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Jewish Journal

Lust, spectacle on a biblical scale: Why we love silent films

by Tom Tugend

May 2, 2012 | 3:04 pm

Promotional material for “Moon of Israel.”

Promotional material for “Moon of Israel.”

Sure, you’ve heard of old movies, but one highlight of this year’s Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival reaches back 88 years, reviving the silent film “The Moon of Israel.”

The revival fits right in with the rediscovery of the silent film genre, kick-started by the Oscar best-film win for “The Artist.” While this art form might seem to have died when the studios brought sound to the cinema in the late 1920s, the ghosts of movies past are stirring again.

“Moon of Israel” was the creation of Hungarian-Jewish director Mihaly Kertesz, who shot the Austrian production in Vienna and released it in 1924 under the title “Die Sklavenkönigin” (The Queen of the Slaves).

The European success of “Moon” and the preceding “Sodom and Gomorrah” impressed Hollywood mogul Jack Warner, who invited the director to come to America and make a biblical epic for his studio.

Kertesz arrived in 1926, Anglicized the spelling of his name to Michael Curtiz, and obliged his new employer by making “Noah’s Ark” in 1928.

Curtiz’s script for “Moon of Israel” was based on the book of the same title by H. Rider Haggard, who, in turn, was “inspired” by the biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt.

Such inspiration jazzed up the original version by introducing as a central theme the torrid romance of an Israelite slave girl Merapi (aka The Moon of Israel) and Prince Seti, slated to succeed his father as pharaoh.

By his nature, Seti is what nowadays might be considered a bleeding-heart liberal. Although quite the bare-chested hunk, he prefers to consort with poets rather than compete in horse races, and he tells his father, Pharaoh Menapta, that he should really listen to Moses and let the Israelites go.

For this impertinence, Seti is stripped of his succession to the throne, which leaves him free to pursue his courtship of Merapi in earnest.

Even in a somewhat blurred DVD copy of “Moon,” the film’s scale is impressive, particularly in depicting the massive flight of the Israelite men, women, children and cattle. The elderly men are draped in prayer shawls, women stumble under their burden, and even the commanding Moses leans heavily on his stick.

In one of the most expensive Austrian films up to that time, the producers spent lavishly on thousands of extras, costumes and special effects, knowing that in America, director Cecil B. DeMille was shooting his own biblical extravaganza, “The Ten Commandments” (not to be confused with the 1956 Charlton Heston movie) in such California locations as Nipomo Dunes near Pismo Beach and in Seal Beach.

According to most critics — now and then — “Moon” beat “Ten Commandments” handily in the climactic parting of the Red Sea spectacle.

By present standards, the acting appears rather florid and exaggerated. But by the norms of the time, most of the film’s actors do not descend into caricatures and succeed in creating believable human characters.

The success of “Moon” on the continent quickly led to an export version with English intertitles and premieres in England and the United States.

Print ads in American newspapers hailed “Moon” with such superlatives as Daring Romance! Swift Action! Breath-Taking Thrills! A Succession of Stupendous Spectaculars!

On the other hand, Britain’s Board of Film Censors objected strongly to scenes showing arrows quivering in the chests of Egyptian soldiers, as well as to too much skin exposure of the heroine’s back and excessive passion in the final kiss between the Israelite maiden and the Egyptian prince.

On the film set.

However, due to Hollywood studio rivalries and skullduggery, “Moon” was shown in a badly truncated version on American screens and had limited success, according to film historian Alan K. Rode, whose biography “Michael Curtiz: A Man for All Movies,” will be published next year by the University Press of Kentucky.

After its initial run, “Moon” apparently was never revived in America and footage of the complete film was lost for many years until a restored version was screened in Vienna in 2005.

Hilary Helstein, the executive director of The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, said she discovered the existence of “Moon” during a business trip to Austria two years ago and was immediately taken by the movie’s subject and form.

“I thought it was a unique film which, among other things, illustrated a period in cinema history when the discovery of King Tut’s tomb led to a fascination with all things Egyptian,” she said.

During the 28 years following his American arrival, Curtiz directed more than 100 feature films, frequently turning out four in one year.

His movie career was marked both by a prolific output and by the wide range of themes and moods, ranging from the melodramatic “Moon” to the stirring “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and the sentimental “White Christmas.”

Although he was nominated for Academy Awards five times as best director and his films were up six times for best picture, he scored only once, when “Casablanca” won best director and best picture Oscars in 1943.

According to contemporary accounts, Curtiz was hyper-energetic and a hard taskmaster, considered arrogant and callous by many colleagues. He was contemptuous of “lunch bums” — actors who had the temerity to take time off to eat lunch.

On the other hand, actresses like Joan Crawford, whose career Curtiz revived in “Mildred Pierce,” and Doris Day, who was discovered by Curtiz, thought of him as one of the greatest directors, Rode said.

Curtiz was most admired for his highly visual style of filmmaking, though at the cost of character development of his actors’ roles, according to critics. One surviving quote has it that when asked about this weakness, Curtiz replied, “Who cares about the character? I make it go so fast nobody notices.”

True to silent-film tradition, the May 6 screening of “Moon” during The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will be accompanied by the noted Austrian pianist and composer Gerhard Gruber, now 61, who has composed and performed the music for some 450 silent movies during his career.

During a phone interview from his home near Linz, Austria, Gruber noted that in his music he tries to express “the motion and emotion” of a film, rather than of a particular historical era.

“My music changes with the moods of different audiences,” he said. “I prefer to compose for silent movies because there’s no director who tells you what to do.”

Gruber caught the silent-movie bug as an 11-year-old in a Catholic boarding school, where harsh routine was relieved once a week with the showing of old Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy comedies.

“That was my window to freedom that allowed me to travel to a land of fantasy,” Gruber recalled.

“The Artist” did not enchant Gruber or such American film critics as David Denby of The New Yorker and Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor. All three suggested the film had the glossy feel of a 1940s Hollywood production, rather than of a silent movie of the first two decades of the last century.

Whatever its merits, “The Artist” is just one sign that silent films have returned to the public consciousness.

Another is the continuing popularity of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, now in its 17th year. Most recently, the highlight was a revival of Abel Gance’s 1927 masterpiece “Napoleon.”

The five-and-a-half hour film (eight hours with snack and dinner breaks), accompanied by a 46-piece orchestra, attracted some 3,000 patrons, some of whom came from as far as Holland and the Czech Republic, cheering the film to the rafters.

Back in 1981, the local Shrine Auditorium screened an abbreviated four-hour cut of “Napoleon.” My then-22-year old daughter and I saw the epic and have never forgotten it.

For a considerable time, this city’s Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue was the only one of its kind in the United States, and for decades it brought back the glory days of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Rudolph Valentino and the Keystone Kops.

After a number of ownership changes and a year-long closure, the venue reopened as the Cinefamily theater in 2006. In its reincarnation, the theater is a popular place for bar mitzvah and wedding parties but also maintains an eclectic mix of movie screenings, including occasional silent films with live music accompaniment.

Another sign of renewed interest in silent films is a five-page article in the Feb. 27 issue of The New Yorker, subtitled “Notes on a lost style of acting.”

Writer David Denby observed that “[s]ilent film is another country. They speak another language there — a language of gestures, stares, flapping mouths, halting or skittering walks, and sometimes movements and expressions of infinite intricacy and beauty.”

His article cites the reaction of the French literary critic Roland Barthes to a silent film starring Greta Garbo:

“Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philter, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced.”

“Moon of Israel” will screen May 6 at 7 p.m. at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, as part of The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Journal. Actress Penelope Ann Miller of “The Artist” will introduce the film. For tickets and other information, call (800) 838-3006.

Pianist Gerhard Gruber will perform at the American Cinematheque screening on May 3 of “Café Electric,” starring Marlene Dietrich and commemorating her death 20 years ago. The film starts at 7:30 p.m. at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. For tickets, visit http://www.goldstar.com/events/santa-monica-ca/cafe-electric.

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