A teen musical à la Tennesse Williams with Shakespearean overtones and a blood wedding that would put both García Lorca and Game of Thrones to shame. Richard Layne and I discuss all of this in the context of both Chahine’s career, it was his first film after the Trilogy of Defeat (The Land,The Choice,The Sparrow) –and the political context of the time, with the Civil War in Lebanon, one that was to last fifteen years, starting in 1975, the year before this Algerian-Lebanese-Egyptian co-production was produced.
The film is structured around the Old Testament Story, with a Cain and Abel structuring device also accompanied by a Romeo and Juliet story, in this case, and in keeping with the film’s Marxist analysis, a love made impossible by a class divide. It also borrows from the André Gide short story of the same name which explores the impossibility of having one law that fits all.
The film is a very hybrid generically, but it IS a musical. In The Arab National Project in Yousssef Chahine’s Cinema, Malek Khouri writes,
The first musical number takes place at school where the two young dreamers Rafida and Ibrahim express their friendship and love for each other. The second song accompanies Ali’s release from prison and introduces us to his character through flashbacks of his lost time in prison and his consequent disillusionment with his political dreams and hopes. The third follows the fight between Ibrahim and his father Tulba, as Ibrahim and his father Tulb, Ibrahim and Tafida join other youths in proclaiming ‘The streets are ours,’ reflecting the solidarity and determination of youth in the fight for social change and freedom. The final song is inItially heard when Ibrahim is bit by a scorpion, and is heard once again as a mantra towards the end of the film as the bloody chaos explodes at the Madbouli household’ (p. 108)
The music is glorious, as you can see below in the footage of Sadat’s funeral, that leads to a full-blown musical number, with dancing.
The film’s first musical number is this lovely one about the ending of school.
This is continued by a song that refers both to Egypt after Nasser but also to the love story between our two young protagonists.
A song that. is reprised in the incredible finale for the film, which is as lurid and violent as anything in Titus Andronicus:
…and as always, Chahine puts his hopes in youth and the future:
I made this trailer for the podcast that gives a flavour of the film as a whole:
Lola Flores, designated ‘The Pharaoness’, or ‘Lola of Spain,’ was the leading star of Spanish folklore musicals of the Franco years, a period where, as a popular saying had it, ‘everything that wasn’t obligatory was forbidden’. She introduced many hits that marked an era — ‘Ay pena, penita, pena‘, La zarzamora’ , ‘Limosna de amores‘, ‘Lerele’, ‘Al verde limón‘ — and that would be associated with her throughout her life. Her back catalogue was the soundtrack to an era and continues to evoke it.
She was a great dancer, one only needs to look at the care she takes with her hands and fingers — every part of her body is expressively deployed. Though a perfectly adequate singer, particularly in her younger years, when her voice was higher, she was the first to admit that there were better ones than she. Her acting on film is bit stiff and awkward in the dialogue scenes and a bit overblown in the musical numbers. On stage no one could touch her; she was arguably the defining figure of show business in Spain for several generations. She became a star on stage barely out of her teens and remained one until her death.
As her career progressed, her stardom expanded to radio, records, film and she finally entered everyone’s home with television, where she became even more beloved, a towering myth made as knowable as one’s neighbours, part of the psychic furniture of homes across the nation. Her stardom extended throughout the Spanish-speaking world, often signifying a Spain of flamenco, bullfighters, and the gypsies she was almost always relegated to play on film. To my Mom, she was a ‘whirlwind of joy/ un torbellino de alegría’.
It’s interesting to read Camilo José Cela’s La colmena/The Hive, with Lola Flores in mind. That bleak wintry Spain of hunger, secrecy, and surveillance was the other sign of the coin represented by Lola’s radiance, sexyness, and the freedom of spirit she embodied and evoked. The characters of La Colmena might have looked askance on Lola but she signified the liberty, plenitude and joy they lacked but wished for themselves. She still does.
La danza de los deseos, whilst far from a good film, might be one of her best in spite of the excessive melodrama and moralism of its plot. She plays Candela, the daughter of a gangster who is killed whilst trying to escape the authorities on a boat. She gets marooned on an island and is raised by a blind recluse and his assistant.
Candela grows up a child of nature taking pleasure in the people around her, the sun and the sea, innocent and loving, wild and free. On her birthday, as she dances on a cliff for the man who raised her and now calls grandfather, she’s spotted by rich people on a boat. Juan Antonio (José Suárez), a young millionaire, goes to the island to seek her out. She becomes instantly besotted and swims after him to his yacht after he leaves. The rich people bring her with them to Marseilles but she overhears a conversation between Juan Antonio and his betrothed in which she’s spoken of a threat to their relationship and runs away.
She’s so innocent that she’s instantly picked up by a pimp in a dive and exploited into the lower depths of a Marseilles of cabarets and whorehouses. The image above showing the wild innocent she used to be, associated with nature, on the right; and the fallen woman she’s become, on the left with her drink, cigarettes and the leg as advertising of the goods for sale, vividly communicates this transformation.
I initially wanted to show you the clip above to make a point about the social construction of race. There’s a moment in the clip were a black Cuban approaches the pimp and he says that it’s a white girl he wants today, referring to Candela. Now part of the reason Lola is often associated with gypsies is because in Spain, she’s as dark as one can be without Spanishness coming into question. But in England, for example, she’d easily pass as a South Asian, and in India she might be mistaken for a native. However, next to a black woman from Cuba in a Spanish film with a Marseilles setting, she’s ‘white’. People often think of markers of race as absolutes dictated by skin colour whereas as we can see so clearly in the film, how we reads the colours and features of skin, faces and bodies are a construct.
The other reason I wanted to show the clip above was to praise the narrative economy. In five minutes a young girl gets corrupted, moving from a millionaire setting to a low-down dive and ultimately, through a bottle of rum, we’re told she’s been taken advantage of by a man who wants to first use her then sell her. It’s very fast and very skilful, like the plots of early Warners films.
But one can also see in the clip above the extraordinary display of skills in the mechanics of direction. Florian Rey, does the whole thing in very impressive long takes, with the last one that begins with a close-up of the bottle of rum, moves back to show us the pimp with Candela in bed, his disdain and her shame, all in one long take would be impressive on its own. But just as you think the film is going to cut, the maid enters the room and the patterned movement of the take is repeated once more but this time with the maid.
I extracted the clip above as an example of the type of song, the copla, of the period and also as an example of the musical number so typical of Spanish musicals of this period, though this one constructed with greater skill. Note how Rey films the whole thing in medium long shot so that we can see Lola perform, but then at the end moves to close-up for the song’s refrain: ‘I no longer believe even in death/ Let it come free me/ Why can’t I be lucky enough to die and rest/ I no longer seek in consolation/ I don’t even believe in myself/ But when I look up at the heavens/ when I look up at the heavens I believe in God and you’. Note also the camaraderie amongst the women, with no discrimination as to colour.
As you can see above, the millionaire who in spite of himself led Candela from nature and innocence to the corruption of the big city, rescues her from prostitution and jail. But by the time he brings her back to the island it’s too late. She’s dying. She arrives on the island only to say hello to her blind grandfather. Whilst he thinks she’s off to marry her millionaire, she is in fact buried practically in front of his face, without his knowing, and next to her father.
The messages in this film are mixed. There’s no place in this Spain for gangsters and prostitutes. But millionaires who cavort outside the borders are destructive even in spite of themselves. On the other hand, there’s the image of Lola Flores, dancing her joys and her pain, even though they’re joys that are not meant to exist outside of marriage and pains that are not allowed to exist at all.
I’m often moved by Spanish films of this period. They’re so rickety. So low budget. So poor in terms of means, ideas, skills, aspirations. But contra all of this, one of Florian Rey’s camera moves, or a Lola Flores, will leap out of all that poverty and oppression and assert something powerful and fundamental about what it is to be human that all the censorship by Church and State simply can’t dampen. They’re moments. But they’re moments that assert a huge gap between the way things are and the way things should be. They’re moments to cherish. They’re moments to seek out in a cinema too easily dismissed for its obvious faults.
Sara Montiel, with the most intricate eye-shadow I’ve ever seen a film star wear in a movie, is the main reason to see Varietés. The film was her idea. In her memoir, Sara Montiel, Memorias, Vivir es un placer (Barcelona, Random House 2000), she writes of how she convinced producer Eduardo Manzanos that ‘we could make a film to our taste, a musical, luxurious, if that’s what he was interested in making. And Juan Antonio said yes; even though he’d never made a musical, that was no problem, because I could take care of that aspect’. She writes of how she loved his script so that she didn’t change a thing. How she believed he’d been a marvellous director and how she needed a film of a director of that calibre. ‘For me’, she adds like the diva she is, ‘Juan Antonio’s best film is Varietés; (pp. 367-368).
For fans of Sara Montiel, and they were legion at that time — she was not only the superstar of Spanish cinema but also box office throughout Latin America and in countries like Italy and Roumania — the film is full of pleasures, many of them campy. She sings some beautiful standards (Te lo juro yo, Lagrimas negras, La bien pagá, Toda una vida), is carefully photographed through more gauze than Doris Day in her later years, is always at the centre of everything — this is a true vehicle for her — and brings that slightly ironic naughtiness around issues of sex, interwoven with and superseded by the full-blown romanticism that is a trademark of her films.
For fans of Juan Antonio Bardem, Varietés is a sadness. Here he is cannibalising one of his great 50s films, Cómicos (1954), which in turn had been derived from All About Eve (Joe Manckiewicz, USA, 1950). As you can see in the two clips below, Varietés borrows not just plot and structure but situation, lines of dialogue, even, later on in the film, tropes like the use of mirrors.
Varietés is a musical remake of Cómicos: instead of telling us about the life of actors in provincial theatre troupes, he tells us the life of performers in provincial music-hall troupes. But the older film is more concrete, more complex, with more inventive compositions. It’s not quite up to his collaborations with Berlanga like Bienvenido Mr. Marshall or his own Muerte de un ciclista (1955) or Calle Mayor, but it’s very good indeed and has become a classic. Varietés is a great vehicle for Sara Montiel, which is why she thinks its his best film, but those are quite different things.
As a musical, Varietés if full of pleasures: Sara herself, the great songs, the clear attempt at making glossily produced musical numbers à la MGM. Sara and her producer had set out to make a luxurious musical, by which I think they meant expensively produced, and by the standards of Spanish cinema they succeeded. The songs, the costumes, the back-up dancers, the choreography. It’s all there. But Spanish cinema’s idea of luxury in that period was often not much more than a musical number in the Sonny & Cher Show: the back-up dancers are relatively meagre in number and not always in step, the costumes are embedded with shiny rhinestones but nonetheless look a bit cheap, the choreography lacks inventiveness and rarely done for the camera as in the great Arthur Freed musicals. The film aims for an international standard but succeeds only on a national one.
There are two further things about Varietés that caught my eye. In the original Cómicos, shot at the height of Franquist repression, the young ingenue Ana Ruiz (Elisa Galvé), tired of waiting by the wings, is offered the opportunity of headlining her own show but the price is that she’d have to sleep with the producer Carlos Márquez (Carlos Casaravilla). She considers it, struggles with it, but ultimately turns him down. In this film, Sara being Sara considers it all too briefly, wishes that that weren’t the bargain, but succumbs. The change in representation marks a difference between what was permissible in the dictadura (the hard dictatorship) and the later dictablanda (the soft dictatorship).
The last thing that I’d like to comment on here is a question. Did Bardem invent the musical montage of the kind so typical of the 80s, where a series of shots are rendered coherent by a song so as to evoke a feeling? See the montage below, where Sara succumbs to her producer’s demands but instead of feeling shame she feels joy (very Sara: It’s why so many gay men loved her). It’s from 1971.
Most musicals aren’t very good. But I love them. Even the worst have at least one great number; and when the whole film is good, there’s nothing better. The glories of the ‘Astaire and Rogers’ films have already been extolled here. And the best of the Freed Unit (Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bandwagon) needs no introduction. So today I’m going for ‘not quite top notch Freed-Unit’, which still probably makes it better than anything by anybody else. I’m thinking of films like The Harvey Girls, Show Boat, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Cabin in the Sky.
The reason for choosing Easter Parade (Chuck Walters, MGM, 1948) is simple. It’s the only film to star Astaire and Garland– to me the two giants of the genre. Each made films that are arguably better (much of the RKO series for Astaire; Wizard, Meet Me, and Star is Born for Garland). Irving Berlin raided his back catalogue and wrote new music for it: the score is a treasure box of standards, most sung by Garland and Astaire, of whom there’s no one better at singing the classic American songbook ,and at its very inception: this is the film that introduced ‘It Only Happens When I Dance With You’. Easter Parade was MGM’s biggest hit of the year one of the greatest successes of both of their careers. The ever-so alive Anne Miller helps anyone shake the blues away. Peter Lawford is the rich, charming but passive and not-fully-there fellar with an umbrellar. This is the film where Judy and Fred do the famous tramp number, ‘A Couple of Swells’.
Judy was supposed to star with Kelly but he broke his leg and aren’t we glad he did? Breaking a leg can indeed bring luck. I used to watch this annually with my sister; and the only thing that’s changed about my feelings for it is that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate Garland’s performance more. She’s a truly great and truly inventive comic actress with crack timing. Just look at her parody of Ginger Rogers, feathers moulting off her dress in ‘Top Hat’ (see above). The DVD of Easter Parade has a wonderful series of out-takes on ‘Mr. Monotony’ which demonstrate so well how a film is pieced together of various takes. There are moments where she’s listening on the playback and then turns on the performance on a beat of the music — subtly projecting, fully present, eager to please and express — that are just astonishing to see. And you get to see how she does it the same but with slight subtle variations in take after take. Comparing the out-takes to the final number (excised from the print on its initial release) one realises that it’s almost always the first take that’s chosen. It’s truly amazing.
The Merry Widow is a shallow masterpiece. Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald), the richest woman in Warshovia has been widowed, might be hooked by a foreigner and send the country’s economy into a tailspin. Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) gets caught by the King (George Barbier) making love to his wife and the Queen (Una Merkel) is so complimentary that he is chosen to be the one to woo and win The Merry Widow back to Marshovia. It’s a film full of delights; the magnifying glass over the map that introduces us to Marshovia (figure 1), the first meeting between Danilo and the Widow which begins by her reading the letter saying he’s terrific and ends with him following her to the palace and saying ‘I tried to bring a little moonlight into your life…..Forget me – if you can!…and Don’t include me, even in your dreams!’; The montage of black veils, shoes, corsets and dogs that signify her life and whose change in colour symbolises a decision to change that life; How the King discovers his wife is cheating on him — a scene that Billy Wilder used as an exercise with students at UCLA asking them how would they stage it and then showing how Lubitsch did it; the fabulous waltz sequence, with hundreds of dancers waltzing through a palatial hall of mirrors, a still from which illustrated countless early film books (see fig. 1); the charming prison sequence at the end; Sam Raphaelson’s witty dialogue. The film is a delight, a joy, a mini-masterpiece of cinematic inventiveness. Barbier and Edward Everett Horton, as the Marshovian Ambassador to France, are particularly enchanting. It’s only of Lubitsch that one dares ask for more.
The film was based on Franz Léhar’s operetta and was remade by Curtis Bernhardt in 1952. I quite like the Bernhardt version with Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas but to see the two films side by side is to be convinced of Lubitsch’s genius. Both films were for MGM, the Lubitsch version, the most expensive film made to that point and, though a considerable hit, it still lost money.
N. T. Binh and Christian Viviani have called The Merry Widow the quintessential Lubitsch film (Lubitsch, T. &B Editores: Madrid 1991, 2005, p. 160). It contains the elements of spectacle evident in his early silent (from Carmen onwards), the operetta form of his early thirties musicals (e.g. The Smiling Lieutenant) — hugely popular then and unjustly marginalised in historical accounts of the musical genre now — the rhythmic elements evident in all of his great works (note the dance number in the silent The Oyster Princess from as early as 1919), the use of doors, the indirect way of showing, the ingeniousness and comedy that infuses the whole film, the sophisticated comedy of manners of his greatest films (Trouble in Paradise), the great dialogue of most of his great talkies (Ninotchka), the controlled, precise, and poetic imagery of is late masterpieces (the letterbox sequence from The Shop Around The Corner say). One can’t help but agree. The Merry Widow might not be the best Lubitsch – it doesn’t quite touch our hearts – but it is the quintessential Lubitsch in that it delights the eye, the ear and the mind.