Monday, July 13, 2009

SFSFF09—The Gaucho (1927) Introductory Remarks

Introducing the opening night film of the 14th edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Jeffrey Vance—author of Douglas Fairbanks (University of California Press, 2008)—offered: "Judging by this enormous turnout tonight, I'm inclined to think that talking films are just a passing fad."

One of the great pleasures of
Douglas Fairbanks' career, Vance specified, were the action-adventure films of the 1920s; one of his finest being The Gaucho. "It's also one of the most unusual of his features," Vance qualified. "It's dark in tone and it leaps frequently from comedy to tragedy to self-parody. Like the other great Fairbanks films, it has spectacular opportunities for him to showcase his wonderful athletic prowess and it also contains superb production values." Characterizing The Gaucho as "a near masterwork", Vance claimed it's a pity that the film is rarely revived because—of all of Fairbanks' films—it may resonate best with 21st Century audiences because the character Fairbanks plays is dark and ironic and his mesmerizing leading lady—Lupe Vélez—is no damsel in distress but "in every respect the equal of Fairbanks' gaucho." Indeed, one contemporary review dubbed her "the female Fairbanks."

Fairbanks realized from the start that a deft touch was essential to leaven the film and to prevent it from becoming too dark. He, therefore, made an unexpected but true decision: he hired a top comedy director F. Richard Jones to direct the film. The production is beautifully designed by Carl Oscar Borg and photographed by Tony Gaudio, in whose cinematography the influence of German cinema is evident.

The Gaucho was also something of a family affair. Douglas Fairbanks's wife
Mary Pickford, unbilled, plays the Virgin Mary and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. wrote some of the intertitles.

The film is likewise filled with brilliant stunts—Fairbanks' work with the bolas is particularly impressive—and it contains wonderful cinematic illusion through the usage of hanging miniatures and models. Further: "The carnal combativeness between Fairbanks and Vélez was a fresh approach to Hollywood lovemaking." Yet despite all these attributes, critical reaction to The Gaucho was decidedly mixed. The consensus among film historians is that—in the later period, when audiences were no longer confused by the sudden switches of mood and the leaps from comedy to tragedy—The Gaucho would have been a bigger hit.

The Museum of Modern Art not only kindly made the new print of The Gaucho but helped publish Vance's volume on Fairbanks, which had been commissioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Vance—along with Tony Maietta who helped author the volume—have had the pleasure of introducing the new MOMA print to audiences in both New York and Los Angeles, and now in San Francisco at their favorite venue for silent films, The Castro Theatre.

Maietta spoke next. He noted that The Gaucho was originally tinted and contained sequences in
two-color Technicolor of Mary Pickford as the Madonna. Though the new MOMA print has not yet had the tinting or two-color Technicolor restored, Maietta offered six minutes of Technicolor outtakes of Mary Pickford as the Madonna, preserved by George Eastman House, which he felt would help provide a better idea of how color truly impacted The Gaucho when it was first shown. Maietta remarked that 2009 marks the 100 year anniversary of Mary Pickford's career, which began in 1909 with Her First Biscuits.

Fairbanks' previous film The Black Pirate had likewise been filmed in two-color Technicolor, a technology which suggested that you were seeing the entire spectrum of color when—in reality—you were only seeing red and green. Technicolor was in its infancy in 1926 and—though Fairbanks was hesitant to undertake the enormous expense of testing the evolving technology throughout his entire feature—he did recognize that Technicolor would lend the gravitas he desired for the religious mysticism of the scenes with the Virgin Mary. Fairbanks also knew that his wife Mary Pickford photographed beautifully in Technicolor (there are surviving tests of Pickford filmed during production of The Black Pirate).

To create the special effect of the celestial glow around the Virgin Mary, Pickford stood on a pedestal backed against a plank trailing her silhouette. Two bands of leather bristling with a multitude of thin sticks of pliable metal were then rotated behind her and hit with intense floodlights such that—when the metal sticks passed at a rapid pace around her silhouette—they produced a celestial glow.

Casting his wife as the Virgin Mary appears to have been somewhat of a whim on Douglas Fairbanks' part. Obviously, he knew his audiences would enjoy it, and Pickford was quite pleased as well; but, there were a few other speculative reasons about why he might have cast his wife as the Madonna. It was widely rumored that Fairbanks was having a brief affair with his leading lady Lupe Vélez during production. It's also speculated that this was a retaliatory gesture on his part as Fairbanks had witnessed the on-stage chemistry between Pickford and Buddy Rogers on the set of the romantic comedy My Best Girl. Apparently, Fairbanks casting Pickford as the Virgin Mary was not only to re-establish his dominance, but seemed an obvious casting choice to counter his having an affair with the "Mexican Spitfire." "You draw your own conclusions," Maietta encouraged.

All the work involved in this sequence, Maietta stressed, the casting of Pickford, the technical effort to simulate the celestial glow, the Technicolor, hasn't been seen by audiences in color since its original release. The SFSFF audience is only the second audience in the whole world to see these outtakes.

Film historian and critic
Alexander Walker dismissed the cameo of Mary Pickford as the Virgin Mary in The Gaucho as being achieved with a penny sparkler burning behind her to create this celestial glow. Unfortunately, many film historians have picked up on this penny sparkler theory as fact in multiple biographies; but—as just seen—the facts are quite different. As recently as a 1996 review in The Village Voice, when The Gaucho was revived in a Douglas Fairbanks retrospective at Film Forum, Elliot Stein writes: "Roman candles are going off in her halo." Stein's review (available at Highbeam Research Library) categorized The Gaucho "pure gold" and a "revelation."

"It's his best, least hygienic film," Stein continues. "Fairbanks appears as an outlaw who frees a Lourdes-like shrine town in the Andes from the rule of a vile tyrant. The darkest of all his films, it's the only one to contain a whiff of eroticism. This gaucho is not just another adult boy scout—he's an alienated, chain-smoking, Byronic antihero. The leading lady is Lupe Vélez—the only zesty heroine of a Fairbanks film. This is the one Fairbanks picture in which you can imagine the leading couple getting it on. The art direction, glass shots, miniature work, and effects are drop-dead breathtaking. The dungeons in this film look like feature displays in Architectural Digest. The Gaucho climaxes with the best cattle stampede in movie history."

The
first chapter of the Vance/Maietta volume on Fairbanks can be sampled in PDF format. Eventually, Brian Darr's informative essay for the SFSFF program will hopefully be added in its entirety to the festival's archive. Until then, I note Darr's research that Fairbanks "was moved to make the film about a healing shrine after visiting Lourdes, France, where, in 1858, St. Bernadette had reported visions of the Virgin Mary. He transposed his story to Argentina, subverting his screen persona by making his title character a bandit and an overt atheist."

Despite Vance's assertion that critical response to the film was "decidedly mixed", Darr—whose passion for animation rivals my own—writes of the film's audience reception: "The Gaucho premiered at Mann's Chinese Theatre in November 1927. It became a hit and earned twice its $700,000 production cost. Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks chose the popular film to parody for the second-ever Mickey Mouse cartoon. As The Gallopin' Gaucho (1928), Mickey smokes a cigarette in the Fairbanks manner, rides a rhea bird up and down the Andes, tangos with Minnie, and throws his tail around like bolas. Disney repaid its debt to the star when the animated mouse appeared in the travelogue Around the World [in 80 minutes] with Douglas Fairbanks (1932)."

Along with what's gathered in
External Reviews at IMDb, there's a page on The Gaucho at Dr. Macro's, from which I've gleaned most of the images for this entry. Thanks Dr. Macro!

Cross-published on
Twitch.

3 comments:

Brian said...

Though Fairbanks claimed to have visited Lourdes in press materials of the time, the Vance/Maietta book suggests that he may not have actually done so. Apparently, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. later indicated that it was actually Mary Pickford who visited, and spoke of the experience with her husband, who then used it as inspiration for the Gaucho.

The reviews of the Gaucho were indeed mixed; some writers had unreserved praise, but others found the film too dark, or disliked the introduction of a religious theme into a Fairbanks adventure. Though every review I came across singled out Lupe Vélez for praise. Audiences must have been curious to see her in action. Additionally, I guess a Fairbanks picture in late 1927/early 1928 is what one would call "critic-proof" as audiences were still fascinated by him and flocked to the Gaucho in spite of any less-than-favorable write-ups.

It's a demonstration, however, that even if film criticism has little or no effect on box office, it can profoundly effect a film's legacy. After the screening on Friday, I was pleased to get a chance to speak with the oh-so-genial Jeffrey Vance for a few minutes, thanking him for his detailed, well-footnoted biography for its aid in my research (such a volume on F.W. Murnau or William Fox would have been immeasurably helpful in my research on Sunrise for the February SFSFF screening). I asked him what he felt was the reason for the Gaucho's relative obscurity today, when compared with other Fairbanks picture from the 1920s. He unhesitatingly replied that he felt it was the mixed reviews.

I'm so glad you wrote this up, and honored to find my comments in with the rest. It was a fun film to write about, and certainly a fun film to see on the Castro screen!

Maya said...

So you've read the Vance/Maietta volume? I'm tempted to ask for a review copy and follow-through with an interview down the line. Just didn't have time to take care of it beforehand.

Thanks for the data adjustments, Brian, and--of course--I would include you in my critical overview.

Brian said...

Yes, I monopolized a SF public library copy for most of the spring. It's a very handsome volume and I wish I could afford my own copy! I also highly recommend Michael Sragow's recent biography of Doug's good friend Victor Fleming as a well-researched font of Fairbanks information.