Saturday, October 01, 2011

A tolonc / The Undesirable

[Il vagabondo] (Proja, HU 1915) D: Mihály Kertész [Michael Curtiz]; P: Jenő Janovics; SC: Jenő Janovics, Tamás Emőd, based on the play “A tolonc” (1876) by Ede Tóth; DP: László Fekete; cast: Lili Berky (Liszka Angyel), Mihály Várkonyi (Miklós), Mari Jászai (Sára Ördög), István Szentgyörgyi (Mrawcsák), Gyula Nagy (Fridolin Kontra), Mariska Simon (His wife), Andor Szakács (Pál Angyal), Elemér Hetényi (Work representative), Alajos Mészáros (A gentleman), Katalin Berky (His wife), Zoltán Gálosi (a servant), Endre Kertész (Lőrinz, a young Jew), Fülöp Erdős (Work representative), Adorján Nagy (Policeman), Mihály Fekete (Warden), József Berky (Notary); filmed: 6.1914-15.7.1914; première: 15.2.1915; released: 25.2.1915 (Wien), 1.3.1915 (Budapest), 5.2.1915 (Kolozsvár); 35 mm, 1400 m, 67’ (18 fps); print source: EYE Film Institute Netherlands, Amsterdam. English intertitles. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, with e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano and violin: Günter Buchwald, 1 Oct 2011.

Restoration work print, 2009, from an original nitrate print held by the Hungarian National Film Archive, Budapest.

Miguel A. Fidalgo (GCM Catalogue): "Transylvania, bounded on the East and South by the Carpathian Mountains, is a multi-ethnic region, rich in folk traditions. Hungarian dominated for centuries, its capital Kolozsvár (today Cluj Napoca), located strategically in the centre of the region, flourished throughout the 19th century, to reach its zenith during the first decade of the 20th. The 30-year-old Jenő Janovics arrived there in 1905, to become director of the Nemzeti Színház (National Theatre) and a progressive stage director. These first years coincided with the beginnings and growth of the Hungarian film industry, and Janovics, attracted by the new art form, decided to try his hand at it, as a logical evolution from the theatre. He planned to conquer the market by concentrating on local subject matter and settings. Consequently he showed a preference for classic Hungarian plays, while not completely abandoning the literary adaptations of celebrated foreign authors favoured by Hungarian film productions of the period."

"For his first film, Sárga csikó (The Yellow Colt, 1913), based on a popular rural drama, Janovics obtained financing from the French producer Pathé. This proved to be the first Hungarian movie to achieve successful international distribution, with 137 copies, shown in countries as distant as Japan. However, the accidental death by drowning of the actress Erszi Imre during the shooting discouraaged Pathé from financing future productions. Consequently, for the future Janovics became organizer and producer of his own movies. To that purpose, in 1914 he constructed the Proja studio, in a warehouse beside the Nemzeti Színház, and formed a distribution agreement for his titles with another new company, Kino-Riport. Keen to become the director of his own films but not knowing how, Janovics hired Mihály Kertesz [Curtiz]: the ambitious challenge and the opportunity to advance his career were totally in line with the young filmmaker’s wishes."

"Thus it was that in the spring of 1914 Curtiz arrived in Kolosvár, where Janovics was waiting with a dedicated team of actors and a few limited though practical facilities. Interior scenes had to be shot outdoors, in the courtyard of the theatre. The roof of the courtyard was covered with glass, but wind was a hazard and the weather generally limited filming to the summer months. For location scenes Janovics could offer Kertesz not only the region’s spectacular landscapes, but also the streets and houses of Kolozsvár and its surroundings, which provided unexpected and arresting settings. For Curtiz these were truly not the best working conditions, but, as would happen on a multitude of occasions in his career, difficulties stimulated his creativity. For the most part the scripts were written by Janovics himself, whose theatrical expertise allowed him to structure the material adequately. Curtiz was to make three films for Proja, shot in sequence and prepared together, a practice that would be common during his European period. This was not just a matter of saving needless expense and maximizing use of favourable weather, but proved an interesting work methodology, demanding an exceptionally organized and capable mind."

"Curtiz’s first film for Proja, A kölcsönkért csecsemők (The Borrowed Babies), was a burlesque comedy from an original script by Janovics, inspired by an item in an American newspaper. The second was A tolonc (The Undesirable), based on the posthumous masterpiece of writer Ede Tóth (1844-1876). Janovics also wrote the script of this popular drama, and produced the movie with as large a budget as he could afford, including a good number of extras, sets in varied locations, a costly wardrobe, and some of the best-known actors and actresses of the moment. Among them was Mari Jászai (1850- 1928), the grande dame of the Hungarian stage, and the promising young Mihály Várkonyi (later Victor Varconi, 1891-1976), with whom Curtiz would work profusely, practically turning him into his alter ego in front of the camera. A minor incident during the shooting of this film would be remembered as the first on a “black list” of accidents associated, maybe somewhat unjustly, with Curtiz’s name: Jászai broke a rib filming a scene in which she had to stop a wagon, and blamed the director for starting the action before the expected moment."

"It is true that the first steps of the cinema in many countries were full of incidents much more serious than this – Janovics himself was found culpable for the death of Erszi Imre – but this somewhat “fierce” portrait of Curtiz suggests, rather than the later groundless and simplistic charges of sadism that he would attract in later years, the limits to which he would go to in his dedication and efforts to achieve perfection and realism. These two qualities stand above the rest in A tolonc, a genuinely moving film shot with grace and rhythm, even when affected by some old-fashioned histrionics." – Miguel A. Fidalgo

AA: This recently rediscovered film has been little seen by present generations. I sat besides Vera Güyrey and István Szabó who confirmed that this is indeed a well-known play and that the actors are famous in Hungary. My first impression was that this is a melodrama based on familiar plotting and incredible coincidences, and the director has not found the key to subtle cinematic performances. Based on apparently difficult sources the print looks a little flat but the film is complete and the print is watchable.

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