pseudopodium
. . . Prix de Beauté

. . .

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.

 

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.