A mine owner finally discovers a vein of gold—and then promptly dies of fever. His foreman is determined to claim the strike for himself but there is the pesky widow to deal with. Obviously, he has no choice but to lock her in a cottage with a hungry leopard.
This is part of the France on Film Blogathon hosted by Serendipitous Anachronisms. Be sure to read the other posts!
Talk about hardball tactics!
One of my happiest silent film discoveries has been the madcap work of Jean Durand. All but forgotten for decades, Durand created frenzied, violent, funny and dangerous worlds that swung between broad comedy and dark melodrama. He is most noted for his surreal Onesime series starring Ernest Bourbon and they are fun to watch but I most enjoy his pulpier work. The Railway of Death was an absolute revelation to me, a live-action Coyote and Roadrunner short with disturbingly deadly stakes.
And yet between all the gags and gore, Durand proved to have a poetic soul. In the midst of the chaos, there would be moments of surprising beauty in the natural landscapes or a trick of the light. It’s as if a Keystone comedy suddenly turned around and showed off cinematography worthy of Maurice Tourneur.
Today, we are going to be delving into a Durand drama set in South Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) and starring the remarkable Berthe Dagmar, one of the most daring and fascinating leading ladies of 1910s cinema.
The story opens with gold prospector Tim Warest (Lucien Bataille) receiving word that his claim has been overrun with problems. There’s drought, disease and hungry beasts eating the laborers. Warest sends word that he is coming personally and sets out at once, leaving his wife (Berthe Dagmar) at home. Just so we get the point, Warest’s messenger becomes leopard kibble on his way to deliver the message.
Simpson (Edouard Grisollet) is the foreman at the claim and shows his boss around. During his inspection, Warest discovers a vein of gold but collapses from fever and dies before he can tell anyone else about it. Simpson and his accomplice (Gaston Modot) discover a letter Warest wrote before he fell ill detailing the discovery and realize that if they can get Warest’s widow to sell them the claim, the gold strike will be theirs.
The problem is that Berthe ain’t selling. She has no intention of unloading the mine before she has inspected it for herself. The villains decide that it is high time that the widowed Mrs. Warest meet with an… accident. (Mwahahaha, etc.)
Berthe has not traveled alone. She has enlisted the aid of Jack (Max Dhartigny), an old friend, to act as her assistant and protector. Simpson and his accomplice decide that the best way to deal with the problem is to divide and conquer. They will lure Berthe to an abandoned cottage that they have filled with chickens. The local wildlife (in this case, a leopard) will smell the tasty chicken dinner and they will be waiting for whoever enters the house.
Well, that escalated quickly.
As you can probably see, this is a standard melodrama until leopard shows up and then things just get nuts. Big cats in Hollywood films were often in their dotage, lest the frighten Victor Mature, and so it is interesting to see what a brave leading lady can do with a young and healthy specimen. Neither Berthe Dagmar nor the leopard (billed as “Mimir”) hold anything back as it chases her around the cottage. In fact, young Mimir seems to be having the time of his life. It’s utter chaos, exciting to see and impressive from a historical standpoint. Anyone who thinks that silent films relied on only a limited number of suspense tropes will be quite surprised, I think.
The entire film is a study in contrasts. Natural (though decidedly not African) scenery blends with gracefully painted backdrops to create a Neverland of realism and whimsy swirling together. The very artificial jungle contrasts with the very real leopard to heighten the unique mood of the picture. (I have always been a fan of the stylized French film background paintings. Who isn’t?)
The film’s biggest asset, though, is neither scenery nor beast. Berthe Dagmar is extremely impressive as the film’s heroine. She was part of Durand’s raucous and merry troupe of stock players and her resume was unique and impressive: dancer, acrobat, lion tamer… Wow! She was equally at home playing opposite humans, elephants, camels and big cats. (Durand kept a menagerie of exotic and domestic animals on hand for his films.) I know Lillian Gish gets all the credit for feminine derring-do in the silent era but I think we need to reconsider because, honey, Dagmar has her outclassed!
Durand knew a good thing when he saw it and married Dagmar in 1917. They remained together until her death in 1934.
Durand’s work is indeed raucous and violent but it isn’t quite accurate to compare it to the Keystone comedies being produced in America around the same time. Durand’s films have a surreal quality, a whimsy in their cruelty. The closest Hollywood comparison I can think of would be the gloriously strange animation of Bob Clampett, born just one year after the release of Under the Claw. I have a feeling that Jean Durand would have adored The Great Piggy Bank Robbery.
However, as we discussed at the start of this review, Durand also manages to include some stunning visuals in among the jokes and outlandish deaths. Durand certainly knew how to use silhouettes to excellent effect. (In general, the lighting of 1910s films is much more moody and atmospheric than movies of the 1920s.)
While not as mad as The Railway of Death and the Onesime films, Under the Claw is a notable showcase for Berthe Dagmar and the freewheeling world of pre-feature cinema. It runs just 25 minutes and is definitely worth a watch.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
Under the Claw was released as part of the Gaumont Treasures Vol. 2 box set from Kino Lorber. Each volume is a three-disc set that features one great director per disc (Louis Feuillade, Alice Guy, Leonce Perret, Emile Cohl, Jean Durand and Jacques Feyder) and those discs are loaded with numerous shorts, features and mini-documentaries. You will definitely get your money’s worth and I highly recommend both volumes.