Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sensation Seekers (2017 digital restoration by Universal from a PHI 16 mm print)

Rakkauden suuri arvoitus
Director: Lois Weber. Year: 1927. Country: USA. Silent.
Section: Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years (Part Two)
    Sog.: dal racconto Egypt di Ernest Pascal. Scen.: Lois Weber. F.: Ben Kline. M.: Maurice Pivar, Thomas Pratt. Scgf.: Charles D. Hall.
    Int.: Billie Dove (Luena ‘Egypt’ Hagen), Huntley Gordon (Ray Sturgis), Raymond Bloomer (reverendo Lodge), Peggy Montgomery (Margaret Todd), Will Gregory (colonnello Todd), Helen Gilmore (signora Todd), Edith Yorke (signora Hagen), Phillips Smalley (signor Hagen).
    Prod.: Carl Laemmle per Universal Pictures Corp. DCP. D.: 70’. Bn
    From: Universal, a Comcast company.
    Restored in 2017 by Universal from a 16 mm print.
    Restored in 2K from a Packard Humanities Institute (PHI) 16 mm print via UCLA at the NBC Universal studios post-production center. "From a really poor print with scratches" (Janice Simpson).
    Introduce: Janice Simpson (NBC Universal).
    Digital keyboards: Donald Sosin.
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna.
    Cinema Jolly, 29 June 2017

Dave Kehr (Il Cinema Ritrovato): "From 1912 to 1919, Universal produced some 170 films directed by women, many of them for the studio’s female-oriented Bluebird label – and the great majority of them now lost. Universal’s roster of female directors included Cleo Madison, Ruth Stonehouse, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Elsie Jane Wilson and Ida May Park, though the most celebrated of them was Lois Weber, a former Christian evangelist, concert pianist and stage actor, who entered films in 1908."

"Working with her husband, Phillips Smalley, Weber directed, wrote or starred in over 100 one-reel films between 1911 and 1917 for Universal’s Rex subsidiary, including the innovative 1913 Suspense, with its sophisticated use of a screen split into three separate images. After directing their first features for Universal (including the recently restored 1916 The Dumb Girl of Portici, starring Anna Pavlova), Weber and Smalley created their own company, Lois Weber Productions. But Weber’s taste for moralizing, Christian-themed films fell out of favor in the rapidly evolving America of the 1920s, and eventually, on her own after her divorce from the womanizing Smalley, she returned to Universal as a studio employee for her last few films."

"Released March 20, 1927, Sensation Seekers seems in many ways Weber’s response to the changing times. Based on the short story Egypt by Ernest Pascal, the film is a moralistic melodrama in the popular DeMille style, centered on a Long Island socialite (Billie Dove) with a Jazz Age enthusiasm for drinking, smoking and shimmying – which she has apparently acquired from her dissolute father, played in a pointed cameo by Weber’s ex-husband Smalley. Egypt – so called because she is the “most pagan of her set” finds herself drawn to the strenuously modern, emphatically masculine minister of the local Protestant church (Raymond Bloomer). Although the minister briefly considers throwing over his vocation to run away with the scandalous Egypt, the heavens intervene in the patented DeMille manner, as a storm of Biblical proportions arrives in the last reel to sort out the characters’ fates." Dave Kehr (Il Cinema Ritrovato)

AA: Luena Hagen (Billie Dove) is partying like there's no tomorrow. She is the daughter of the pillar of the society (Phillips Smalley) – himself enthusiastically joining the same parties with female companions not older than his daughter. At the same time mother (Edith Yorke) is joining a church service as a member of a dwindling congregation.

Reverend Lodge (Raymond Bloomer) rescues Luena from jail where she has landed after a police razzia. It is the age of the prohibition, after all. In the beginning of the film Luena has admired an athletic swimmer at the Long Island beach: reverend Lodge who strives for bodily as well as spiritual perfection. There is a happy ending, but not before thrilling ordeals.

Billie Dove was a daring Ziegfeld Girl who appeared in over 50 films, most of them made within a span of ten years, including swashbucklers (The Black Pirate) and comedies (Kid Boots). She gives a fine performance here as "the richest girl and the wildest Egypt", "the life of the party" who has character. She refuses to give a false name to the police. "I'm not a liar". She has the courage of her lifestyle.

Lois Weber steers the narrative with a focus on sin and redemption. Weber admires the life force of Luena at her wildest while aware of the emptiness of hedonism.

For a non-American the "Egypt" concept in this context is intriguing. My first acquaintance with it was via the hit song "Little Egypt" by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, immortalized by The Coasters and Elvis Presley. "Little Egypt" appears also in the earliest cinema, in Anno Due films produced by Edison and The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. There were three incredible belly dancers by that name in the 1890s who stunned audiences at World's Fairs and got immortalized by film producers.

Here Luena Hagen is called Egypt, being "the most pagan of the set". A further association is "far out". And perhaps another association is to Cleopatra, the last Pharaoh.

And because Sensation Seekers is a film with Christian relevance, Egypt may also refer to paganism literally. Egypt was what was left behind before the revelation of the Ten Commandments and the trek towards the Promised Land. The remnants of paganism were discarded after the dance around the Golden Calf. But forever that dance is being revived. Lois Weber builds a montage sequence juxtaposing a wild party with the church service.

Donald Sosin was the perfect musician to create an inspired jazz age score to the film, quick to switch to reverential organ tunes for church scenes at his digital keyboards.

I only managed to catch 19 minutes of this film due to an overlap with Anno Due screenings.

The visual quality of what I saw looked amazingly good considering the scratched 16 mm source of the digital restoration.


Ray Sturgis, leader of the fashionable Long Island jazz set, is engaged to "Egypt" Hagen, an up-to-date girl in every respect. Egypt is arrested at a roadhouse raid, and at her mother's bidding, the Reverend Norman Lodge arranges for her freedom.

At a fancy-dress ball, when Ray wears a costume made of newspaper headlines concerning her arrest, Egypt is offended.

Seen constantly in the company of Reverend Lodge, her reputation causes church people to take up the matter with the bishop.

Leaving the country club, Egypt goes to the Lodge home and hides behind the door when the bishop arrives; Reverend Lodge wants to marry her, and they admit their love; but humiliation causes her to leave with Sturgis that night.

Their yacht is wrecked, but Lodge and the bishop follow and rescue Egypt, though Sturgis is drowned. The bishop, realizing the depth of their love, consents to marry them. 

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