Saturday, October 31, 2015

Tannhäuser (Thanhouser Film Corporation, 1913)

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

Afterwards Charles and I watched a pretty quirky film: the 1913 Tannhäuser made by the Thanhouser company. I suppose it was virtually inevitable that Edwin Thanhouser would make a movie more or less based on the opera by Richard Wagner about his legendary namesake, the Minnesänger (referred to in the credits as a “Minstrel,” which predictably led Charles to joke that he hadn’t known medieval Germans performed in blackface) Heinrich Tannhäuser (though given his German heritage it’s a bit surprising Edwin Thanhouser misplaced the umlaut in the title character’s name; he’s referred in all the titles as “Tannhaüser”), who ended up entrapped in a carnal relationship with the goddess Venus and tried to fight his way back to the good graces of both the Roman Catholic Church and his nice girlfriend Elisabeth. The film runs 40 minutes and therefore at least arguably qualifies as one of the first American-made features (though that honor is usually given in film histories to D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia, also made in 1913, a 50-minute film Griffith made in secret; when his employers, Biograph, learned he’d made a film that long with their money they fired him, then futilely tried to hire him back when the film was released and it was a major hit), and like most Thanhouser films it’s handsomely produced. Unfortunately, also like most Thanhouser films, it’s awfully static: the characters, settings and props (except for the horribly fake-looking lyres the characters playing singers carry around to accompany themselves) are quite impressive, and the special effects (notably Tannhäuser and Venus dissolving in and out of the action) are great for 1913, but the film is a series of static tableaux in which the actors move but the cameras don’t. The basic grammar of film as Griffith was inventing it at Biograph — the close-ups, the cutting between angles in a single scene, the use of moving cameras to follow the action and bring it closer to the audience — was totally foreign to Lucius J. Henderson, who directed this one (no writer is credited but the script was probably by Lloyd Lonergan, third partner in Thanhouser with Edwin Thanhouser and his wife Gertrude, based on Wagner’s opera).

The movie basically tells the same story as the opera, but with the addition of a backstory showing the Markgrave basically putting up his niece Elisabeth (Marguerite Snow) as prize for the winner of a song contest, a plot device cribbed from a later Wagner opera, Die Meistersinger. Wolfram von Eschenbach (William Russell) wins the prize and the Markgrave announces his engagement to Elisabeth, but then Tannhäuser (played, like many leading men in Thanhouser movies, by future director James Cruze) shows up — the title says he’s in time to compete but the action makes it seem like he’s too late, he’s missed the deadline. He and Elisabeth meet and instantly fall in love with each other, but she still feels she has to honor her uncle’s arrangement of her marriage to Wolfram, so she sends him away and it’s at that point that he runs into Venus (Florence La Badie, the closest Thanhouser came to establishing a major star and by far the most charismatic on-screen performer in this film) and her entourage. Though she and Tannhäuser conduct their romance (and their magical appearances and disappearances) in the open air instead of inside a mountain as in Wagner’s opera (let’s face it, in 1913 lights were expensive and sunlight was free), the plot pretty much continues as in Wagner: Tannhäuser has fun with Venus (and as the only male in her entourage, possibly with some of the other girls as well!) but starts longing for a normal life and a normal partner. When a group of pilgrims on their way to Rome passes by, Tannhäuser joins them and walks with them as far as the Markgrave’s palace, whereupon he scandalizes the Markgrave’s entourage by singing a hymn to Venus. Wolfram challenges him to a duel, Elisabeth intercedes, and Tannhäuser decides to seek absolution by joining the pilgrims (ya remember the pilgrims?) and visiting the Pope. Only once he gets there the Pope tells him that his sins with Venus are so scandalous that he won’t be forgiven until the Pope’s staff sprouts leaves.

Well, you don’t need two guesses to figure out what happens next: Tannhäuser returns to Elisabeth, Wolfram agrees to give her up and let her marry Tannhäuser (Charles joked that James Cruze looked so nellie, and William Russell so butch, it was a wonder Tannhäuser didn’t marry Wolfram instead), but Elisabeth is dying of a broken heart and even the news from Rome that the Pope’s staff sprouted leaves after all (you were expecting that, weren’t you?) doesn’t arrive in time to save the lovebirds: Elisabeth dies and Tannhäuser dies as well. Tannhäuser the movie is an obvious example of Thanhouser the studio’s attempt to raise the level of motion-picture entertainment by drawing on classic sources from literature and high culture (they were among the first people to film Charles Dickens — though I suspect Edison’s 1910 A Christmas Carol is the first Dickens movie, and there might be British-made shorts even earlier — and the first company to make a movie of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with James Cruze in the title role[s]), and if they had had a director of Griffith’s creativity their movies would probably be considered classics instead of curiosities today. As it is, Tannhäuser is electrifying in the Venus sequences but the rest of the film is pretty dull, though at least respectably acted — the playing is surprisingly naturalistic for a film this early and only Tannhäuser’s hand-to-the-back-of-the-head swoon when he learns Elisabeth isn’t going to be allowed to marry him shows silent acting at its worst — and handsomely produced. It probably wowed audiences in 1913, and for our viewing (off the computer in VLC since the download from had a glitch four minutes in when we tried to run it in any other program) I assembled a soundtrack CD of music from the opera that worked pretty well — especially when the music Wagner wrote for the scenes in the Venusberg accompanied similar action involving Venus and her entourage in the movie.