One of Pola Negri’s earliest collaborations with Ernst Lubitsch and a major critical and commercial hit for them both, this film tells the famous tale of Carmen and her doomed romance. How will our dynamic duo make this story their own? Negri’s signature combination of sexiness, warmth and humor is on full display at this early date but the Lubitsch touch is still in its infancy.
Two doctors—Mabuse and Caligari—are heaped with laurels and often declared the iconic films of Germany’s post-war cinema. In the ‘teens and twenties, though, Ernst Lubitsch and Pola Negri were the undisputed powerhouses of German film. They made seven films together (and an eighth in Hollywood) showcasing Lubitsch’s skill with spectacle and Negri’s formidable acting chops, which nicely complemented her no-nonsense sexiness.
Negri is sometimes labeled as a vamp but the title is ridiculous to anyone who seen her films. Yes, her kohl-lined eyes were similar to uber-vamp Theda Bara but the similarity ended there.
Vamps in the 1910s sense were over-the-top seductresses who lured men to their doom with a combination of supernatural charm and very silly hats. Negri’s characters had their feet planted firmly on the ground and she could do more with a pair of hoop earrings than most vamps could ever accomplish with their raven and spider web millineria. (The term vamp seems to get slapped on every brunette who didn’t know her place. It’s overused.)
Vamps represented a fantasy, a very strange universal fetish of the ‘teens. (I won’t be going into it here but the social and cultural reasons for the rise of the vamp are intriguing.) Negri, on the other hand, was a real woman who happened to be irresistible. Further, she combined her attraction with a healthy and self-aware sense of humor, something notably lacking in vamps. (Unintentional humor now…)
All right, Negri has one more thing in common with Bara. Both women played opera’s most famous femme fatale, Carmen. In 1915, there were two rival versions of the tale, as well as a spoof version from Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance. The DeMille/Farrar version still exists and is available on home media. The Raoul Walsh/Theda Bara version is missing and presumed lost. For what it’s worth, most contemporary critics seem to agree that the DeMille/Farrar version was superior.
In 1918, Ernst Lubitsch teamed with Pola Negri and frequent leading man Harry Liedtke to make his own version of the famous tale. At this point in his career, Lubitsch was swinging between gigantic epics and saucy comedies. Simply called Carmen on its initial release, the film was rereleased in the U.S. under the alternate title Gypsy Blood and it is from the American release that the home video versions of this film are derived.
Obviously, this means that a few caveats are in order. Silent films could be changed quite a bit by simply swapping out intertitles. Further, European films had to content with American censors and a snip here and a snip there could add up. I mention this so you will know that Gypsy Blood may not be what Ernst Lubitsch had envisioned and what the German public saw in 1918. On the plus side, this is a chance to see Pola Negri early in her career and it will be fun to discuss how her Carmen measures up to other interpretations of the role.
(There is at least one 35mm print of the German release floating around the film festival circuit but it has not yet been released to the general public. Sigh. One more to add to my wish list.)
Before we get going, a quick note on silent film, operas and novellas. It’s traditional for reviewers, even ones familiar with silent film, to snicker and complain about an opera being adapted into a silent film. “It’s like taking a shower with a raincoat on!” they wail.
Okay, from the top. Carmen was an opera but before it was an opera, it was a novella. Silent filmmakers were not stupid. They understood the difference between silent drama and the opera stage. Further, they knew about the novella. Just because something has been adapted successfully as a musical or opera, that does not mean it is off limits for all time as a silent or talking motion picture.
In short, stop whining. You look ridiculous.
And now (finally!) for the movie.
Don Jose Novarro (Harry Liedtke) loves two things: Dolores, his fiancée, and wearing trousers with patent leather sewn across the seat. Neither love is particularly well explained but such is life. Our hapless hero is a soldier charged with guarding a cigarette factory. Why does a cigarette factory need guarding? Well…
Meet Carmen (Pola Negri). She is consistently referred to as La Carmencita throughout the film but I’m lazy. (I’m pretty convinced that the title change and the diminutive nickname for the heroine are the result of some kind of copyright issue.) She is the hottest match in the cigarette factory. Don Jose tries to appear impassive but he is already head over heels.
Carmen gets into a brawl with other workers at the factory and ends up arrested for assault. Don Jose ends up “accidentally” helping her to escape. Uh oh. Later, Carmen convinces him to look the other way while her friends smuggle goods through the wall he is guarding. Oh dear. Finally, at Carmen’s urging, Don Jose kills his superior officer and is forced to flee and join the smugglers.
Now that he’s down in the dumps, Don Jose turns whiny and possessive. Carmen is disgusted but he vows that if he cannot have her, no man will. I think we all know the story well enough to leave things here.
So, how does Pola Negri measure up as Carmen? Extremely well. I am a fan of Geraldine Farrar’s lively take on the role in the 1915 Cecil B. DeMille version but Pola Negri is the best silent Carmen by far. Sassy, playful, capricious, cruel, generous… Negri projects all of Carmen’s contradictions on the screen and delivers an astonishing performance.
Carmen is often played as just plain sexy. While that’s all well and good, Negri adds another layer by making her fun. I’m not just talking about her teasing and driving the fellas wild. I mean that she banters, skips, dances and generally makes herself the life of the party. Compare this to the often bizarre contortions that vamp exhibited and you will see why Negri was such a breath of fresh air in 1918.
So, our Carmen was wonderful. Unfortunately, Lubitsch was still getting his bearings in drama and so the rest of the tale falters. Our esteemed director allows spectacle to sometimes overwhelm the actors. We are shown interminable scenes of officers on parade. Do they do this every day? And if so, why? Doesn’t it take up a lot of time? Who defends the country while they are prancing about? If I were ruling France or England, I would wait for parade time and then attack.
The film also takes a moralizing stance toward its main character. This may have been the result of retitling in the U.S. but the result does nothing to benefit the film.
The trait that defines the character of Carmen is her need to be free. This trait is usually portrayed as admirable or at least neutral when possessed by a male character but a woman refusing to be tied to a man? That’s simply not acceptable.
The cliché of the femme fatale often takes a sexist detour. We are basically told that men can’t help themselves when faced with a beautiful, evil woman and any moral breach that he commits to win her falls on her head. The man pays for his crimes through the criminal justice system or suicide but the woman generally murdered by her lover once he realizes how rotten she is. Charming.
(For a more nuanced approach to the femme fatale in silent German cinema, do check out Asphalt.)
The basic message of most Carmen adaptations is that she lured Don Jose down the road to degradation and so her death was inevitable. Last time I checked, both parties were consenting adults. You know the old phrase, “If someone told you to jump off a bridge, would you?” Don Jose would do it in a heartbeat if the other person was sexy enough. With this guy, if it hadn’t been Carmen, it would have been anyone.
The whole idea that he is the victim of anyone but himself is further undermined by the casting of the film. Harry Liedtke was thirty-six and Pola Negri was twenty-one. It’s a little hard to accept a man old enough to be president in the United States blaming all his misfortunes on someone barely old enough to drink. It takes two to tango and he had an extra fifteen years of practice under his belt. Just sayin’.
The DeMille adaptation took the opposite approach in casting. Geraldine Farrar was thirty-three while Wallace Reid, her Don Jose, was twenty-four and looked younger. A callow youth (of either gender) being led astray by a mature schemer (of either gender) is much firmer dramatic ground.
Interestingly, the DeMille film is more sympathetic to its Carmen but her behavior toward Don Jose is far worse than what is portrayed in the Lubitsch version. The smuggling subplot is introduced from the very start and it is made clear that Farrar’s interest in Reid is based entirely on getting him to look the other way while contraband is carried into the city. She never loved him but the film treats his possessiveness as inappropriate and her final declaration that he has killed her but she remains free is triumphant. He tried to own her but she escaped in the end.
(See below Farrar’s mature Carmen opposite Reid’s callow Don Jose. She gets a kick out of murder.)
In the Lubitsch film, Carmen is attracted to the handsome officer from the start. After he allows her to escape and is imprisoned for his failure, she tries to help him escape by baking a file into a loaf of bread. It’s probably a good thing that Don Jose isn’t a carb guy because biting into that loaf would have meant a trip to the dentist. He doesn’t accept her help (he still has his honor as an officer!) but it’s the thought that counts.
The smuggling-through-the-wall subplot is rather minor (though the smugglers play a much larger role in the film) and just another item on the long list of Don Jose’s follies and compromises as he descends into degradation.
In comparing the two films, I think that the DeMille version has better pacing, better fights (all of fight scenes in the 1918 version are a bit limp) and a better Don Jose. The Lubitsch version has a better Carmen and it does a better job of establishing the smuggler subplot.
Oh, and we should also talk about the other main character. I like Harry Liedtke as an actor but he was miscast as Don Jose. If you are wondering about Liedtke’s persona, he is best described as a German Bertie Wooster. His signature was playing crumbs from the upper crust (complete with monocle) who were zany, often intoxicated, and who usually won the girl. Well, actually, the girl usually won him as German leading ladies of the period were an aggressive lot, bless them. (For a great example of this, The Oyster Princess is an utter hoot.)
Leidtke’s talent lay in romantic comedy and the role of Don Jose did not benefit from his light touch. It would be like casting Betty Grable as Carmen. To compensate, Liedtke rolls his eyes, juts his jaw and generally over-butters his performance.
In the end, Gypsy Blood is a so-so movie with one brilliant performance to its name. This is a Pola Negri vehicle through and through and she is displayed to perfection. Her energetic, aggressive Carmen is captivating. This isn’t a great movie but it’s a brilliant success for Negri.
Oh, and since I know someone will ask, here are the trousers with the leather seat. Enjoy, I guess.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
Gypsy Blood is available on DVD from several sources, none of which had access to particularly high quality materials. The best is probably the Grapevine release. I have not viewed the Televista version (but their silents are usually poorly presented and overpriced) or the Alpha version (which is very cheap at least). Here’s hoping the original German cut will be release will be released from the vaults soon.