Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Eagle (United Artists, 1925)

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

The Eagle, the 1925 vehicle for Rudolph Valentino that was last night’s silent-movie showcase at the San Diego Organ Pavilion, turned out to be a truly weird movie, an odd fusion of action melodrama and romantic comedy. It was Valentino’s next-to-last movie and the first of two produced by Joseph M. Schenck, head of United Artists, who had just signed the Great Lover after Valentino had had three flops in a row — Monsieur Beaucaire, A Sainted Devil, and Cobra. Valentino’s previous studio, Paramount, had got tired of his contract demands (he was the first major star to go to court to try to break the hold of the studio system on his career — 12 years before Bette Davis, Myrna Loy and James Cagney tried it) and the influence of his wife, Natacha Rambova, on his career. Natacha was either Lesbian or Bisexual (accounts differ) and she pushed Valentino’s movies into a world of gender-bending that seems audacious even now and no doubt contributed to all the “pink powder-puff” nonsense that was written about him during his lifetime. Schenck was convinced that Natacha’s influence was responsible for Valentino’s box-office decline and had a clause put into his contract that she was not to be allowed any input on his future films. He also decided that the way to rehabilitate Valentino’s career was to butch him up and put him in a Douglas Fairbanks-style film that would alternate between spectacular action and romantic comedy. Accordingly Schenck hired screenwriter Hans Kräly to concoct a script from Alexander Pushkin’s novel Dubrovsky about Vladimir Dubrovsky (Rudolph Valentino), the son of a dispossessed Russian aristocrat who runs afoul of a surprisingly butch-looking Czarina Catherine the Great (Louise Dresser) — though she’s called merely “the Czarina” throughout the movie and it’s only when she signs Valentino’s death warrant towards the end that we see her sign the name “Catherine” — when he won’t go to bed with her at her command (“I signed up for military service only,” he rather huffily tells her in a title by George F. Marion, Jr. — the titles here are genuinely witty and harmonize well with the mordant tone of Kräly’s script).

As (bad) luck would have it, Vladimir alienates the Czarina just before he receives a letter from his father Alexander (Spottiswoode Aitken) saying that he’s just been cheated out of his estate by his neighbor Kyrilla (James Marcus). Vladimir has also spotted, and instantly fallen in love with, Kyrilla’s daughter Mascha (Vilma Banky) — though he has no idea who she is — whom he’s rescued her from a runaway carriage by doing a spectacular leap on the Czarina’s favorite horse, chasing down the carriage and leaping onto one of the carriage’s horses to stop it. (Valentino was sufficiently convinced of the need to butch himself up that he sent his stunt double, Nicky Caruso, home and did this stunt himself.) For all Joseph Schenck’s insistence that he needed to butch up Valentino to restore his popularity — a conclusion Valentino seems to have agreed with — The Eagle is a truly odd movie, reflecting less the sensibility of Schenck or his director, Clarence Brown (who would shortly sign with MGM and stay there for the remaining quarter-century of his career; he was mostly a hack, though a talented one; he directed quite a lot of Greta Garbo’s movies but she didn’t like him that much, and quite frankly the best Garbo films are the ones in which she had stronger directors: Mamoulian’s Queen Christina, Cukor’s Camille, Lubitsch’s Ninotchka) than of writer Kräly. Hans Kräly had worked on the scripts for Ernst Lubitsch’s early films in Germany and seemed to be having the sort of ongoing writer-director partnership with him that Charles Bennett did with Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Riskin with Frank Capra or Dudley Nichols with John Ford until Lubitsch caught Kräly having an affair with Mrs. Lubitsch. Rather than react in the disengaged, “ah, what the hell, men will be men and women will be women” way of a character in a Lubitsch movie, Lubitsch had a jealous hissy-fit and banned Kräly from his future projects, but Kräly followed his former boss to Hollywood and got the job adapting Pushkin’s novel for this film.

Whatever Dubrovsky was in print (and remember that Pushkin is the person the Russians consider as the Russian writer, the way Shakespeare is the English writer and Goethe the German writer) — and I suspect it probably had a lot more, and edgier, satire of the whole madness of the Czarist regime (Pushkin was an ardent anti-monarchist and ended up losing his life in a duel with a member of the aristocracy over precisely that point) — Hans Kräly, with an assist from the equally mordant wit of title-writer Marion, turned it into a Lubitschesque romantic comedy with only a few side notes of adventure. It’s likely Kräly sold Schenck on his script by having the dispossessed aristocrat Vladimir Dubrovsky gather a batch of similarly ill-treated locals into a band of merry men and steal back for Kyrilla’s peasants some of the goods Kyrilla’s men had stolen, extorted or taxed away from them — as head of United Artists, Schenck would have been well aware of the boost Douglas Fairbanks’ career had got when he abandoned modern-dress romcoms and started doing big, lavish period-set epics like The Mark of Zorro and Robin Hood (and Valentino’s costuming as the avenger “The Black Eagle,” complete with domino mask, certainly has more than a bit of resemblance to Fairbanks’ Zorro!). Though not the sheer delight it could have been with Lubitsch himself directing (Lubitsch directing Valentino: ah, what might have been!), The Eagle emerges as a quirky romcom in which Valentino and Vilma Banky are hostile to each other through most of the film and therefore it’s not until the very end that Valentino gets to do some of the heavy-breathing love scenes that were his stock in trade. Indeed, through much of the film Valentino’s acting is so deadpan he seems more reminiscent of Buster Keaton than anyone else (and one finds oneself wishing Keaton had made a parody of this; it would have been very, very funny!), even when he’s trapped in a wine cellar with a live bear — one of Kyrilla’s favorite tortures (he’s done this earlier with the judge whom he bribed to take over the Dubrovsky estates, only in the scene where the judge is tortured it’s clearly a real bear while when he does it to Vladimir it’s a man in a bear suit) — and he manages to keep his cool until Mascha rescues him.

The plot enables Vladimir to infiltrate Kyrilla’s estate by waylaying the coach containing Mascha’s French tutor, Monsieur Marcel LeBlanc (Mario Carillo), trussing him up on its floor and impersonating him, whereupon he pisses off his men by getting so wrapped up in courting Mascha he forgets about the revenge plot. In one of the nice “touches” Kräly learned from Lubitsch (or maybe the other way around!), Mascha tries to talk Vladimir out of killing his father by underlining the portion of the Bible that says, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” and Vladimir comes right backs and underlines the “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” passage. Other Kräly touches that made it into the movie despite Brown’s acceptable but mostly prosaic direction include a marvelous moving-camera shot down a table so long that, according to an imdb.com “trivia” poster, the table had to be split down the middle and taken apart, then put back together, by unseen stagehands so the camera could move the way Brown and cinematographer George Barnes had worked out. (This film is full of behind-the-scenes people who became famous later: the set designer is William Cameron Menzies — whose touch is shown in Catherine’s palace, an imposing piece of gingerbread resembling no palace or any other real building that ever actually existed — the costumes are by an uncredited Gilbert Adrian and the editor, Hal C. Kern, later headed the editing department at Selznick International.) The ending is a bit of a surprise, since our film-soaked expectations are that Kyrilla will die somehow and Vladimir will regain his family’s estates, either by legal process or inheriting them through marrying Mascha; instead he’s arrested by the Czarina’s police just as he’s managed to elude Kyrilla’s men, and she signs a warrant for his execution and entrusts General Kuschka (Albert Conti) — who got his promotion by accepting the opportunity to be Catherine’s boy-toy that Vladimir had turned down — with supervising it. Only Kuschka double-crosses the Czarina by having the firing squad fire at blank targets, then having her sign the passport application for Marcel LeBlanc to leave the country with his fiancée — perhaps just eight years after the Russian Revolution American audiences couldn’t believe that a Russian couple could have a happy ending unless they left the country!