Canal Knowledge

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Well, after five and a half majestic hours of Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON on the big screen I ought to have plenty to blog about this week. But my first observations are going to be pathetically trivial.

Being a newcomer to this movie — I purposely held off on watching it until I could see it projected with an audience — I’m not sure how much new footage may be included in Mr. Brownlow’s latest restoration. And my unwatched DVD turns out to be taken from Francis Ford Coppola’s somewhat pruned version of the movie — he de-restored it a bit for US consumption, apparently feeling himself better qualified to produce a director’s cut than Gance himself. So all I can say is that the version currently screening in select venues turns out to have more Annabella than the Coppola cut. I don’t know if this is because FCC thought we could do with a life of Bonaparte containing about 30% less gamine, or because more footage of the elfin one has since turned up. Here she is ~

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The upper intertitle made me smile, because there happens to be a film called SUEZ, directed by Allan Dwan, dealing with the construction of the famous canal, and Annabella is in it, along with her then husband, Tyrone Power (what should we call that marriage – lavender, open, or just plain peculiar?).

SUEZ is a pretty dull film. Zanuck’s Fox was just the kind of studio where somebody would make the assumption that a large civil engineering project would automatically make a good movie. But if you look in the Yellow Pages under “civil engineering” it says “see boring,” and rightly so.

Annabella provides the only minute of interest in the film, using her breasts.

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Seconded to Alexandria to prepare the canal, Ty Power immediately chances upon a runaway bathing machine and a naked damsel in distress, played by his offscreen wife. Though her character is supposed to be anxious to conceal herself beneath the conveniently opaque waters of her oasis, Annabella herself seems more interesting in bobbing up and down and revealing as much as possible.

And so, a unique sight for 1938 — a topless woman covering her breasts with her hands. Might not seem that shocking, but I can’t think of any similar view in a film of that period.

Tyrone is the perfect gentleman, returns the bathing machine, Annabella gets dressed, and then, in a bit of screwball slapstick, the couple both fall in the water. Cue 1938’s second surprise image, the wet shirt scene ~

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This is, in motion, even more explicit than it looks here. Annabella’s shirt becomes a translucent membrane, clinging to her boyish figure like a second skin. Ahem.

I realize I am probably apt to overrate the importance and interest of female breasts in the scheme of things. But this double violation of censorship norms seems to require a theory to explain it. The only explanation I can come up with is a rather sad one: the Breen Office allowed Annabella’s breasts to make themselves known because they are very small, and they didn’t think they counted.

I think they count, Annabella! And everyone thought you were much cuter than Josephine in NAPOLEON.

Pretty lame to be pondering this after seeing the wonder that is Gance’s masterpiece, I know. But that movie has a bunch of much more fulsome and unabashed nudity, so in a way I’m being restrained by focussing on this modest sample.

(As ace researcher Christine Leteux discovered, there was once even more of Annabella in NAPOLEON. I mean screen time, not flesh. Intriguingly, the deleted scene linked to here is more dramatic than anything remaining of A’s performance in the film.)

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10 Responses to “Canal Knowledge”

  1. You can find topless women covering their breasts with their hands in the “Sweet Marijuana” number in Murder at the Vanities

  2. “…I realize I am probably apt to overrate the importance and interest of female breasts in the scheme of things…”

    Au contraire. I can still remember the reaction of the audience at the late, lamented Elgin Theatre (8th Avenue & 18th Street, now the Joyce) during “The Vampire Lovers,” when the doctor examines Laura’s corpse (Pippa Steel) and discovers the vampire bite not on the neck but on the boob. And this was a sophisticated New York audience, full of Ingrid Pitt fans. (It is Ingrid’s birthday today, btw).

    Gance’s failure to make his own lesbian vampire movie with the 1927-era Annabella as Laura is one of Cinema’s great tragedies.

  3. Pre-code versus post-code — in 1934 I EXPECT women covering their breasts with their hands, indeed I DEMAND it. In 1938 I am shocked – SHOCKED! – to find such a phenomenon.

    Gance would have directed the hell out of a lesbian vampire movie, as the astonishing Au Secours! shows. Pretty much every Gance film I’ve seen has had some rogue sexiness going on.

  4. Sylvana Pampanini had a balcony you could do Shakespeare from.

  5. The full frontal Feuillere in Lucrece Borgia is pretty surprising.

  6. The Suez trailer might be my new favourite insanity. Ripley here, making Criswell look like Morgan Freeman.

  7. ALL the Ripley shorts are a hoot. The man was a screen natural! He burned! Putting him in a movie trailer is almost too much to bear.

    The shot of Annabella is an outtake — she might not even be acting (just acting French).

  8. That is an excellent outtake. I’m sure you’re right and they just left the camera rolling. Imagine.

  9. […] mean and moody supporting role, produces a surprising burst of wet slip action which puts Annabella in the shade. Or it would if Annabella stood next to her and crouched. Seems to be a Zanuck […]

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