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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

HARAKIRI (1919)

Fritz Lang was still learning-on-the-job in this early silent, an expansion of Puccini’s 1904 opera MADAMA BUTTERFLY. Cio-cio-san, the orphaned geisha who marries the thoughtless American Naval officer in the opera becomes O-Take-San, a sheltered girl whose father can’t stop a powerful Buddhist Priest (Bonzo in the opera) who demands the girl for his religious order. The father commits harakiri, but O-Take-San is saved thru her marriage to Olaf, a Swedish Naval officer (Pinkerton in the opera). The rest more-or-less follows the opera plot, the husband quickly goes home, she has a child and waits for his return, refusing all offers of marriage, and so on. Lang tries hard for a picturesque Japanese style, but the careful compositions remain still-lifes waiting to be vivified. And then there’s all those Germans playing Japanese. So tall! So many big noses! And what are we to make of the actual Asian extras hanging about? No doubt, Langians will want to have a look. Others may safely take a pass. (Part of an 'Early Lang' set out on KINO, this one features a moody background score with fleeting bits of Puccini, some BUTTERFLY, but more TOSCA. Go figure.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Tragic Orientalism must have been in air in 1919. Try D. W. Griffith’s chamber-sized masterpiece BROKEN BLOSSOMS/’19, with Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess & Donald Crisp. (There’s also a straight version of the old Belasco play, MADAME BUTTERFLY/’32, starring Sylvia Sidney & Cary Grant(!), but it doesn’t seem to be currently available.)

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