Electric piano: Antonio Coppola
The name above the title: Florence Vidor in You Never Know Women. With Eugene Pallette (party guest, n. c.).
Viewed with e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti at Cinema Jolly (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato), 29 June 2014
Gina Telaroli (Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2014, catalogue and website): "This 1926 Wellman silent was, according to the director himself, "My last chance", after he and B.P. Schulberg made a self proclaimed "incredibly atrocious" picture called The Cat's Pajamas. Always one for an over elaborate false start, Wellman opens with a construction worker raising a beam just as it's about to fall on a passing woman (Florence Vidor). The construction worker miraculously saves her but a rich gentleman (Eugene Foster) in a nearby car, upon noticing the woman's good looks, swoops in and takes the credit. She's part of a famed Russian vaudeville troupe, and Wellman redirects our attention to their exploits, crafting a nuanced exploration of performance, on stage and in life. This focus on theater gives Wellman one of his first chances to explore his obsession with the politics of identity and the physicality of labor. He combines the two in an impressive tracking shot of the entire cast (of both the movie and the troupe) taking off their masks on a brightly lit stage in a very dark theater, only to reveal clown make up underneath. The film marks the screen debut of vaudevillian El Brendel, who would appear the next year in Wings as Herman Schwimpf and provide a much needed (and very Wellmanesque) comedic antidote to the prestigious aviation melodrama. Here he also plays the funny man, offsetting a plot centered on a love triangle with the support of a performative duck. When the curtain came down, this last chance turned out to be Well man's breakout success as he said: "The gods smiled: it won artistic award of the year, and the bum got a twenty five dollar a week raise and Wings for his effort"." Gina Telaroli (Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2014, catalogue and website)
Antonio Coppola apologized for the electric piano, perfectly tuned but failing in the emotion of the interpretation.
AA: The circus world (including vaudeville) was an obsession during the silent era, at the latest since The Four Devils / De fire Djævle / Die vier Luftakrobaten (DK 1911, based on the novel by Herman Bang, D: Alfred Lind, Alex Christians, Robert Dinesen, Christian Rosenbaum, better than the 1920 remake by A. W. Sandberg, remade again as late as 1928 by Murnau). The world of magicians, clowns, dancers, acrobats, wild animals, varieties and fairgrounds inspired great artists, including Lubitsch, Curtiz, Sjöström, Chaplin, Browning, Dupont, Robison, Hitchcock, Lang, Murnau, and Sternberg. The approach to the circus world was at its most profound in Weimar Germany. E. A. Dupont built an international career on variations of Varieté. The most popular plot line was already introduced in The Four Devils: the triangle drama combined with perilous feats of acrobats with their salto mortales, risking their lives on the trust of the split second reactions of other team players. A favourite character besides the acrobat was the clown (at the latest since Sandberg's Klovnen, DK 1917, with Psilander) and its most heartbreaking interpretation was in the first major German sound film Der Blaue Engel by Emil Jannings (who also excelled as the acrobat in Varieté). "The world as a circus" was a tempting concept for the cinema during the silent age ever since Edison (who started with Buffalo Bill's Wild West circus acts) and Méliès, and of course, ever since.
William A. Wellman's breakthrough into the big league of Hollywood was also a drama of magicians, dancers, acrobats, clowns, and animals.
The triangle tragedy plot stems from the Four Devils tradition.
The acts of the Russian vaudeville troupe are brilliant. The action on stage and backstage is displayed in affectionate detail. The non-circus action sequence in the beginning (the falling beam almost crushing Vera at the construction site) is also thrillingly directed.
This is a Florence Vidor vehicle. She is elegant, glamorous, and charming, her Vera character one of dignity. "These are my people. I love them".
Norodin (Clive Brook), the brooding lover, is a Houdini style escape artist, a master of chains, locks, coffins, and underwater rescues. He invents new magic acts, such as an ingenious disappearence act. He is also a brilliant knife-thrower.
El Brendel is perfect as the clown Toberchick with his bespectacled duck.
Lowell Sherman plays yet another variation of his blasé and callous millionaire cad character, famous at least since Way Down East.
There are original scenes of comedy, such as the troupe setting the millionaire's dinner table with flying saucers.
There are also moments of melancholy reflection, both for Vera and Norodin.
A well-made entertainment, a display of many of Wellman's strengths, yet not quite one of the actual masterpieces of the circus genre. My favourite scene is towards the end: everyone believes Norodin has drowned into the ocean in his most dangerous stunt, but the show must go on. We observe the expressions of Vera, Toberchik, and the duck. "Sometimes you don't know your love until it's too late".
The print is fundamentally good, giving a true sense of the original concept of Victor Milner's cinematography. There are slight occasional nitrate or water damage marks from the source material, and for a moment there is a duped quality, but on the whole this is a great print.