Jetta Goudal and William Boyd are an aristocratic pair on the outs. Angered by his rejection, Goudal plays a cruel joke on her ex-fiancé—she sets him up with a “lady of the pavements” (Lupe Velez) gussied up as a lady of quality. D.W. Griffith’s final silent film.
After a very long hiatus, video reviews are back! You have probably learned by now that I adore kitsch and I will be reviewing one of the zaniest, kitschiest films of the silent era: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Road to Yesterday.
Her Man o’ War (1926)
Status: 35mm print held by the Cohen Media Group. 16mm print held by private collector. An incomplete version of the film (missing most of the third act) has been circulating on home video for a while and sometimes surfaces on sites like eBay. It is quite battered and blurry.
Back to the trenches with another vaultie that I would love to see released. First, a little background on how Her Man o’ War came to be.
Cecil B. DeMille went into independent production in 1925 after being forced out of Paramount, a studio he had helped found. As was typical for any motion picture studio, the films that DeMille’s new concern produced were divided into program pictures and specials. The specials had large budgets and the programmers were cheaper films that would pay the bills. At least that was the theory. DeMille’s talent was working behind the camera, not poring over ledgers.
Her Man o’ War was one of these programmers. While it was not directed by DeMille personally, it still was very much a family affair.
DeMille’s assistant director, Frank Urson, was charged with solo direction. William Boyd, a DeMille discovery who was fresh off a smash hit, The Volga Boatman, was tapped to star. The leading lady was the talented (but notoriously temperamental) Jetta Goudal, who had her own battles with Paramount behind her and was a personal friend of DeMille’s daughter.
Before discussing the film further, I must explain my viewing experience a little. I saw this film as a battered, faded and incomplete print. Therefore, I do not feel it is right to categorize my coverage of the picture as a review.
While other war pictures of the period took pains to portray the Germans as misunderstood or at least human, Her Man o’ War could have been made at the height of the anti-Hun fervor. The plot concerns two Army guys (Boyd and Jimmie Adams) who are given a dangerous assignment. They must locate a powerful German cannon hidden in a castle in Alsace. Then they must get the information back to the Americans so they can destroy the dread machine.
How can this be accomplished? Boyd and Adams pose as deserters and intend hang around behind German lines to see what they can see. The problem? The Germans immediately see through their ruse but decide to let the Americans have a certain amount of freedom, hoping to find out what they are really after.
Boyd and Adams are given work assignments on the farms of two Alsatian women, played by Jetta Goudal and Kay Deslys. The women are not told that their new workers are suspected spies and they treat them like the POWs they believe them to be. At one point, Jetta takes a bullwhip to Boyd.
How to tell you have seen too many silent movies: If you have only seen a few, that last line will probably make you say, “A bullwhip?!!?” A more jaded silent film veteran will yawn and say, “That old chestnut again?” The silent era was rather into that kind of thing. No, I do not care to discuss why.
Anyway, the local German countess and owner of the cannon castle is also a voracious maneater and she has her eye on Boyd.
Boyd finds himself bundled off to the castle, dressed in a tux and prepared as the, er, companion for the evening.
Jetta is not about to let another woman take advantage of her prisoner. He was on her work detail, darn it, and she has the receipt! She follows Boyd to the castle and positions herself under the dinner table. Boyd has used his feminine wiles to convince the Countess to show him the cellar. Eureka! The cannon! The Countess has played nice up till now but she expects a bit of romance in exchange for her efforts.
So we have Boyd needing to get out with his information, the Countess not about to give up her prisoner and Jetta under the table and about to stick the Countess with a fork if she tries to play footsie one more time and…
I am not leaving you at a suspenseful point on purpose. This is really where the missing footage occurs. Grr! We get the last ten minutes of the picture but I have a feeling that a lot of fun stuff is contained in the lost section.
Her Man o’ War is not a great picture. The script is as silly as anything. However, I very much enjoyed the reversed gender tropes and the wackiness that was starting to get really amusing when the missing footage ruined everything.
The film was pretty much ignored upon its initial release. It didn’t even merit a review in many of the major fan magazines. I think it deserves a second look. Especially since I want to know if Jetta really does stab the countess with a fork!
And now I wanted to discuss something that always gets brought up whenever Her Man o’ War is mentioned: That gigantic bow hat that Jetta Goudal dons to impress William Boyd. It has been called ridiculous, zany, goofy… That crazy Jetta and her hats.
The film is set in Alsace. Here is a painting of a woman in traditional Alsatian garb.
“But paintings always exaggerate!”
Okay. A photo then:
So, the hat is 100% authentic Alsatian headgear. I mention this incident because it gives me an excuse to write about one of my favorite topics: Film costuming.
I have always been obsessed with costuming. As a child, I consumed book after book on the subject. I stripped my local library’s shelves bare and was always looking for more. No sheet or pillowcase was safe as I was liable to snip it to pieces and make a costume out of it. (My mother was incredibly tolerant.)
I took sewing lessons and began to create true historical reproductions. I haven’t sewn in ages but seeing gorgeous costumes always gives me itchy fingers. I still like to thumb through costuming books, seeing how historical garments were constructed.
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility and I blush to confess that, for a time, I was one of THOSE people. You know the ones. “During this time period they would have used a 1/4 inch stitch but the stitching of her left sleeve is clearly 1/3 inch and it’s the wrong color too. It should be chartreuse, not lime.”
Look, I still cringe when I see set-in sleeves in ancient Greece but what changed my attitude toward costuming in general? Reading books about the actual theory of costume design for the stage and screen, as opposed to straightforward reproduction. Before that, I had always subscribed to the theory that a costumer should endeavor to be 100% accurate, no exceptions and no excuses.
What I realized, thanks to these books, is that costuming is not about recreating the perfect farthingale. It’s about creating a mood, an illusion. The simple fact is that there are times when a truly authentic costume would actually detract from that carefully constructed atmosphere.
We have the example of Lillian Gish and Erte to illustrate that. Erte was hired to make the costumes for La Boheme and he wanted accuracy. So, he ordered the ladies of the film to wear period corsets and he personally chose cheap cotton fabric to show the poverty of Lillian Gish’s character. The problem was that Renee Adoree could not breath in her corset and abandoned it, spoiling the line of the dress. Lillian Gish pointed out (quite correctly) that new cotton would not look cheap on the screen but crisp and fresh. Silk makes better movie rags. Erte was insulted and bashed the actresses wherever he could, claiming that he was bullied and oppressed. But you know what? He was wrong and they were right.
(Many articles on the topic take Erte at his word and make Lillian out to be a spoiled star. I have read Gish’s incredibly reasonable explanation in her autobiography and she made excellent points. Erte is iconic but that does not translate into every medium. Team Lillian!)
This is where we come back to Jetta Goudal’s bow hat. Was it accurate? Yes. Was is correct? Yes. Was it an appropriate costume? No.
You see, your average American moviegoer (then and now) likely has very little knowledge of the traditional garb of Alsace. When Jetta shows up in her giant hat, they are not thinking, “At last, Alsatian traditional hats done right!” They are thinking, “My word, what is that on her head? That bow is wearing her.”
There are times when a particular article of fashion will have to be eliminated for the sake of censors, a performer’s physical mobility or because audiences will find it silly, distracting from the tale and spoiling the mood.
I think these decisions are best explained by Milena Canonero, who won the Academy Award for best costume design for her work in Marie Antoinette (2006). Ladies of the period wore lace on lace on lace on lace, it was a status symbol then. Nowadays, too much lace looks matronly. Canonero knows her stuff and she was aware that perfectly accurate costumes would not fit the tone of the film, which portrayed a youthful Marie Antoinette. So, she decided to cut back on the lace. Was it 100% accurate? No. Was it appropriate for the costuming? Yes.
That’s why I also don’t sweat it when I see a movie set in the teens or twenties that has decidedly unfuzzy hair and un-Cupid’s bow lips. I may know that teens and twenties gals had fuzzy hair and darkly rouged lips but John Q. Public would just wonder if the actress neglected to comb her hair that day. And in the end, John Q. Public is who the movie is for.
This post was for the Snoopathon. Be sure to check out the other reviews and articles.
Cecil B. DeMille’s first feature from his shiny new studio, The Road to Yesterday is the epic tale of two couples, marital strife, a fiery train wreck, flappers, ministers and a touch of time travel. You know, keeping things simple. It is also notable as the film that started William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd on his path to stardom.
Status: Held by the Mary Pickford Institute. Most of the sound discs are missing and presumed lost. The film was shown at the 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, to name just one event, but has not been received a legitimate release to the general public.