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Monday, October 16, 2017

Germans Walk A US High Wire

Variety Vaults Ahead Of Euro Imports

As with many classics, awareness of Variety came for me via The Movies, epic, and sixth-grade acquired book by Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer. They put a still from Variety on page 203. Every time I heard the title since, that image flashed up (it's at left, scanned from my fifty year old copy of The Movies). Problem was having no access. Variety never turned up on Region One DVD to my knowledge. Now it has, and on Blu-Ray, from Kino. Variety is heavy and very Germanic. People pay dear for wrong moves. Relationships unwisely entered into have dire consequence. Jannings would make a career playing no-fool-like-an-old-fool, but that came after Variety, where he's younger, but still foolish. Women used Jannings badly. He looked like someone to make a chump of. Fullest flowering of that would be The Blue Angel, his signature part. Eggs cracked over your head is surest signal you've hit bottom. Jannings did as much offscreen for going whole-hog w/ Germany's film industry after Hitler took over. He did starring roles aplenty for them until Allies marched in and closed the show. There's a story I read where G.I's coming down a Berlin street were confronted by a gibbering old man waving an Academy Award and claiming he was duped, or forced, or whatever, to work for the Nazis. It was Emil Jannings. He died a few years later, having been shut out of work and derided for his give-in to the Reich.

There's an excellent book by Budd Schulberg, Moving Pictures (1981), that tells the author's story growing up on the 20's-and-early-30's Paramount lot, where his father, B.P. Schulberg, ran production. Reading this memoir is like being there back when. Budd talks of Bow, Bancroft, all the Para people, including "rotund and unforgettable" Emil Jannings. B.P. had seen Variety and 1924's The Last Laugh. Like an industry in whole, he was dazzled. So how to bottle Jannings for US consumption? The scheme would be to go Euros one better for stark content, Schulberg arguing to Paramount grand chief Adolph Zukor that offshore grosses would cover whatever shortfall the pics had stateside. Zukor's reply was OK, but make them cheap. B.P. did so, five times, before Jannings played out with talkie arrival and chose not to combat microphones. Like with Clara Bow and Louise Brooks and W. C. Fields at Paramount, you sicken at all of work now lost. Of five that Jannings did there, only one, The Last Command, survives intact. EJ worked with Jo Sternberg, Lubitsch, the cream of émigré directors. I'd guess the missing quartet would rank from great to epic. Sometimes it's best just not to think about all that is gone.

At least Variety is here, and for that matter, much of Jannings' silent output prior to Atlantic cross. People figure all of German silents for downer content and endings, but Variety, for all of harrowing lead-up, has a hopeful if not altogether cheery finish. I say that not to spoil, but to reassure that Variety is no crush of your day for watching, and quality is beyond imagining of anything this old and presumably abused over years at PD wandering (lately asserted Euro copyrights have been salvation of a near-whole silent legacy). To upbeat fade, there is, of course, the most outlandish of all, The Last Laugh, where Jannings and director F.W. Murnau lay on a happy ending to end them all, as unexpected then, and still, as any final reel in movies ever was. Who says Germans had no sense of humor, because this was done very much in fun, a release of balloons to ridicule all distributors that demanded smiles as we left cinemas. The Last Laugh and Variety were worldwide hits, Jannings figured to have redefined dramatic performance in films. If Paramount hadn't hired him, someone else probably would have. He was antidote for too much froth as critics and sophisticated viewers saw it, even if not a leading man in stalwart sense. In fact, Jannings was a pioneering character star, an imported loser at love and eternal sufferer to help carry some of Lon Chaney's bags for US patronage.

Jannings was intense and sometimes scary in right circumstance. When not a shuffling old man, he could be a convincing brute lover. Variety puts him amidst seedy environ of circus sand. E.A. Dupont directed. He was one of those with a big future for which things went unaccountably wrong, or at least not up to snuff that Variety foresaw. Early appreciator of film art Robert Florey must have studied Variety with a close lens, because his Murders In The Rue Morgue for Universal in 1932 looks at the least like homage, if not frame-for-frame copy. But for Germans, where would our visuals have been outside of cactus ground Tom Mix rode? Their influence was just huge. Another way that Variety scored, at least for viewership with smarts, was sex content, which if understated, was still leagues ahead of timidity Hollywood still adhered with. Censorship played havoc with Variety when it was released over here, a near-whole deck of narrative cards reshuffled, but they couldn't dull edge of erotic knives in Dupont drawer. Variety was lauded by critics for telling at least partial truth of what went on between men and women. Jannings was, of course, the cuckold, but one who at least gets even, all of infidelity, suspicion, what not, giving rube watchers a glimpse of how sex politics was played among Euros free of inhibition that chained us. Kino's Blu-Ray is highly recommended, and there are good extras.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

This has been available on DVD in prints that were not worth the money which also, of course, were the censored American version.

I got this a few weeks ago. It is a real pleasure to see the Blu-ray.

Those censors who castrated the movies back then must be rolling in their graves today. Even television can be more honest than the movies at that time could be.

We have come a long way and it is good.

1:04 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The DVD is obviously missing this:

7:52 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

The REALLY tragic story associated with VARIETE is the fate of the trapeze act used to double for the stars, the Flying Codonas. They were a trapeze act from the US who were especially popular in Germany. about a decade later, one Codona shot the other one, then killed himself. Curiously, since the Codonas were American and this happened in the US, the only movie made about them(which mentions VARIETE)was in Nazi Germany, DIE DREI CODONAS.

2:27 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Was not aware of this, Antonoid. Thanks for the info.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

MURDER is also heavily influenced by THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. I was running it for myself once on the BIG screen. A couple of young fellows in their teens chanced by.They had never heard of Bela Lugosi. After seeing just a couple of minutes they asked if they could watch the film. They walked out wowed.

11:51 AM  

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