Monday, April 8, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: PRESTIGE (1932)

The title is probably wishful thinking. The advertising suggests something more prestigious, at least in the Hollywood sense of the word, than what director Tay Garnett gives us in this RKO production. His actual subject is the prestige of the white race, necessary to the maintenance of colonial rule over everyone else. The specific setting is French Indochina, where Captain Andre Verlaine (Melvyn Douglas) is assigned to take over a penal camp. He's not too eager to leave Paris for such an assignment, but at least his wife Therese (Harding) will be long eventually to join him. Until then, Andre's the only white man in his lone outpost, Indochina more or less standing in (as recreated in Sarasota County, Florida) for the entire nonwhite world. Most of the natives are Asian, understandably, but Andre's housekeeper Nham, however Asiatically garbed, is none other than Clarence Mute -- I mean Muse -- while the more attractive women have a South Sea Island look about them. Muse, the best black movie actor of the era, definitely seems out of place, but the film does its best to minimize that impression by keeping him silent, apart from one song. The role reduces Muse, who's usually able to invest his characters with some sort of intelligence or individuality, to relatively abject servility, but the actor strives mightily to convey the almost intimate concern Nham shows toward Andre, who quickly sinks into alcoholism, and later toward Therese.

Therese is escorted to the camp by Andre's friend Captain Remy (Adolphe Menjou), whose immaculate white uniform contrasts starkly with Andre's dishevelment. The men had been rivals for Therese's hand and there's a jealousy in the air when the three are together that Nham picks up on without really knowing the whites' language. The jealousy is mostly on Andre's part, in keeping with his overall disintegration. Therese writes home to her father, a powerful official, to get Andre transferred back to France, but Andre's own request in that line has been shot down. In frustration and shame he decides to send her away, and when Remy takes her to the boat to leave Nham gets the wrong idea, assuming (so I assume) that Remy is stealing his master's wife. He kills Remy, returns Therese to the camp, and surrenders for punishment. For killing a white man the penalty must be death, but in front of Andre's native troops Therese pleads for mercy, explaining what she sees as Nham's honest mistake in defense of her honor. But by speaking up and standing up to Andre Therese has cost him the last of his "face," his prestige, and now his long-disgruntled subordinate (Testsu Komai) rips up his uniform, releases the prisoners, and starts an uprising. Only Nham remains loyal, and Muse proves himself a mighty man, defending Therese by striking down numerous natives, armed only with his shackles, before a spear gets him. At last (but too late for Nham) Andre rises to the occasion, as we learn that the way to deal with murderous, mutinous natives, at least in Indochina, is to bitch-slap them into submission. Why weren't our boys shown this film when their turn came to pacify the place? It might have saved a lot of lives....

 
A full-page spread from the Sarasota Herald promotes the locally-filmed Prestige.

In its uncritical endorsement of the colonial rule of Europeans over others Prestige is now irredeemably politically incorrect. The idea that natives are kept in line by sheer awe of our wonderful whiteness is even more obnoxious. None of these details should keep a move fan from checking out a film that is dazzlingly directed. I didn't think Garnett had it in him, but the location shoot and the construction of the penal camp set inspired him and cinematographer Lucien Andriot to go to town with lengthy tracking shots and elaborate camera movements. It begins before we get to Indochina as the film opens floating through the streets of Paris with camera and model work to rival the better known scenes in Archie Mayo's SvangaliPrestige is a triumph of art direction capped by the penal camp, a desolate place dominated by a massive human-powered water wheel and a guillotine. Harding takes it all in in one shot that comes close to a 360 degree camera movement. Editor Joseph Kane gets into the act with some furious montage moments, the most intense coming as Andre orders the beheading of a prisoner. Garnett and Kane cut furiously through a rogue's gallery of angry, agitated and horrified faces, all of them crying and chanting in protest while Andre seems to waver. The climax is shamefully thrilling, notwithstanding the bigoted absurdity of a suddenly dried-out Andre being able to stand down a combined mutiny and prison break with nothing but a riding crop. The editing and cinematography make it indisputably dynamic. Garnett would soon be collaborating with Dr. Arnold Fanck and his protege Leni Riefenstahl on a U.S.-German co-production, S.O.S. Iceberg. Maybe he and she compared notes.

The ironic thing, given the contemporary ballyhoo, is how little the virtues of Prestige have to do with Ann Harding. You'll definitely remember Melvyn Douglas's dissolution and Clarence Muse's pantomime struggle with his most implausible role, or even the rather thankless turn by a genially doomed Menjou. But Harding, for all I know, could be any actress in a fairly generic helpmate part. If I was selling Prestige today, she'd be nearly the last thing I'd show off. While what we see now as its political incorrectness probably wasn't offensive to most of its contemporary audiences, that retroactive transgression gives the film much of its Pre-Code flavor today.

1 comment:

Oz said...

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http://terror-en-el-cine.blogspot.com/

Un gran saludo, Oz.