Saturday, July 21, 2018

Tonight's Movies: Lady Windermere's Fan (1925) and Sumurun (1920) at UCLA

This has been a great weekend in Los Angeles for classic film fans in general and fans of director Ernst Lubitsch in particular!

Last night I attended a double bill of silent movies in the current Lubitsch retrospective at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater. Both titles, LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN (1925) and SUMURUN (1920), were shown in 35mm with live music by Cliff Retallick.

LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN was the gem of the evening, a funny and touching 86-minute comedy-drama based on the play by Oscar Wilde.

The story concerns young Lady Windermere (May McAvoy), whose husband (Bert Lytell) receives a mysterious summons from a stranger, Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich). Upon meeting Mrs. Erlynne, she proves to him that she is Lady Windermere's mother, long thought dead by all, including her daughter. And given Mrs. Erlynne's past, it seems that it should stay that way.

Mrs. Erlynne is low on funds and Lord Windermere provides her with checks which enable her to live a comfortable lifestyle, including attracting the attention of Lord Lorton (Edward Martindel). Mrs. Erlynne wants the Windermeres to invite her to Lady Windermere's birthday party in order to cement her social standing so that she can marry Lord Lorton -- but Lady Windermere has discovered the checks and, encouraged by Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman), thinks the worst about her husband and Mrs. Erlynne.

Lady Windermere is devastated and decides to go to Lord Darlington, who has made no secret of his love for her, but Mrs. Erlynne is determined that her daughter won't make the same mistakes she once made.

As the UCLA Archive's Jan-Christopher Horak noted in his introduction, this silent film doesn't use Wilde's script, even in the intertitle cards, yet it puts across the narrative beautifully. Horak also pointed out Lubitsch's extremely restrained use of intertitle cards to move the narrative forward; I was quite impressed with how much was communicated strictly with visuals.

The film was beautifully acted by the entire cast. I love Irene Rich in supporting roles in ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (1947) and FORT APACHE (1948) so it was fascinating to see her starring in this a couple decades earlier. Rich's Mrs. Erlynne manages to simultaneously be calculating and sympathetic; she's a master manipulator but it's also clear she's trying to survive, and ultimately she is willing to sacrifice her reputation for her daughter, who still has no idea who she is.

Colman is incredibly handsome playing someone who, like Mrs. Erlynne, has a dual nature, being both a nice guy and a bit of a cad. He wants what he wants and will try his hardest to have it, even though it means hurting both the Windermeres, who are his friends.

McAvoy does a very nice job as innocent Lady Windermere, and I also thought Lytell was good as her husband; one initially anticipates he might be a bit of a stuffed shirt but he proves to be a loving husband who is quite sympathetic.

The movie was filmed by Charles Van Enger. The print we watched was lovely, with the nighttime scenes having a striking blue tint.

LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN is in the public domain and available on DVD from multiple companies.

I was less taken with Lubitsch's German film SUMURUN (1920), which didn't sound especially interesting beforehand, and indeed, UCLA's Horak warned us that the plot was somewhat "incomprehensible." True! Still, I stayed for it because it seemed rather unlikely I'd have another chance to see it in 35mm with live music, and despite its flaws, overall I'm glad I saw it.

SUMURUN is an Arabian Nights-type tale about a wicked sheik (Paul Wegener) whose favorite wife Sumurun (Jenny Hasselqvist) loves a merchant (Harry Liedtke), so she encourages a slave trader (Paul Biensfeldt) to find someone else to distract the sheik. That turns out to be Yannaia (Pola Negri), a dancer, who is in turn loved by the very jealous Yeggar (director Lubitsch), a hunchback. Deaths ensue, along with romance.

Given the story, this doesn't feel much like a "Lubitsch film." Besides having a tangled plot, it goes on far too long; IMDb says it's an 85-minute film but UCLA showed a print which ran 103 minutes. It should have been 85 minutes, especially as the film has a couple false endings, but keeps going...and going!

That said, the movie was visually striking, filmed by Theodor Sparkuhl and Kurk Waschneck, and it was interesting seeing Lubitsch acting in a large role. Lubitsch didn't care for his own performance and decided to give up acting after this film!

SUMURUN admittedly isn't something I'd be anxious to revisit anytime soon, but it was worthwhile historically speaking, giving me a greater understanding of Lubitsch's career.

SUMURUN is available on DVD from Kino Lorber.

Finally, a word of appreciation for Cliff Retallick, who played in the dark last night for over three hours without a single sheet of music. The music was very well chosen, and having that live accompaniment made the screenings even more special.

Next up: A post on Saturday afternoon's screening of Lubitsch's DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933) at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.


Blogger Walter S. said...

Laura, I have never seen these two Ernst Lubitsch directed silent movies. You have sold me on both, although you were less taken with SUMURUN. Thank you.

12:23 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

In The Lady Windemere's Fan sweepstakes, Otto Preminger's entry has merit on a level all its own. The Wildean witticisms are suggested, but the story's undercurrent and relationships are front and center. Also, it was Madeleine Carroll's final film and on that basis alone is worth checking out. Personally, I love it, but feel same about the various theatrical productions and the silent film, although this version, in my opinion, is more fun. Much more.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Walter, so glad to know you enjoyed my post. You might like to know that some of Lubitsch's German silents, including SUMURUN, are available in a DVD set from Kino Lorber.

Barrylane, I'm glad you mentioned the Preminger version -- I didn't realize I had it at first until I realized it's simply called THE FAN. The version I recorded (on VHS!) from Fox Movie Channel I have noted is a 78-minute European version; I noted the U.S. version is 89 minutes. I see THE FAN is available on DVD in the Fox Cinema Archives series; Amazon lists it at 79 minutes.

If anyone has seen THE FAN DVD I'd be interested to know how the print quality is. I've had very good luck with B&W FCA prints of the '30s and early '40s but some of the later prints (especially color or widescreen) are all over the map qualitywise. Anyway, that's a Jeanne Crain film I've never seen so I'm glad you reminded me it's out there!! I'll definitely want to check it out.

Best wishes,

9:24 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Laura, FCA print of The Fan is pretty good. I had to adjust the sound a few times, but it was livable with.

9:28 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you so much for the feedback on the FCA print! (It seems like I've been adjusting the sound a lot on Warner Archive discs recently so I guess doing that wouldn't be anything new! LOL.) I may consider getting that.

Best wishes,

9:36 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Laura -- Jeanne Crain holds her own and is very attractive. Richard Greene and George Sanders the same, but John Sutton and Martita Hunt make their presence known. The star is Madeleine Carroll, and although her names comes second, she is only that in the same way Frank Sinatra is billed second to Rita Hayworth in Pal Joey. The Fan is, or was, free online. Not ideal, but perhaps worth a try.

10:01 PM  

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