Thursday 3 November 2011

Proud Flesh (1925) Eleanor Boardman & King Vidor (again!)

"Proud Flesh is King Vidor's gentle farewell to his passing youth..." wrote Charles Silver in programme notes for a 1972 showing of the film at the New York MOMA film department. It was certainly at this point that Vidor spoke to Irving Thalberg and told him that he was "weary of making ephemeral films..."; he wanted to make a film that really stood the test of time.

This Vidor undeniably did with his next film, The Big Parade, but is Proud Flesh all that insubstantial? The film is certainly a fairly simple construct and one that was undeniably built around Eleanor Boardman... designed to show off the former model in a variety of opulent settings, wearing a stunning array of dresses, scarves and, a wonderful silver head-wrap.

If Vidor hadn’t popped the question to his future wife at this point, he was certainly thinking about it as he ensures that she looks great throughout.

The film’s central sequence has her meeting Pat O’Malley on the windswept cliffs at Cypress Point. He arrives to find her running wild, throwing her arms out to the open sea and letting the wind move her around in total freedom. All artifice of class is lost and she just is…and, in this setting, she finally allows herself to fall for him…just as he’d hoped. This section is almost dream-like and another superb set piece along the lines of Vidor’s "boat through the willows" tour de force in Bardleys.

But it’s Boardman’s acting that really elevates proceedings, she’s just so natural and capable. She tells the story with a range of expressions that are believable and engaging even to modern audiences. Not that she’s taxed too much by this tale but she makes the most of it with ease and elegance.

The film is never-the-less, stylish and full of wit, starting off, “for apparently no reason at all” with the San Francisco earthquake during which Boardman’s character, Fernanda Borel is born. She grows up in Spain in upper class circumstances and we see her romanced by the artful Don Diego (played by Harrison Ford…no, not that one), a man who has taken this process to new levels. Don Diego sub contracts the singing and has a band of helpers who help elevate him to Fernanda’s level for she has – “the most charming balcony in Barcelona” (the intertitles are a hoot!).

Fernanda aims to get Don Diego to reveal his true feelings by pretending she is moving to her uncle’s house in San Francisco. Seemingly he doesn’t fall for it and she is forced into following through and emigrating. Don Diego secretly follows her and by the time they are re-united she has already met a wealthy plumber, Pat O’Malley (played by, erm, Pat O’Malley). Finding O’Malley uncouth the Spanish couple tease him relentlessly. But, cruel as she may be, Fernanda does develop a soft spot for the earnest hero.

There are the usual twists and Vidor has us hanging on as long as possible before true love wins out. It's as if he was toying with an already well-trodden story progression and is pushing our response to Fernanda and Don Diego’s cruelty as far as he can. But, Fernada sees sense in the end and returns to the guy who feels it most. Don Diego is broken hearted for all of two minutes – the time it takes him to find a new date in his little black book. O’Malley and Fernanda presumably live happily ever after with the former's pet dog and assured of hot water and efficient central heating for always!

Very engaging even on a zillionth generation copy…another film you’d hope would get a proper DVD release someday.

For, as Charles Silver wrote, “Eleanor Boardman…possessed an ethereal loveliness which could elevate a trifle like Proud Flesh into something resembling art”. Yes, she did... and she could!


  1. I have been looking for a way to see this movie. I'm a big King Vidor fan and haven't been able to track this down. Thanks so much for posting about it! If you have any suggestions as to how I can see it, please let me know!

    1. I am wondering if you had any luck... Did you find the film?