Archive for Never the Train Shall Meet

Forbidden Divas: Her Name Was Lola, She Was a Showgirl

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove is back! ~

“I’m not just a revolutionary. I’m a revolutionary who eats chocolates. And that’s very dangerous!” ~ Conchita Montenegro, Lola Montes

The year is 1848; all of Europe is aflame with revolutionary fervour. In Munich, students riot in the streets against the excesses of their monarch, King Ludwig I of Bavaria. (He is the one before the one that Helmut Berger played in the Luchino Visconti film Ludwig (1972). His excesses involve dancing and women, not opera and boys.) As their fury rises to fever pitch, they storm the palace of the king’s mistress – a Spanish dancer of dubious origins whom he has just named Countess of Landsfeld. The lady stands at her window, calmly munching chocolates while shots ring out and bricks and cobble-stones rain in around her. She looks mildly annoyed when one of them shatters a small yet obviously priceless porcelain vase.

Bored by all this hubbub, she flounces across her salon in a gown that resembles a huge undulating tent of black chiffon. Her dark hair is piled elegantly atop her head. Curls trail down strategically on one side, wreathing a face of cool, almost classical beauty – brought to life by large, mischievous yet soulful dark eyes. She arrives at a vast mirror, its frame crawling with fat marble Cupids and gilt seashells. She stares critically at her own reflection and makes some small adjustments to her coiffure. All at once, a brick thrown in from the street hits the mirror, shattering the glass into fragments. The lady does not run or flinch or panic. Calmly, she bends down and selects the largest shard of her broken mirror. Then she holds it up before her face and goes on daintily tidying her hair.

The 1944 Spanish film of Lola Montes may be the greatest camp masterpiece that even Susan Sontag never saw. In her most famous essay, Sontag wrote that “successful Camp, even when it reveals self-parody, reeks of self-love.” This climactic sequence reveals – like the entire oeuvre of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, condensed to a single shot – the way stardom is essentially an act of self-adoration. One very beautiful woman makes love but not to her audience, whom she has never actually met. Nor does she make love to any of her numerous leading men who – in Lola Montes as in most movies of its ilk – are a singularly dull and uninspiring bunch. She makes love always and exclusively to her own sublime image. This may sound ludicrous and excessive and perhaps it is. But it does not seem so when we are watching it. That is because the ‘sublime image’ in this case belongs to Conchita Montenegro.

A star internationally from the late 20s to the mid 40s, Conchita Montenegro was known in the press as ‘the Spanish Garbo.’ She was, perhaps, the one star in film history to make Garbo look like an extrovert. She married and retired from the screen in 1944. Lola Montes, in fact, was her triumphant final film. From then until her death in 2007 at the age of 96, she refused to give interviews or make any public appearance of any sort. In 1994, the film festival at San Sebastian – the city where she was born as Concepción Andrés Picado in 1911 – screened a restored print of La Femme et le Pantin/The Woman and the Puppet (1928), the film that made her famous across Europe and led to a contract with MGM in the early 30s. The festival put on a gala event and invited Conchita Montenegro to attend as guest of honour. The star graciously but firmly refused to show up.

It was said that, after she retired, Conchita Montenegro refused to be photographed even in private – so dismayed was she by the effects of passing time on her exquisite face. Yet there is nothing at all shy or self-effacing in her performance as Lola Montes. She is cast as the notorious dancer, courtesan and (alleged) revolutionary agent who scandalised 19th century Europe with her antics and wound up performing in circus tents in the Wild West. (Her story is told, perhaps a shade more accurately, in the 1955 Max Ophüls film with the same title.) Before she arrives in Bavaria and seduces its king, Lola reigns triumphantly as the toast of Paris – where her suitors include, among others, Franz Liszt. Her every move is shadowed by sinister agents who are using her (without her knowledge) to spark a revolution across Europe. They believe, somewhat quaintly, that the sight of Lola dancing is so inflammatory that it will push the masses into open revolt!

At the peak of her Parisian glory, Lola makes an entrance at a masked ball that is every bit as lavish as anything Ophüls could dream up. Confetti rains down from the ceiling; a throng of extras gambol in Carnival garb. Every statue and candelabrum is draped with paper streamers. Lola’s face is unmasked; one of her shoulders is boldly uncovered. Brilliants glitter in the folds of her gown and the dark luxuriance of her hair. The crowd bursts out in applause as she appears and tosses white roses to her admirers. Standing on the grand staircase, she raises a glass of champagne and drinks their health. The hands that holds the glass is encased, until high up above the elbow, in a glove of gossamer black lace. Her left arm, like her right shoulder, is nude. It is a madly provocative tableau of display and concealment. The star, it seems, gains less power from what she shows than what she does not. Conchita Montenegro is a star who revels in playing a star who revels in…

The director of this gloriously inane farrago was Antonio Román, one of the more skilful of the high-grade hacks who kept Spanish cinema alive after the Civil War. (His daughter was the actress Leticia Román, best known as The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) for Mario Bava.) In her off-screen life, Conchita Montenegro was at the heart of Spain’s new far-right establishment. After a peripatetic film career in Hollywood, Paris, Buenos Aires and Rome – and a brief marriage to a Brazilian tango star, Raoul Roulien – she returned to Spain in 1941 and made a string of movies that can be politely described politely as Fascist propaganda. She became the companion – and, eventually, the wife – of Franco’s chief diplomat, the aristocratic Ricardo Giménez Arnau, who wound up as Spain’s ambassador to the Holy See. (One trusts that Lola Montes was never screened at the Vatican.) Conchita seems to have renounced a life of glamorous depravity to become an upper-class Spanish housewife, just as Lola does in the (wholly fictitious) ending of this film.

Yet fiction, in this case, is hard-pressed to compete with fact. Conchita’s opulent but dull life in 40s Madrid was disturbed – or so rumour has it – by a visit from one of her former lovers, the Hollywood star Leslie Howard. (She played a South Sea island girl and he an American sailor in a musty 1931 melodrama, Never the Twain Shall Meet.) But this time, Howard was on a mission from Winston Churchill, who was desperate to keep Spain from joining the Axis in World War II. He had singled out Conchita (correctly) as the one person who might be able to help. According to an unofficial interview before her death, she used her influence to secure a meeting with Franco. In so doing, she helped to keep Spain neutral throughout the Second World War. If that is so, it was a political coup of which Lola Montes could barely dream.

But the end of the story is not a happy one. With his mission accomplished – and work on Lola Montes drawing to a close – Leslie Howard set out to fly back to London. His plane was shot down in mysterious circumstances over the Bay of Biscay. Conchita was devastated and sank (or so rumour has it) into severe clinical depression. This may explain her abrupt retirement from films and, indeed, her complete withdrawal from public life in the 60 years that followed. Although she is by no means the first star to be forgotten, Conchita Montenegro is perhaps the only star who edited herself systematically out of film history. Apart from La Femme et le Pantin, her films are not revived and only a few people remember her name, even in Spain. She exists – if she exists at all – as a ghost with a ravishing face, glimpsed fleetingly in a shard from a broken mirror.

Perhaps that is how a myth is best remembered?

David Melville