Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Silent Scream Series: The look of love.

Ernst Lubitsch is famed for his classy, mature, controlled, and perhaps slightly cynical comedies. Films with "the Lubitsch" touch include Heaven Can Wait, To Be or Not to Be (perhaps the funniest film ever made), The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka (with its famous "Garbo laughs" tagline), and Trouble in Paradise. Collectively, these landmark films secure Lubitsch's rep as one of film's greatest directors.

But as this is And Now the Screaming Starts, we won't be talking about the cinematic masterpieces that elevated Lubitsch to the status of filmmaking titan. Instead, Screamers and Screamettes, we'll be exhuming Lubitsch's first feature film: an obscure horror lemon titled The Eyes of the Mummy - an inspirational little obscurity that proves even the truly great have to start somewhere.

Shot in 1918 for Germany's Projektion-AG Union (two years before PAGU brought out the silent horror classic The Golem), The Eyes of the Mummy begins with a lone white explorer trudging through the Egyptian desert in his best colonial dress whites. He encounters a beautiful young local girl, played by silent film hottie and Lubitsch regular Pola Negri, fetching water from a well. Their eyes meet. And cut . . .

. . . to the crowded porch of first class hotel in Egypt. Touring Euros lounge about soaking up the exotic scenery. One of the tourists, a prince no less, asks to be taken to the tomb of Queen Ma. Locals tell the Prince to forget it. Everybody who visits Ma's tomb ends up in a bad way – then they point to the explorer from the opening scene, now an invalid under the care of a nurse. The Prince decides to explore somewhere else, but the rumors of a curse catch the attention of a vacationing artist, Albert. Al finds a guide to take him to Queen Ma's tomb, where he finds Negri's character and "Radu the Arab," played in blackface by Emil Jennings (last seen on this site in the silent flick Waxworks). Radu and Albert scuffle and Al delivers the beatdown. With Radu now semi-conscious, Negri's character explains that Radu kidnapped her long ago and has kept her in Queen Ma's tomb. Al and the girl now somewhat inexplicably called Ma (though, I assume, she's not the dead queen) head back to civilization, leaving Radu for dead in the desert. Al decides to take Ma back to Germany as his new girlie.

Fortunately for the plot, the vacationing Prince finds the near-dead Radu. Radu, as is the custom of third-world folks in films, promises to serve the Prince forever. Thrilled to have a new servant so cheap, the Prince takes Radu back to the Germany with him.

Back in Germany, Al holds a coming out ball for Ma. After some social awkwardness, Ma blows high society away with a sultry dance (which, to this viewer, seemed a little more goofy than sultry, but whatever floats your boat) and she gets a gig doing this exotic little number at a local music house. As luck would have it, Radu happens to be attending her debut as the manservant of the Prince.

Obsessed with revenge, Radu contrives to get Al out house. He then breaks into Al's mansion and attempts to stab Ma. Ma, overcome with fear, faints and falls down a flight of stairs, breaking her neck. Radu, on seeing his dead slave/lover crumpled at the bottom of the stairs (see image above), is overcome with guilt. He carries her body to the couch and then stabs himself in the heart. Enter Albert, who throws himself on Ma's corpse. A title card coldly tells us that "It's too late!" and, then, "The End."

Weirdly, there's actually a second way to view the movie. Though I can't tell whether this is the product of sloppy storytelling or an intentional bit of narrative slight-of-hand. Ma's story about being a captive doesn't seem to hold together well. We see her out alone, by herself, at the beginning of the flick. Later, when Al approaches the tomb, we see her outside the tomb, talking to Radu, both of them acting conspiratorial. If one decides that the cards represent Al's mistaken notions of what's going on, then you get an interesting gloss on the whole plot. Basically, Ma and Radu are lovers that have been luring victims to the cave. Albert overpowers Radu and Ma, left alone, cooks up an alibi that makes her look like Radu's victim. Then Radu's revenge makes more sense as he's not angry at Al for stealing his girl, but angry at Ma for betraying him. Like I said, you've got to decide that the title cards are red herrings to read the flick this way; but once you've made that leap, it all sort of holds together. It even adds a bit to the story, giving the whole tale a "colonial's misunderstanding of the native scene" theme that gives the story extra dramatic weight. This would almost threaten to make the movie interesting. Almost.

Even if the whole "hidden" plot is true, it doesn't cover up the fact that the film's a bit of a clunker. The whole mummy's curse thing gets buried in the absurd plot. Much of the acting is clumsy (with the exception of the oddly suggestive acting of Jennings and Negri). Visually, the film's inert. Without snappy dialog to help him, Lubitsch touch doesn't amount to much. Finally, the DVD edition I saw, from Alpha Video, has a washed out, un-restored print and an original soundtrack that is distracting and repetitive.

All in all, Eyes of the Mummy is little more than a cult curiosity best suited for those interested in what is often claimed to be the first mummy flick or those who want to see early work from Lubitsch. Otherwise, like the Prince, take the warning and stay away.

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