pseudopodium
. . . Louise Brooks

. . .

Movie Comment: Prix de Beauté

Miss Europe   Louise Brooks's international career was effectively washed and summed up at age 22 by Prix de Beauté: exhilarating innocent and amoral vamp and tragic Typhoid Mary of lust ("The Girl Can't Help It so we'd better kill her") all in one variably bouncing package. Even the title manages to do some summing up: as world traveller Juliet Clark points out, it can be translated as either "Beauty Prize" or "Price of Beauty."

No long black limousine door ever swung shut more solid than the final shot of Prix de Beauté, the eternally radiant Brooks trilling above her thrownaway husk in as definitively cinematic a moment as Maggie Cheung's resurrection in Actress or Buster Keaton's simiantographer in The Cameraman....

And, while laying Brooks to rest, Prix de Beauté premonitioned the decade to come: Miss Europe dreams of glitter, is shoved into grinding poverty, and is finally blown apart by resentment.

These reflections are occasioned by the recent restoration of the silent version of Prix de Beauté. Like in the early 1960s recording industry's mono-stereo transition, the late 1920s saw the movie industry making both silent and sound mixes, and like in the early 1960s, the old-style mix was almost always better.

Well, plus any restoration is gonna have hindsight and research and new prints on their side.

The point is you shouldn't run right out and look at the crummy semi-bootleg videotapes of the sound version, you should wait and support your local fancy-shmancy moviehouse when they show the silent version or wait till the silent version comes out on home video. Here's me to tell you why!

Thanks, me. Here's why:

  1. Like with a lot of "Continental style" silents, the characters are meant to be annoying and abrasive. OK, but having already pushed that envelope as far as it could stretch, the envelope busts like an overheated can of beans when annoying abrasive voices are added.

  2. In particular, Louise Brooks couldn't possibly play Miss Europe (née Miss France) with a Kansan accent ("New York Herald Tribune!"), so it's probably not her voice in the sound version, and she's the biggest star, so I feel ripped off.

  3. Like with a lot of "Continental style" silents, Prix de Beauté relies on clear crisp photography for much of its impact -- can't really appreciate all that grime and glimmer without clear crisp photography. Restorations tend to be clearer and crisper than crummy semi-bootleg videotapes.

  4. Most of all, the sound version blunders structurally in a big way. The second oomphiest sequence of the movie takes place in an urban carnival: crowded, obnoxious, irredeemably ugly, a fun time for Brooks's awful boyfriend but a headache for Brooks. I hate carnivals, I hate fairs, I hate parades, and I like this sequence.

    In the sound version, it's positioned before Brooks gets her crack at fame and fortune and seems pretty much inexplicable, although it's powerful enough that viewers are willing to work hard to explicate it.

    In the silent version, it's positioned after Brooks is dragged away from fame and fortune by "true love," and after "true love" proves so insanely insecure as to insist that she even stop fantasizing about fame and fortune. There, the sequence makes perfect sense: this is the reward that "true love" is willing to return her for her sacrifices: the honor of watching frantic clowns make assholes of themselves around a bunch of other frantic clowns.

    The old organization makes the movie front-heavy (where the front's the weakest part) and leaves Brooks unmotivated in the second half, where the new (and presumably older than old) organization builds logically and satisfyingly.

Close-ups of mute loudspeakers are a small price to pay.

. . .

The 100 Super Movies au maximum: The Fatal Glass of Beer

  It is a sad song
"It is a sad song...."

Nonsense is what closes before the theater gets rented. I've read folks who claim that's because nonsense is an anarchistic blow against the rigid patriarachy, but they usually have such poor taste that I can't trust them. More likely, not that many people enjoy nonsense. Even to achieve decent cult status, it has to hide beneath a pretense of parody: Andy Kaufman's and Steven Wright's contrasting parodies of stand-up comics, Robert Benchley's parodies of inarticulate bureaucrats, Marcel Duchamp's parodies of gallery art, Ulysses's parodies of all kinds prose, The Simpsons' parodies of The Simpsons....

And once that small degree of success is attained, the pressure to eliminate all irrational thought really starts to build. Nonsense is not anti-form (good nonsense has beautifully controlled tone and structure), but it is in some ways anti-narrative, particularly the sort of transparent identification-friendly narrative that publishing and other entertainment industries are set up to provide. Sense holds together and makes "natural" what nonsense interrupts, distracts, and makes an arbitrary mess of. For the crafters of transparent narrative, nonsense's disruptions are most easily explained as toothless villainy: a generator of conflict and a delayer of the inevitably sensible resolution.

"In the theatre, he was a make-believe character playing in a make-believe world. In films, he was a real character acting in real stories.... If he must play a nasty old drunk and be publicized as a nasty old drunk in order to work on the Edgar Bergen radio show, then so be it.... it was after Fields escaped realism and returned to his world of make-believe that he made his best films."
-- Louise Brooks, "The Other Face of W. C. Fields"

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is a return from exile, all right, but it's the return of a very tired 61-year-old in more dire need of Mrs. Hemoglobin than he might realize. And so my own favored glimpse of the ancient Fieldsian kingdom comes from the 1933 short, The Fatal Glass of Beer, a relatively straightforward filming of a well-honed stage parody of Yukon melodramas: there's little room for him to show off his physical grace, but the deadpan purity of his nonsense is all the more bracing.

"Long shot, medium shot, two-shot, or closeup, Bill performed as if he were standing whole before an audience that could appreciate every detail of his costume and follow the dainty disposition of his hands and feet.... As he ignored camera setups, he ignored the cutting room."
-- Louise Brooks

Moonlight
"It's certainly a bright moonlit night tonight."
  Although most of the attempts at "opening out" the sketch are typically Sennett -- the over-literal illustrations of Mr. Snavely's ballad and the close-ups of his dogsled's team plop in about as amusingly as a cowpie in the face -- one segment suggests what Fields might've achieved if he'd been (or been allowed to become) as engaged with the mechanics of film as he was with the mechanics of performance.

After Mr. Snavely goes out to milk the elk, we're treated to typical stock footage of a herd. Which then turns into badly done rear projection. And then (as the herd begins to gallop and the camera moves closer to them and Fields reproaches the loss of any possible suspension of disbelief with his usual mildness) goes on to turn into utterly absurd rear projection -- a cinematic approach to the legendarily polished ineptitude of his juggling act.

"The Fatal Glass of Beer" by Charlie Case, as adapted by W. C. Fields

MR. SNAVELY: You won't consider me rude if I play with my mitts on, will you?

OFFICER POSTLEWHISTLE: Not at all, Mr. Snavely. Not at all.

MR. SNAVELY: There was once a poor boy,
And he left his country home
And he came to the city to look for work.

He promised his ma and pa
He would lead a civilized life
And always shun the fatal curse of drink.

Once in the city,
He got a situation in a quarry
And there he made the acquaintance of some college students.

He little thought they were demons,
For they wore the best of clothes,
But the clothes do not always make the gentleman.

They tempted him to drink
And they said he was a cow'rd
And at last he took the fatal glass of beer.

  When he'd found what he'd done,
He dashed the glass upon the floor
And he staggered through the door with delerium tremens.

Once upon the sidewalk,
He met a Salvation Army girl,
And wickedly he broke her tambourine.

All she said was "Heav'n --" [RAISES HAND] "-- Heaven bless you,"
And placed a mark upon his brow
With a kick she'd learned before she had been saved.

Now, as a moral to young men
Who come down to the city:
Don't go 'round breaking people's tambourines.

OFFICER POSTLEWHISTLE: That certainly is a sad song.

MR. SNAVELY: Don't cry, constable. It is a sad song... My Uncle Ichabod said, speaking of the city: "It ain't no place for women, gal, but pretty men go thar."

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.