Carmen/Gypsy Blood (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1918)

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One doesn’t really learn much about Lubitsch or indeed about the deployment of ideas of Spanishness from Gypsy Blood[1]. According to Sabine Hake in Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, Gyspsy Blood is the result of Lubitsch being ‘forced to comply with specific requests. Asked to direct a promotional film for the new UFA star Pola Negri, he chose Carmen …While the film undoubtedly profited from the popularity of the Bizet opera, its melodramatic story remained … uncharacteristic for Lubitsch’ (p.42).

 

In relation to  ‘Carmen’, Prosper Merimée, Bizet and the drawings of Gustav Doré had together already provided a basic but flexible narrative, an iconography and indeed a music to have passions to, which this DVD makes full, if choppy use of. The elements of the Carmen story may have been relatively new to a mass audience in 1918 or 1921 — although C.B. De Mille had already made a film of the material with Geraldine Farrar in 1915 — but, to us now, Lubitsch’s achievement is to visually render already familiar scenes in ways that still hold interest.

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According to Scott Eyman, the film borrows Mérimée’s flashback structure in which a campfire storyteller tells ‘the tale of a man bewitched.’ We then see Don José Navarro’s conservatism — and as played by Harry Liedtke, his dullness — his provincial background and the purity of his sweetheart, here name Dolores (Grete Diercks) but known by other names in other versions, all evoking a dewy-eyed drippyness: Micaëla in the opera, Cindy Lou in Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones, the Broadway version of the opera,etc.

Carmen, or really Carmencita as she’s called here, gets a spectacular introduction in the famous tobacco factory scene. We see her attempt to spring José from jail, thus ensuring his degradation and downfall, with a sensual boldness that was to remain unmatched for many a year, the scene where she’s got her hands tied behind her back but snatches the flower off Don José’s lapel with her teeth still seems risqué. The scenes of gypsy thieves in the caves are used mainly to exoticise the landscape and as a striking way of filming Pola Negri from inside the cave. The bullfights, seemingly an integration of documentary film footage, are filmed with a sexy and deadly brutality so that the matching of sex and death is a prelude to meeting with Escamillo (Magnus Stifter) and her own final death. Lubitsch is very sparing with his close-ups, saving them mainly to show Carmen’s desire for Escamillo and her death at the hands of Don José at the end.

The narrator, dramatically lit in chiaroscuro to tell the 'story of a man bewitched'.
The narrator, dramatically lit in chiaroscuro to tell the ‘story of a man bewitched’.

 

Many of us have seen the schemas of these scenes over and over again, fleshed out in a variety of modes, genres, productions, versions: the endlessly popular productions of the opera, or perhaps Gades’ flamenco rendering of the Carmen myth on stage, or Saura’s film version of the Gades ballet, or Dorothy Dandridge in Preminger’s Carmen Jones (USA, 1954), or Hayworth in The Loves of Carmen (Charles Vidor, USA, 1948) or Paz Vega In Juan Calvo’s Carmen (Spain, 2003)….We know the story so well and Lubitsch’s version, admittedly an early one, provides only one surprise, on which more later.

flamenco and guitars
flamenco and guitars

 

What do we learn about Lubitsch as a filmmaker from Carmen/Gypsy Blood? We learn that he can handle crowds, that he can handle spectacle, that he’s got an eye for period setting and the telling detail. We also learn that he’s not fully ‘Lubitsch’; had I not known who the director was before watching it, I would have thought it a skilled job of direction but it would have been a question of guesswork as to whether the credit was due to Lubitsch. In fact a film like Frank Borzage’s Desire (1936), which he prepared and produced but did not direct, or One Hour With You (1932), which he prepared and produced but Cukor says he did not direct, were to me saliently Lubitsch upon first viewing in a way that this is not.

Pola approaching, as seen from inside the cave in a striking composition,
Pola approaching, as seen from inside the cave in a striking composition,

Lubitsch’s Carmen was re-titled Gypsy Blood: A Love Tale of Old Spain for its American release by First National. What it reveals about ‘Old Spain’ is that there were a lot of blue-eyed Germans trying to pass themselves off as gypsies, and that they weren’t averse to using blackface to do so, thus reinforcing the notion of Spaniards as the Africans of Europe, with gypsies in particular as descendants of Egyptians. Actually, this blackface might have been what Max Factor’s ‘Light Egyptian’ make-up developed for Lena Horne might have looked like applied to Aryans.

Pola, bored, surly, insolent.
Pola, bored, surly, insolent.

The revelation of this movie is Pola Negri in the title role. She’s someone who’s aware of her sexual attractiveness and uses it as a weapon. She’s the opposite of Henny Porten, insolent, sexy, aware, playful, sneering, coarse. Wid’s Daily, hated it for all the right reasons, calling Negri’s Carmencita, ‘about the crudest, most boorish, unfeminine hoyden that has ever been presented’. Harriet Underhill in the New York Tribune, called it, ‘a gorgeous performance’ with ‘Negri, a powerful actress, who is fascinating, beautiful in a way that has character for its foundation, and intelligent.’

The sap doesn't stand a chance.
The sap doesn’t stand a chance.

Jeannine Basinger sums it thus, ‘‘The role of Carmen gave Pola Negri everything she was best at – primarily the chance to be fiery, tempestuous, and passionate and to break through the boundaries of a woman’s ordinary life. She plays with enormous energy – a radiant and compelling figure on-screen. Variety stated it simply : ‘This Negri is amazing’.[2]

It’s one of the roles, along with Passion (Madame DuBarry) and One Arabian Night (Sumurum), that made Pola Negri a star in America when they were released there in quick succession in 1920-21. According to Mariusz Kotowski, her biographer, it was also Negri’s favourite role: ‘I understood her. I loved her. I was her. It was like playing an organ with innumerable stops. Every motion could be touched upon’. [3] It’s the combination of earthiness and insolence, intelligence and passion, the grace of movement, and a face that can seem ordinary at one moment and very beautiful the next that still captivates today.

 

Escamillo at the bullfights.
Escamillo at the bullfights.

Gypsy Blood was an enormous success unprecedented in the German film industry up to that point. The critic of the Licht-Bild-Bühne wrote, ‘The effectiveness of the German film industry and its indisputable capability to compete successfully on the world market has been unequivocally proven’[4].

In November 1918, censorship was abolished in Germany. According to Hans Helmut Prinzler, ‘On 20 December 1918, the date of the world premiere (of Carmen), the Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils met in Belin and agreed on elections for a German National Assembly. The mood on the streets was verging on civil war’[5]. In 1919, women would obtain the right to vote. The film is on the cusp of a changing world, in a changing film industry, where different roles for women are not only acceptable but demanded. Gypsy Blood, and Negri’s playing of Carmen, capture, evoke and are representative of this process of change.

Still, more and better was still to come from the pairing of Lubitsch and Negri.

A clear influence on the Dietrich of The Devil is a Woman.
A clear influence on the Dietrich of The Devil is a Woman.

 

José Arroyo

 

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[1] Though the footnotes in the inter-titles are very funny trying to do their best to teach and inform: ‘Alcala, a hamlet near Seville famous for its excellent bread’.

[2] All of these quotes are from Jeannine Basinger, Silent Stars Alfred A. Knopf, Kindle Edition, New York, 2000. The Wid’s Daily, and Tribune quotes from location 527 in the Kindle Edition, the Basinger and Variety from location 3411.

 

[3] Mariusz Kotowski, Pola Negri – Hollywood’s First Femme Fatale, University Press of Kentucky, 2014, Kindle version. Lexington Kentucky, location 511.

 

[4] Robert Carringer and Barry Sabath, Ernst Lubitsch: A Guide to References and Resources London: George Prior Publishers, 1978, p. 3

 

[5] Hans Helmut Prinzler, Sirens and Sinners: A Visual History of Weimar Film 1918-1933, Translated from the German by David H. Wilson, London, Thames and Hudson, 2013. Original Edition copyright 2012, Schirmer/Mosel, Munich, 2012, p. 54.

 

3 thoughts on “Carmen/Gypsy Blood (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1918)

    infiltratehearts said:
    July 23, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    I really liked this film. I felt Pola truly expressed her exotic personality. One of my favorite Lubitsch/Negri collaborations.

    Liked by 1 person

      NotesonFilm1 said:
      July 24, 2014 at 1:49 pm

      My very favourite of the ones I’ve seen is The Wild Cat. She and the film are glorious.

      Liked by 1 person

        infiltratehearts said:
        July 24, 2014 at 5:27 pm

        Yes! That’s the first one I ever saw of Pola. She was so comical, especially when she told the man to drop his trousers or when she started throwing things from the window. My favorite, however, is Sumurun (One Arabian Night)…It’s such a great film…with beautiful cinematic skill.

        Liked by 1 person

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