Finally saw something I’d been longing for — the surviving fragment of Josef Von Sternberg’s THE CASE OF LENA SMITH.
I love fragments, me. I love fragments maybe even more than I love complete films. And I can think of all kinds of modern movies that would be better as fragments. You could probably find a three-minute clip from AUSTRALIA that would make people think “My, what was that? I wonder if that was ever any good?” The intact movie doesn’t make anybody think that.
Critic Dwight MacDonald called THE CASE OF LENA SMITH as “the most completely satisfying American film I have seen,” which you couldn’t, alas, say about the clip. But I can and do say “Isn’t that an uncredited Sig Rumann as the magician?” If so, even Alexander Horwath and Michael Omasta’s exhaustive volume on the lost film, Josef Von Sternberg: The Case of Lena Smith (Filmmuseum Synema Publikationen) doesn’t mention it. A Shadowplay first!
The sequence, set at Vienna’s famous Prater, scene of memorable events in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and THE THIRD MAN, is also fascinating as it recreates the setting of Sternberg’s own childhood, suggesting a more than usually personal production from this idiosyncratic and often autobiographical filmmaker. Here’s the relevant extract from his memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, a sentence of John Collier-like length and ebullience.
“Hundreds of shooting galleries, Punch and Judy and the inevitable Satan puppet, chalk-faced clowns in their dominoes, boats sliding from a high point down into water with a great splash, leather-faced dummies that groaned when slapped, pirouetting fleas, sword swallowers, tumbling midgets and men with skirts flaring from them, proving that not all females had lost their undergarments, a forest of balloons, tattooed athletes, muscle-bulging weightlifters, women who were sawed in half and apparently spent the rest of their lives truncated, trained dogs and elephants, tightropes that provided footing for a gourmet who feasted on a basketful of the local sausages with horse-radish that made my mouth water, graceful ballerinas, grunting knife-throwers with screaming targets whose hair flowed down to the hems of their nightgowns, hatchet-throwing Indians and phlegmatic squaws, double-headed calves, members of the fair sex, fat and bearded, with thighs that could pillow an army, magicians who poured jugs of flaming liquid down their throats, drum-thumping cannibals and their wiggling harems, a glass maze from which the delighted customers stumbled with black eyes and gashed heads, hypnotists who practiced levitation and passed hoops around the dormant females swaying five feet from where they ought to have been, and the central figure of a huge Chinese mandarin with drooping mustaches longer than the tail of a horse revolving on a merry-go-round to the tune of Ivanovici’s Donauwellen — what more could I have asked?”
Alas I’ve been forbidden from uploading the clip, which Waseda University seem to be anxious to keep as their own personal stuff (Bastards! Bastards!) and some of the nicest bits are distorting reflections of crowds, a la CABARET, which can’t really be reproduced here as still images since they just kind of melt into blurry inkwash smudges. They’re gorgeous in motion, take my word for it. Or better still, ram-raid Waseda University and steal the clip and put it up on the internet.*
The female Johnny Eck! The heroine’s naughty blonde friend whispers a remark about her into the heroine’s ear — she looks scandalized at the suggestion. Of course — dramatic irony — it’s the virtuous heroine (goody-goody Esther Ralston) who will be seduced by the handsome soldier…
*It wouldn’t actually be cool to do the first part of this.