Monday, July 23, 2012

At The Top Of The Heap Are The Privileged Few

The term "class warfare" has been in constant use since President Obama began campaigning for the Presidency. Of course, many of the people who whine about class warfare have no concept of its historical meaning.
Despite all this, Americans must listen to the whining upper class as they try to paint themselves as sanctified "job creators" who should be pampered instead of being persecuted.
  • Speaker John Boehner can't stop crying about how mean people have been to the millionaires and billionaires who donate to conservative causes.
  • Republican megadonors channeling funds through Karl Rove's SuperPac were shocked to see themselves criticized and held up to ridicule in the media.
  • In those rare moments when he is not lying like a two-bit whore, Mitt Romney keeps stonewalling the American public about his financial history (my personal fantasy is to see "Mr. Etch A Sketch" memorialized as the face of electoral fraud).
There are, of course, characters like The Scarlet Pimpernel and Batman scattered throughout literature who use their wealth and social privilege to act on behalf of the less fortunate. However, such cultural heroes are almost always figments of a writer's imagination. Three recent screenings allowed Bay area audiences to choose between the comedic, romantic, and tragic approaches to class warfare.

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There were many surprises in store for me when I attended a screening of 1920's The Mark of Zorro at the recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Based on a 1919 story by Johnston McCulley entitled The Curse of Capistrano, this was the movie that introduced the swashbuckling character of Don Diego Vega (also known as Señor Zorro) to film audiences. But did you know that Milton Berle had an uncredited role as one of the children in the film?

Having grown up watching Guy Williams in the 1957 Zorro television series I, for one, did not. Nor did I expect to encounter a character actor named Walt Whitman portraying the aged Fray Felipe!

Directed by Fred Niblo with a grand sense of swashbuckling action, social justice, and unexpected humor, the film stars the great Douglas Fairbanks as the masked hero who consistently flummoxes Sgt. Pedro Gonzales (Noah Beery) with the occasional help of his stone-faced, mute servant, Bernardo (Tote Du Crow).

In The Mark of Zorro, Don Carlos Pulido (Charles Hill Mailes) and his wife, Doña Catalina (Claire McDowell), are trying to find a wealthy man who will marry their daughter, Lolita (Marguerite De La Motte). Money has been tight, the thugs working for Governor Alvarado (George Periolat) and Capitán Juan Ramon (Robert McKim) are making people's lives miserable, and Lolita wants to marry for love, not money.

Meanwhile, the wealthy Don Alejandro (Sidney De Gray) is trying to persuade his foppish son to take a wife in order to preserve the family's name. Little does Don Alejandro know that his son, who can barely muster the strength to blow his own nose, is the mysterious masked man who has been coming to the rescue of the common people.

Douglas Fairbanks and Marguerite De La Motte in
The Mark of Zorro

One of the effete Don Diego Vega's most endearing traits is his fascination with sleight of hand (the character constantly asks people "Have you seen this one?" before performing a magic trick).  In the following clip, Fairbanks demonstrates his talent for flirting with a prop and a girl simultaneously. Be sure to watch Lolita's excited hands as the scene heats up.

Prior to moving to Hollywood, Fairbanks appeared on Broadway in 18 stage productions between 1902 and 1915, where he became known for his athleticism and time spent at the gym. During the 1906 run of Avery Hopwood and Channing Pollock's drama, Clothes, he became adept at repeatedly climbing backstage stairs on his hands. In an age where stunt doubles, green screens, and CGI scripting have taken most of the raw talent out of a star's acrobatic technique, it's refreshing to watch Fairbanks in action as he performs his own stunts.

From the standpoint of social justice, what may be most remarkable about The Mark of Zorro are the scenes in which Zorro convinces Don Alejandro and his father's friends to take up arms against the corrupt governor and fight on behalf of those who can't defend themselves. As always, Dennis James accompanied the screening on the Mighty Wurlitzer with a great sense of flair.

Robert Kim and Douglas Fairbanks cross swords in
The Mark of Zorro
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Originally conceived as a vehicle for Rudolph Valentino, 1923's The Spanish Dancer ended up with Polish sensation Pola Negri starring as Maritana, a good-hearted gypsy fortune teller and dancer who could leap on and off horses with ease.

Pola Negri as the gypsy girl in The Spanish Dancer

The class warfare in this film is actually more tightly focused among different levels of royalty as two of the most unscrupulous advisers to Spain's King Philip IV (Wallace Beery) plot to strip a lesser noble, Don Cesar de Bazan (Antonio Moreno) of this title and possessions. Long considered lost to history, a restored print of The Spanish Dancer was recently pieced together by the EYE Film Institute Netherlands which demonstrates the impressive cinematography by James Wong Howe and direction by Herbert Brenon.

Antonio Moreno and Pola Negri in The Spanish Dancer

While the King's henchmen, Don Salluste (Adolphe Menjou) and Lazarillo (Gareth Hughes), are easily identifiable villains, this is the only film I've encountered with a character named the Marquis de Rotundo. Kathlyn Williams is impressive as Queen Isabel of Bourbon who thanks the gypsy girl who has rescued her royal daughter from a runaway horse by giving her a handkerchief that she can deliver to the Queen should she ever need a royal favor.

Pola Negri and Adolphe Menjou in The Spanish Dancer

Between the King's endless infidelity, her two young children, and her other royal duties, Queen Isabel has her hands full. So did Donald Sosin, who did a wonderful job of accompanying the film on the piano with one of his best scores to date.

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Unlike The Mark of Zorro or The Spanish DancerTrishna (which I saw at the San Francisco International Film Festival) is not a period costume drama. Adapted from Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy's 1891 novel), the action has been updated to contemporary India and set in the province of  Rajasthan.

Freida Pinto in Trishna

Starring Freida Pinto as a poor, young Indian woman working at a hotel whose physical beauty catches the eye of the spoiled wealthy son of an Indian businessman, Michael Winterbottom's film rests on a painful foundation of rigid caste distinctions, male privilege, and the limited opportunities for the young woman who has been humped and dumped by Jay (Riz Ahmed) and eventually brought back to his bed for further humiliation.

Riz Ahmed and Freida Pinto in Trishna

When Jay decides to move to a larger city where he and Trishna can lead a more open life, it seems as if he is trying to do the right thing. But when his father is taken ill in Britain, Jay leaves India on short notice and fails to pay the rent on his apartment, thereby forcing Trishna to return to her life of poverty.

One might wonder why, when Jay finally returns to India and tracks her down, Trishna is willing to return to his bed. The painful truth is that she has few, if any real options.

In time, Jay begins to treat Trishna like little more than a sexual machine to satisfy his carnal desiree. When he refuses to back off from what is essentially raping his girlfriend, Trishna realizes that her doom is sealed.

The dramatic ending brings to mind Cio-Cio-San's last words ("Who cannot live with honor must die with honor"). Although, at 117 minutes, Trishna may lag at times, the finale exposes the hopelessness, helplessness, and desperate resourcefulness of a woman from one of India's lower classes whose selfish and manipulative lover has stolen her last ounce of self-respect. Here's the trailer.

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