Saturday, January 31, 2015

She Goes to War (Inspiration Pictures, 1929, re-edited 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature,” which Charles and I screened in the wee hours from 11:10 p.m. to midnight, was She Goes to War, a recent download which from the title I was expecting to be a comedy. Surprise! It was an ultra-serious movie about World War I with an odd production history; it was made by a company called “Inspiration Films” in 1929, at the tail end of the silent era, and it got caught up in the transition to the extent that two songs and some bits of “wild” (non-synchronized) dialogue were included. The “War” to which the titular heroine goes was the Great War — which was what World War I was usually called before there was a World War II — and apparently it was originally a full-length 87-minute feature released in 1929 with a few sound sequences but most of the plot carried by intertitles in the standard silent-film manner. Then someone else got hold of the negative and re-edited it 10 years later, adding a sententious printed foreword by Mitchell Leichter explaining that the story of America’s involvement in the Great War was topical again now that the European powers were about to fight another war and it would be a matter for the American people to decide whether we would get involved in it. The original producers were Victor and Edward Halperin, makers of White Zombie, and director Henry King, who would continue to make films into the 1960’s and already had some major-studio blockbusters on his résumé: Tol’able David (1921), The White Sister (1923), the silent Stella Dallas (1925) and The Winning of Barbara Worth (also 1925). (Later King would direct some even bigger and better movies, The Song of Bernadette and The Gunfighter in particular.) The original story was by Rupert Hughes (Howard Hughes’ uncle) and it was adapted into a full screenplay by Fred de Gresac (co-writer of Rudolph Valentino’s last film, Son of the Sheik) and Howard Estabrook. According to the page on She Goes to War, the full-length version was about a woman, Joan Morant (played by Eleanor Boardman, director King Vidor’s second wife — they divorced either in 1933 or 1934, depending on whether you believe his or her page), who disguises herself as a man to enlist in the U.S. Expeditionary Force in World War I and thereby see war up close and personal. There are other women floating around in the action, including Margaret Seddon as the mother of Tom Pike (male lead John Holland), who gets a genuinely moving scene when she turns up as he’s been seriously wounded and more or less nurses him back to health; and a singing camp-follower played by Alma Rubens who does two songs by Harry Akst, including a piece called “There Is a Happy Land” which she sings to wounded servicemembers in a desperate attempt to cheer them up. (David Bowie would record a different song called “There Is a Happy Land” on his first album, but his was a James M. Barrie-esque ode to lost childhood.)

What makes this a problematical film now is that the only version that survives is the 1939 re-edit, and the people who did the re-edit apparently decided that intertitles were so hopelessly obsolete that they would delete all the scenes containing them — which rendered the plot, such as it was, almost totally incomprehensible and turned the film into basically an anti-war documentary with the credited actors standing in front of process screens showing either actual World War I combat footage or scenes of the war from previous films. This movie probably has more process-screen footage than any ever made that wasn’t an out-and-out “effects film,” and the film as it stands is little more than one patch of grim war footage after another — I nodded off through much of it but Charles didn’t and he couldn’t make heads or tails of it, either, and when a full list of the actors in the movie came up after the end credit he said, “I defy anyone to match any of those names with anyone we saw in the movie!” The original She Goes to War was probably a genuinely powerful film, even though done in by the technical crudity of a lot of films in that awkward three-year transition period (1927 to 1930) from all-silent to all-talking movies, but what’s left is just a misbegotten hash of dire-looking war footage in which the stars, such as they are, tend to get lost amongst all the process screens. The prologue boasted that what you were about to see was more powerful than All Quiet on the Western Front (the 1930 Universal film, made a year later than the original cut of She Goes to War) and yet it wasn’t intended as propaganda (though it sure looked like an anti-war propaganda film to me; Leichter’s added prologue may have said it was up to the American people whether or not to get into World War II, but it was pretty clear from the context in which he presented the film and the way he — or whoever — re-edited it that the conclusion he wanted the American people to draw was a principled, pacificist isolationism) — yet well before All Quiet there were plenty of other morally ambiguous and complex U.S. films about the Great War, including Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), King Vidor’s (and George Hill’s) The Big Parade (1925) and John Ford’s Four Sons (1928), all of which were far better and more moving drama than the mash-up of the 1939 She Goes to War and probably better than the original 1929 cut as well.