Sunday, October 01, 2023

Tonight's Movie: The Spanish Dancer (1923) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

THE SPANISH DANCER (1923) is an epic silent romance just released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber under its Milestone Cinematheque label.

I was unfamiliar with this century-old film and thoroughly enjoyed it. In some ways it's an old school melodrama, with numerous perils befalling our hero and heroine, but it's staged with verve and good humor. I found it a very entertaining 106 minutes.

Pola Negri (SUMURUN) plays Maritana, a gypsy dancer whose troupe performs at a banquet hosted by Don Cesar de Bazan (Antonio Moreno). They're highly attracted to one another, but just after she leaves it's revealed he's now penniless, and he flees his castle.

Soon Maritana and Don Cesar meet again, eventually marrying, but he's sentenced to death for dueling. Fortunately Queen Isabel (Kathlyn Williams) owes Maritana a debt for saving the life of her little boy (Dawn O'Day, aka Anne Shirley), but can the Queen convince King Philip (Wallace Beery) to spare Don Cesar's life?

There's lots more plot to go, including a very amusing conclusion as Maritana saves the king from his wife's wrath and is amply rewarded.

The movie features hundreds of extras and is lavishly staged by director Herbert Brenon. The beautiful photography, included colored tints, was by the great James Wong Howe.

One of the things I especially appreciated was that just when the movie appears to be falling headfirst into predictable melodrama, such as the king lusting after Maritana, the story -- and power structure -- is then turned on its ear thanks to quick-thinking Maritana. The film in general is pleasantly unpredictable at times.

I also particularly appreciated Kathlyn Williams' queen, a fully rounded character who is much nicer than we might otherwise expect. The tug of war between the Queen, King, and their courtiers (including Adolphe Menjou) over relations between Spain and the Queen's native France undergird the romantic plot and give them film added depth.

The casting of the royal heir, little Don Balthazar Carlos, is notable as he was played by a girl, five-year-old Dawn O'Day, who as a teenager and adult was popular actress Anne Shirley (ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, MURDER, MY SWEET, and more).

The choreography was by Ernest Belcher, the father of dancing great Marge Champion.

The film shows its age, with varied flaws, but this restoration -- compiled from four different prints -- is nonetheless thrilling to watch.

My only complaint is that I wasn't a fan of the score by Bill Ware; it's a very "electronic," modern sound which reminded me of the odd scores added to a few of John Wayne's '30s "B" movies in recent years. I found it jarring alongside what I was watching.

Just before publishing this I read a couple reviews which were more enthused about the music, so as the saying goes, "Your mileage may vary."

Extras consist of a commentary track by greatly admired film historian Scott Eyman along with dance historian Naima Prevots; Eyman doesn't do many commentaries so I'm really looking forward to listening. There is also a restoration comparison and an interview with composer Ware.

A recommended release.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


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