Ivor Novello plays the Rat, a Parisian Apache with a thing for pearls, knives and Odile (Mae Marsh), his platonic (or is she?) roommate. When a group of slumming swells invade the Rat’s haunt, romance and murder follow, as they always do in these pictures.
Tale of a Rat
The Paris underworld setting was phenomenally popular in entertainment of the era and was one of the go-to spots for filmmakers. I will be doing some apples to apples comparisons to similar Hollywood fare but I don’t think it’s exactly fair to compare The Rat to the genuine French models. No non-French woman is going to beat Musidora at her own game. For the purpose of this review, we are going to accept this as the Anglosphere view of the Apache.
The Apache subculture does not refer directly to Native Americans but rather Parisian criminals of a relatively petty nature. (The “Apache” name was due to the perception of the actual Apaches being wild and violent.) Despite their ferocious reputation, the stylishness and particularly the dances of the Parisian Apache were quickly incorporated into motion pictures and the look is still recognizable. (If you’re interested in the more violent aspects of the Apache, here is a primer on their fighting tricks.)
We’ll discuss the dancing when we come to it (it is inevitable and thank goodness) but I think we have enough background under our cinched belts, striped shirts and berets to get started. (Flicks ash from imaginary cigarette, remembers she doesn’t smoke.)
The Educational Screen deemed The Rat to be “a waste of time” for adults and unsuitable for children fifteen years of age and younger. Its complaints were that the picture featured lurid melodrama, infatuation and murder. Guilty as charged but that’s a bit like complaining about a science fiction film featuring too many scenes in space. I do wonder, though, exactly how much was cut for American release but, um, yeah…
Based on the hit play that he co-authored, The Rat reunited Ivor Novello with his co-star from The White Rose, Mae Marsh. (It’s one of the few post-Way Down East D.W. Griffith films that I actually like and much of it is due to Marsh.)
Novello plays the Rat, the young king of the local criminal set, jewel thief and knife fighter extraordinaire. The Rat struts around in the expected and universal gangster manner and adds a few new mannerisms to the playbook. When he returns home, for example, he fixes his cap to the wall with his throwing knife. It looks quite stylish and we wouldn’t be so churlish as to point out that after a few evenings of that, he would have no cap at all, would we?
On the other side of the metaphorical tracks, we have Herman Stetz (Robert Scholtz), a rich, powerful and ruthless fink and his mistress, Zelie de Chaumet (Isabel Jeans). Zelie longs for excitement and like many a posh movie dame before her, her heart is set on spending and evening in the criminal underworld. (Anna Q. Nilsson pulled similar shenanigans a decade earlier in Regeneration.)
While he has the expected reputation as a cad and a bounder, the Rat’s favored flatmate is his platonic pal, Odile (Mae Marsh). She is head over heels in love with him but he sees her as a sister. You know, the usual. The Rat is planning a jewel heist at the White Coffin club and warns Odile to stay far away from it as he doesn’t want her mixing with that crowd.
Naturally, Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t obey, it wouldn’t be much of a picture if she did. The Rat left his switchblade behind and Odile goes to the White Coffin to deliver it to him and runs smack into a big bad wolf, Stetz. Stetz goes from zero to pervert in two-point-five seconds but the Rat saves Odile while her would-be attacker vows revenge. The Rat sends Odile home and orders an absinthe because of course he does. (I covered the history of the beverage and had a little taste test in my review of Wonderful Absinthe.)
Zelie arrives with her slumming party and immediately zeroes in on the Rat, who reacts to her interest with—what else?—and Apache Dance.
Irene Castle describes the dance as a man trying to demolish his female partner as spectacularly as possible. While male-female pairs remain the most popular combination, the dance could include two women “fighting” over one man and I have even seen three men vying for one woman. It’s a stylized brawl with the dancers exchanging blows, miming kicks to the groin, throttling one another and if nobody is lifted or spun, it’s a great disappointment.
While this is often described merely as a domestic battle (or something seedier), Richard Powers points out that a woman, Mistinguett, likely invented the dance and makes a good argument that it was a symbol of social liberation. At the time, it was unseemly for “decent” women to go out alone or even cross a ballroom floor without a male partner yet the woman in an Apache Dance was duking it out mano a mano with her (usually) far larger partner.
The dance remains popular, though most modern performances make the empowerment subtext more overt and have the woman unambiguously win the match, sometimes walking out with her partner’s coat and wallet. The spirit of the Apache Dance can also be seen in some film fight choreography, such as the 2005 South Korean film The Duelist (형사).
Zelie is, naturally, won over by the spectacle and decides she would like to make the Rat her project and clean him up for polite society while Stetz schemes up trouble for Odile. Par for the course in movieland Paris.
Okay, so nobody sees this film for the plot. You are either watching it because you love Ivor Novello or because you love Mae Marsh. I am firmly in the Marsh camp and the role plays to her strengths. (Some sources state that Novello started writing the play during the production of The White Rose. The timeline fits and the role of Odile certainly seems tailor made for Marsh.) She is, perhaps, a bit old-fashioned as she fights tooth and nail against a Fat Worse Than Death (or, as Marsh would call it, Thursday) but she has lost none of the charm and vulnerability that made her a star in the first place.
Isabel Jeans probably walks away with top acting honors as the amoral Zelie. She meets the Rat’s antics with a knowing wink and there is no doubt that she could make good on her promise to Pygmalion her handsome Apache into a gentleman if she chose. (And in the sequels… but that would be telling.)
Ivor Novello… Well, his acting style is very much a matter of taste and I am afraid that I find it a little annoying. While he has some good moments, he tends to glide from pose to pose (be sure to shoot that profile, now!) and he overplays any scene that requires any kind of heavy emotion. He’s not nearly as outré as he was in The Lodger but there are some definite moments. Noël Coward famously said of Novello: “Before a camera his face takes on a set look, his eyes become deceptively soulful, and frequently something dreadful happens to his mouth.”
Still, Novello is handsome to look at and, far more importantly, he doesn’t look like anyone else before or since. You’ll never confuse him with one of a plethora of slick-haired, pencil-mustachioed actors of the era. In any case, Novello was most famous for his composition work, particularly operettas, and any criticisms of his acting likely caused him to cry all the way to the bank.
Continuing the theme of beauty, the White Coffin is spectacular with coffin-shaped doorways and the swells watching the toughs duke it out from the artificial safety of the mezzanine. Jeans sports some truly epic 1920s fashions and Novello is Novello. If you watch this film for nothing else, watch it for the visuals.
The story… Well, the less said about it the better but I am reviewing this here picture, so the story must indeed be dissected.
Spoiler: The murder and trial sequences are where the film falls apart. Stetz tries to rape Odile but is stabbed by the Rat. She takes the blame in order to save him. Nobody seems to realize that Odile has an excellent self-defense case (except her attorney, who stays discretely out of the story) and has the face and mannerisms to pull it off. I mean, what reason could a known roué like Stetz have for entering Odile’s apartment alone and uninvited at such an hour? Only one, that’s for sure. And does Odile really look like the sort who would invite him over herself? I understand innocent Odile not understanding loopholes in the criminal justice system but really, Rat? Really?
In prison, Odile begs Zelie to swear that the Rat was with her during the murder and testify along those lines. I don’t really know how French law works but it seems to me that Odile is on trial and not the Rat, so why is there so much hubbub about his alibi? Surely, that would be a separate trial? The prosecution would not be attempting to prove that the Rat did it—they’re trying to convict Odile, after all— and if the defense wanted to claim he was the real culprit, why would they call a witness that would ruin their argument? In any case, Odile’s legal defense was defending her honor, a tried and true angle.
Finally, the police very much want to collar the Rat, so why are they acting like he’s trying to sell them encyclopedias when he has a murder confession all tied up with a neat bow? They literally throw him out in the street when he shows up in court hollering that he did the dirty deed.
Lest you think I am being a bad modern person picking on a classic film, Pictures and the Picturegoer raised similar points back in 1925. “In the recently finished film The Rat, Ivor Novello is flung out of the court day after day when Mae Marsh is being tried for her life. Two policemen even take the trouble to see him home — instead of bringing him into court as a witness!” (This was part of a larger article pointing out all the courtroom and law enforcement errors found in cinema.)
Incidentally, the two sequels to The Rat, The Triumph of the Rat and The Return of the Rat, erase Odile entirely and do not even mention what happened to her, choosing instead to focus on Zelie. I realize they probably couldn’t get Mae Marsh back as she was in temporary retirement when the first sequel was released but that seems like a harsh way to eliminate her role. Not even an offhand “She joined a convent” for the audience?
The Rat, I think, requires a sympathetic audience to succeed. I actually think the self-aware strutting of Novello would have played better on the stage, where there would have been more intimacy between the performer and the audience. As for Marsh, I have always considered her to be the best actress of the hardcore Griffith veterans and Odile is very much in her wheelhouse. Abused waif quietly longing for marriage? That she could do in her sleep but she turns in her usual, accomplished performance here. Jeans needs no apology for her fine acting.
The film is no better than the other English-language Apache films and it’s no worse either. It’s not Tolstoy but the story was never billed as Tolstoy, nor does the film have any pretentions along those lines. It is what it is, a bit more stylish than most but about on par with Parisian Love and The Red Lily, to name two other Paris underworld pictures released around the same time.
The direction by Graham Cutts, cinematography by Hal Young and art direction by C. Wilfred Arnold are all quite excellent and work together to create a lurid, stylish and slightly campy vision of the Paris underworld. I particularly liked the White Coffin Club, with all of its death-related doodads and special section for slummers.
The film looks fantastic and that may be enough for some viewers, especially anyone looking for style inspiration. But your enjoyment very much depends on your devotion to Ivor Novello or Mae Marsh. In short, if you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you like.