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Variete (Blu-ray Review)

14 Aug, 2017 By: Mike Clark

Street 8/22/17
Kino Lorber
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Emil Jannings, Lya De Putti, Warwick Ward.

So here again, we have an Emil Jannings character unlikely to end up in some pastoral setting with a giggling toddler grandchild on his knee and, barely off to his side, a shot-glass full of the afternoon’s fifth sauerkraut shooter to relax him for some bird-watching. Few pioneer screen actors did “misery” as well as Jannings, who won the first best actor Oscar ever awarded during an extended Hollywood stop-off — one that bisected a formidable German screen career bookended by such esteemed laff-a-minute’s as Waxworks, The Last Laugh, Tartuffe and Faust on one side and The Blue Angel on the other. While those cinematic brand names were directed by big boys like Paul Leni, F.W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg, 1925’s Varieté is probably the best and most famous film from the less celebrated E.A. Dupont — who somehow ended up his days in the low end of L.A. directing Problem Girls, The Neanderthal Man and two ‘Bs’ featuring the very young Tab Hunter.     

Though it was among the first foreign films that popped up in library books after first taking my leap into movie history at age 6, Varieté has been one of those achievements easier to read about than see (and these days, you don’t even see it written about all that much). I think the only time I ever previously saw it was at New York City’s old Theodore Huff Film Society roundabout 1970, and that was via a 16mm projected print without much or any musical accompaniment. I’m guessing through foggy memories that it was shown complete because the late William K. Everson was in charge of the screening, though when the picture made enough international waves for Paramount to pick it up for distribution in 1926, the studio substantially cut it (billing it under its English name, Variety). In any event, it’s a pleasure to watch this restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung and to enjoy the predominantly brown-ish tinting (though I was tickled pink to see flashes of that very color during a lavish fireworks scene).

Early on, however, Varieté is a necessarily drab affair, given the story’s initial setting. Jannings plays the owner of a sideshow, and by this we don’t mean one that could have been a part of those colorful Ringling or Ringling-type A-team operations we see in The Greatest Show on Earth or the David-Nelson-as-a-psycho The Big Circus. Instead, his flea trap is more like something out of Elia Kazan’s career nadir Man on a Tightrope, though even that one probably had one or two more live chickens strutting and squawking on the premises. The shimmy-ing women Jannings uses as customer bait bring to mind Dean Martin’s great line in Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (“I’ve seen better navels on oranges”), and the operation could definitely use some fresh blood. It arrives in the form of an orphaned waif ushered onto the premises by a third party — and though the actress playing her (Lya De Putti) offers a retro primer in what was considered “hot” in 1925 vs. the beach-volleyball types of today, Mrs. Jannings (Mary Delschaft) is sufficiently intimidated right from the get-go to balk against this newcomer’s hiring.

Well, good luck on that one. Jannings leaves not just his wife but their newborn child for Berlin with his new paramour, at which point the story evolves into a love triangle involving a third party in need of new partners (Warwick Ward). The new gig gets Jannings back into his old profession as a trapeze artist, which is probably not the most nerve-soothing form of employment for the principals or viewers when both males in a threesome have designs on the same women. Pre-flashback, we know from the movie’s opening scene that some previous no-good has transpired because we see a considerably aged Jannings on the verge of release after spending several years in the slammer. But matters haven’t  played out fully the way we expect, though it’s close enough.

When the flashback segues into Berlin, it’s as if someone upped the movie’s budget by a factor of 20, and in an illuminating supplementary “visual essay” by historian Bret Wood, he notes (and the visuals back him up) that some of Varieté’s nightlife optics and miniature work beat screen deity Sunrise to the neon punch by a couple years. Yet the most famous shots here — and I never forgot these in my 47 years between viewings — are the camera simulations of human movement during the high-flying trapeze act; they’re still highly effective in conveying a queasy state better than many subsequent movies that come to mind, at least for those of us not crazy about heights. Wood, it should be mentioned, is also good at pointing out the role reversal that Jannings’ character undergoes — as well as the added touches in Dupont’s direction that enhance a story definitely on the boilerplate side if you simply rely on a printed sum-up.

Kino has packed this release with extras, including its previously DVD-released 1922 version of Othello, which also teamed Jannings and De Putti. Unless you’re Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, the background score you’ll want to have playing is a relatively new one by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, though for sheer curiosity’s sake, I’m happy that Kino also included an audio atrocity by the Tiger Lillies. This is because the latter attracted some hilariously negative social media reaction when it appeared on a rival “Masters of Cinema” edition (taken from the same restoration) that Eureka! released — though it offered a background alternative as well. Giving the Lillies an ear-scan, I ended up bailing out around the time that one of the instruments let go with a Tex Avery-style wolf whistle as some of the overweight chorines (more Maria Ouspenskaya than Maria from West Side Story) were dancing on stage. It’s as if Toscanini got a severe head cold and asked Spike Jones to step in for emergency conducting duties, though typically classy Berklee happily comes to the rescue.

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