Monday, July 1, 2013

The Loves of Pharoah (Ernst Lubitsch Film/Europa-Film Allianz, 1922)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I turned on TCM and watched the “Silent Sunday” showcase film, The Loves of Pharoah, a 1922 historical epic from Germany directed by Ernst Lubitsch — yes, you read that right; the master of romantic and sexual comedy tried his hand at DeMille’s territory in the early days (though this was made before DeMille’s own first excursion into ancient Egypt, the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, and the hugeness of the production and especially the sets were probably inspired by the Babylon sequences of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance). Why the English-language version is called The Loves of Pharoah is a mystery, since he’s only shown in love with one woman in the plot and the German title, Das Weib des Pharao, literally translates to “The Pharoah’s Wife,” a more sensible name for the film in terms of its actual content. The cast list is virtually a who’s-who of German cinema in the early 1920’s; the (fictional) Pharoah Amenes is played by Emil Jannings (eight years before he made The Blue Angel, which made for an interesting contrast given that we’d just re-watched that classic); his rival, Ethiopian King Samlak, is Paul Wegener (in one of the worst blackface jobs ever done on screen; how were UFA’s makeup artists able to do such a great job making him look like an animate clay statue in The Golem and such a lousy one making him look Black?); and Sothis, the designer of the Royal Treasury, is Albert Bassermann, an actor who later fled Germany and settled in the U.S., where he got parts in major films even though he never bothered to learn English. Bassermann learned all his lines in U.S. talkies phonetically and was O.K. when he had either a German director or a director like Alfred Hitchcock who had learned German (Hitchcock’s first two films were English-German co-productions and he learned German so he could talk to his crews), but when he didn’t he needed an interpreter; when he made A Woman’s Face for George Cukor, fellow cast member Conrad Veidt interpreted Cukor’s directions for him.

A major director, a huge budget, a stellar cast: where could The Loves of Pharoah go wrong? With the script! The story by Norbert Falk and Hans Kräly (a frequent Lubitsch collaborator until Kräly seduced Lubitsch’s wife and, rather than behaving in the emotionally detached way of the characters in his later films, Lubitsch had a jealous hissy-fit and banished Kräly from all of his future projects) is one of the most idiotic things ever put on screen: Pharoah Amenes receives a state visit from King Samlak, who promises the Pharoah his daughter Makeda (Lyda Salmonova) to seal the deal for peace between the two countries. Only once Amenes gets a gander of Makeda’s Greek slave Theonis (Dagny Servaes), he couldn’t care less about the Ethiopian princess — and Samlak responds to the Pharoah’s rejection of his daughter for her slave by making war on Egypt. As if that weren’t enough plot to stir the melodramatic stew, there’s been a mutual love-at-first-sight attraction between Theonis and Ramphis (Harry Liedtke), son of Sothis, and in case you’ve already forgotten who Sothis is, he’s the designer of the royal treasury, which Amenes has decreed that no one — not even he — will be allowed to enter. Charles and I both found this plot hole outrageously silly; if no one is allowed to enter the treasury, how can Amenes have money put into it, or taken out again when he needs to spend it?

Amenes orders Ramphis executed by being crushed under a giant boulder being lowered into place as part of the treasury construction project — earlier Amenes had told his advisor Menon (Paul Biensfeldt) to be careful not to rush the project so much as to jeopardize the workers’ health and safety (I joked, “Caring about your workers’ health and safety — that’s so 5th century B.C.!”), but the workers got restive anyway and called a protest march through the streets of the Egyptian capital (Charles almost inevitably joked, “It’s Occupy Memphis!”), a plot thread that quickly gets dumped and never picked up again — only at the last minute Theonis agrees to marry the Pharoah if he’ll spare Ramphis’ life, and Pharoah does so but assigns Ramphis lifetime slavery in the construction gang. Just then the war between Ethiopia and Egypt breaks out, the Egyptians get their asses kicked, the slaves building the treasury seize the opportunity to escape, and King Samlak shows up at the capital with the crown of Amenes, indicating that the Pharoah died in battle. Queen Theonis is now the ruler of Egypt, and she selects Ramphis — who’s shown up just in time — to be her consort and rally the Egyptian troops to defend the capital and reverse the course of the war. So you’d think Ramphis and Theonis would beat the enemy invaders and live happily ever after, wouldn’t you? Well, that is how the version originally released in the U.S. ended — a number of U.S. productions also had different endings for their American and European versions (including Love, the Garbo/Gilbert silent of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which ended with the two lovebirds happy together in the U.S. version and with Anna’s suicide as per Tolstoy’s original in Europe) — but in the one we were watching, pieced together Frankenstein-style from partial prints from Germany, Italy, Russia and the U.S. (encompassing four-fifths of the original footage and with descriptive titles and production stills to fill in the gaps), Amenes suddenly shows up, not dead after all, and demands to be reinstated as Pharoah even though Ramphis has just been crowned. (He’s been shown with his head shaved during the scenes in which he reigned, but when he shows up again he has a full head of hair even though he doesn’t seem to have been gone more than a day or two.)

The Loves of Pharoah is a thoroughly risible movie, impressive as spectacle but loony-tunes both in the basic outlines of its plot and the incredible overacting of the principals; as I said when I wrote about the 1912 Italian silent Cabiria, “This is the kind of relentlessly overwrought, scenery-chewing acting that people who have never sat through an entire silent feature in their lives nonetheless are convinced all silent films were acted like.” The characters grimace, pull their faces nearly to shreds, faint like a building collapsing in an earthquake, move their arms around like off-kilter windmills and otherwise ham it up unmercifully; later Lubitsch would gain a reputation for getting his actors to deliver subtle, delicate performances in his romantic romps, but either he wasn’t a good enough director yet to tell his stellar actors not to overact or he thought an historical spectacle needed a bigger, more obvious style of acting than a romantic comedy. The Loves of Pharoah is a perfect example of a genuinely talented filmmaker totally out of his depth, making a story he was utterly ill-suited to and whose discomfort showed in the ham party he allowed his set to become — and though I’m glad for the sheer amount of effort that went into patching it back together again as much as the materials allowed it to be, I can’t really say that we rediscovered a great film the way we did in such other restorations of long-lost silents as the Gloria Swanson/Raoul Walsh Sadie Thompson, Rex Ingram’s The Magician, John Ford’s Three Bad Men and the like.