This towering cinematic achievement is easily one of the greatest examples of silent era hokum that I have ever experienced. Joseph Schildkraut and Norma Talmadge are star-crossed lovers in Northern Africa wearing very silly clothes. I am entranced.
Two, three, four, tell the people what she wore!
(Thanks to Kino Lorber for a review copy.)
There are films that you long to see and build up in your mind. Alas, sometimes your vision of what a film should be does not match what is really on the screen and disappointment is inevitable. And then there are the times when the film in question not only matches your expectations, it surpasses them.
The Song of Love is such a film.
I have been dying to see this picture ever since I learned of its existence. I love leading man Joseph Schildkraut, I love ripoffs of The Sheik, I love overblown melodrama, I love bonkers costuming and, as the icing on the cake, this was the last film directed by Frances Marion before she decided to dedicate herself entirely to screenwriting.
Silent era audiences enjoyed their hokum. That is, they enjoyed some films with tongue in cheek and eyebrows sarcastically raised. And some films, Son of the Sheik for example, responded by winking ever so slightly back. (By the way, Orientalist desert romances were totally a thing before The Sheik but that was the film that launched them into the stratosphere.)
The Song of Love has nothing like that kind of self-awareness despite both films being penned by Marion and that naïveté is what makes it so glorious. Seriously, before I even start the synopsis and review, I am telling you that you must see this. It’s that good. Or maybe, it’s that bad.
The film is set in a North African French settlement, which was ruled by the French at this time. The locals are more than a little annoyed at this and want to rule themselves. Naturally, they are the bad guys. (Hollywood productions were often very rah rah rah for empire, which is strange considering the nation’s history but possibly explains why the American Revolution has not had many great movies.) The leader of the rebellion is named Ramlika (Arthur Edmund Carewe, best known as the Ledoux in The Phantom of the Opera), a dashing chieftain with a short temper and a big knife.
Ramlika is in love with Noormahal (Norma Talmadge), a dancer at a local bar. She doesn’t like him much, possibly because he is violently jealous, but plays along in order to keep the rebellion going. Ramlika is planning the massacre all the foreigners in the city.
The French suspect something is up and take time out of their busy schedule of sipping cocktails and playing whist to summon Raymon Valverde (Joseph Schildkraut), master spy. He is to infiltrate the bar and figure out what Ramlika and company are up to. Now keep in mind, everyone in the bar talks openly about the upcoming rebellion, this is hardly a deep, dark secret. I realize that bribing the dishwasher is less sexy but I think it probably would have saved considerable time and expense.
Valverde, as secret agents are wont, has an eye for the ladies and is ready to go all Pepi Le Pew on anything in a skirt. Or, in the case of Noormahal, sheer harem pants. (Seriously, how long did it take them to come up with that name for Norma Talmadge’s character? Presumably, if it had been Constance Talmadge, the name would have been Coonstancehal.) He is also the ex-lover of Maureen (Maude Wayne), the wife of the city’s commanding officer. The plot, it thickens!
Valverde carefully disguises himself. And by that, I mean he dons some spit curls, some loud stripes and a pair of little slippers that make his feet look enormous. (If you are looking for authenticity, boy have you come to the wrong film.) Then he sets about seducing Noormahal with a combination of negging and bad poetry. Noormahal is not very bright and falls for this immediately. Apparently, she has a thing for goofy, incompetent spies. There truly is somebody for everybody.
Okay, so Ramlika shows up, the boys have a major fight and Valverde escapes but sends a note summoning Noormahal to his villa. She’s totally down for it and goes to see him and spills the plan for Ramlika to go a-massacring in three days.
But then Maureen shows up. Just walks right in. That’s right, Mr. Secret Agent Man has neither a doorbell nor a butler to guard the entrance to his villa. Somewhere, an Englishman in a tuxedo is crying.
Anyway, Maureen is like, “MINE, MINE, MINE!” despite the fact Valverde is undercover and she’s married. Once she leaves, Noormahal tells Valverde he had better behave himself and not lead the weird white lady on. At this point, Mr. Super Spy… confesses all! There’s no point to it, everyone would be safer if he didn’t but I guess he’s overwhelmed with love or something, the dope. Noormahal reacts exactly the way you would expect, vows vengeance and storms off. But now she knows that he knows that…
Valverde goes and makes his report, advising the commander to send for reinforcements and suggesting that Ramlika should be arrested immediately. However, our intrepid agent fails to close the doors and windows as he speaks and he is overheard by a spy working for Ramlika. Oh yeah, this is going well.
Will the French citizens end up massacred? If they do, we all know who to blame. Will Valverde and Noormahal find love? Not if Maureen has anything to say about it.
This is… wow. This is awful in the most wonderful way possible. And the behind-the-scenes stuff is almost as interesting.
To start with, Norma Talmadge and Joseph Schildkraut did not get along, not one little bit. Talmadge was a top star married to top producer Joseph Schenck and Schildkraut was a celebrated lead on the German, Yiddish and English stages who had made a splash in Orphans of the Storm. People could not get enough of him and his nose in a powdered wig. Seriously, they were legit obsessed with his nose. Schildkraut greatly resented this coverage. It had taken him years to carve out a career of his own—his father was an acting legend—and now he was reduced to a pretty boy.
The early burbs in fan magazines were ecstatic. The new heartthrob acting opposite a movie queen! This was a dry run for their version of Romeo and Juliet. By the end of production, Schildkraut was curtly described as difficult and disappointing. He didn’t make another movie for a year (Cecil B. DeMille lured him back to star in The Road to Yesterday). Since it was likely the Talmadge camp that leaked the rumors, we’re not sure about the other side of the story.
In his memoirs, Schildkraut states that he only made the film because a collaboration with Victor Seastrom fell through and he didn’t want to return to New York without something to show for his journey to California. He is diplomatic in his mention of Talmadge and places all the blame for the film’s failure on its story, which he describes as saccharine and the film itself as trite and conventional. He did, however, like wearing the French military uniform.
Speaking of costumes, Norma Talmadge was clearly uncomfortable with her revealing costumes. Such outfits cry out for strutting but Talmadge spends much of the film pulling diaphanous capes around herself. When she is called on to show off, she acts like she’s just getting it over with. In fact, her performance improves dramatically after the first act when she is able to trade in her thigh high slits and cut-out tops for caftans and tunics.
Joseph Schildkraut is more comfortable in his exotic garb but, let’s face it, the outfits he wears to go undercover are pretty darn silly, especially since he expresses his lust by chasing women in the manner of Harpo Marx. They seem to be wearing him and the short trousers make his feet look enormous, which only adds to the Harponess of his performance. Schildkraut was a brilliant actor but some difficulties are insurmountable. In uniform, he is indeed handsome. Undercover, he looks like a low rent fortune teller. Why oh why didn’t they dress him in more authentic clothing from the region? It’s quite becoming.
The rest of the costumes are an assortment of robes and pith helmets and it’s all pretty typical stuff for a Middle East/North Africa romance of the period. Only Arthur Edmund Carewe manages to cut a figure. He’s helped along by sturdy boots and a lack of spit curls.
The costumes were designed by Clare West, who had radical notions about bare backed evening gowns and legs sans stockings. Her most famous design is likely the modernized and stylized KKK uniforms she created for The Birth of a Nation, which were quickly adopted by real Klan members. (If she hadn’t passed away in 1980, I would be tempted to sock her in the nose at the very least.)
Worse, the direction of the film doesn’t do Schildkraut any favors. Physical contrast between characters was extremely important in silent films and it was not unusual to cast a great hulking brute as the villain, the better to tower over the hero. Unfortunately, when you have a not-too-tall leading man in an extremely goofy outfit, the result is more of a cartoon, especially if that leading man is mailing in his performance. (To see Schildkraut hold his own against a towering antagonist, do check out Deaths-Head Revisited.)
The other problem is that while Schildkraut is slumming and it’s obvious that he knows he is slumming, Carewe is 200% committed. He glowers, he smolders, he generally sheiks his way around like no sheik has sheiked before. The miscasting could not have been more obvious and while the screenplay could have been tweaked to make it work, it wasn’t. Long story short, Carewe walks away with the picture, such as it is.
Talmadge obviously was on really on board with the film. She looks slightly annoyed throughout. As stated before, her performance improves once her clothing becomes less drafty but she still does not look like a happy camper. Still, Talmadge was at her best when she could play broads, dames, molls or junkies and while this is hardly her best role, she at least gets a few tough girl scenes that work pretty well.
The direction is co-credited to Frances Marion and Chester Franklin. The reason for this is that during production, Marion was klonked on the head by a light and actually lost consciousness. Franklin took over for her while she recovered. I am not sure how much of the film was Marion and how much was Franklin but I do resent that some sources credit Franklin alone. Phooey! Just to be clear, I am not blaming Franklin, who seemed to be doing a favor for a friend.
(The light tale reminded me of a rumor that the lighting crew in Orphans of the Storm conspired to drop a light on Schildkraut—he was referred to by a four-letter slur beginning with a “k”—for the crime of upstaging Lillian Gish. Did someone have the same idea here and… miss? This is pure speculation and I have read entirely too many mystery novels.)
Marion had trouble dealing with the inherent sexism aimed at women directors during the silent era and she made some rather unfortunate remarks about not looking “mannish” enough for the job that I hope were not aimed at her fellow women with megaphones. I absolutely don’t blame her for being frustrated; she was also dealing with the fact that as a very petite woman, she was viewed as “cute” in every endeavor. It gets old.
The screenplay, also by Marion, is… not very good. In addition to the rampant silliness and extreme colonialism, we also have an incredibly unlikeable second female lead (we’re supposed to be in suspense as to whether Valverde chooses Maureen or Noormahal) and an internal conflict that’s just ridiculous. Hmm, let’s see, will the heroine betray her family and faith for the guy she met yesterday? Also, can Maureen fall down a well or something?
I find that Marion is a hit or miss for me overall. Her adaptation of Stella Maris stands out as one of the great achievements in silent era screenwriting but The Cossacks is one of the worst things I have ever had the displeasure of viewing. (In all fairness, she did warn MGM not to try to tackle Tolstoy.)
The title cards do not help matters as they are filled with that sort of fake Arabic that Hollywood loved. Lots of thees and thous and unconvincing flowery speech. When trying to mimic the rhythm and flavor of another language, less is more as self-parody is an easy trap to fall into. That’s certainly the case here, especially since Noormahal is referred to as “Rose-of-all-the-world” which is quite a mouthful. Obviously, real Arabic can be quite poetic and phrases that roll off the tongue in one language do not translate well but perhaps consulting with (gasp!) an actual native speaker would have yielded less silly results. If Marion and company had focused on witty title cards rather than being a bad ripoff of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the film would have been better for it.
Finally, unlike the Sheik films, which restricted their ignorance to matters of race and culture rather than religion, The Song of Love presents conflict between Muslims and Christians. That’s all well and good but the issue is that none of it is actually resolved as far as the characters are concerned. In short (spoiler) after the final romantic clutch, who converts? Or does nobody convert? And how does everybody else feel about this? Religion is optional in these Orientalist romances and they brought it up, not me. To fail to resolve this seems to be rather a misstep.
Movie Rule: Don’t bring big questions into your light, silly picture unless you are prepared to actually deal with them.
The cinematography is nice and, apparently, cinematographer Tony Gaudio invented a new way of shooting day for night that looked convincing and saved thousands of dollars in production costs. It was seen as quite a big deal and had a length write-up in American Cinematographer. And the city of Oxnard doubled for Northern Africa (?) so there’s that.
Alas, the only surviving print is derived from a German release that (spoiler) cuts off the happy reunion scene in order to create a more tragic narrative. There is also considerable decay and it looks like it was preserved in the nick of time.
Overall, this movie is an example of a production being wrong in all the right ways. Nothing works but it doesn’t work in the most perfect manner and the result is pure pleasure for any fans of trash cinema. The love scenes are ridiculous, the costumes are terrible, the writing is silly and I was firmly rooting for the villains. It is absolutely scrumptious.
If you have even the slightest love for hokum and melodrama, this film is for you. It has my strongest possible recommendation. This deserves to be a camp classic and now that it is available to the general public for the first time in 95 years, it has a chance to become one.
Where can I see it?
Available on DVD and Bluray as part of the Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set from Kino Lorber. It has six discs of silent films directed, written and produced by women and there are some real never-before-released gems. Obviously, The Song of Love is the crown jewel of the collection, in my trashy opinion, and worth the price of the set.
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