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May 30, 2017


Poster - Zaza (1923)_01.jpg

Allan Dwan - 1923
Kino Classics BD Region A

Originally a French play produced in 1898, Zaza has been filmed seven times per IMDb. The first time was as a French silent film in 1913. The most recent version was an Argentinian television production in 1972 by that country's pioneering director, MarĂ­a Ines Andres. Allan Dwan's film was the second of three Paramount versions, following the lost 1915 codirected by Edwin S. Porter, with George Cukor's sound remake produced in 1938. In short, remakes of foreign films, or Hollywood making a new film version of a popular title within a short period of time has been standard operation procedure for a century.

Taking place near Paris, shortly before World War I, the story is basically that this popular music hall singer, Zaza, is in love with a wealthy man, Dufresne, and becomes his mistress. What Zaza does not know is that Dufresne is married. When she discovers that as assumed "other woman" is actually Dufresne's wife, Zaza ends the affair. Dufresne is called away for business in the United States. Some short time after World War I, Dufresne is back in France, meets Zaza for the first time in years. Zaza has found out that Dufresne is now a widower. The two are still in love with each other, but the film ends ambiguously.

I don't know if this version of Zaza is the same as the one screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato four years ago, but at 84 minutes, it's the most complete version available, and generally looks good, with only the titles looking a bit worse for wear. Aside from the fact that there aren't too many restored silent films available, the blu-ray also comes with an informative booklet by film historian Imogen Sara Smith, and a commentary track by Fredric Lombardi, author of Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios. There is also an unobtrusive piano score by Jeff Rapsis. Lombardi's commentary can be overwhelming at times discussing not only the careers of Swanson and Dwan at the time that Zaza was made, but also providing history on the early years of film production, when Chicago briefly was a major hub. Zaza was filmed at Paramount's Astoria studio, with several New York based actors in the cast. Exteriors were filmed in Long Island and Yonkers.

For myself, the story has not aged well. What still makes this film of interest on repeated viewings is seeing how Dwan will have multiple planes of action within the frame. My favorite moment is a scene of Zaza and her stage rival, Florianne, clawing at each other behind the stage curtain. The two dominate most of the space within the frame, and will be the subject of attention by most viewers. But on the left of the screen, the viewer can also take a partial peak at the juggler who is performing on the stage. Dwan and cinematographer Harold Rosson were also able to rig the camera so that it moved with Swanson, facing the actress, as she sang from a giant swing on stage to dizzying effect.

A couple of minor points reflecting attitudes of the time have Zaza calling the black actor pushing her swing a "wool head", and Zaza rubbing the back of a hunchbacked man for good luck. Gloria Swanson shakes more than a tail feather here. For the most part, this is a very physical performance with Zaza first seen madly tossing out the clothing in a large chest, in search of the dressing gown she is unaware that she is wearing. Feisty might be the best adjective to use here. I got to briefly meet Miss Swanson at Telluride in 1974, following a screening of a 16mm print of Sadie Thompson. Speaking on the need for film preservation, at age 75, Gloria Swanson was still feisty.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 30, 2017 09:28 AM