1920s, Drama, Greta Garbo, Historical, Romance, Silent Era

Garbo & Gilbert

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert on the set of the silent film “Love” in 1927.

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1930s, Drama

Mädchen in Uniform

Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform) is a 1931 German feature-length film based on the play Gestern und heute (Yesterday and Today) by Christa Winsloe and directed by Leontine Sagan with artistic direction from Carl Froelich, who also funded the film. Winsloe also wrote the screenplay and was on the set during filming. The film remains an international cult classic.

Manuela von Meinhardis, whose mother had died when she was young and father serves in the military, is enrolled at an all-girls boarding school headed by the traditional and iron-fisted Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden. Manuela is immediately exposed to the strictness of the school when receiving her uniform and having many of her possessions taken from her. While the other girls at the school receive Manuela with open arms, she still feels very out of place, until she meets Fräulein von Bernburg, a teacher at the school. After witnessing Fräulein von Bernburg’s compassion for the other girls, Manuela develops a passionate love for her teacher. The first spark of love begins with a goodnight kiss. While the teacher normally gives all the girls a goodnight kiss on the forehead, Manuela receives one on the lips.

There is a meeting asking the teachers in the school and the headmistress. Fräulein von Bernburg advocates using compassion and love when dealing with the students, but is met with disagreement from the headmistress and the other teachers.

During class, the girls are reciting from an assigned reading. The girls who are called upon all know their recitations, except Manuela. After class, Fräulein von Bernburg calls for Manuela to meet her in her room. Manuela expects to be punished for not knowing the assigned material, but Fräulein von Bernburg comments on the state of the clothes the girl came to the school with, noting that there were many holes in them. Fräulein von Bernburg then gives one of her own petticoats to Manuela, at which she begins to weep. After much crying, Manuela confesses her love for Fräulein von Bernburg, and the teacher states that she loves Manuela but that she cannot give her special treatment because the other girls will be jealous.

The girls gather around Ilsa von Westhagen, another student, as she reads aloud a letter to her parents complaining about the conditions at the school. She has a worker at the school smuggle the letter out.

The girls are preparing to put on a play, Don Carlos, by Friedrich Schiller, for the birthday of the headmistress. Manuela plays Don Carlos, the lead male role. Ilsa is to play another major role in the play, but is barred from performing after her letter to her parents denouncing the school is returned because of a wrong address. Ilsa packs up to leave the school, but Fräulein von Bernburg convinces her to stay. The girls put on the play for the headmistress and her guests; it is a great success, with a standout performance by Manuela.

After the play, the girls all meet for dinner and are served punch with alcohol in it by the kitchen workers. After much dancing and singing, the girls ask Manuela about her relationship with Fräulein von Bernburg. Without knowing that the headmistress’s assistant is in the room, Manuela tells them of the petticoat that Fräulein von Bernburg gave her. Then, she declares that she is not afraid of anything or anyone—yelling it drunkenly in the direction of the headmistress, who has now entered the room.

After passing out, Manuela is brought to a room, where no-one is allowed to see her. She is scolded by the headmistress. The headmistress is then informed that the princess is on her way to the school to speak to her. The students and teachers all line up for the arrival of the princess. After observing all the students, she asks to see Manuela. The princess tells Manuela that she knew Manuela’s mother and respected her. The princess says that Manuela looks a little pale and asks whether she is sick, at which the headmistress rushes her away and denies any paleness.

After the meeting with the princess, the headmistress scolds Fräulein von Bernburg for being too close and compassionate with her students. She also tells her that she is never to speak to Manuela again. When Fräulein von Bernburg leaves the headmistress’s office, Manuela is waiting for her. Fräulein von Bernburg tells Manuela to meet her in her room. In her room, Fräulein von Bernburg tells Manuela that while she cares for her, she is to never speak to her again. Manuela responds by saying that she will die. Fräulein von Bernburg tells her not to say such things and sends her away. As Manuela leaves the room, the headmistress arrives to scold Fräulein von Bernburg for speaking to Manuela and says that she can no longer be a teacher at the school. Fräulein von Bernburg says that she could not continue there anyway, for she needs to stand for justice.

At this point, the girls are all looking for Manuela and cannot find her. Manuela has climbed up the main staircase and is ready to jump. Manuela is saved by the other students. The headmistress and Fräulein von Bernburg walk out of Fräulein von Bernburg’s room to discover a commotion and are then told that Manuela tried to jump and kill herself. The movie ends with all the girls watching the headmistress as she walks down the stairwell and down the hall in silence.

The film was groundbreaking in having an all-female cast; in its sympathetic portrayal of lesbian “pedagogical eros” (see Gustav Wyneken) and homoeroticism, revolving around the passionate love of a fourteen-year-old (Manuela) for her teacher (von Bernburg); and in its co-operative and profit-sharing financial arrangements (although these failed).

During an interview about the film decades later, Thiele said

The whole of Mädchen in Uniform was set in the Empress Augustaboarding school, where Winsloe was educated. Actually there really was a Manuela, who remained lame all of her life after she threw herself down the stairs. She came to the premiere of the film. I saw her from a distance, and at the time Winsloe told me, “The experience is one which I had to write from my heart.” Winsloe was a lesbian.

Thiele also said, “However, I really don’t want to make a great deal of […] or account for a film about lesbianism here. That’s far from my mind, because the whole thing of course is also a revolt against the cruel Prussian education system.”

After many screen tests, Winsloe had insisted that her friend Thiele play the lead role. Director Sagan would have preferred Gina Falckenberg who had done the role on stage in Berlin, but along with having played Manuela in Leipzig, Thiele had already played a young lesbian in Ferdinand Bruckner’s stage play Die Kreatur (The Creature) and although twenty-three years old when filming began, she was considered to be more capable of portraying a fourteen-year-old.

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“What you call sin, I call the great spirit of love, which takes a thousand forms.”

Christa Winsloe who wrote the script had a rather sad end,She moved to France in the late 1930s, fleeing the Nazis. During World War II, she joined the French Resistance. Contrary to what is often stated, she was not executed by the Nazis. Instead, on June 10, 1944, Winsloe and her French partner, Simone Gentet, were shot and killed by four Frenchmen in a forest near the country town of Cluny. The men said that they had thought the women were Nazi spies, and were later acquitted of murder.

Christa Winsloe (1888-1944)

 

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1920s, Adaptation, Drama, German, Historical, Silent Era

Asta Nielsen as Hamlet.

The role of Hamlet has been played by many a well known actor since it was first written by William Shakespeare between 1599 and 1602, for me probably the most intriguing portrayal was by a Danish actress named Asta Nielsen in the 1921 German silent film of the same name directed by Svend Gade and Heinz Schall.

In this interpretation, inspired by Dr Edward P Vining’s book The Mystery of Hamlet, Hamlet is born a woman and disguised as a male to preserve the lineage.

Though a radical interpretation, the New York Times said this film, “holds a secure place in class with the best.”

Edward P. Vining, was a railway engineer before he turned to literary criticism. In his opinion, the well-known contradictions and perceived deficiencies in Hamlet’s character could be perfectly explained by the fact that he is, in fact, a woman. “When God created man in his own image, male and female he made them,” he explains. The discerning reader will recognize that Hamlet demonstrates an essentially female nature:

Gentleness, and more or less dependence upon others, are inherent qualities of the female nature, and Hamlet possessed both. […] Where strength fails, finesse succeeds; and therefore Hamlet plans and plots. His feigned madness, his trial of the mimic play, are stratagems that a woman might attempt, and that are far more in keeping with a feminine than with a masculine nature.

 

It is also worth noting that there is a long history of female actresses playing Hamlet; Sarah Bernhardt is the most famous example, even if it seems that she got rather mixed reviews. (A film version of her Hamlet survives; the duel scene with Laertes was filmed for the audio-visual Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre spectacle shown at the 1900 Paris exposition). This and other cases were of women playing a male role, though, rather than the gender bending of Asta’s version.

Asta’s Hamlet depicts events that occur before the start of the Shakespeare play, which starts in medias res. In the film, we get a prologue showing the Norwegian and Danish armies at war. During the conflict Hamlet Senior despatches King Fortinbras, but himself is grievously injured.

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Back in the royal castle, Queen Gertrude has just given birth to a girl when she hears of King Hamlet’s mortal wounds; to preserve succession, she takes up the suggestion of passing her daughter off as a prince. However, Hamlet Senior survives, buoyed by the news. Upon returning he learns the truth about his child’s gender, but by that point the deception is entrenched.

The film really starts when Hamlet is a young adult. Her parents worry about her solitary habits, and consequently send her to the University of Wittenberg. It’s here that she meets Horatio, who is from Provence in this adaptation. In the Shakespeare, Horatio was Hamlet’s most trusted friend, but here there is a bit more going on. They get an honest-to-goodness meet-cute, bumping heads in the lecture hall when Hamlet drops her pencil. Hamlet is instantly taken with Horatio, and we see her give him the eye …

She also meets Fortinbras, crown prince of Norway. It is awkward when you realize that your father murdered the father of your classmate. But Fortinbras is willing to make like Black Flag and rise above, and the two of them shake on it. Pals!

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Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. King Hamlet has died after being bitten by a snake. Hamlet arrives back in Denmark to a combination funeral/wedding celebration, her uncle Claudius having hurriedly wed Queen Gertrude. Hamlet is disgusted at the crassness and haste of the event, and withdraws.

 

To uncover the truth, Hamlet decides to feign madness. This means that we get some great scenes where Asta schemes, cackles, and generally causes mischief. Her objective, however, is to catch her uncle off guard and confirm her suspicions, while neutralizing herself as a threat in his eyes.

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Another plot strand of the central part of the film is Hamlet’s interactions with Ophelia. Initially she brushes Ophelia off, but as it becomes apparent that Horatio has fallen in love with Ophelia, Hamlet steps up her game and flirts with her quite boldly (well, interspersed with pushing her away with her crazy behaviour). Motivated by the desire not to lose Horatio to Ophelia, Hamlet succeeds in winning Ophelia’s love.

Hamlet’s turmoil increases. There is a revealing scene in Act Four between Gertrude and Hamlet; Gertrude is unnerved by Hamlet’s increasingly erratic behaviour, though she is more concerned about Hamlet blowing her cover than she is about Hamlet as a person. The following inter title reveals the inner conflict Hamlet feels:

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t’s also the first time she realizes that Queen Gertrude was behind the deception that Hamlet is living.

 

 

Meanwhile, Ophelia has gone crazy in the wake of Polonius’ death. Laertes returns to the castle to find her agitated and unable to recognize him. After she drowns herself, he blames Hamlet for the situation.

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Everyone is familiar with the end of Hamlet, but again gender adds another wrinkle to the story in this version. In the duel with Laertes, Hamlet has been stabbed in the stomach area, and Horatio keeps trying to look at the wound, while Hamlet twists away and tries to keep her shirt semi-closed. After she dies, however, the secret is out, as Horatio’s hand finds her chest.

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“In death your secret is revealed! Your golden heart was that of a woman! Too late, beloved, too late!”

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1920s, Drama, England, Greta Garbo, Silent Era

A Woman of Affairs.

A Woman of Affairs is a 1928 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer drama film directed by Clarence Brown and starring Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Lewis Stone. The film, released with a synchronized score and sound effects, was based on a 1924 best-selling novel by Michael Arlen, The Green Hat, which he adapted as a four-act stage play in 1925. The Green Hat was considered so daring in the United States that the movie did not allow any associations with it and was renamed A Woman of Affairs, with the characters also renamed to mollify the censors. In particular the film script eliminated all references to heroin use, homosexuality and syphilis that were at the core of the tragedies involved.

Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo), Neville (John Gilbert) and David (Johnny Mack Brown) were playmates as children, members of the rich British aristocracy. Diana and Neville are in love, but his father (Hobart Bosworth) opposes the match, disapproving the Merrick family’s lifestyle. Neville is sent to Egypt for business purposes and to become wealthy.

Diana, after waiting in vain for two years for Neville’s return, finally marries David, who is also in love with her and good friends with her brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). During their honeymoon to Paris and after the arrival of police inspectors, David commits suicide without an explanation. Diana does not explain the reasons behind her husband’s action. Jeffry, who was deeply connected to David, blames his sister for his friend’s death; he falls deeper into alcohol as his sister starts a reckless life, seducing man after man.

Years later, Neville returns to England to marry Constance (Dorothy Sebastian). Jeffry is now gravely ill, and Diana brings Dr. Trevelyan, a family friend, to his bedside and then leaves since Jeffry still refuses to see her. As she starts to drive away, she sees Neville who has followed her and Dr. Trevelyan in a cab. Diana and Neville go to his apartment, realize they are still in love, and spend that one night together. During the night Jeffry dies. Dr. Trevelyan goes to Neville’s apartment in the morning to give him the news and discovers that Diana has spent the night there. Three days later, Neville marries Constance.

About nine months go by: Diana falls ill (in the script she is supposed to have suffered a miscarriage, but because of censorship, this couldn’t be mentioned) and is visited by Neville. Diana professes her love for him before realizing Constance is in the room.

The reason for David’s suicide is revealed: he was a thief, pursued by the police. Diana, realizing that her and Neville’s love will ruin Neville, tells him that his wife is pregnant and sends him away. Diana drives her car into a tree, in front of which she and Neville had fallen in love and sworn eternal fidelity.

From Variety, January 23, 1929

A sensational array of screen names, and the intriguing nature of the story (The Green Hat) from which it was made, together with some magnificence in the acting by Greta Garbo, by long odds the best thing she has ever done, will carry through this vague and sterilized version of Michael Arlen’s exotic play…. But the kick is out of the material, and, worse yet, John Gilbert, idol of the flappers, has an utterly blah role. Most of the footage he just stands around, rather sheepishly, in fact, while others shape the events. At this performance (the second of the Saturday opening), whole groups of women customers audibly expressed their discontent with the proceedings…. Miss Garbo saves an unfortunate situation throughout by a subtle something in her playing that suggests just the exotic note that is essential to the whole theme and story. Without her eloquent acting the picture would go to pieces.

From The New York Times, January 21, 1929

Not only is the narrative translated with changes only where it was obviously necessary to circumvent censorial frowns, but Miss Garbo gives a most intelligent and fascinating impersonation of that ‘sad lady’ . . . Mr. Gilbert does nicely as the man with whom Diana is madly in love . . . Except for his penchant for flashes of symbolism, Clarence Brown has handled this production imaginatively and resourcefully. The story is never confused, and while the reason for all the trouble may at times be somewhat incredible, the scenes are invariably beautifully photographed and admirably constructed.

From Judge Magazine

The most interesting feature of A Woman of Affairs is the treatment accorded it by the censors. As is obvious, the story was adapted from Michael Arlen’s best seller, The Green Hat, and, as every reader of that Hispano-Suiza advertisement will recollect, the heroine’s white feather was borne for the proud fact that her suicide husband suffered from an ailment enjoyed by some of our most popular kings, prelates and prize-fighters. Well, sir, Bishop Hays changes that to “embezzlement.” And, for some strange reason, instead of using the word “purity” (the boy died for purity, according to Iris March) they substituted the oft-repeated word “decency.” To anyone who can show me why “purity” is a more immoral word than “decency,” I’ll gladly send an eighty-five cent Paramount ticket, to be used at your own risk. Outside of its purification, the movie is a good dramatization of the novel and for the first time I respected the performance of Greta Garbo. She shuffled through the long, melancholy and sometimes beautiful scenes with more grace and sincerity than I have ever before observed, and the fact that she rode down and practically eliminated John Gilbert’s goggling is in itself grounds for recommendation. Another indifferent performer, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., suddenly snapped to life under the guidance of Director Brown, and gave a splendid performance. Lewis Stone made his usual calm and reserved appearance and, even with its melancholy apathy, you will find A Woman of Affairs worth seeing.

The film was a hit, garnering receipts of USD 1.370.000 (USD 850.000 in the US and USD 520.000 abroad), vs. a budget of USD 383.000. It was one of the top 20 box office films of 1929.

 

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1920s, Drama, Fashion, Romance, Silent Era

Our Dancing Daughters.

Our Dancing Daughters is a 1928 American silent drama film, starring Joan Crawford and John Mack Brown, about the “loosening of youth morals” that took place during the 1920s. The film was directed by Harry Beaumont and produced by Hunt Stromberg. This was the film that made Joan Crawford a major star, a position she held for the following half century.

While the film has no audible dialog, it was released with a synchronized soundtrack and sound effects.

“Dangerous Diana” Medford (Crawford) is outwardly flamboyant and popular but inwardly virtuous and idealistic, patronizing her parents by telling them not to stay out late. Her friend Ann chases boys for their money and is as amoral as her mother.

Diana and Ann are both attracted to Ben Blaine (Brown). He takes Diana’s flirtatious behavior with other boys as a sign that she is uninterested in him and marries Ann, who has lied about her virtues. Bea, a mutual friend of Diana and Ann, also meets and marries a wealthy suitor who loves her but is haunted with her past.

Diana becomes distraught for a while with the marriage of her friends with questionable pasts. She decides to go away and Bea throws a party for her in which Ben declined and made Ann decline as well. The same evening Ann hopes to meet up with her lover, Freddie, telling her husband she is going to see her sick mom. When her mom calls and Ben realizes Ann has lied to him yet again they get into an argument and Ann storms out to meet Freddie.

Now alone, Ben decides to stop by the party where he and Diana realize their love for each other. Meanwhile a drunk Ann follows Freddie into the party only to find Ben and Diana. She makes a drunken scene in which both Diana and Ben leave the party declaring their love but saying their goodbyes to each other.

Bea’s husband comes home to find Bea trying to get a drunk Ann home. As Ann is mocking cleaning ladies and her life (as her mom used her beauty), Ann stumbles and falls to her death down a flight of stairs. Headlines show Diana returning home after a lengthy time away and she and Ben are free to unite.

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