Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Battle of the Sexes

Sukupuolten taistelu. US 1928. PC: Art Cinema Corp. P+D: D.W. Griffith. SC: Gerrit J. Lloyd - based on the story "The Single Standard" by Daniel Garson Goodman. CIN: G.W. Bitzer, Karl Struss. AD: Park French, William Cameron Menzies. Cast: Jean Hersholt (J.C. Judson), Phyllis Haver (Marie Skinner), Belle Bennett (Mrs. Judson), Don Alvarado (Babe [Jim] Winsor), Sally O’Neill (Ruth Judson), William Bakewell (Billy Judson); 7846 ft /24 fps/ 87 min, print: GEH, original in English, with e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Stephen Horne. Viewed at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, Cinema Verdi, 8 October 2008. - J.B. Kaufman: "Few films can offer as revealing a perspective on Griffith’s late-1920s career as his 1928 remake of The Battle of the Sexes. Remakes were a rarity in Griffith’s career anyway, but his two versions of this story were separated by a gap of 14 years – turbulent years that saw a world war, the rise of the Roaring Twenties, and vast social changes with which, we have often been told, Griffith could not keep up. In a sense The Battle of the Sexes disproves that notion, for it takes place in a world very different from that of 1914. Unfortunately only a fragment of the 1914 Battle of the Sexes is known to survive, but from that fragment and from contemporary publicity and reviews we can gather a sense of the tone Griffith took in that version. As Donald Crisp strayed from his loving wife and children to dally with an adventuress, there can be little doubt that Griffith depicted such infidelity seriously, delivering a stern warning to anyone (erring husband or adventuress) who would threaten the sanctity of the home – a warning not unlike those he had delivered more than once in his recent Biograph films.
What a difference in 1928! The plot is the same, but the 1928 Battle of the Sexes is framed as a comedy, complete with wisecracking titles and designed almost exclusively for entertainment value. An index to the contrast between the two versions can be seen in their casts. The straying husband, played in 1914 by rock-solid Donald Crisp, is portrayed in 1928 by the short, pudgy, vulnerable, and frequently ludicrous Jean Hersholt. The temptress, as played in 1914 by a young Fay Tincher, was attractive enough but clearly a lightweight. In 1928, as played by blonde bombshell Phyllis Haver, she’s the star of the picture. Her golddigger (in updated late-1920s parlance), a voracious glamour girl with a heart of brass, is both firmly in control of the plot and thoroughly likable, quite the most entertaining thing in the film. Hersholt hasn’t a chance against her formidable charms, and his character becomes more sympathetic as a result.
Griffith has not, of course, abandoned his value system altogether, and midway through the picture he shifts gears. The damage wrought upon the businessman’s family is clearly meant to be taken seriously. Here again, however, the film’s cast works against a severely moralistic preachment: the members of the businessman’s family, the bedrock of the original film, are played in the remake by the weakest members of the cast. Belle Bennett, fresh from notable “mother” roles in such films as Stella Dallas (...) and John Ford’s Mother Machree (...), was probably an obvious choice to play the wife/mother, but she registers little or no impression; as Variety observed, she “is inclined to be monotonous in her simplicity”. Sally O’Neill and Billy Bakewell, as the businessman’s children, are hardly a match for Lillian Gish and Bobby Harron in the original, and their disconcertingly strenuous efforts to project youth and vivacity are no help at all.
The surviving fragment of the 1914 The Battle of the Sexes is the scene in which the businessman and his paramour are discovered at a cabaret by his family. Comparing this fragment with the corresponding sequence in the remake allows us to see how Griffith’s technique has changed in the intervening years. The 1928 version has been expanded in every way: more camera positions, more varied activity by the principals and by the other nightclub patrons (with a running gag involving a diner at a nearby table), not to mention a much larger and more glamorous nightclub – surely a reflection of how such places had changed in real life during the 1920s. This eye-popping nightclub set is the work of William Cameron Menzies (...)
The fluidity of the sequence, and the rest of the film, is further enhanced by occasional dolly or tracking shots. Billy Bitzer had photographed the 1914 The Battle of the Sexes (...) single-handed, but for the remake he was teamed with the distinguished cinematographer Karl Struss, whose mobile camera had recently been used to good effect in Sunrise (...) Perhaps the most striking of the moving-camera shots (...) comes as Belle Bennett, in a daze, wanders deliriously on the roof of the apartment building. As she totters dangerously near the edge, the camera, in a sudden point-of-view shot, plunges sickeningly straight down the side of the building.
(...) released late in 1928, the key transitional year of the talking-picture revolution (...) with a synchronized score, augmented with sound effects, and in Phyllis Haver’s singing scene the sound of her voice was loosely synchronized with her singing image onscreen. This was apparently the film’s one concession to the talkies, but it was enough for Variety to classify it explicitly as a sound film. Griffith, for his part, was unhappy with the soundtrack and registered a futile complaint with United Artists over the music in the opening and closing scenes. Where Griffith had envisioned a tender arrangement of “Together” or “When You and I Were Young, Maggie” in these scenes, the score supplied up-tempo comedy music instead.
(...) Critics were unanimously disappointed in the film, more than one comparing it unfavorably with Paramount’s The Way of All Flesh (...), which had featured a similar plot situation and Belle Bennett and Phyllis Haver in comparable roles. (...)" J.B. Kaufman [DWG Project # 619]. - AA: DWG in the new mood with a moving, swinging camera, glossy surfaces, in touch with the Jazz Age. The framing scenes are the mother's birthdays. In the final birthday party the present is the father, who in between has strayed with the flapper. Fun with the middle-age father trying to get in shape with the flapper via calisthenics. This is no masterpiece, but it is interesting to see DWG succeed with the new kind woman (Phyllis Haver). - There is in the beginning the "hands, feet only" device also seen in a couple of other films of the Festival, the most famous use of which is in Strangers on a Train. - It is a comedy, but with a dimension of tragedy with the mother's suicide attempt and the daughter's murder attempt.

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