Thursday, 19 November 2015

Duty to passion… Red Heels (1925)

Das Spielzeug von Paris (entitled Red Heels in English – from its source book by Margery Lawrence) is an Austrian film directed by Michael Curtiz (Michael Kertesz at this point in his journey to the very top) that tells an old tale of theatrical fortunes and conflicting loves. There’s a lot of flash and a fair amount of flesh but a story that ultimately side-steps some of its designated clichés...

There’s a clear fix on the new star Lili Damita who is seen in a variety of stunning gowns and dance pieces in which the current Mrs Curtiz and future Mrs Flynn shows an incredible amount of energy with a physical expression that is exhausting to watch even at this distance.

She can dance and she can act and she can also “wear”… there’s a very popular still of La Damita in a silver, evening gown that has a popularity all of its own in fact it’s far easier to find than this film which I obtained from an American retailer that claims to "love the classics" but which took an age to deliver… still, it did arrive.

It was probably worth the wait as, mostly, the film is in good nick and presumably the source material is even clearer “nth” generations up the line.

Show girl: Lili Damita and Henry Treville
Curtiz presents a film that feels five years ahead of time with huge set-piece stage sequences and dialogue-heavy title cards that would be much improved by the rapid-fire delivery of a Glenda Farrell or Joan Blondell although whether either could move as impressively as Lili I doubt: there’s a wildness in her expression that looks more to Pola Negri that Norma Shearer. No wonder Errol liked her so much.

Behind the scenes at the new Eden...
Curtiz is very strong on the back-stage machinery of the revue at Nouvel Eden, one of the shining lights of La Pigalle but as one of the venues main patrons, Vicomte François de la Roche de la Maudry (Henry Treville) walks through the giggling showgirls, the theatre manager (Hans Moser) is wrestling with the problem of declining ticket sales.

Ninette (Maria Fein) the current Revueprimadonna, is past her best and a new star is required to reverse their fortunes. The Vicomte has just the person in mind and take the manager to a club in Montmartre to witness a ferocious dance from one Susana Armard (Lili Damita) whose stage name is Célimène.

And that's probably jazz...
Before long Célimène is the toast of Paris and knocking them dead with her high kicking all action costume wearing a feast of feathers and lithe limbs in perpetual motion in stages that would make Busby’s accountant wince.

At the same time we are introduced to English playboy Miles Seward (Eric Barclay) who with his pal Miguel (Theo Schall) catch site of a flyer for Susana/Célimène’s show and make their plans. Miles is involved with a young woman of standing Dorothy Madison (Ria Günzel) whose mother, Lady Madison (Traute Carlsen) deeply approves of this sensible young man.

That floor's bound to be covered in dust!
Miles and Theo hit the Nouvel Eden just in time to see Célimène’s act and Miles forgets all about his fiancée as he goes to see the actress after the show. Célimène reciprocates this interest and a little spark ignites that will keep them both warm for some months to come.

We don’t see much of Miles’ regular existence but we are treated to the broken flower vase of his desire as Curtiz offers some frankly pre-pre-code allusions to wantonness. Damita is all extended limbs and arched torso as she embraces her new love but there are conflicts to be addressed.

Miles is a respectable man and Susana is a show girl; he has his responsibility and duty to marry Dorothy whilst she had her professional duty and affiliation to her sugar Vicomte… but there’s more; she genuinely loves performing and possibly as much as anything or anyone else.

But right now, their growing concern is very much for each other and things come to a head as Miles is out with his fiancée, sister Nan (Marietta Müller) and Miguel. Susana arrives with the Vicomte in tow and daggers are cast each way across the room. Miles cracks and dances with Susana forcing the Madisons to leave as a helpless Miguel pleads his buddy’s case.

Miles walks the long walk home alone, along deserted Parisian streets in the early morning… When he arrives home he finds Susana waiting and the rest is physicality…

Happy ever afters?
Cut to some idyllic pastorality as Miles and Susana revel in the fields and quay-side of his retreat in Brittany: it looks very much like a happy ending and in some films that would surely be that.

But Célimène lies restlessly-dormant and perhaps sensing this the Vicomte persuades fellow performer and best buddy Christina (Maria Hasti) to invite her to a party at his pad, Villa Paradiso up the coast. She gleefully takes off leaving a note for Miles.

Back in the old groove?
Of course, when she arrives at the Villa it’s not just a party but a stage set for her to perform and she soon succumbs to the champagne and the beckoning of the old groove.

The weather has changed and in near darkness with the rain pelting down, Miles goes off on foot to rescue his love… cue lots of pained shirt-drenched determination intercut with plumed jazz-dancing. Miles makes his way and a face-off with the Vicomte and Célimène/Susana.

Through the wind and the rain...Eric Barclay
Miles retreats only to be followed by Susana who discovers that the wind has changed and is now blowing in her face… she loses sight of Miles and after finding him not at home struggles to return. Rescued by a car from the Villa she succumbs to a fever – it’s pneumonia… Will she survive and will she be re-united with Miles? The answer is not straightforward…

Duty versus passion
Samuel Goldwyn smartly invited Lili Damita to Hollywood after watching this film and it’s easy to see why – she was an excellent dancer and silent actress (she had a stage background) and would even made the transition to sound in films like Fighting Caravans with Gary Cooper and This is the Night with an impossibly youthful Cary Grant.

Lili Damita
The film is clearly a vehicle for her and her husband focuses very closely on all aspects of her role including the odd, very continental, wardrobe malfunction.  But it’s an engaging film all round which, even if the plot is rather convoluted, ends on an interesting note. It deserves wider recognition not just for its star though but also for the most bizarre dance routine involving giant chefs and ballerina’s dancing around huge mixing bowls… now that’s what I call entertainment!

A bake-off dance-off?!


  1. Wow, this looks amazing! Sumptuous art direction, wardrobe and mise en scène - right up my alley. I see that Ucicky did the cinematography too ... I think I need this DVD. Thanks for telling about this film!

  2. It'd be great to see this projected too! The copy I got from LTC was watchable but there's so much more detail in the design and staging. One of those films you wish was properly available! P