(1929) dir. D.W. Griffith
viewed: 07/12/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
The final of three features that I caught at the Silent Film Festival this time around, D.W. Griffith’s Lady of the Pavements turned out to be a much more interesting experience as part of the festival than it could have been merely on its own. While Griffith is well-known as a father of cinematic techniques and a vastly influential early filmmaker, I came to realize that I don’t even know that much about his career arc. Lady of the Pavements was Griffith’s first sound film of sorts, despite having tangled with sound in a much earlier film, this film was made in the transitional year of 1929, and the back-story provided by the Festival, made for a pretty rich contextualization. Apparently, the film was shot mostly as a silent, and then, musical numbers were added, shots re-shot, and process of recording on was records actually exemplified the problems of a burgeoning tecnhology.
Additionally, Griffith and his style had fallen out of favor, and this film, unlike his major works, was one in which he was pretty much a “hired gun” of sorts, with much of the script and casting and so forth in place. And the film itself, suffering from mixed reviews and a commercial failure, lost its soundtrack along the way. The soundtrack was not just some fluff, but featured a theme by Irving Berlin and some other notable pieces. For the festival, along with the piano accompaniment, a singer was brought in, to sing some of the sequences for which the music could be identified, and that experience elevated the film in many ways, not to its original state, but perhaps even better still. What would Griffith have thought? Who knows?
The film is a romantic comedy in which a Prussian nobleman dismisses his French noblewoman bride-to-be when he discovers her to have other lovers. He tells her that he would rather marry a “woman of the streets” than her. So, in her conniving, the lady sends one of her men out to find a “lady of the pavement” to disguise her as a “lady”, have him fall for her, and therefore fulfill his statement, shaming him. The man doesn’t find a true “woman of the streets”, but rather a cabaret singer, played with great verve by Lupe Vélez. It’s one of those stories that you can pretty much map out without having to see the rest of the film, knowing that they’ll fall in love, he’ll discover the trickery and be upset, but in the end will come to take her away. And it does all happen that way essentially, but yet…it’s still very successful.
Vélez is terrific, fiery and energetic, almost too much character for silence. Actually, the whole film almost “feels” more like a sound picture. I’m not sure why I think that, but it may just be the character of the cinematography. Vélez apparently stole the show back in the film’s initial release, reaching her brief height in fame rather close to this point. And she is definitely the best part of the cast, though Jetta Goudal, the villainess is a top-notch ice queen in contrast.
While this film is certainly not one of Griffith’s masterpieces, it has amazing charm, enhanced no doubt by the performance of the musical score at the festival. It is remarkable that even challenged by a pretty stereotypical narrative trope, played out against evolving cinematic technology and the marginalization of one of cinema’s original masters, that 80 years later, this film charms as it does.
Kudos to Vélez and Griffith. And kudos to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival!