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The Temptress (1926) – The Greta Garbo Blogathon

Greta Garbo was only around twenty-one when she made The Temptress, her second film in Hollywood, but my heavens was she stunning. When she removes her mask at the beginning of the film, her leading man, Antonio Moreno, is visibly staggered and can only mumble something obvious about how beautiful she is.

I’ve read countless articles where authors write in reverent, semi-spiritual tones about her mystery and allure, which contrarily, has inclined me to dismiss her. I’ve seen her in only three films, all talkies (including the delightful Ninotchka), but after watching her in a silent film, I begin to see what they mean.

The Temptress is a film that is obsessed with her beauty. The plot revolves around how every man that meets her can’t help falling madly in love. Friends fight and kill each other, men ruin themselves or neglect their work or even commit suicide. And then they blame her for it all.

No wonder she looks so weary at the beginning of the film, in a brilliantly shot scene where she stands in a theater box, looking out at masked revelers. Not many twenty-one year olds can look so weary. She is approached by a man, who demands an answer to some question. She replies that she does not love him. Then she tries to leave the party, but has to fight her way through the throng, many of whom try to draw her into the revelry. One can almost imagine her saying that she wants to be alone.

Opening scene

But she is followed into the garden by one man, Manuel Robledo (Antonio Moreno) and it is love at first sight. They spend the evening making vows of love and so on. Except that she is married and another man has ruined himself for her. So Manuel is disillusioned and returns to Argentina, where he is overseeing the construction of a great dam.

The majority of the film occurs in Argentina. Greta Garbo’s character, Elena, and her husband travel to Argentina to make a new start in life after a scandal in Paris regarding Elana. But Elena is determined to win Manuel back, the only man she ever loved. Except she manages to inflame nearly all the men, including Lionel Barrymore, which gets in the way of building the dam.

Manuel believes that she is evil and resolved not to yield, despite wishing to do so. It’s high melodrama and distinctly sensational at times. Still, the film is strikingly directed by Fred Niblo, who was also responsible for The Mark of Zorro and the 1925 Ben-Hur. There is also an exciting score by Michael Picton, who wrote the original score for the film in ’26.

The film is based on La Tierra de Todos, by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, who also wrote Blood and Sand. I am not sure exactly how the book goes, but the film appears to be skewed more towards Greta Garbo’s character, understandably. She holds the audience’s attention like no one else in the film and was well on her way to becoming one of MGM’s top stars.

Dangerous woman

Her character is not necessarily given a whole lot of development. In my sister’s analogy, she functions like the Congo River in Heart of Darkness. By going down the river, you find out what you really are like. Except in The Temptress, instead of going down the Congo, you meet her. Men suddenly find out that they are financially corrupt or have it in them to kill their friends. She basically just brings out what was already in the hearts of men.

Though it’s not at all clear that the film endorses this view. There are frequent intertitles extolling “Men’s work!” There are so many references to men and so many exclamation marks that they wouldn’t be out of place in one’s twitter feed. Women essentially get in the way. Especially Elena, who’s very beauty is presented as something of a curse which she has little control over. She certainly acts seductively, but it is suggested that it is her beauty that is the problem. She only acts the way it is expected of her to act.

It’s tough being Greta Garbo in this film. Though perhaps it was tough being Greta Garbo in real life, perhaps even why she retired at only thirty-six, having made twenty-eight feature films in her entire life.

It’s difficult to describe exactly what it was that made Greta Garbo so mesmerizing. She seems to draw you in with curiosity, but never actually satisfies that curiosity. What is she really thinking or feeling? Perhaps that is what kept audiences coming back, through silent and sound films.

This post is part of “The Greta Garbo Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click here for more posts from the blogathon.

The opening sequence of The Temptress.

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Posted by on November 22, 2017 in Movies

 

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Right Cross (1950)

Ah, to be June Allyson. She has her pick of men in Right Cross, a boxing drama where both Dick Powell and Ricardo Montalban are deeply in love with her. Poor Dick Powell, though, doesn’t have a chance in the film, despite being married to June Allyson in actuality.

Right Cross is a boxing drama, a love triangle, and a not fully fleshed-out examination of what it means to be Hispanic American. Pat O’Malley (June Allyson) is the daughter of fight promoter Sean O’Malley (Lionel Barrymore), but runs the business for him because of his ill health. The business is on the decline, but they do manage the current boxing champion, Johnny Monterez (Ricardo Montalban).

Pat and Johnny are in love, but Johnny won’t propose because he’s afraid that if he were no longer champion, she would no longer love him. He can’t believe she would really love him for himself, a man of Mexican background who has had to fight for everything he ever had.

There is also a plot-thread involving Johnny’s hand, which has been injured several times. The doctor warns Johnny that his hand could go at any time, spelling the abrupt end of his career. For Johnny, it is a race against the clock, to find a way to make enough money to deserve Pat before he ends up back where he started: with nothing.

The third wheel to the romance is provided by Rick (Dick Powell), a sports journalist carrying a torch for Pat, but he is also a good friend to Johnny. His hobby seems to be drinking and brawling.

It’s a very intriguing set up and the characters are all appealing, though the plot is imperfectly executed. For one, June Allyson and Dick Powell actually have the better chemistry in the film (which isn’t exactly an imperfection, because it is delightful). Not all off screen couples have good on screen chemistry, but June Allyson and Dick Powell did (they are also adorable in The Reformer and the Redhead). Rick comments that “it’s either there or it’s not,” and we are supposed to believe that it’s not there in the film, but it actually is. The scene where Rick tries to cook a spaghetti dinner for Pat (unsuccessfully) and shows her how he would play a love scene is very sweet and almost made me wish that Rick and Pat could be together.

They even have chemistry in this picture

But the main problem is how the film lets some very interesting plot points drop conveniently at the end. Johnny’s mother does not trust “gringos” and is not pleased that Johnny is dating Pat. Johnny is also ashamed to bring Pat home to meet his mother. At the same time, he does not want his sister to date a “gringo.” And Pat’s father is not thrilled that Pat is dating Johnny. The plot sets up these problems, only to let them disappear at the end.

That being said, the cast is highly appealing. Especially June Allyson and Dick Powell. It’s not that Ricardo Montalban isn’t appealing, but his character is callow and has the unfortunate habit of using others to do things for him that he should do himself, like constantly sending Rick to patch it up between him and Pat, which seems callous, unless he’s oblivious that Rick does love Pat. He has some growing up to do.

June Allyson, on the other hand, is very mature, without being matronly. One of the things that is appealing about June Allyson is how naturally she wears her charm. She seems down to earth, utterly capable, unpretentious, like someone you would like as a friend. She seems natural. Like she’s hardly acting at all. Like she just IS.

That kind of persona is easy to overlook and I’ve always rather taken June Allyson for granted. Thanks to Simoa of Champagne for Lunch, who is hosting “The June Allyson Centenary Blogathon,” I’ve had a chance to think about her roles afresh. And to appreciate  how she can make acting look so easy and natural. I believe that she could be a fight promoter. She can play a professional person without looking like she’s trying too hard to convince us that she’s a professional. She seems totally comfortable as a woman, as a woman in love, and as a fight promoter. Quite an accomplishment. It actually might have been nice to see more of that side of her character in the film!

More posts about June Allyson from the blogathon can be found here.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2017 in Movies

 

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A Winter’s Tale (2014) – The Royal Ballet

So, this year has been a strange year for me, movie-wise. I went nuts at the beginning of the year for ballet and Japanese cinema. That’s almost all I’ve been watching; it’s becoming an obsession. I’ve been trying to watch live recordings of ballets, too. The Royal Ballet, The Bolshoi, Opéra national de Paris, any recordings I can find. I raided my library for all the ballets they possessed and began streaming them from Amazon, but what really got me going was when I purchased from Amazon The Royal Ballet Box Collection, which contains 22 different ballets of varying length. It’s been an absolute bonanza and I have been having to pace myself so I don’t watch all 22 in one month.

One of the things it has made me realize is that, unlike opera, ballet is still very much going strong, with new and successful productions of original ballets, as well as reinterpretations of classic ballets and traditional interpretations. One such original ballet is “A Winter’s Tale”, adapted from Shakespeare’s play of the same name. The choreography is provided by Christopher Wheeldon, one of the most successful contemporary choreographers of ballet, and the music by Joby Talbot, a successful British composer.

The story of the ballet follows that of the play, though somewhat trimmed. Leontes (Edward Watson) is king of Sicily, who suddenly and unaccountably takes it into his head that his wife, Hermione (Laura Cuthbertson), is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes (Federico Boneli), king of Bohemia. He banishes the friend and puts his wife on trial, which results in his wife dying, his son dying, and his rejection of their baby girl, who he believes is not really his child. The baby girl is abandoned, but fortunately rescued and raised by a shepherd.

The next act is considerably lighter in tone, choreography and color. It is mostly a party, with the shepherds dancing and Leontes daughter, Perdita (Sarah Lamb), now grown, becoming engaged to the son of Polixenes, Florizel (Steven McRae), though neither knows of the other’s identity. When Polixenes discovers that his son wants to marry the daughter of a shepherd, he is furious and Perdita and Florizel flee to Sicily, where, in the next act, all is revealed, along with one big surprise.

I’ve recently been thinking about the similarities between ballet and silent films (and recently learned at Movies Silently that dancing and ballet and silent films actually have a long and close history): they both can employ pantomime, both use the physical body to express emotion or tell a story, both require music, and both feature people of remarkable physical ability (think of Fairbanks or Chaplin and many others).

What was interesting is how much a plot-heavy ballet, like the first act of “A Winter’s Tale” reminds me of a silent movie. Especially because Wheeldon’s choreography is further from traditional ballet and employs many modern dancing elements. It is not as “leapy” as classic ballet. And traditional ballets, like “Sleeping Beauty” or “Swan Lake” generally have microscopic plots that set up banquets or balls or weddings or birthday parties so that massed groups of people can be present to dance. There is not actually that much plot to further. But there is more in “A Winter’s Tale,” which means that characters have to interact and communicate more using pantomime and dance. Leontes has to use dance to communicate his growing jealousy, which is presented like a creeping sickness of mind and body.

The second act, on the other hand, is more traditional. We have our mass of people dancing, simply to celebrate rather than to specifically advance a plot point, and we get a romantic pas de deux (essentially a dance that is a duo). It is more free and open, less restrained, to match the less claustrophobic atmosphere of the outside. The Sicilian court, on the other hand, is grim.

It’s marvelous to see how ballet has changed. In musicals, it has been said that the song and dance must advance the plot. That is harder to do in ballet because a good part of the reason people watch ballet is for the sheer beauty of the dance, but it still needs a plot to give the dances emotional resonance (usually, though there are many plot-less and beautiful ballets) and it is fascinating how modern ballets have also adapted so that increasingly the dance is integrated into the story. I have occasionally read complaints about certain ballets that they do not contain enough dance (or enough pas de deux), so it seems like a tricky line to walk so that the performance does not become a highly skilled pantomime show, but remains dance. I think “Winter’s Tale” succeeds very well, however. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching it and highly recommend it to all lovers of the ballet.

This post is my second contribution to “En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon,” hosted by myself and the wonderful Michaela, Be sure to read all the other posts, all of which have been marvelous.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2017 in Movies

 

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