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Some Progress (aka Film Festival 2.5)

October 5th, 2005 (11:05 pm)

Nyah nyah! I got a review of Beyond the Rocks together.

© 2005 D. Gordon

Lost 'N Found

Once upon a time there was a man who lived in the Netherlands. Let's call him Jan (unless you can come up with a better Dutch name). What kind of man Jan was is lost in the mists of time, and for our purposes doesn't really matter, except for the fact that Jan loved movies. He loved movies so much that he collected them. Collected, as in bought prints. He wasn't a rich man (at least I don't think he was); but time can do wonderous things, and Jan managed to collect thousands of reels, movie by movie - enough to fill six warehouses.

As we all eventually do, one day Jan died. And because he really loved movies, and understood that movies were meant to be seen and savored, he willed two thousand of his canisters to the Nederlands Filmmuseum (click on English if you need to. Over there, on the left). The Filmmuseum, being a film museum, moved the films to a safer location and started cataloguing the acquisition. And one day, they realized just what one of those movies was.

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Anyone who spends more than token amounts of time exploring old film will run across various wish lists of movies lost through fire, neglect, age, and all the other things that have taken an estimated 70-90% of all movies made before 1950 (and safety stock). Beyond the Rocks is one movie regularly found on those lists. It's an important film for several reasons; maybe the most important is that it was the only movie to star Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino (after she became a star but before he had). For years, only a one-minute fragment was known to exist. Later in life, Gloria Swanson herself sent out a plea for this movie to reappear. So you can imagine what kind of reception greeted the news that a print had been found intact except for two minutes.

The film was first shown - for the first time in over 75 years - on April 10, 2005 at the Filmmuseum Biennial 2005. Given significant support (by Martin Scorsese, Turner Classic Movies, and ING Bank, among others), it is being shown around the US; a DVD is set to be released in Spring 2006 by Milestone Films (yay, Milestone). The US roadshow began in New York, as part of the 43rd New York Film Festival.

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So now for the movie...

I walked into the theater excited to see such a significant piece of history, but not 100% elated at the actual film. I like silent film a lot, I've seen enough to have the grammar down and to have favorite actors. Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, however, are not on my favorites list (although I understand Swanson's command of her art and I'll always cut Rudy some slack). On top of that, I'd heard that the story wasn't that good - a melodrama in the bad sense - and that it didn't get good reviews when it was first released. So I went in ready to suck it up, watch for the historical significance, and leave it at that.

So the lights go down, the titles come up, and... uh-oh, rocky start. Gloria is Theodora Fitzgerald, an innocent ingenue, although she's got an underlying sultry look and a smirk that would put W to shame. Rudy comes in fairly early playing Lord Bracondale, aka himself; but, since his character calls for a young dashing English lord (with a hint - but not too much - of Italian blood), it's working for him. The story progresses; Theodora ends up marrying a significantly older rich man because her family has fallen on hard times and this is the only way she can help her dearly beloved father. It's on her honeymoon, when Rudy rescues her a second time (hey, she's clumsy), that they start to fall for each other and you realize that the plot just may save the film.

This story engages enough to start transcending its time and genre. No one takes the easy way out, and this isn't a lovers-plot-to-off-the-husband tale. Theodora feels that no matter what she feels for the dashing lord, she made a deal with her husband and she's going to live up to it. Lord Bracondale (perhaps the weakest character) is so smitten that he's close to (unintentionally) compromising Theodora's reputation despite his promise to leave her alone. And Theodora's husband, the erstwhile Josiah Brown... At the start of the film he sees Gloria as another acquisition, another marker that he's been successful in life. But by the time he realizes that his wife is in love with someone else - although she's giving up that someone else for him - it's clear he's actually fallen in love with her. The most poignant scene in the movie is his: when he's read the goodbye letter intended for Lord B and realizes he has his wife's affection but not love, his eyes tear up. He doesn't cry, he doesn't rant, he doesn't really even move his body - it's just written across his face, and he has the look of a very lost soul. He's basically a simple man who's made a mistake. (Okay, Rudy does the same tearing eye thing in Cobra - but it's a very cool, very effective device.)

But right after this peak the movie comes crashing back to earth. Mr. Brown heads off on a dangerous expedition to the Middle East (? - !), planning to solve the situation by sacrificing himself. Theodora and Lord B go tearing off to stop him. They get there just in time to ease his entry into the next world. They then wait a respectable amount of time, then go sailing off into the sunset. Maybe it's the curse of being written in the early 20th century; I dunno. But the ending is as you'd expect: predictable and somewhat trite. There's even a big goof, as one of the crew steps in camera range during the final battle sequence (and they didn't think to refilm / cut that footage?). Despite that engaging middle section, Famous Players-Lasky was in the business of making money; their aim was to give the public what they thought the public wanted. With that kind of basic motive, maybe it was just too hard for the movie to move beyond its time.

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Okay - I didn't mention that the print itself was beautiful - the Filmmuseum sank a lot of time and effort into it, and it's much cleaner than it was when found. The Filmmuseum apparently has a lot of expertise in restoration, so they were probably one of the best places for Jan to bequeath his films. The music matches very well, even though no attempt was made to create something time-specific. The intertitles were not original or reproductions (this was a Dutch print, so I have no idea of how they matched up with the original English version), but were neat and understated enough to avoid overtaking the movie (which happened sometimes with original titles). And although they left the two minutes of ruined film on the print, you can see enough of what's happening (it's fairly short each time) for it to almost honor the existence of the film, rather than disrupt the flow of the film.