Before he was Michael Curtiz, Kertész Mihály was building a career for himself in his native Hungary and this is one of his very few surviving films from the period. It’s a melodrama about a country girl in the big city and we all know how that tends to go in the movies…
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.
A hot time in old Hungary
The Undesirable is a real rarity. Thought lost along with most of Michael Curtiz’s other Hungarian work, a print was recovered in New York City and the restored film has been made available to the public once again, a century after its initial release.
This movie is worth seeing but I feel there is a need to discuss two important facts before we proceed. First, this is a melodrama. Melodrama has a bad reputation as a genre. It’s corny and naïve and just so… simplistic. While that is true of some melodramas, a really well-done one can be a pleasure to watch. It’s fun to enjoy a movie in which we can boo the villain and cheer the heroes. Melodramas absolutely can be elevated to convey deeper meaning but that should not be a requirement.
We’re not required to answer for the pleasures of a cheap adrenaline hit from action movies or the dopamine high from comedies, I don’t see why melodrama has to be all existential or something before we can admit that we enjoy it.
Second, the cast of the film contains many stage veterans and during this period of the silent era, actors were still figuring out the best way to convey emotions that previously had to reach the cheap seats. You can see a wide variety of acting styles being used in films from around the world and The Undesirable is on the stagey side. In other words, it requires a sympathetic modern audience. It’s not bad (for that you want The Copper Beeches), just more emphatic than we are used to seeing now.
The film opens in a Carpathian village and has not played for five minutes before we get to the unveiling of family secrets. On his death bed, Liszka’s (Lili Berky) father reveals that he is actually her uncle. Her real father was abusive and was murdered by her mother, who is now either in prison or dead herself. With no family left, Liszka leaves her village and journeys to the city to find work.
(The version of The Undesirable available on home video retains the English subtitles. I am pretty sure they were an amateur job because of the way the dialogue cards are laid out and how awkwardly they are inserted into the film. There are also typos and unintentional grammatical errors. And, finally, the characters are given Americanized versions of their names. Miklós becomes Nick, Liszka becomes Betty, etc. Technically correct but I’d call that a case of over-translating and I am keeping the Hungarian names except in cases where the person in question is famous under a more Anglicized name in the USA. After all, nobody wants to read about Peggy Garbo or Morris Chevalier.)
She is hired as a maid by a well-to-do couple (Marcsa Simon and Gyula Nagy) who naturally have a handsome son, Miklós (Victor Varconi, or Várkonyi Mihály as he was billed at the time). Both Miklós and his step-father have their eye on pretty Liszka. Meanwhile, Liszka’s mother Sara (Mari Jászai) has just been released from prison after serving her sentence for murder and she goes looking for her long-lost daughter.
Unfortunately for Liszka, the entire work situation blows up with squabbles, jealousy and, finally, a bold robbery. Liszka is blamed for the theft and she is forced to return to her village as an undesirable with Miklós following.
Will Liszka clear her name? Will Sara find her daughter? Will Miklós win his bride? See The Undesirable to find out!
Besides the obvious appeal of seeing such an early film from the director of Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Mildred Pierce, The Undesirable is also interesting because of its use of Carpathian locations and genuine locals as extras. The grand finale of the picture features a traditional wedding with the residents wearing their formal best.
In general, the film is that interesting combination of authenticity and artificiality so common in films of this period. On the one hand, genuine locations and costumes. On the other, heavy reliance on obvious sets in the city scenes, as well as a melodramatic screenplay and stylized acting.
Lili Berky takes it all in stride as Liszka, managing to sell even the more fanciful scenes with sheer determination. The biggest name in the cast, at least for modern viewers, is a baby Victor Varconi. He sports a massive mustache and he’s not nearly as polished as he would become later but it’s nice to see him all the same. Mari Jászai does carry on a bit as Sara but given her generation and standing in the theater, that is quite forgivable and she has a warm, appealing screen presence.
In Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, author Alan K. Rode recounts a feud between Curtiz and stage veteran Mari Jászai. Jászai claimed that she was thrown from a carriage when Curtiz had it move too soon and that she was seriously injured. Curtiz indignantly denied everything but given his track record, I think he was likely guilty. Even if you don’t believe the accounts of clobbered and drowned extras on the set of Noah’s Ark, we can see Victor Varconi tossed into a frenzied crowd of thousands of extras with no safety measures in place in the finished cut of Sodom and Gomorrah. And those are just silent era examples off the top of my head, we’re not even near the talkies in general or The Charge of the Light Brigade in particular.
(Incidentally, complain about Curtiz’s terrible behavior, by all means, but maybe everyone can cool it with ridiculing his grasp of English? He spoke more English than most of us speak Hungarian, I’ll wager.)
The battle between Curtiz and Jászai spilled into the papers with each side blaming the other but the publicity might have helped The Undesirable become a box office hit. Admit it, after hearing the account, you probably want to see where Jászai fell too. (No fall from a carriage appears in the finished film, unsurprisingly.)
So, it sounds like the fireworks that appeared on the screen were nothing compared to the real behind-the-scenes events and subsequent battle in the press. And that’s saying a lot because the film contains knock-down-drag-out battles between characters, a pass-the-poison scene in a bar during which not one but two characters manage to accidentally ingest sulfur, as well as more lengthy death scenes than you can shake a stick at. It’s pretty wonderful.
The Undesirable is a fun, old-fashioned bit of entertainment. It’s all dramatic poses, bottles of poison and ardent romancing, of course, but it never pretends to be anything else. There’s something appealing about good, honest entertainment value, the ability to cheer for heroes and hiss and villains and The Undesirable has these qualities in spades.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD and Bluray by Olive and featuring a fine score by Attila Pacsay, performed by the Pannonia Symphony Orchestra.
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