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August 29, 2023

The Spanish Dancer

The Spanish Dancer (1923).jpeg

Herbert Brenon - 1923
Milestone BD Regions ABC

My first time watching The Spanish Dancer and I am thinking this is another fanciful silent film about an exotic time and place, and yes, Pola Negri is attractive, but this looks like just another period piece taking place in early 17th Century Spain. And then the action moves from the countryside to Madrid, with a huge citywide celebration. The set itself is huge, with a colossal cathedral in the back, with rows of multistory buildings. And literally hundreds of extras either in period dress or costumes, clogging the streets, many doing their own dances if not watching Negri perform in the middle of the square. There is also the constant shower of confetti in every shot. One guy is wrestling an actual bear. Another guy is wearing a skeleton costume. I had to wonder how Herbert Brenon and cinematographer James Wong Howe coordinated everything. I was awestruck by the spectacle.

The Spanish Dancer begins with a prologue stating that the film takes place three hundred years before the film was made, and indeed, 1623 was the year when King Philip IV of Spain (Wallace Beery) posed for a painting by Diego Velazquez. That event is reenacted in the film. Negri plays Maritana, a gypsy fortune teller also famed for her dancing. Through a series of circumstances, Maritana encounters Don Caesar, a recently disgraced nobleman, and later rescues the King Philip's son from a runaway horse. Maritana is invited by the Queen to perform for the court during the celebration. In Madrid, Maritana is pursued by Don Salluste (Adolphe Menjou), and has her honor defended by Don Caesar. Goaded into having a public sword fight by Salluste, Caesar is arrested for breaking the law. Add to that palace intrigue between the king and queen.

Fortunately, not all of this is done as a serious enterprise. Much of the credit should probably go to Antonio Moreno as Don Caesar. He brings out the sense of humor of a man who does not take himself too seriously. In a latter scene, Caesar arranges to die by firing squad rather than hanging, but not before having a celebratory dinner in which he gets his executioners drunk. There is even one visual gag with Negri wearing a formal dress for the first time, one with a very wide hoop underneath as was the style, requiring her to walk sideways through a door.

Although Pola Negri and Herbert Brenon reportedly did not get along, Negri's performance shares some similarities with other Brenon actresses. Especially in the introductory scenes of her skipping through the countryside, Negri seems to anticipate Betty Bronson in Peter Pan (1924) and Clara Bow in Dancing Mothers (1926).

The commentary track is unusual as it has been split between film historian Scott Eyeman and dance historian Naima Prevots. While the history of choreographer Ernest Belcher is of interest, both specifically to The Spanish Dancer and as part of early Hollywood, there is a conflict in listening to Prevot discuss Belcher's work on the silent Phantom of the Opera while watching Brenon's film. I suspect Scott Eyeman could have easily filled the full running time himself, but packs a lot of information within the hour that he has with history of the making of The Spanish Dancer. There is also an interview with composer Bill Ware, best known as a jazz vibraphonist. Ware's score straddles traditional movie music with jazz and avant-garde improvisation, performed by a small band.

The blu-ray itself is sourced from a 2012 restoration by the Dutch Eye Filmmuseum from four different surviving prints. Based on the film script, the restored version is 95% complete. Some portions still are damaged, but still watchable. A very brief extra shows excerpts to compare the surviving prints with the restored version.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 29, 2023 06:29 AM