Ah, Karl Grune! I’ve only seen his DIE STRASSE and already I know this is a man I would like to clap on the back and present with a packet of Trebor Extra Strong Mints. And I feel sure that he would accept this gift in the spirit in which it was offered. I have wondered if the famous image of the optician’s sign in that quasi-expressionistic meisterwerk could have inspired the similarly sinister sign that looks down on the characters of The Great Gatsby, published just afterwards (Ah, the twenties were very different things in German and America! — so this connection seems nice, somehow.)
But now — HOT WOW! — I’ve seen THE YELLOW HOUSE IN RIO, the French (Pathe-Natan) version of a UFA caper which shows Herr Grune in more antic mode. And it seems very much as if you CAN make a movie about a mad Chinese strangler with Pirandellian confusions of life and theatre, in two languages and with two casts, and have it be a minor-league classic.
This is the French version (full disclosure: I watched without subtitles, in a state of sort-of getting-the-gist, alternately frowny and delighted) — I haven’t heard of any of the cast of the German version, though one of them is called Charles Puffy, which does make me smile. In the French one, Charles Vanel, apparently bound by law to appear in every Pathe-Natan feature, appears twice, once as Scalpa the great actor, and once as King Fu the mad strangler. (Is there a porno version where he’s Fu King?) If you have trouble believing Charles Vanel as the Yellow Peril, this film may not be for you. I found him every bit as convincing as Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Peter Sellers in similar roles…
So, the film is defiantly German in style, but with maybe a French lightness — but that makes it all the more bizarre. It hinges around two set-piece scenes, sandwiching a lot of talkier bits I frankly couldn’t follow. In the first highlight, our leading man Jacques Maury finds himself and the leading lady (Renée Héribel — another Pathe-Natan fave — she starred in LES TROIS MASQUES, the first French talkie, and co-starred in Gabin’s first movie too) abducted by the oriental fiend and threatened with noxious villainy if Renée will not dance. But it’s all an act — an audition to see if Jacques is right for the show, and he passes with flying colours.
The show opens, but there’s a REAL King Fu too — at the crazy climax, he takes the place of the actor and threatens our leading man for real. The curtain rises, surprising Fu, but he realizes he can do anything in front of the audience, who don’t believe it’s real. And he really does want to see Renée dance… Poor Jacques nearly has his arms yanked out by Fu’s devilish associates (yes, he’s a gang leader, also), all in front of a mildly appreciative crowd. Pirandello was never so grand guignol.
About the grand guignol… according to Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror, the French theatre of atrocities was very popular with the occupying Nazi forces in WWII. It makes sense, really, when you think about it. But several of the stars entertaining the SS, night after night, were secretly members of the resistance, who would have liked nothing better than to get their smartly-uniformed audience onstage for a bit of bloody participation.
This image, of the fake horror onstage and the real horror in the audience, always struck me as a great subject, and I haven’t pursued this story only because I’m not French. But now, as it happens, I’m making a French film (more later), so I figure, why not? If anybody wants to pay for my Grand Guignol script, maybe it’ll be my next project… I’ll be sure to steal a few ideas from Herr Grune.