Monday, October 07, 2019

The Aryan / La fiera domada (2019 restoration)

The screenwriter C. Gardner Sullivan was inspired by The Birth of a Nation. An appeal to his "Aryan heritage" inspires Steve to reverse his stand. His thugs are not to be let loose and have their way with the women of the wagon caravan.

The Aryan / La fiera domada. Trixie "The Firefly" (Louise Glaum) and Steve Denton (William S. Hart). The former siren of a gambling house has become Steve's sex slave having cheated him of his money. In two years she has been reduced to a shadow of her former self. Photo: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – Margaret Herrick Library, Los Angeles.

The Aryan. The farmers in a wagon caravan, including women and children, are dying of thirst, and Steve denies help. Despite the depravity and squalor at Steve's den Mary Jane (Bessie Love) sees a glimpse of goodness in his black heart.

Den vite mannen / Il bandito della miniera d’oro.
US 1916.
regia/dir: William S. Hart.
sogg/story, scen: C. Gardner Sullivan.
photog: Joe August.
cast: William S. Hart (Steve Denton), Gertrude Claire (Mrs. Denton), Charles K. French (“Ivory” Wells), Louise Glaum (Trixie, “The Firefly”), Herschel Mayall (“Chip” Emmett), Ernest Swallow (Mexican Pete), Bessie Love (Mary Jane Garth).
prod: Triangle, supv: Thomas H. Ince.
dist: Triangle.
uscita/rel: 9.4.1916 (5 rl.).
Finland: film control 11098.
copia/copy: DCP, 45′ (da/from 16 mm neg., 972 ft., 36′ / 35 mm neg., 269 ft., 3′ / 16 mm pos., 30 ft., 1′ / 16 mm pos., 140 ft., 5′; 18 fps); did./titles: SPA, sbt. ENG.
fonte/source: Museo del Cine Pablo C. Ducrós Hicken, Buenos Aires; Library of Congress Packard Center for Audio-Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA; Lobster Films, Paris.
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
Music interpretation: Günter Buchwald (violin, grand piano), Frank Bockius alla batteria.
William S. Hart
Teatro Verdi, e-subtitles in Italian by Underlight, 7 Oct 2019.

Richard Koszarski (GCM): "In 1909 Hart was opening in The Barrier at McVicker’s Theater in Chicago when a telegram arrived from his sister back East. Come quickly, mother is dying. Although the family breadwinner, Hart felt responsible for the show, which would collapse if he had no time to train an understudy. He stayed. “Perhaps I was wrong — I do not know.  I only know that it was my duty to have gone in spite of all the theaters this side of hell.”"

"Six years later Hart is in California making westerns for Thomas Ince. C. Gardner Sullivan pitches him a grim western morality tale called The Aryan, but Hart is unhappy with the main character, a misanthrope who is “bad without reason.” So Hart suggests that his hardness involves a dying mother, a telegram from back home, and a failure to return that will haunt its solitary hero. Sullivan writes it all up into what Hart later described as “the best story Sullivan ever wrote and one of the best Westerns ever made.”"

"As in many another Hart western, the hero (Steve Denton) drifts in from the wilderness and runs afoul of a lawless community. Blaming the local saloon girls for what happens next he vows revenge on the entire female sex (“Women! God, how he hated them!”), kidnapping Trixie the Firefly (Louise Glaum) and enslaving her at his remote desert outpost. Years later his mine has flourished, and he rules, brutally, sadistically, the even more lawless camp grown up around it. A lost band of wagon train pioneers, calling out for Christian charity, is seen as just another set of easy victims. Mexican Pete and the rest of Steve’s crew begin to run riot and are about to have their way with the women, until one brave innocent reminds Steve that, despite everything else, he is still a man of the Aryan race."

"In retrospect, it seems significant that the first half of the film, which Hart claimed as his own contribution, has nothing at all to do with Aryans or Aryanism; it is Sullivan’s half that gives the film its title. Hart’s knowledge of the history and character of this pseudo-scientific racial philosophy is an open question, but Sullivan would certainly have been familiar with it. Its peculiarly American strain was popularized in such works as Race Life of the Aryan Peoples (1907) by Joseph P. Widney, a medical doctor, environmentalist, Methodist minister, Chancellor of USC, and a prominent local booster of Southern California. Widney’s Aryanism was focused not on some ancestral homeland, but on the inexorable migration of the “Aryan race” across the globe, culminating in its triumphant arrival in Southern California."

"By 1915 the word “Aryan” was even appearing on screen, most famously in a single notorious title card in The Birth of a Nation. It could be argued that Sullivan’s script was designed as an amplification and explication of that card, illustrating just what Griffith meant by this “Aryan birthright” business. That was a connection Hart probably did understand, because his first choice for the role of “Mary Jane Garth” was not the relatively unknown Bessie Love but Mae Marsh, famous that season for preferring death to racial dishonor in Griffith’s epic."

"Over the years, nearly all of Hart’s NYMPC and Triangle films (1914-1917) were repackaged and reissued by various sub-distributors; indeed, most exist today only because of such reissue. But after a lengthy run on American screens, The Aryan vanished from the domestic market in 1923 — at least under that title. The currently available copy, preserved by the Museo del Cine of Buenos Aires, is not only an export version, but a reissue export version of a film that had originally been distributed in that market in 1917 as El ariano. Internal evidence — an inserted telegram — suggests 1923 as the new release date. That was also the year that Motion Picture News described the latest package of reissued Triangle Hart films as being “carefully re-edited and re-titled to conform to present usage.” Unfortunately, while the new names of some of the films are known, the fate of The Aryan was unmentioned."

"La fiera domada, as the surviving element is called, is clearly not the same Aryan that American audiences saw in 1916, and we do not know who helped it “conform to present usage” or exactly what was changed. There are clues, however, in the Library of Congress, which holds both Sullivan’s 6,000-word story narrative and a record of the completed film’s 111 intertitles (but no proper script or release continuity). While nearly all of the original scenes shown in the released film are still present in the surviving version, sequences and even individual shots have been trimmed to a minimum, and certain parts — the kidnapping of Trixie and the climactic riot — are barely coherent. Comparing these documents reveals that the story’s most obvious examples of racial antagonism were already blunted by the time the film reached the screen in 1916 (how current events at the U.S.-Mexican border played into this is unknown). For example, where the story version specifically characterizes Steve Denton’s disreputable crew as “most of them half-breeds or Mexicans and comprising the scum of hell,” the eventual on-screen title eliminated any particular ethnic reference. Instead, “Aryanism” is dramatized less by reference to other racial types than by adherence to what an epigram appearing in both texts claims is its fundamental code: “Our women shall be guarded and a man of the white skinned race may forget much — Friends, Duty, Honor, but this he cannot forget.”"

"In other words, no matter what his degraded condition, the threat of miscegenation will always raise the fighting spirit of the true Aryan. Sullivan’s story made specific reference to notable events of Aryan history, including the Sepoy Mutiny and the “wall of Lucknow,” which he would deal with directly in a concurrent Ince film, The Beggar of Cawnpore. But that history of “saving the last bullet” was not referenced in this film, which simply reminds us that “when the men of our race have fought for their women and when the odds were too great and the last moment came, they killed them rather than let them fall into the hands of those who were coming.” One thinks again of The Birth of a Nation, of course, but also, in another context, John Carradine’s final gesture in Stagecoach. So when Mary Jane begs Steve Denton to intervene in this chaos and he appears to neglect his Aryan duty (Sullivan’s big shocker), she prepares for her own Mae Marsh moment."

"The backstory establishes a misogynist basis for Steve Denton’s behavior with no reference to racial prejudice, and the rest of the film could have easily turned on a simple appeal to chivalry — the strong man protecting the innocent — familiar in many other westerns. But there is no getting around Sullivan’s tailoring his plot to the specifics of the Aryan myth as developed by Widney and others, especially its innate assumption of racial hierarchy. In the end, Steve Denton’s hatred of women is trumped by the power of his essential Aryanism. But this is no Hell’s Hinges, where the redeemed outlaw rides off with the young innocent with whom he has obviously fallen in love. There is a future for the Hart character, and for the migrant community he has helped preserve. But as with other hard, code-driven Hollywood Westerners (Ethan Edwards in The Searchers comes to mind), just not a future together." Richard Koszarski (GCM)

The print

Andrés Levinson (GCM): "In 1917, Triangle Distributing Corporation (TDC), the company handling William S. Hart’s films in South America, released The Aryan in Buenos Aires and Montevideo under the title El ariano, to great acclaim. Sometime in the 1920s – an inserted telegram suggests 1923, though we’ve been unable to confirm this – the film was re-released under the new title La fiera domada (which can be translated as “The Taming of the Beast”). Apart from the dramatic title change, it’s impossible to know if there were other differences between the two versions, and indeed we’ve not found any reference to a film released in Argentina under this title during the 1920s. Did a new post-war sensitivity, more spiritual and critical regarding 19th-century positivism, demand a version where the racial aspects were removed? Or might it simply be that this new title was an attempt to slyly distribute the movie in Argentina as a never-before-released Hart film? This was common practice among distributors and exhibitors from the earliest days of cinema, and a widely used strategy by TDC since 1917."

"As detailed in Richard Koszarski’s note, The Aryan and La fiera domada are quite different films, with the original’s overt racism replaced in the Argentine release by gender issues (which were also already there in the 1916 film). After being cheated on, Esteban Dentón develops a deep hatred not against the white race, but against humanity in general and women in particular. Where the American version says, “Hate, hate for her! Hate for them! Hate for the whole white race!”, the Argentine intertitles have: “Su corazón rebosaba de odio…odio a todo el género humano” (“His heart was filled with hatred, hatred against all mankind”). “There must be some mistake, white men always help women,” says the girl in the original release, but in the later version the intertitle explains, “Esteban Dentón no puede olvidar la falsedad que ha recibido de aquella otra mala mujer” (“Steve Denton cannot forget the mendacity of that other evil woman”). Curiously, the Argentinian attempt to erase the racial conflict theme resulted in an even more sexist film than the original."

"Fernando Martín Peña first identified La fiera domada as The Aryan when it was discovered in the Manuel Peña Rodríguez collection, now housed at the Museo del Cine Pablo C. Ducrós Hicken in Buenos Aires (the same collection which revealed an almost complete version of Metropolis in 2008). The surviving material consists of a 16 mm internegative copied in the 1970s from Peña Rodríguez’s nitrate prints without any previous cleaning, so the internegative has several printed defects that can only be alleviated with digital tools. The reconstruction presented here is predominantly faithful to the Argentine element, as this forms the majority of the surviving material. The reconstruction also includes two elements sent by Mike Mashon from the Library of Congress: a 35 mm nitrate negative (269 ft) and a 16 mm fragment (42 ft). An additional 140 ft were taken from a 16 mm print of the 1959 compilation film The Saga of William S. Hart, courtesy of the Blackhawk Collection at the Academy Film Archive and Serge Bromberg from Lobster Films. Richard Koszarski sent us valuable photographs to replace some of the lost elements, and thanks to Kevin Brownlow we were able to inspect the original titles and a digital version of Picture-Play Magazine from May 1916, from which we obtained important images." Andrés Levinson (GCM)


"Mankind has grown so base,
I mean to break with the whole human race".
– Alceste in Le Misanthrope (Molière, 1666)

If The Aryan is William S. Hart's The Misanthrope with himself cast as Alceste, then Bessie Love is his Célimene who sees through the black shell of his heart.

Bessie Love had just started in the movies, but, discovered by D. W. Griffith, she appeared during the same year in several stunning movies such as Intolerance, The Good Bad Man (Douglas Fairbanks / Allan Dwan) and The Aryan.

"A strange little girl, her heart bigger than her body: just Mary Ann". Bessie Love is the Greta Thunberg of this movie. She appears in the middle of the madness of a whole wagon caravan of farmers dying of hunger in the desert and a gang of outlaws revelling at their "Spider's Brood" den, living off their mine and casual robbery. Bessie Love's performance is extraordinary. Her appearance as an angel of goodness is touching and convincing.

Steve Denton's faith in life has been destroyed at a gambling house where he was lied about a telegram that would have alerted him to his mother's deathbed. Thanks to the offices of the saloon siren Trixie the Firefly he has been robbed of his money, all his life's savings after years of hard work as a prospector.

The vision of humanity at its lowest point has seldom been darker in a Western. We are reminded of another William S. Hart film, The Testing Block, and Anthony Mann's The Man of the West.

"When I'm done with you you'll envy them", Steve alerts Mary Ann who has come to ask for help for her people who are dying of thirst and hunger. Instead, Steve lets his gang loose on the farmers. Here comes the controversial moment: reminded of his "Aryan" race Steve has a change of heart and stops his thugs in a last minute rescue. But for him there will be no happy ending. "We have to separate, my dear Mary Ann".

The exhumation of The Aryan has been an extraordinary multi-archival effort. Due to the status of the source materials the visual quality resembles a battlefield, but storywise a watchable copy has emerged, and the experience of this controversial film is compelling and unforgettable.


AA Facebook capsule:

The Aryan, one of the darkest Westerns ever, is William S. Hart's Le Misanthrope, darker than Molière. The exhumation and restoration of a copy of this long lost film borders on the miraculous. Two leading leadies: the experienced Louise Glaum and the unforgettable newcomer Bessie Love.

No comments: