A review by David Gasten
October 23, 2007

Pola Negri and Antonio Moreno in The Spanish Dancer (1923)

Pola reads Antonio Moreno's fortune in The Spanish Dancer (1923).

The Spanish Dancer (Paramount, 1923), starring Pola Negri, Antonio Moreno, Wallace Beery, Kathlyn Williams, Gareth Hughes, Adolphe Menjou, Edward Kipling, Dawn O’Day, Charles A. Stevenson, Robert Agnew.  Directed by Herbert Brenon.  Silent film, 61 minutes (Kodascope version).  DVD released by Reel Classic DVD on August 22, 2006.  Includes short film The Man From Tia Juana (1917) as bonus material.  

Click here for information on ordering The Spanish Dancer on DVD.

Currently, there are only a few of Pola Negri’s Paramount silents that exist in complete form, even though the photos and publicity surrounding this period of her career are the most easily accessible and are still the most widespread, be it for better (e.g. the lovely stills of Pola from Forbidden Paradise) or for worse (e.g. the Swanson/Negri “cat fight” allegations).   Hotel Imperial and Barbed Wire survive and have been given their due to some degree, and recently A Woman of the World has made itto video for silent movie fans to see and enjoy.  Forbidden Paradise and Bella Donna also survive complete, but have not been made available to the public as of yet, so for most of us it will be a while before we get to see these two films.  That leaves us with one more surviving Pola film from the Paramount Period that is currently available for our viewing pleasure, and that is The Spanish Dancer.  

The problem that we have with The Spanish Dancer is that it was originally a nine-reel picture, but currently available prints all come from five-reel Kodascope show-at-home versions.  Many feature films, such as The Hunchback of Norte Dame (1923), Beau Brummel (1924), My Lady of Whims (1925), The Road to Mandalay (1926), Ella Cinders (1926), and, until recently, the 1928 epic French version of The Count of Monte Cristo, have only been available to us in shortened Kodascope versions.  The reason for this trimming was to keep costs down and make the films affordable, as buying prints of films was (and still is) very expensive and generally only affordable to the very wealthy and to institutions such as libraries.  So to make the film available at all, large portions of the story would therefore need to be cut, with a cohesive bare-bones story being the main concern after the trimming was complete. 

The good side to this is that at least we can see the film, but the bad side is that The Spanish Dancer is not particularly fun to watch in its current state.  The movie drops us cold in the midst of the tale, and lengthy intertitles introduce the characters and tell large portions of the story that were likely told by the film itself originally.  The film barrages us with six characters at once, and all in one scene, which forces the viewer to watch the film repeatedly and maybe even have to take notes or draw diagrams to stay on top of the story.  It also takes away from character development and keeps us from enjoying many of the fun subtleties that movie fans from the period would have gotten to enjoy.  There are some good bits of humor toward the end, but overall it’s definitely not the first Pola movie to see if you’re new to Pola.
In an attempt to assist in the anticipated confusion surrounding the plot, we offer this plot synopsis.  Pola plays Maritana, a gypsy folk hero in 17th century Spain who finds herself in the midst of an attempt to sabotage the forging on an alliance between Spain and France.  The King’s wife, Queen Isabel (played by Kathlyn Williams), is of the French royal family and is the main impetus behind this alliance.  Don Salluste, played by Adolphe Menjou, is a nobleman who hates France and is hatching a plan to spoil this attempt at making the two countries allies.  Don Salluste happens to be at a party thrown by the carefree nobleman Don Cesar de Bazan (played by Antonio Moreno), where Pola and a band of dancers are the entertainment of the evening.  Pola and Don Cesar fall in love on the spot, but things start going bad when Pola reads his fortune on tarot cards, and sees poverty, crossed swords, and marriage to a bride wearing a mask in his future.  Don Cesar’s creditors immediately gang up on him and strip him of his possessions, and all but one of his friends abandon him.  After this, Don Cesar gets into a duel in an attempt to protect a teenage member of Pola’s gypsy band on Pola’s behalf.  Don Cesar is immediately sentenced to death for killing the man and violating the King’s ban on dueling.  Pola’s dancers are later entertainment for the Queen Herself, and she begs with the Queen to spare Don Cesar’s life.  The Queen goes to the King (played by Wallace Beery) to plead for Don Cesar’s life on Pola’s behalf, but Don Salluste weasels between the King and the Queen, taking advantage of the King’s roving eyes and the Queen’s loneliness in her loveless marriage to the King, and setting Pola up as the fall guy (or is it fall girl?) by marrying her as a masked bride to the soon-to-die Don Cesar, thus giving her nobility, and then putting her alone with the King in the royal hunting lodge.  Don Salluste then tells the Queen about the “affair”, which rouses her anger with her unloving husband.  She goes to the hunting lodge expecting to catch the King in the act of the affair, only to find him there with Don Cesar and Pola, blessing their new marriage.  I’ll let you see to movie yourself to see how Don Cesar manages to not be executed and make his way to the hunting lodge where Pola and the King were left alone together, spoiling Don Salluste’s plan.

The interesting coincidence behind the Spanish Dancer screenplay is that it was originally adapted from the classic Victor Hugo book Don Cesar de Bazan (via a French theatre adaptation) for Pola’s fiancée-to-be Rudolph Valentino before Pola had ever met him, and was then shelved after Valentino had a row with Paramount that led to him leaving the studio.  Paramount later revived the screenplay, adapting it to Pola as a vehicle for her.  Watching the film, you can easily see that it was originally an A-list spectacle film with huge sets and hundreds of extras, which is probably why it was later chosen for release as a Kodascope print.  

Of further interest is that a different adaptation of Don Cesar de Bazan was released the same year (1923) starring Mary Pickford.  It was directed by Pola’s collaborator Ernst Lubitsch, and released by United Artists under the name Rosita, which makes one wonder how much of a “me too” production The Spanish Dancer was.  The Spanish Dancer was meant to compete with the then-current vogue of imported epic European costume films that made Lubitsch and Pola famous in the first place, but it looks and feels “Hollywood” and simply doesn’t compare.  The Hollywood studios would figure out how to compete with European films over time, but at the time The Spanish Dancer was released, they had not yet figured out exactly how to deal with this overseas menace that was giving them a run for their money.

Reel Classic DVD’s handling of the Kodascope version of the film is a huge improvement on previous versions as far as picture quality is concerned.  A few years ago, Grapevine Video had the best available version, which cobbled together the scenes from two different prints and therefore added about 5 to 6 minutes of footage.  However, the picture quality itself was fuzzy and primitive looking to say the least.   Reel Classic’s version may not have the extra footage, but the transfer is quite crisp and detailed, and is a definite improvement on the Grapevine version.

The music accompaniment is a really nice piano score with some sound effects.  The score fits well with the film and follows the movie’s changes, moods, and scene breaks effectively for the most part.  The carnival scenes have tambourine and whistle effects that express their mayhem well, and we also have an interesting effect where the composer starts playing the strings of the piano itself like a harp when the king announces his sovereignty to Don Cesar in the hunting lodge, which gives the scene an ominous tone.  There is one brief moment that doesn’t work so well, which is when we see the large group of guitar players strumming in unison in Don Cesar de Bazan’s castle, and all we hear while we see this is the rattle of a tambourine.  But right after this, the tambourine stops when Pola lifts up her hand to tell the dancers behind her to stop, which shows that the composer was definitely paying attention to detail for the most part.  It’s really nice to see such a well-adapted and well-thought-out score on a public domain silent movie release.

Fortunately, this truncated version of The Spanish Dancer is not all that we’ll ever be able to see.  There is a 90-minute restoration of the film housed at the Nederlands Filmmuseum that apparently used alternate shots, which I assume means a surviving European print is its source material.  European prints of American films would be shot simultaneously with the American version, often containing the same action but offset slightly from the American version in long shots, and alternate (and often second-best) takes in the closeup shots. The current restoration of The Man Who Laughs (1928) is a great example of a restoration that uses a European print as its primary source; you can read my review of The Man Who Laughs in for more detailed information and examples of how European prints of films will differ from American prints.  So what I’m really looking forward to is seeing this 90-minute restored version of The Spanish Dancer, as I suspect the extra 40 minutes of footage will help the picture tremendously (it about has to).  But in the meantime, at least The Spanish Dancer is still with us in this truncated form, and at least it is available for viewing. 

Reel Classic DVD pairs The Spanish Dancer with The Man From Tia Juana, a little-known 1917 two-reel Kalem short whose only relation to The Spanish Dancer is the Hispanic-sounding title.   Kalem was a Chicago-based film company founded in 1907 that specialized in serials and short subjects, and were in fact leaders in the field quality-wise, with the Ham and Bud series and serials starring Ruth Roland (aka “The Kalem Girl”) being their most famous offerings.  The Man From Tia Juana was installment #15 of 17 in a serial called The American Girl, starring Marin Sais in the title roleAll of the films in The American Girl serial were directed by James W. Horne, a renowned serial director who later became famous as a comedy director, directing comedy shorts for Hal Roach.  When we think of serials today, we think of “cliffhanger” serials with hanging endings that are solved in the next chapter of the serial, but some serials were of a different type in which each chapter contained a complete story; The American Girl is one of the latter type of serials.  Kalem ceased production in 1918, so this short film is toward the end of the line for Kalem. 


By the way, I recommend visiting Reel Classic DVD’s website.  They have a spectacular collection of rare silent and early talkie movies, all transferred directly from high-quality prints on high-grade equipment, resulting in excellent picture (and sound) quality.  Some of the movies they have available include a very rare Mae Murray feature called A Mormon Maid (1917); a nice transfer of the German silent Variety (1925); Lady of the Lake (1928) and Robinson Crusoe (1927), two very rare British silents; the complete Fleischer brothers Superman series; three compilations of Our Gang shorts; and a compilation of very rare Laurel and Hardy material.  They have even taken the trouble to make exceptional prints of the East Side Kids films that are personally endorsed by Leo Gorcey, Jr. (the son of East Side Kid Leo Gorcey). 

(Thanks to Cole Johnson for providing the info on Kodascope films and on The Man Form Tia Juana.)
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