Saturday, 25 May 2013

Atypical Talmadge… Kiki (1926)

"…the greatest pantomimist that ever drew breath. She was a natural-born comic; you could turn on a scene with her and she`d go on for five minutes without stopping or repeating herself." Clarence Brown

By the mid-twenties Norma Talmadge could do what she wanted. She could pick her roles and this light comedy directed by the masterful Mr Brown was obviously something she and producer husband Joseph M. Schenck selected as a fun challenge. Indeed, she was quoted in the publicity as saying: “I never mad a picture I liked better.”

The results, though well-reviewed, are alleged to have confused her fan base or at least the part most addicted to light melodrama. Yet, it’s hard to imagine someone of Norma Talmadge’s versatility getting typecast but the Variety review of April 1926 gave a hint of the reaction: “…most peculiar of all is Miss Talmadge in the title part. She is not a comedienne and never has been; she is too large and too tall for the part. But with all these things against her, she gives a creditable and amusing performance…”

Norma Talmadge and Ronald Coleman
Kiki was based on a highly-successful stage play by David Belasco which, in turn was based upon a 1920 novel of the same name by André Picard. A light comedy showing the adventures of the somewhat prickly heroine and her attempts to make it on stage and with the theatre owner… it flashed by against a backdrop of sniggers and laughter from myself and teenage daughter (bless you Beth you are so patient…and you’ll watch anything*).

I must admit to not finding Norma “too large” nor too tall… although she's probably a little too mature to be a "waif" (Mary Pickford was even older for the 1931 remake). Once you adjust though, she is genuinely funny and I’m surprised that this film could ever have been considered anything resembling a flop – can you be “too tall” for comedy?! Norma T is one of the most consistently rewarding performers of the silent era and one whose technique feels timeless. She played other roles for laughs – The Social Secretary stands out – and clearly relished the chance to do something different.

Kiki gets the boot
Here she could easily have been taking a part in a Morcambe and Wise stage spectacular or Miss Congeniality (1 or 2…), as she falls out of step with the other chorus girls and gets booted back centre stage every time she tries to re-join them. There’s also an amazing section when she feigns catatonia with her body seemingly rigid and only capable of being manipulated by others… how she manages to keep a straight arm, leg and face is beyond me.

It’s not high art but it is (still) funny and Norma delivers.

Kiki is little more than a street girl dreaming of her big break on stage, she hangs around with her fellow paper seller, a young kid Pierr (Frankie Darro) and both live on their wits near the local theatre run by the dashing Victor Renal (the dashing… Ronald Colman).

A chance comes when one of the chorus is fired and Kiki steals the place of the intended replacement. She can sing but she can’t keep step and her first night ends in disaster as she is kicked around the stage and tramples on the star Paulette (a wonderfully grumpy Gertrude Astor).

Gertrude Astor and Ronald Coleman
She’s called to Renal’s office to be fired but he can’t shake her off before Paulette – who is also his girlfriend - arrives. Kiki is revealed and Paulette storms off in the huffiest huff – Astor is a hoot.

Renal takes Kiki to dinner where they are joined by Paulette and  his old friend Baron Rapp (Marc Macdermott). A battle of wills ensues between the two women and Kiki drinks rather too much champagne… Renal drags her away from the scene and ends up taking her home as she – having used her rent to buy a dress for the audition – has nowhere to live.

Great set design too...
Thus begins Kiki’s time at Renal’s house where she uses every trick she can think up to prolong her stay. This includes burning all of Paulette’s letters imploring Venal to take her back and an on-going battle with his man servant, Adolphe (George K. Arthur)…

Will Kiki succeed in fighting for Venal or will the wily Paulette win out? When Kiki pulls out a knife you’re not sure but…

Comedy catalepsy
So many romantic comedies followed this route that the story does have a familiar feel but Kiki is maybe a bit more street smart and a slightly nastier, heroine than Doris Day or Sandra Bullock might make.
Clarence Brown directs throughout with assured dexterity, a lovely dolly shot of the assembled show girls at the start, resembling his table-top camera voyage in The Eagle.

I watched the Kino DVD which comes with a second feature, Within the Law (1922) which may well be more typical Talmadge fare but it’ll have to go some to match Kiki for entertainment. Not a great film but a good one and it is lovely to see a Norma Talmadge film in decent quality. And, as the Variety reviewer concluded: “…no other actress on the stage or screen has played such varied roles with unmistakable skill and ability.”

Norma and Marc Macdermott
The feature is superbly supported by a new score from The Biograph Players who throw in a nice bit of Eric Satie for Norma’s catatonic tour-de-force!

I pulled the Variety quotes from Greta de Groat’s excellent site on Norma Talmadge which I recommend to all. Greta also played a part in the Kino DVD and is to be commended for helping to revive the memory of one of the true silent greats!

*I made Beth watch substantial portions of Greed when she was just a scrap…she’s never looked back (although she prefers James McAvoy to John Gilbert).

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The difficult one… The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Pre-internet there was no option but to gain information the hard way and as a child I used to work my way through the twelve volumes of Purnell's New English Encyclopaedia my parents had bought. In the section on film there was a list of the twenty best films of all time (probably taken from the AFI list?) and I was fascinated by the fact that the majority were not only in black and white but also silent.

This was one of my earliest encounters with the idea of silent film and, of course, near the top of the list was The Birth of a Nation. It is a film I've always wanted to see yet one I've become very wary of because of its complex relationship to the truth and the attitudes not only of the film makers but the millions of Americans who made it the most successful silent movie of all time.

David Thomson calls the film “appalling” and that we should not watch it “unprepared” or in ignorance: it's a reminder and call to educate... (not to mention, agitate and organise).  So much has been written about this film, I'm sure no one is waiting for my take, but here it is anyway...

The Birth of a Nation is and always has been racist: this is not just good guys against bad guys it is good guys against bad black guys. Griffith’s awareness of this was clear from the inter-titles before part two: “ this is an historical presentation...and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” He tried to couch the representation of racially-based motivations as something of the past.

But this was not a distinction accepted by all at the time. Speaking to the New York Post in March 1915, Jane Addams (founder of Hull House and future Nobel Prize winner) said: “The producer seems to have followed the principle of gathering the most vicious and grotesque individuals he could find among colored people, and showing them as representatives of the truth about the entire race... It is both unjust and untrue."

DW's introduction the the 1930 re-release
Yet, even in the introductory interview Griffith recorded with Walter Huston for the 1930 re-release, he was still supporting the views in his film, saying that the Clan was needed "at the time" and that he still believed his film represented “the truth”. Oddly he then quotes Pontius Pilate in saying “the truth, what is the truth?” Well, exactly...

These outrageous sentiments show that Birth of a Nation was not just an error of judgement but a reflection of long held views - Griffith was a Southern Man. The same director went on to film an inter-racial relationship in Broken Blossoms and put together Intolerance as a plea for human understanding and in penitence following the reaction of some to Birth… yet here he is 15 years later, defending the validity of his story in a cosy chat with Walter. Huston goes on to say that the film is perhaps the greatest ever made and there are still many who might agree with that...technically if not morally.

"Gus, a Renegade Negro" played by Walter Lang
Birth of a Nation reflected a lot of common feeling and exposed the truth of racial thinking in a society which was still trying to complete the process of equality a century after the Civil War let alone after a half century.

Griffith starts his film with the thought that “the bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” Is he trying to place blame on the slave traders or the slaves: one of a number of occasions when the message seems conflicted - hedging his bets? He doesn’t devote too much time to the causes of the War other than the implication that the North was trying to dominate the liberated South in the proposed Union.

The Camerons entertain the Stonemans
He’s passionately anti-war though having grown up with tales from his father who fought for the Confederacy. Griffiths had acted in plays about the Civil War and it featured in eleven of the short films he made before the big feature. Common themes show the splitting of family and friends and the awful damage done to both sides by the conflict.

Thus we see the Northern Stoneman family driven against the Southern Camerons in spite of their links of brotherly and romantic love. Once the conflict has begun Griffith skips two years to the closing days and the Battle of Petersburg.

The battle is magnificently recreated starting with a close up of a family cowering on a hill and then panning across a valley in which the trenches will be dug and the armies converge.

In moments like this you can see the compound technical breakthroughs achieved by this film – how many were the director’s own innovations is open to debate but no one had ever before used so many cross-cuts, super-impositions, dolly and tracking shots, close-ups and other devices in such number. The film feels almost modern in some sections but this was Griffith consolidating the language of film we all take for granted.

Had the story ended with the carefully-reconstructed assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the film might have been more unequivocally “great", but then he goes and blows it all…

The second half of the film shows the Reconstruction as the post war Union was destabilised by the economic impact of Southern defeat and by the land-grabbing carpet-baggers who came down from the North to take advantage of the chaos.

Griffith suggests that the gifting of equality to former slaves and the black populace in general was a mistake as they were taken advantage of and corrupted by the Northern opportunists. It is excruciating to modern eyes but haven’t Hollywood films always enjoyed a tenuous relationship with historical fact, following the simplest of populist paths.

Mary Alden as Lydia Brown
Yet, in this case, Griffith can’t look beyond the ingrained beliefs of his upbringing. There are two mixed race characters who take advantage of the naïve Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), first his excitable "mulatto" maid Lydia (Mary Alden) bends his ear – “the great leader's weakness  that is to blight a nation...” and then he enables the rise to power of Sylas Lynch (George Siegmann). Lynch seems to be an amalgam of various perceived wrong ‘uns who lust after the white women and who’s agenda is simply to take what the white folk have got: everything.

The fact that both characters are played by actors in black face makes things so much worse. But this is what Griffiths, sincerely, believed had happened.

George Siegmann, Ralph Lewis, Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall
The saviours of this situation were the be-sheeted Ku Klux Klan who, quite simply, kept on fighting even after the war had finished. In Griffith’s eyes and those of the hundreds of thousands of people who flocked to join the KKK in the years after the film was released (helping to reverse its long-term decline), this action had been unavoidable given the whites’ “disenfranchisement”.

At the end we see a group of black men put off the idea of voting by a troop of Clan riders standing proud on horseback…. In Griffith’s view two wrongs clearly made a right … If you’re feeling particularly generous, he was over-reaching… but he was not alone in thinking that desperate times called for martial law.

The film’s climax is exceptionally well choreographed and set the template for so many that followed, with triple strands of peril and rescue as Lynch pursues Elsie, the Camerons are chased into a shack and the Clan ride into town to out-muscle the black militia.

Miriam, Lillian and some men in sheets...
All ends with a victorious Clan march through with lovers united and peace descending.  Griffith shows a vision of Hell replaced by caucasian Heaven as the two sets of North and South lovers gaze outwards from a windswept hilltop.

Of the largely excellent cast, Henry B. Walthall as the “Little Colonel” Ben Cameron stands out for his energy and resolve – a believable hero on the battlefield and off. Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh are also exceptional but Miriam Cooper stands out as the eldest Cameron daughter who mourns her two dead brothers almost at the expense of life beyond with her love from the North.

Miriam Cooper
At least some boundaries were crossed in the end and it’s important to remember that this film appeared in the year of the 50th anniversary of the war’s ending – a time of country-wide reflection and re-affirmation that, somehow, it was all worth it.

Like many a film-maker, Griffith processed this sentiment through the establishment of semi-fictionalised agents of evil which he hoped to anchor in the past. Like it or not, millions were willing to immerse themselves in this fiction – he touched a nerve alright, but he may have also played a part in the ultimate rejection of these sensibilities by the majority…

At the time there was criticism from the newly-created National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for its "vicious" portrayal of blacks and support of the Klan. Riots also broke out in Boston, Philadelphia and other major cities and it was denied release in a number of states including Chicago, Ohio, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Minneapolis.

Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall
Griffith miss-judged the focus of his film and the burgeoning civil rights movement may have gained as much from this film as the Clan. Whatever the statistics, there was a long road ahead but change was going to come.

I watched the splendid Kino BluRay edition which features both the 2011 restoration as well as the 1997 one and seven of Griffith’s Civil War shorts. This is now out in the UK Masters of Cinema set, an excellent restoration of a very important if not strictly enjoyable - difficult - film.

The final title card reads: "Liberty and union,  one and inseparable,  now and forever!"

All images copyright of Mr DW Griffith as per usual - they're here to help sell your movie.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Terry and Gene at the BFI… The Razor's Edge (1946)

Terence Stamp took off his shoes as he sat down to be interviewed about his choice of film for the BFI Screen Epiphanies series, “how many of you bastards have already seen the film?” he asked in a perfectly reasonable tone.

Not many of us had and, in fairness, not many of us would have if it hadn’t been on his recommendation.

Terence Stamp
Mr Stamp was compelling company as he talked through his early film experience from seeing Gary Cooper in Beau Guest to East of Eden. He was refreshingly frank about the impact The Razor’s Edge had on him with vivid memories of his first three viewings: too confused as a child to even frame questions for the uncle who took him, wanting to be Tyrone Power and just wanting Gene Tierney as a teen and then starting his appreciation of the acting talent, especially the mellifluous tones of Herbert Marshall, in his early years at stage school.

He has always maintained a connection with this film over his career and the searching, spiritual core of the story reflects his own journey, particularly after 1969 when, as he says, the business “gave up” on him and the “Cockney spiv” from Plaistow came back stronger and deeper almost a decade later.

He could have talked all night for most of the audience, but before the subject of the conversation could be over-looked (and the Donner cut of Superman 2 delayed…) we had to roll the film.

Get it?
The Razor’s Edge didn’t disappoint. Based on Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel, it felt like a precursor of the more novelistic style of fifties film, drawing some fine performances from its cast and examining the possibilities of  a life founded on spiritual rather than monetarist value.  Maugham wasn’t the first to look to Indian philosophy – and Stamp isn’t sure he quite “got it” – but he was certainly ahead of the long curve from Kerouac to Harrison.

So was film rather more about nuanced emotion than the linear narrative I’d (lazily as always) expected… it’s not “deliberate” or specific and leaves a lot of room for interpretation by audience and performers alike.

Gene Tierney
Into this zone of uncertainty, slinks Gene Tierney in most emphatic fashion as socialite Isabel Bradley. Hers is a striking performance not merely for the glamour that so entranced young Terence but also for her intensity. Stamp highlighted a moment when arriving at the top of a flight of stairs in her evening gown finery she fixes Larry (Tyrone Power) with a look so full of un-ambiguous intent you know he’s lost if she wants him to be.

Then there’s the moment when Isabel turns and reveals the precise nature of her life and love to Somerset Maugham (Marshall): she has married a man she likes but she’ll only ever love Larry. Such directness is possibly symptomatic of a post war film – life had to lived quickly and to the point – but Tierney slaps you right in the face with it: a more delicate Joan Crawford, but every bit as fierce. She will do what she must even at a cost and as her life goes on she loses her way more to pragmatism.

Fritz Kortner and Tyrone Power
Tyrone Power is also striking as Larry Darrell, a man traumatised by the sacrifice of a comrade in the dying moments of the Great War. He feels like he’s walking in another man’s shoes… a man who simply gave up his own existence so that his pal could carry on. Power carries the towering guilt within and only gives glimpses of the grief that drives him on to find a path worthy of this second chance.

He turns down the chance to join friends as a stock-broker and instead aims to “loaf” until he has found himself. At first Isabelle indulges him, prepared to wait for this process to pass but, finding him in Paris a year later he is still only beginning his journey and material concerns make her break off their engagement.

The great Clifton Webb
Larry goes off to work in a French mine where a fellow worker, Kosti (Fritz Kortner - Lulu’s sugar daddy in Pandora’s Box) tells him of his experiences in India – he didn’t gain enlightenment but grew in self-reliance in his struggle to evade God’s grace.

This is an interesting aspect of the film;  it’s spiritual but it doesn’t seem to be to be aligned to any specific religion just the need to find grace and “goodness”.

As Larry heads off to find a guru, things begin to turn dark at home as his childhood friend, Sophie MacDonald (Anne Baxter) loses both husband and child in a car crash. This begins a downward spiral that sees her addicted to most known vices – Baxter acts her socks off and you can understand how she won the best supporting Oscar.

Anne Baxter acts her way to an Oscar
All of the characters seem lost, even Isabelle’s wealthy uncle Elliott Templeton (the great Clifton Webb) who is a likeable snob finding validation in his position in society, even adopting noble English airs to distance himself still further.

Through this all drifts the author, gently involving himself as part of the plot but only once revealing his feelings as he tells Isabelle how much he appreciates her beauty. He seems wise but then “writers” always have the benefit of hindsight, a smart performance from Herbert Marshall.

Herbert Marshall appraises Gene Tierney
Fortunes turn and all parties end up in Paris after Isabelle’s husband Gray (John Payne) loses all in the stock market crash and they end up lodging with Uncle Elliott.

Larry returns and uses his new-found spiritual awareness to help cure Gray of his post-crash depression. He tries to save Sophie from her death-dive into destitution and it is here that Isabelle’s morality is put to the test…

It's a journey...
The Razor’s Edge is a fascinating film that doesn’t preach or make obvious judgements. Nor does it conform to narrative expectations…well, not mine anyway. I can see why Terence Stamp continues to want his friends to watch it and why he sat through the whole film again with us before beating a hasty retreat as the end credits rolled…

The BFI had secured an excellent print which was a joy to view on the big screen. DVDs are available in all the old familiar places...

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Kevin Brownlow and Clarence Brown… The Eagle (1925)

Rudy can't fail...
The theory of “six degrees of separation” has morphed into “six degrees of Kevin Bacon”… but how about “two degrees through Kevin Brownlow”?

Mr Brownlow met so many silent actors and directors and through him we have a direct connection to Mary Pickford, Eleanor Boardman, Edward Sloman, Louise Brooks (Louise Brooks!) and... many others. He’s a living link to the silent masters and his role in preserving and regenerating interest in their work is not to be under-estimated.

Watching him introduce Clarence Brown’s 1925 romp,The Eagle, at East Finchley’s Pheonix Cinema, you sense that he would shy away from such praise: he remains incredibly enthusiastic and is far more interested in his subjects than himself.

Vilma Bánky and Rudolph Valentino
Clarence Brown is clearly a director Brownlow thinks has been over-looked and in need of a re-appraisal and he was given due credit in what was rather more than an introduction to this film. The highlight was Mr Brownlow’s personal recollections of meeting Mr Brown and of discussing his work on camera in 1969…even though CB claimed he didn’t think the film was rolling. It’s a fascinating document and Brown is one smart cookie.

Brownlow also took us through lengthy sections of some of Brown’s other films:

- The Goose Woman (1925) – Louise Dresser heart-breaking as the opera singer who has thrown it all away for a broken family (shamefully a film that’s still on my list!)

- The Signal Tower (1924) – an action movie which left us hanging on a cliff-hanger as two trains ran towards collision and Wallace Beery menaced Virginia Valli

- Smouldering Fires (1925) - Pauline Frederick as the ahead-of-her-time, macho factory owner who we suspect may need to learn about love and work-life balance

- Flesh and the Devil (1926) Greta Garbo smouldering with John Gilbert in the first of their many romances.

Garbo is the actress most associated with Brown who directed her in seven films including a number of talkies, he’s a much under-appreciated part of her success. But we were here to see another silent star and one I had never watched before, Mr Rudolph Valentino (I know… what can I say...).

Rudolph Valentino
No other silent actor can come with quite so much baggage as the Latin lover, the man who broke so many hearts that people seemingly took their own lives rather than face up to life without him… Surely he had to take himself that seriously too?

But no, what we find is a very handsome man who can act and who has a deliciously inclusive sense of humour to prick the bubble of heroic pomposity: think Antonio Banderas in an Aldomorvar film: a little camp but in a masculine way only real men can carry off!

Valentino is Lt. Vladimir Dubrovsky one of the bravest officers in the imperial elite serving the Czarina, Catherine (Louise Dresser). Spotting a runaway carriage he leaps onto his horse and sets off in pursuit, jumping on and pulling the horses to a halt.

Insert inappropriate comment here...
The party he rescues includes a beautiful young noblewoman, Miss Mascha Troekouroff (played by the delectable Vilma Bánky)… pleasantries are exchanged but he has an appointment with a more significant suitor, his Czarina.

Dresser doesn’t get much screen time but she’s, er... great as Catherine who struggles to negotiate the conflicts between her royal duties and her heart. She asks the young officer if he wants to be a general and almost swoons as he salutes her. But Dubrovsky has other duties to attend to in the form of his ill father whose estate and fortune are under threat.

Albert Conti and Louise Dresser
He runs away from his mistress’ proposal and she promptly puts a price on his head for desertion. Luckily for Catherine there is another officer – Dubrovsky’s pal Captain Kuschka (Albert Conti) who does want to be a general… and rather more besides.

Sadly Dubrovsky is not able to make it home to stop his father losing all as he dies leaving his land to be grabbed by the villainous Kyrilla Troekouroff (James A. Marcus, as cowardly as he is gluttonous).

Dubrovsky won’t take this lying down and turns himself into a Robin Hood figure – The Black Eagle – who leads his father’s remaining loyal staff into an escalating set of counter-measures aimed at over-throwing the usurper.

The Black Eagle and his merry men
Encountering a man who has been employed to teach French (incidentally, the language of the Tsarist court even up to the pre-revolutionary period…) to Kyrilla’s daughter, Dubrovsky takes his place as a means of breaking in and causing chaos.

Yet, when he arrives he sees that his student is to be the beautiful girl he rescued…

Valentino, James A. Marcus and Vilma Bánky
Thus things go as rom-coms go with love/hate heading only the one way for Dubrovsky and Mascha… Bánky and Valentino have tremendous rapport and she allows him to show his heroic humour.

Gradually Kyrilla is revealed as more buffoon than despot as the threats of imminent retribution from the Black Eagle un-nerve him more and more: you do wonder how he ever managed to take control of the Dubrovsky estate.

Dinner is served
Brown directs with a sure touch (not for nothing was he “blind-tasted” as Lubitsch by one Hollywood insider) and some innovative shots including an amazing dolly shot along the full length of Kyrilla’s banquet table. It’s a very well-made film and the print on view is in superb condition – watching it is indeed, as Mr Brownlow said, seeing silent film as it really was.

Accompaniment throughout was provided by Stephen Horne who really showed his versatility in the introductory mix – I especially liked the The Signal Tower’s dramatic train collision.  For the main feature his lyrical lines added flavour to the love story whilst he used a mix of flute, electronic keyboard and accordion to enrich the adventure.

Hearing silent film as it really was…

There’s a cheap DVD release for The Eagle but I would urge you to catch it if it is shown again and hopefully Kevin Brownlow will introduce it further. Time for a Clarence Brown season at the BFI perhaps?

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Asta wears the trousers… Das Liebes-ABC (1916)

Asta Nielsen
“…a shot of Buster Keaton sadness, a dash of Chaplin charm, mixed with the champagne coronation Asta Nielsen… a stunning transformation.*”

On the face of it, Asta Nielsen might seem a surprise as Europe’s first true film star – already in her late twenties by the time she broke through in Denmark she may have lacked the natural charms of later stars such as Negri and Garbo, but was an instinctive film performer with a tremendous range.

It is not perhaps in her more dramatic works that we can see the secrets of her success though but in relatively slight comedies in which her ground-breaking naturalism was allied to a wicked energy and a sense of humour which – hinting at transgression – crossed all borders.

Das Liebes-ABC (The ABC’s of Love) premiered in Berlin in August 1916 and shows this deceptively complex comic appeal to great affect.

Directed by Magnus Stifter - who also acts - the film tells the story of a spoilt young woman (Asta was 35 at the time but carries it off!) who is offered an arranged marriage with the wimpy Philip von Dobbern (Ludwig Trautmann).

"Read it in books..."
Asta’s Lis, spends her days moping around her parent’s luxurious mansion, playing with her dog and her doll whilst dreaming of great romance with dashing gentlemen. But, when her present is delivered in the form of the timid hypochondriacal Philip, she is devastated.

But Lis is not without spirit and resolves to make him into a man and to instruct him in the ABC of love she has read so much about…

Asta Nielsen and Ludwig Trautmann
Lesson one starts with smoking with a brief kiss offered as reward. But more drastic schemes are required to fully test the young man’s mettle.

Rather surprisingly – given the time, given the specific location – Lis arranges for them to travel to Paris, the City of Love where reside all known cures for sexual timidity. I’m not sure what this says about contemporary mores with the front line so close, yet seemingly so far away.

In their hotel Lis makes Philip wear a bonnet and play the role of a woman to her male “pursuer”…shades of Donald Pleasance in Cul-de-sac

Equally daring, is Lis’ transformation into a man with Nielsen alive with double-think through this  sequence which sees her relishing the role a little too much as she proves more alluring to the ladies of gay Paris than her man…

A night at the opera
She’s forced to cross-dress again when her father (Stifter) pays a surprise visit to his future brother-in-law. But dad is too smart for them and spotting the deception teams up with Philip to teach his daughter a lesson.

They invent another woman, Teresa, and leave a letter for Lis to find and draw the wrong conclusions from… She resolves to interrupt Philip’s liaison with this other woman and disguises herself as a chef to gain access to the hotel where the letter says they are to meet.

Well, he didn't fool me...
Lis’ is enraged with jealousy at the sight of Philip and his fancy woman - played naturally, by Graf von Kiesel’s male assistant – and storms off in a rage much to her father’s amusement. But all is finally well when she discovers the deception and its intent: “you are the finest man I know”, she tells Philip; at last impressed with his masculine credentials.

Das Liebes-ABC is a bit of an oddity but displays the enduring fascination with comedic cross-dressing and shows how adept der Asta was in a “trouser role”. But, as I’ve said before, she could pretty much do anything on front of a camera.

Das Liebes-ABC is available along with Die Suffragette on the Edition Filmmuseum DVD set Four films with Asta Nielsen. You can buy it direct or from the Amazon.

*Quoted from Ilona Brennicke, Joe Hembus: Klassiker des deutschen Stummfilms 1910–1930