Saturday 18 March 2023

Boardman talks in colour… Mamba (1930)

Things you never expected to see… on several levels. This film was considered mostly lost for a long time until a nearly complete 35mm nitrate copy was located in Australia in 2009. This has subsequently been fully restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation in 2016, but what I watched was a rather fuzzy copy on YouTube… sometimes you must take what you can find. How could I resist seeing elegant Eleanor Boardman, silent star of The Crowd, Bardleys the Magnificent and Souls for Sale, in Technicolor and, talking too?

On the face of it, Boardman could be seen as one of those who’s career stalled after sound but she made seven talkies including the fascinating part-talkie She Goes to War (1929) enough of which survives to show how she was more than capable of sustaining her career, should she have really wanted to. Now in her early thirties, Boardman was married to and having children with King Vidor and, film fans, that’s an activity which doesn’t always sit well with the Hollywood sausage machine especially if you are, famously, “the most outspoken girl in Hollywood”! She liked Redemption (1929), the picture she made with John Gilbert, which didn’t enhance his (or her) prospects but gave her a gorgeous wardrobe, and then got loaned out by MGM to Tiffany Studios for Mamba.

Her last Hollywood film was de Mille’s remake of his own The Squaw Man (1931) and, as family duties and her increasingly unhappy marriage began to pre-occupy her, she refused to dance to the studio’s tune and return from an Hawaiian make-or-break with Vidor, to be loaned again this time to Paramount. By 1933 she had divorced King and taken her children off to Europe where she eventually met and married writer/director Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast for whom she starred in her last film, The Three Cornered Hat (1935) made in Italy. She appeared in Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood series interviewed in 1977, still strikingly sharp and eloquent, comfortable with her life and perhaps slightly dismissive of most of her films, save The Crowd.

Jean Hersholt

Here she’s perfectly fine, good at the grander emotions, dressed like a clothes horse if a little under-powered in some scenes in which she’s outshone, as everyone else, by a perfectly nasty turn from Jean Hersholt. Jean’s upbringing in Denmark, enabled him to nail the German accent required for the part of the titular snake, August Bolte (Mambo), a German opportunist who doesn’t care who he exploits as long as there’s profit in it. Born Jean Pierre Carl Buron, he started acting in short films in 1906 but emigrated for New York in 1913 aged 27 and established himself quickly, making films, most notably in Greed (1924) into the 1950s. He also translated 160 of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales into English and ended up as Leslie Nielsen’s paternal half-uncle… fact fans!

The film is one of those exhibiting a considerable amount of silent style especially when it begins with an extraordinary single take – some 90 seconds long – during which director Albert S. Rogell’s camera moves down and through a number of street scenes on an African reservation, showing us the local colour, and the nature of the place we are about to experience: Neu Posen in German East Africa, sometime in 1913. Like many other “pre-code” films of the period it comes with heavy doses of language and actions reflecting “the attitudes of the time” … Your honour, may I refer you to the statement made by one English officer to a German one: “… too many blacks to run after and too few of us whites to ever be able to hold them in line…” a sentence that is followed by the artful suggestion that those civilised whites of Britain and Germany would never be caught fighting amongst themselves. The audience knew and of course we still know, what this means.

Bolte arrives and is immediately confronted by a local woman (Hazel Jones) who claims he is the father of her child; the other Europeans look on is disgust as he pushes her away. He goes for a drink in a bar full of singing German and British officers only to be given the coldest of shoulders and to be told to his face that he’s not invited to Colonel Cromwell’s party. Bolte sings alone and throws his beer away ordering a champagne…

Bolte reviews his options...

“With more land und money than anyone else in East Africa… I could buy und sell the whole army!

A begging letter from a nobleman in debt back in Germany, offers the hand of his daughter Helen (Eleanor Boardman) in marriage in exchange for Bolte paying his creditors off. After reviewing Helen’s photograph, Bolte decides that this is the way to gain proper respect from society; married to a Lady, his snobbish detractors will have no option but to pay her their respects. He goes back to Germany and brings back his already traumatised new wife back with him. As his cockney manservant (a lively Will Stanton) says: “Blimey sir! But she’s a real aristocrat… she’s got quality!”

On the ocean journey she meets a handsome German officer, Karl von Reiden (Ralph Forbes) who is certainly more along the lines of the kind of man she’d hoped to wed. They connect but are soon separated by Bolte who demonstrates a grotesque mix of jealousy and pride. Back in Neu Posen in Bolte’s grubby mansion, Helen is holding out as long as she can, her honour still at stake as her contractual-obliged partner invites his former enemies to a party in her honour to which everyone is invited and duty bound to attend for her sake. Before the party begins, the native woman pays Bolte another visit and, after an altercation, she falls over his balcony and to her death.

Initially his grand party goes well but when news of the death breaks out the mood turns sour and the faint-hearted merrymaking stops, leaving Helen at the mercy of her husband until, that is, she is rescued by von Reiden who takes her off to see the local natives’ “Moon Dance” - perhaps it will help you forget… He delivers her back to her predatory partner just as he receives news that way has been declared between Germany and Great Britain. Now things reach a peak as Bolte tries to avoid the draft and to hold onto his ill-gotten gains…

Eleanor Boardman and Ralph Forbes

Mambo is alleged to have cost over $500,000 to produce and appears to have been well received with the colour photography impressing. It’s more than just a novelty though with the colonial questions raised and the moral dangers presented by Bolte and then the War. Hersholt makes the picture though and seems able to raise sympathy for his misbegotten creation of Bolte who very rarely, if ever, does the right thing but still presents as a victim in comparison to the taller and more handsome officers, just about to fight the War to End all Wars.

This would look amazing on the big screen and I look forward to a 35mm screening at some point and somewhere…

No comments:

Post a Comment