Approaching King Vidor’s LA BOHEME, I was of course fired up to see what Vidor would make of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie bohème, aided by Lillian Gish and John Gilbert. But then I discovered that Edward Everett Horton was in it as well, and I got all excited about that.
Now, it would be grotesque to for one moment to suggest that anything involving Mr Horton, the original forked radish, could ever be a disappointment, but I have to say that in the end, Horton’s contribution to this movie was but minor. Although he did have some success in silents, starring in BEGGAR ON HORSEBACK for James Cruze, Horton was an actor who really needed to talk, and when he got his chance, he did so prodigiously, and in an amusingly flustered fashion. Deprived of speech, and surrounded by other actors of varying shapes, one of whom is fat and has a scene-stealing monkey, Horton rather fades into the background. His day will come.
Meanwhile there’s the dynamic Gilbert, a very showy physical player whose career took the opposite route to Horton’s: sound killed him. A top star at MGM, he plummeted into alcoholism and unemployment when audiences laughed at his voice, or rather the studio-trained enunciation he had been compelled to adopt. Gilbert is in my favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, but he was never my favourite thing in it: he’s a sort of spindly enthusiast, rendered lightweight by the sheer dramatic force of Lon Chaney. By the time of LA BOHEME Gilbert’s filled out a bit, so his enthusiastic leaping about has a more manly, Doug Fairbanks zest to it. And in the tragic moments he has a real sensitivity.
Of course, la Gish is pre-eminent. Artfully draped with hanging rags, she plays the waif to end all waifs. Her tiny, childlike frame and skeletal hands, with that big china-doll head and impossibly delicate features… and her physical acting is just incredible, evoking the most agonizing journey as our heroine, summoned by telepathic impulse, drags her dying body across Paris to be reunited once more with the man she loves. She makes you feel her tortured breathing even in extreme long-shot, as in this frame, where Vidor pits her against one of his most spectacular architectural compositions.
Maybe it’s ’cause I’m fighting a cold, but this movie had me in shreds at the end. As Ray Bradbury said of THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, “The damn thing still works.”
(Am too feverish to provide better stills or fix weird colour fluctuations in text — think of this as a visual representation of my state of health.)