Friday, 20 January 2017

Varieté (1925)

“Big Top Melodrama”

German film-maker E A Dupont’s smash hit 1925 silent melodrama gets a dual format release courtesy of Eureka.
Boss Huller (Emil Jannings) runs a carnival with his wife (Maly Delschaft). They have a baby. One night, a crusty old seadog comes to Boss with a mysterious girl called Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti) who has been named after the ship that brought her to port. Boss takes her in and, after witnessing several of her exotic dance routines, decides to dump his wife and child and relaunch his career as a trapeze artist with Berta.

Don't even think of stealing this man's wife
They head to the big city, where they join up with the 1920s trapeze-artist equivalent of Dave Vanian, who soon has his own designs on Berta-Marie, which she’s happy to encourage. Can any of this end well? It’s highly unlikely, especially as the movie is bookended by scenes in prison, although we don’t get to see who the prisoner is who’s telling his story until the end.

…who happens to look like this
The melodramatic tale of love and lust under the big top was a popular mainstay for all kinds of pulp entertainment, from penny dreadful short stories through to EC comic strips and beyond. It’s not surprising that Dupont’s film was such a success when it was released, and the film still stands up pretty well today. It's of interest for a number of reasons, not least that the characters that take up most of the running time are all amoral, and it's difficult to know where our sympathies (if any) are supposed to lie. The 95 minute running time hardly flags, Jannings (the Laurence Olivier of his day) gives a riveting performance and goes full Bela Lugosi for the end as he metes out his revenge. Until now I had only known him as the actor playing the lead in OTHELLO (1922) in the clip that features in the opening credits of Douglas Hickox’s THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973) but it turns out he was the winner of the very first Academy Award for best actor (he’s still the only German to have done so, apparently).

…not even if you're a trapeze artist, or the lead singer of The Damned
DP on VARIETE was Karl Freund who would go on to shoot Universal’s DRACULA (1931) and MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) before directing their version of THE MUMMY (1932) and MGM's brilliant MAD LOVE (1935). His style is evident here, with some interesting camera tricks and uses of multiple, kaleidoscopic imagery.

The first filmic record of unicycle hockey!
Eureka’s disc comes with three score options - one by Stephen Horne, another by Johannes Contag, and the third by a group called The Tiger Lillies which is quite different and is probably worth listening to after you’ve seen the film at least once as it's a bit distracting. You also get the American version of the film which is shorter and scratchier but has a great organ score that’s also worth a listen. You also get an image archive and new writing on the film in an accompanying booklet. 

E A Dupont's VARIETE is out on dual format DVD & Blu-ray 
from Eureka on Monday 23rd January 2017

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