Director E.A. Dupont’s flashy tale of revenge, jealousy and murder made the entire world go mad for the unchained camera (courtesy of cinematographer Karl Freund) and the intense performance of Emil Jannings. Sliced to ribbons by the censors upon its initial release, Variety has recently been restored to more or less complete form.
The man on the flying trapeze.
What was allowable in silent films and what would get a motion picture censored? There is no single answer to that question. What could be considered improper varied from city to city, state to state and, of course, country to country. In the permissive world of Weimar cinema, filmmakers could get away with things that would make Middle America blush.
Variety (sometimes entitled Jealousy or given its original title of Varieté) is a film that had the whole world talking back in 1925. Set in the wild and extravagant world of carnivals, circuses and variety performances, it had cinematography with flair and a camera that flipped and spun with the acrobats. It was also a tale of infidelity, jealousy and murder, all shown in detail. When Variety came to America, it was sliced, sliced again and sliced once more to be sure. Whole subplots were cut and what remained was a shell of its former self.
And yet, Variety continued to be popular and admired for its direction and camera work. The original cut was lost but what remained was still impressive. Sadly, this is the situation for many surviving silent films. We may only have 70-90% of the original thanks to studios and censors. However, this was not the end of the story for Variety. Lovingly restored and reconstructed, a sparkling new Variety was released to the general public in 2015
Let’s start things off by recounting the plot as it has been seen in the cut version:
Prisoner 28 (Emil Jannings) is invited by the warden to tell the tale of how he landed in prison. After some hesitation, the unhappy man tells his story. He was once Boss Huller, a famed trapeze artist who had a show with Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti), his much younger wife. Flashback!
The Hullers are on the lower tier of the acrobatic world, performing at carnivals and living in a wagon. Everything changes when Artinelli (Warwick Ward) offers them a spot in his renowned act. Money, fame and huge audiences await them.
Of course, Artinelli has another reason for signing the couple and soon he is carrying on an affair with Berta-Marie. Boss Huller is unaware of this turn of events, though it is common knowledge among the variety show performers. Finally, he discovers that he has been betrayed and descends into rage. (Spoilers for the rest of the paragraph.) He murders Artinelli, throws Berta-Marie aside (possibly killing her as well) and turns himself in to the police. The film ends with his parole into the lonely world.
Pretty straightforward tale of jealousy and revenge, isn’t it? But it wasn’t meant to be.
The original German cut, replicated as closely as possible in the newly-restored edition, has a prologue that makes Jannings’ character considerably more complex. Berta-Marie is not his wife, you see. That honor belongs to Maly Delschaft, who plays Frau Huller. Boss Huller is a doting father of an infant son and it looks like he is a devoted family man. He happily changes diapers, fixes leaking faucets and generally seems like an ideal husband.
Seeing only the American cut, you would be excused for thinking that Berta-Marie was just an average pretty young European athlete. Certainly the very Hungarian beauty of Lya De Putti with her silk stockings, bobbed hair and modish frocks makes the assumption plausible. However, the prologue shows something very different in her past.
Boss Huller meets Berta-Marie when she is fresh off a ship bearing the same name. She was traveling with her mother, who passed away during the journey. The sailors named her after the ship as her real name was unpronounceable to them. They are hoping that Boss Huller will hire her for the girly tent show he operates. The Hullers had been trapeze legends but an injury grounded Boss and his wife is nervous about him going up in the air again. He longs for the freedom of the acrobatic world but he also has a baby to think of.
From her clothing (she dons a grass skirt to dance), it is clear that Berta-Marie is supposed to be from a sunny climate. (The film is not too specific as to where exactly.) Frau Huller takes one look at Berta-Marie and pointedly tells her husband that they have enough girls like her. The insinuation is clear: Boss Huller has messed around with the staff before.
So you see, we no longer have a case of a flirtatious young wife deceiving her naïve husband. We have a young woman who has just lost her mother adrift in a strange country, her very name taken from her. This creates an enormous power differential between Huller and Berta-Marie, one that already existed due to their disparate ages. The attitude toward Berta-Marie’s “exotic” origins would be very much in keeping with the entertainment of the time as characters of non-European (and, more specifically, non-Nordic or Anglo) origins were often fetishized and objectified for merely existing and being of a different cultural and ethnic background. For example, compare Berta-Marie’s onscreen treatment with that of any of the so-called Latin Lovers, Theda Bara’s “Arab Death” persona or the use of Sessue Hayakawa’s Japanese ethnicity to create forbidden romances.
The “it was the woman thou gavest” excuse for Huller’s adultery becomes weaker and weaker but the film attempts to shift some blame to Berta-Marie by having Huller announce that he is abandoning his family for her and asking if that’s okay with her. Nope, sorry, sir. You are still the one with the wedding ring and the wedding vows, not to mention the advantages of being both significantly older and more experienced plus being a native speaker of German in Germany. And, you may note, that the moment Boss Huller has dumped his wife he goes back to being a trapeze artist, which was something he had openly longed for but she vetoed. Nope, if it hadn’t been Berta-Marie, it would have been someone.
Missing the point spectacularly, as was his custom, New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall (who must have seen a relatively untouched cut of the film as he described scenes not found in later American releases) is quick to label Berta-Marie as a “deceitful little minx.” However, it is likely the more sophisticated European audiences would understand that Boss Huller was living in a glass house. (Also disturbing is Hall glowing description of Artinelli’s “surrender” to Berta-Marie. It’s pretty clear in the film that he is the pursuer and it is more than broadly hinted that their first encounter was not consensual.)
This far more complicated motivation gives more believability to Huller’s eventual descent into murderous rage. His hypocrisy stings and his regret over what he has thrown away adds to his fury. The restored footage makes the story more engrossing but it remains rather on the trite side. I hate to go with the conventional opinion but in this case, the critics and historians are right. Variety’s script leaves much to be desired. It’s a standard melodrama with no real effort to blaze new narrative ground.
The thing is, no one watches Variety for the story. We’re here to see the camera fly up into the air, spin, twirl and generally come careening into the modern world. In this department, Variety does not disappoint.
Where to even begin? Karl Freund’s camera is truly unchained but there are also clever juxtapositions of carnival performers, barkers and their wide-eyed fans. Human and animal performers put on a joyous face as the audience watches them with excitement, rapture, lust. The film captures the wild, sleazy, enchanting world of carnival and circus entertainments and tosses it on the screen with grace and sly wit. No wonder the world went mad for this film.
The second attraction that Variety offers is the performance of Emil Jannings. Jannings was one of Germany’s powerhouse performers and he was one of the European stars whose name meant box office in post-war United States.
While Jannings dabbled in broad comedy (and was pretty good at it) he is best known for his intense, brooding, dark or tragic roles. Jannings was not made for light tales or delicate narratives, he was the Wagnerian of the screen and didn’t hesitate to overpower his co-stars if given a chance.
Variety has everything that Jannings could do well. Brooding? Check! Broad exuberance? Check! Madness and murder? Check and check! But whose idea was it to cast the, er, well-nourished Mr. Jannings as a professional acrobat?
The supporting cast is a mixed bag. I go back and forth on whether I like Lya De Putti’s performance or not. She played things as broadly as Jannings but she didn’t have the gravity to back it up and the results are not always the best. On the other hand, British actor Warwick Ward plays Artinelli with a considerable amount of sleaze. You just want to punch him in the face, which is exactly how the character should be portrayed.
In the end, Variety is just as uneven as its cast. There are moments of incomparable brilliance but there are also times when the whole thing becomes trite. It’s essential viewing for fans of silent cinema and anyone interested in the evolution of cinematography. Overall, it is a very good film but it falls short of being a masterpiece.
The gorgeous restoration adds considerably to the enjoyment of the film and I couldn’t be more pleased with the beautiful transfer. However, there is just one snag. It’s a big one.
Growling at the Tiger Lillies
Some silent movie fans have a curious hobby that manifests itself when a new version of a film is released on home media. Basically, they act like there is a race to find the most flaws (real or imagined) in the DVD or Blu-ray. The one who finds twelve imperfections first wins a cookie or something. I’m assuming these are the rules. Look, I’m just happy someone is releasing this stuff.
Scores are a popular target. There are quite a few silent film fans who demand only the most traditional of the traditional in scoring and will heap their wrath on any score that dips its toe in the modern world.
I’m pretty chill about silent film scores. I tend to prefer orchestral (expensive taste!) but piano is a close second. Organ can be good if it isn’t droning and I have no problem with (gasp!) synth scores. I like imaginative musical accompaniment and most of my favorite score skirt on the modern side of things. I do find vintage Vitaphone scores annoying as they tend to play jaunty tangos while the hero is suffering a nervous breakdown. However, in general, I am easy to please. I like the Air score for A Trip to the Moon, the industrial/synth score for The Penalty and all of Maria Newman’s work, just for starters.
Normally, I don’t delve too far into the ins and outs of silent movie releases when I am reviewing a film. I prefer to focus on the film itself, though I will mention if one version is better than others or if a score is particularly pleasing. However, Variety is a bit of a special case. Let me explain.
For the re-release of Variety, the restorers engaged the services of an English band called the Tiger Lillies. On paper it must have seemed like a good idea. After all, the film is set in the vibrant and hedonistic world of the Weimer Republic and the Tiger Lillies draw their musical influence from that era.
Very quickly, rumblings out of Germany showed that the gamble had not paid off. The score was condemned using descriptions like monotonous, unbearable and one of the worst things ever to be slapped onto a silent movie. And the Germans complained, quite rightly, about English lyrics being added to a German film, set in Germany and marketed to German audiences. In short, the whole thing was met with a universal “huh?”
I was curious. First of all, I wanted to see that new restoration and transfer. But I really wanted to know if the score was as bad as it was made out to be or if it was yet another case of silent film fans stamping their little feet and shaking their curls at a perfectly serviceable piece of music.
So, I ordered a copy from Germany and gave it a whirl. What was the verdict?
The score. Oh my gosh, the score. I have no words. I can only marvel at the sheer… the complete… I don’t even know where to begin.
It’s so, so, so bad. I meant to watch the film all the way through with the new score but I didn’t last ten minutes. I couldn’t stand it.
Would you like to annoy people with music? Just follow my handy guide and you too can make score Variety.
Step 1: Take the soundtrack of Cabaret. Needs more accordion. No, more accordion. What part of “more” don’t you understand? I got a fever and the only prescription is more accordion. And no more than three chords. What are you, mad?
Step 3: You know those people who always manage to sit behind you in the movie theater and spend the whole time explaining the plot to one another? They write the lyrics. Also, throw in a few of Fozzie Bear’s WAKA WAKA WAKAs and other random shrieks. Very good. (Silent movies did sometimes include lyrics in their scores but they were generally, you know, good.)
Step 4: Give your lyricist their first rhyming dictionary. Why, did you know that June rhymes with moon and spoon? This is too good to ignore.
Step 5: Scream the title of the film every few seconds just so people remember it.
You are now ready to write the score to Variety. Heaven help us.
This is not a good silent movie musical score. This is not a good movie musical score. This is not a good musical score. This is not good music. This is not music. It is a crime against your eardrums. It fails so utterly on every level that I continue to be amazed at its sheer awfulness.
Worse, there is no alternative offered. This whole mess could have been avoided if we had been offered something—anything—else as an alternative, be it piano, organ or synth.
I ended up muting the disc and firing up some music from my library to replace the terrible score. (Jill Tracy’s Beneath: the Bittersweet Constrain, in case you were interested. Do you have a replacement album in mind? Do share!)
And if anyone wants to argue that the Tiger Lillies were just acting as benshi, please allow me to smack you upside the head. Benshi narration is a performance art like no other with the narrator giving emotion and flavor to the title cards. They are rightly described as poets of darkness. The Tiger Lillies, on the other hand, narrate the action in the most simplistic way possible. Basically, it’s like they are describing the images on the screen to a three-year-old child in the next room. They add nothing to the narrative and actually dumb it down. And, as far as I know, benshi did not try to sound like Binky the Clown.
And if you are one of those rare people who likes this score, well, that’s your right but please don’t share any Spotify playlists with me. As for devil’s advocates and point provers, I don’t have time. Really and truly I don’t. Silent movie fans have cried wolf about scores before but this one is a real horror. There is a difference between being modern and being awful. I don’t hate the score because it is modern, I hate it because it is awful, annoying music. Often, modern scores are used to attract new viewers to the silents. (It works, too!) This music will make them run away in terror. That is the single biggest sin of the score.
Enough of this depressing subject! Time for the wrap-up.
The restoration itself is absolutely delightful and Variety has probably not looked this good since its original release nine decades ago. While the film is flawed and the story is tired, DuPont’s energetic direction and Freund’s innovative camera work make it an important contribution to world cinema.
Movies Silently’s Score:★★★
Where can I see it?
The restored German edition of the film has been released as a region 0 PAL DVD and as a region A/B/C Blu-ray. I am located in California and had no trouble playing the DVD with VLC media player. There are also assorted public domain editions of the American cut available. The restored edition also includes a third cut with fewer omissions than most of the American prints but still not as complete as the new German cut.