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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

SUMURUN / ONE ARABIAN NIGHT (1920)

Ernst Lubitsch already had five years of successful comedies (many starring himself) & trail-blazing ‘intimate’ historical dramas to his credit when he had a filmmaking breakthru in 1920. CARMEN/’18, MADAME DU BARRY and THE OYSTER PRINCESS/’19, successful as they are, still 'speak' film as a second language, but in SUMURUN (and ANNE BOLEYN/’20), cinema becomes Lubitschian native tongue. A bit of a paradox for a breaththru, since SUMURUN was adapted from a Max Reinhardt stage production Lubitsch had starred in, playing the sort of role Lon Chaney would soon make his own, the ugly, broken-hearted Pagliacci, scheming for the love of a girl he’ll never win. In his final film role, Lubitsch gives a broad, but very effective perf, suffering the pangs (and violence) of unrequited love for the alluring dancer in his traveling troupe, Pola Negri, easily stealing the film. Equal screen time goes to the royal court where the Grand Sheikh’s favorite (lovely Sumurun) refuses his entreaties because she loves a man of the cloth. Bolts of cloth, that is, he’s a lowly fabric merchant. The story has a tricky structure that uses the Sheikh’s son, also in love with Sumurun, as a ruse to affect an escape. It proves one storyline too many for Lubitsch who fumbles a bit at the climax. (Or is the print incomplete?) But there’s loads of funny supporting bits, especially for a couple of twin schemers and the not-so-loyal Court Eunuchs. (The harem’s top girl tells their leader to ‘act like a man.’) The whole production is a visual treat, with clever use of perspective, trompe l’oeil effects and multiple heads popping up thru multiple framing devices. Reinhardt would have approved, but it’s doubtful he’d have made it all so deliciously funny. The original Stateside release, retitled ONE ARABIAN NIGHT, dropped more than a reel of footage, but the current KINO DVD, with a fine piano accompaniment, seems reasonably complete even if the image quality suffers from blasting.

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