “recourse to a happier ending”, not knowing that it was, in fact, a conscious decision on the part of the Star, to diminish the impact of her co-Star and make herself the centre of attention. (Something others in the business heard of and communicated.) Yet, despite his powerful and moving performance being edited out, Lawrence Reid saw that Rudy had acted his heart out — and said so. As follows: “She is forced, however, to share honors in many of the scenes, with Rudolph Valentino, who demonstrates that the art he flashed in ‘The Four Horsemen’ was not a thing of the moment. He makes Armand a brooding, silent volcano of love who suppresses his desires until the supreme moment. His restraint is highly commendable.” (Watching it through it’s hard to argue.)
I fail to agree with the assessment, in Episode Six of Hollywood (1980), that: “The most impressive thing about Camille was its sets.” Impressive though they most definitely were, and highly talented and ahead-of-her-time Rambova absolutely was, there’s so very much more to the production. Noteworthy, alone-and-by-itself, is the fact that this was a realization driven along by three ambitious women, and in a period when very few females were able to steer anything at all in the film-making sphere. The acting of both Nazimova and Valentino, is, at many points, as already detailed, superb, and very representative of the skill of performing in a silent super feature at that time. And the supporting players – Rex Cherryman, Zeffie Tilbury, William Orlamond, and Consuelo Flowerton, particularly – are exemplary in my opinion. Of course it’s a period piece. Of course it’s not the greatest of the great silents. Of course it lacks not only the original tinting but also its original music. And yet it stands the test of time. Still entertains. Still moves us and makes us marvel. What bland, derivative, churned-out contemporary creations are going to be able to do that a century from now? Very few!
First of all I want to thank you for reading this 5,000 word post through from start to finish. I hope that it’s been as enjoyable to read as it was to research and write. This contribution, to the April 3rd to 5th, 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon, will be followed by another diversionary piece, before I return, in May, to Jean Acker. I hope you’ll join me for that, later in the month, and I urge you, in the meantime, to check-out the other contributors to this marvellous exercise, at Silver Screen Classics, here: https://silverscreenclassicsblog.wordpress.com/