Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ernst Lubitsch's The Loves of Pharaoh, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Another alert for the Siren's patient New York readers: On Oct. 18 through Oct. 20, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is presenting the great Ernst Lubitsch's 1922 silent, The Loves of Pharaoh. Lost for many years, then thought to exist only in fragments, the movie has been painstakingly stitched back into close to its original form, and will be the inaugural screening for the BAM Harvey Theater's Steinberg Screen.

This is what you call a major film-preservation event.

The Loves of Pharaoh, says BAM, is being shown as part of its Next Wave festival, and will be accompanied "by the world premiere of a new score by Brooklyn-based composer Joseph C. Phillips be performed live by his acclaimed 18-piece new music ensemble, Numinous."

The Siren has been told that The Loves of Pharaoh is not typical Lubitsch; instead it's a splendid eyeful of an epic. Any chance to see a large-scale silent movie on a big screen, accompanied by live musicians and a full score, is to be seized at all costs. So the Siren is attending tonight's performance; Comrade Lou Lumenick of the New York Post plans to attend later this weekend. The Siren urges her patient readers to turn out for this event as well.

Morning-after update: Since cherished commenter Rozsaphile brought up the score, and in case anyone is on the fence, the Siren thought she'd add a few off-the-cuff thoughts. Indeed this is not what you think of as Lubitsch, although there is plenty of panting sexual desire. It's magnificent-looking, though, particularly on the big screen in the beautiful Harvey Theater, which has been updated with its crumbling atmosphere intact.

The restoration is superb. Missing footage is replaced, when possible, with stills, and this works much better for the silent Loves of Pharaoh--they're a bit like pictorial intertitles--than it does for, say, Cukor's A Star Is Born, where the sudden intrusion of stills throws the Siren out of the movie, every time. According to Dave Kehr, the German unemployment situation in 1922 basically meant they could have all the extras they wanted, and the crowd scenes will blow your mind. Lubitsch could, like Griffith and DeMille, show the teeming sweep of an army or a mob while still giving a sense of the individuals within. Certain scenes--such as one set in the inner chambers of Pharaoh's treasury--are heart-stoppingly beautiful. The tinting is exquisite.

The Siren loves how Kehr describes the way things worked out, in terms of film history: "After “Pharaoh,” DeMille folded his style into Lubitsch’s for his first version of “The Ten Commandments,” while Lubitsch, in one of film history’s tidier paradoxes, turned away from costume pictures to DeMille-style sex comedies on his arrival in Hollywood." Loves is no comedy. Plot elements include torture, violence, child murder, maimings, and a downbeat ending. There are maybe two or three laughs that the Siren would characterize as intentional jokes. Otherwise the laughter in the audience was mostly at instances of actorly excess, and some unfortunate (to modern eyes) choices like the wig on Ramphis (Harry Liedtke). Emil Jannings gives his side-eye technique quite a workout, and also gets to do the Great-Man-Brought-to-Depths-of-Degradation scenes that the guy must have had written into his contract somehow. (The Siren's not a huge Jannings fan.)

This is where the new score comes in. It's strikingly modern, not a type of music the Korngold-loving Siren would have necessarily chosen. She thought it worked extremely well, however. Composer Joseph C. Phillips clearly took Loves of Pharaoh seriously and gave it music that played the emotions of the scenes straight, not campy. The score kept the audience focused, kept nervous titters to a minimum and complemented the emotions. You can't ask much more than that.

So you don't want to miss this, if at all possible. For those who can't make it to BAM, Loves of Pharaoh is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.


Shamus said...

Wonderful- Lubitsch going Egyptian must be quite a sight (possibly inspired by / trying to outdo, Lang's Indian Tomb of the previous year?).

Anyway, I hope that the less fantastically lucky cinephiles [i.e., those of us who don't live in New York] would get to see it sometime on DVD or youtube.

Rozsaphile said...

Fascinating prospect. But one has to wonder about the effect of a musical score so completely at odds with the musical practice of the film's era (the 1920s). The alternatives would be stitching together a classical pastiche or trying to compose something akin to that old style, as Carl Davis did for the 1926 Ben-Hur. And I'm not sure either of those choices would be ideal either. Ultimately it may not be possible to fully recreate the original experience.

Raquel Stecher said...

This sounds amazing! I wish I could make it out there to see it.

Yojimboen said...

It screened last year in L.A. (at the Egyptian, fittingly enough). It is a jaw-dropper. I would disagree that it's not funny - certainly it's not a comedy - but there're more than a few Lubitsch touches; the man just can't not be funny. Overall for me it's less a tutorial for DeMille than it is a master class for Griffith: "Intolerance? Just take a seat, D.W., let me show you how it's done."

The Siren said...

Y., there's one still of the triumphal re-entry of the army, towards the end, that was Intolerance, squared. Really made me wish they'd found that part.

Henry Holland said...

the Korngold-loving Siren

Does that love for EWK's music extend to his non-movie stuff, like the great operas Die Tote Stadt or Violanta or the violin concerto or the symphony etc?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here you go Henry!

X. Trapnel said...

Major news on the Korngold front: first ever COMPLETE recording for his Much Ado About Nothing incidental music (1919 and fully characteristic of the composer who more or less achieved his mature style at age 13; greatest prodigy in history) due out next month. It is ravishing.

Yojimboen said...

An Old Blog to enlarge on the New Banner.

And the trailer:

Not Cary Grant’s subtlest performance, but he did donate his entire salary to the war effort.
(By all reports that must’ve hurt Archie the Miser.)

The Siren said...

XT, that really is great news.

Y., I used to tell people I didn't like Arsenic and Old Lace and then sometime about 10 years ago I realized this was a big fat whopping lie. I love it, I do. I think it just took me years and years to get used to Grant's performance; I swear he is going through it hell-for-leather (to get to a paying job? Ungenerous thought!) and I have never seen him mug so much. It makes his work in "Monkey Business" look like Alain Delon in "Le Samourai." But there is something about the leaves blowing around the churchyard, Jack Carson as the cop, even Priscilla Lane is delightful -- and Lorre, and Josephine Hull. It's become something of an annual Halloween tradition for me. This year I'll try watching it with the twins.

Yojimboen said...

My explanation for Grant’s performance is simple: I believe that back in his days as a gag-man for Harry Langdon, Frank Capra created a lot of double-takes, I mean a lot – so many he had to keep them in a giant box. Problem was, Langdon didn’t do double-takes, something about fear of whiplash, and anyway decided to direct himself (BIG mistake), so Frank had to shoulder that box and trundle it through the rest of the 30s and 40s. No question he did try to use them, but in Lost Horizon he wouldn’t dare offer one to Ronald Coleman; It Happened One Night? Gable would’ve punched him out and C Colbert couldn’t risk any physical bit which might show the other side of her face. Jimmy Stewart? He didn’t understand what they were (until Bell, Book and Candle) and Gary Cooper, well, was Gary Cooper.

State of the Union? As always Tracy brought his own double-takes and Kate H wouldn’t even deign to look inside the box.

I think Arsenic and Old Lace was Capra’s last chance. He dragged the box into rehearsals and emptied the contents right in the middle of the table-read, shouting “Grab ‘em while you can! They’re free!” The word ‘free’ triggered a stampede, Cary got there first, grabbed up a couple of arm-loads… and the rest is hysteria.

Rozsaphile said...

By coincidence a recording of Max Steiner's reconstructed score for Arsenic has just appeared. Actually it's a bit of filler in a two-disc set that is chiefly devoted to Steiner's almost Korngoldian swash for The Adventures of Don Juan.

Folks here who are interested in film preservation will not be shocked to learn that the studios were equally careless about the musical components. Sound recordings have been lost or discarded or left to rot. And the actual scores and orchestral parts were often tossed without consulting the composers or libraries who might have wanted to claim the material. (M-G-M's music lies in a landfill near the Getty Museum.) Kudos then to outfits like Tribute Film Classics that have painstakingly reconstructed the old scores and recorded them anew -- for a too small market of film music lovers.

Yojimboen said...

Thanks for the link, Rozsa, looks like a superb resource.

Re Steiner’s score for AaOL, which leans heavily on the popular hymn “There is a Happy Land, Far, Far Away”, I wonder if it was the Epstein brothers who suggested Max S use it as a subtle tie-in to the plot point of “Happy Dale Sanitarium” (the closest the writers could come to “Happy Land Sanitarium”, which was famously in operation in 1941 - and still is).

Numinous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Numinous said...

Thanks Siren for coming to the show and for posting your impressions and thoughts on the film and the music. I'm happy that you enjoyed the performance/screening. I'd like to add a bit of clarification to Rozsaphile's comments on the musical language used in my new score which might give a little insight to my approach to Pharaoh.

The musical language of my new score to Pharaoh does reflect a more modern sensibility and does feature some of the many textural and theoretical advances in music since the film premiered, however this is done to make a fuller connection to today's audiences rather than trying to attempt to recreate something from the period, which ultimately would be impossible anyway. As a composer Pharaoh offered an interesting challenge, how to balance a 90 year old story/film with the inclinations of a contemporary composer that also can augment and enhance the film, yet also be respectful without being slavish or that falls on traditional film/silent film musical tropes and cliches. The original score for Pharaoh by Eduard Künneke was looking back at least fifty years in its musical language rather than reflecting anything contemporary for 1922 (of course most film 'scores' of the time were looking toward the Romantic/late-Romantic period in music). And certainly some of the harmonic practices in my new score to Pharaoh actually reaches back to Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern from the 1910s and 20s and the symbolic use of the music is closely align and inspired by Debussy's Pelleas and Melisande (premiered 1902), as well as forward to contemporary classical music such as post-minimalism; although in all cases those inspirations are filtered to be more indicative of my own thoughts and language.

I treated the film much more as an opera without words rather than a typical film score and as such treated the characters and story in a manner that tried to delve deeply into the emotional and psychological nature of the characters (in particular the Pharaoh), but also develop the music in an interesting and purely musical way as well. I definitely wanted to help modern audiences to feel the universality of the feelings displayed by characters and find a way to connect with them and the story despite the 90-year cultural norms and customs gap. And I think my more modern music helped.

Pharaoh was a truly wonderful experience and I enjoyed writing the music and conducting my score live with the film and look forward to doing more silent films in the future. Thanks again for coming to the shows Siren and letting me add my two-cents.

Joe Phillips

The Siren said...

Mr. Phillips, thank you so much for stopping by. The more I think about it, the more I think that a score of the type I typically love wouldn't have been a great idea for Pharaoh. It would have made this very highly colored and lushly dramatic story an historical artifact. Your score instead, as I said, pulled the audience back and said no, this has real emotion, this isn't a museum piece. And the score was working with the movie, not trying to upstage it.

Let me put it this way: the next time you score a silent film, I will be happy to check it out.

The Siren said...

Henry Holland - welcome, and I apologize for not spotting your comment before. I've heard the violin concerto but I do not know that opera. I definitely should expand my Korngold horizons, and thanks for the pointer!

Also, SUCH interesting stuff from Rozsaphile about the preservation (or non-) of the film scores...sigh. Letting raw capitalism decide which art survives; it's just never pretty.

X. Trapnel said...

Dunno if this thread is still running, but I feel compelled to add my two pfennigs on non-movie Korngold. The crowning glory of his work is the Symphony in F Sharp Major (1952) which is, I believe, his musical testament, the best of him and, in the wake of late Strauss, a worthy nachlass to Austro-Germanic romantic symphonism. I heard the (unconscionably late) NY premier conducted by Andre Previn some years ago and never before or since have I seen an audience lifted by an unfamilar work from habitual concert complacency to electrified enthusiasm; stunned applause for both the scherzo and the slow movement and an ovation at the end.

I'd also like to second Rozsaphile's kudos to Tribute (though I wish they'd do some Rozsa [Lust for Life, please]) and add that all lovers of film music owe an incalcuable debt to the late Christopher Palmer who did more than anyone as critic, musicologist, and arranger to bring serious attention to the great film composers, setting the intellectual standard as Charles Gerhardt set the performance standard.

city said...
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