Monday, December 4, 2017

The Viking (Technicolor/MGM, 1928)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching something from my backlog of home-recorded DVD’s during the pre-“all-digital” days when you could still record TV shows without paying even more of a ransom to your cable company, and the film was a fascinating one: The Viking, which dated 1928 (most sources have 1929, but both are correct: it had a brief issue as a silent in November 1928 and then was taken back into the lab and outfitted with a recorded music score and some sound effects and “wild” voices) and which is unique because it was the only film not only shot in two-strip Technicolor throughout but actually produced by the Technicolor company. Technicolor’s founders, Herbert and Natalie Kalmus (an estranged couple who worked together for 20 years and stayed married even though they weren’t living together or still having a personal relationship; they only divorced in 1948 because Herbert had met someone and wanted to marry her), decided to produce a big, spectacular movie that would serve as an advertisement for how good the two-strip process was. A lot of patronizing crap has been written about two-strip Technicolor and in particular about its most significant technological limitation — it could not photograph blue (though it could get surprisingly close; in a lot of scenes in The Viking the sky is turquoise and the sea is teal) — to the point where many film histories list Becky Sharp (1935) as “the first color feature” because it was the first made in the improved three-strip process. 

Much of the bad reputation of two-strip comes from the sorry state in which many of the films shot in the process survived, but The Viking is in magnificent condition and really makes a great case for the two-strip technology. The interiors have a glowing, burnished quality that reminds one (reminds me, anyway) of Old Master paintings, and while the exteriors are a bit more chancy — one long-shot of the Viking enclave in Greenland, repeated several times in the film, looked to me like it wasn’t Technicolor at all but blue-tinted black-and-white, and it featured a painted clouds-and-sky backdrop of magisterial phoniness — even in a film set at sea, and thereby featuring a lot of sky and sea (things we expect to be blue), The Viking is quite striking visually, a real testament to cinematographer George Cave, “supervising art director” Carl Oscar Borg (no, he wasn’t part of a hive-mind race of aliens from outer space) and “color art director” Natalie Kalmus, who made herself a fearsome figure to generations of moviemakers with her insistence that the Technicolor hues be vivid and colorful. Indeed, I often find a well-preserved example of two-strip more watchable than the earlier films in three-strip, which filled the screen with blue objects (well, now that they could … ) and Mrs. Kalmus’s insistence that the colors be vivid and bright often produced some horribly overwrought visual clashes. As a movie, The Viking — scripted by Jack Cunningham, with titles by Randolph Bartlett (horribly overwrought titles which reminded Charles of Monty Python and the Holy Grail — a sample from the prologue: “A thousand years ago, long before any white man set foot on the American shore, Viking sea rovers sailed out of the north and down the waterways of the world. These were men of might, who laughed in the teeth of the tempest, and leaped into battle with a song. Plundering — ravaging — they raided the coast of Europe — until the whole world trembled at the very name — THE VIKING”), based on a book called The Thrall of Leif the Lucky by Ottilie A. Liliencrantz. 

I’m not sure whether Ms. L.’s book was supposed to be a novel or an attempt at an historical biography of Leif Ericsson, but Ericsson appears as a major character in the movie (played by Donald Crisp, who was still pretty hunky even though later on he got relegated to character-actor status). So does his father, Eric the Red (Anders Randolf), who in the movie’s backstory has led a band of Vikings from their native Norway and set up a Viking outpost in Greenland. Meanwhile, Norway has been converted to Christianity by King Olaf (Roy Stewart) and Ericsson himself has become a Christian, while on Greenland Eric the Red is still practicing the old Norse religion — his hut contains an idol statue of Thor (who looks a good deal more like a Polynesian tiki than the Thor in the Marvel comics!) — and beheading any Christians who happen to cross his path. Actually, once the preliminaries (Bartlett’s over-the-top expository titles and a few scenes of dogs, with their barks reproduced on the soundtrack) are over, the first thing we see is a woman doing needlepoint. She is Lady Editha (Claire MacDowell), and she and her son Alwin (LeRoy Mason) are captured by a Viking raiding party. She disappears and Alwin becomes the slave of Helga Nilsson (Pauline Starke, whose place in movie history is almost exclusively from having replaced Greta Garbo in MGM’s production Women Love Diamonds after Garbo, in the middle of a salary dispute with the studio, said, “I t’ank I go home now” — they thought she merely meant the bungalow in which she was staying in Hollywood, until the next time they heard from her … in Sweden), whose close-ups are luminously beautiful and feminine but who’s also fond of donning a horned helmet and riding with Ericsson’s Vikings on their raids. Ericsson wants to marry her, but of course she derails his plans in that direction by falling in love with Alwin. Ericsson sets off on his voyage to the New World — much to the distaste of his crew, who believe there’s an edge of the world guarded by fearsome sea monsters and they’ll either get eaten by the creatures or fall off — and both Helga and Alwin are on board his craft, which seems to be in a nether world size-wise, too big to be a boat but too small to be a ship (though it has oars and banis of rowers who propel it when there isn’t enough wind for it to sail). Also on board is Ericsson’s Danish navigator, Egil (Harry Lewis Woods), who’s also after Helga and foments the inevitable attempt at a mutiny. 

In the end — as in all the movies about Christopher Columbus — the mutiny is forestalled when the sailors finally spot land, they sail for the coast and put off a party there: Ericsson says he’ll build a stone watchtower because that’s the first thing Vikings do once they conquer some place, and he’ll sail back to Greenland while leaving Alwin and Helga in charge of the Viking colony in the New World. The Viking is scored with a pastiche of classical music, drawing on Grieg’s unfinished opera Sigurd Josalfar but mostly by Wagner: The Flying Dutchman to indicate them at sea, Die Walküre for the growing love between Helga and Alwin (of course I joked that she’d tell him, “You’re not going to turn out to be my brother, are you?”) and the “Dresden Amen” theme Wagner used in Parsifal to indicate whenever Christianity becomes an issue in the plot. (You even hear “wild” voices sing the Steersmen’s Chorus from Dutchman and “Winterstürme wichen den Wonnemond” from Walküre — though you start to wonder why these Scandinavians are singing in German.) In black-and-white The Viking would be a perfectly acceptable silent-era historical romance, with surprisingly little action for a film about Vikings but well plotted and consistently entertaining; the director was Roy William Neill, a capable filmmaker even though his best-known credits were from over a decade later (all but one of the 12 Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce for Universal, and his last film, the 1946 Cornell Woolrich-based noir The Black Angel) and hardly indicated he’d be suited for a major costume epic. Nonetheless, The Viking is absolutely gorgeous to watch, beautiful and glowing, and the color adds quite a lot to what would otherwise be a good but routine movie.