February 7, 2013

Women in horror during the 1920s - part 6

1926 was another classic year for women in horror films. Not only did we have F.W. Murnau's "Faust" co-starring Yvette Guilbert (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's favourite model) but also, in the States, Rex Ingram's "The Magician" with his lovely wife Alice Terry playing the victim.

Alice Terry in "The Magician"

I'm not going to say anything about "The Magician" right now because, as it was a precursor to James Whale's "Frankenstein" (1931), I'd rather wait until I come to talk about the women in that film later. I might even review "The Magician" on its own sometime too because it's far too good to pass over by concentrating on only one character. Just watch it below and enjoy Alice Terry hallucinate being ravished by a satyr in Hell.

This post is going to be about one of the first German remakes, "The Student of Prague" (1926) and some of the differences to the 1913 original. Yes, the Germans were remaking their films too although only in the rare cases where they needed to be remade for the better. Never satisfied, they even remade this again in 1935.

Many people consider "The Student of Prague" (1913) to be Germany's first horror movie. In fairness, it's more of a diabolical "Jeckyl and Hyde" fantasy with a tragic ending than anything scary. Whatever the case, there are two women in the remake who stand out, Elizza La Porta as Liduschka and Agnes Esterhazy as Comtesse Margit.

Elizza La Porta

Before getting stuck into their roles, I need to give you an idea of how small the original parts were for Lyda Salmonova as Lyduschka and Grete Berger as Komtesse Margit. Note that the slight spelling differences in their names isn't important as the plot is identical. I've embedded the movie below though so that you can see how little backstory each has in favour of the "sausagefest" around them.

Interestingly, chubby Paul Wegener was the original Balduin who went on to play Oliver Haddo in "The Magician" while Conrad Veidt took his place here. We may moan about the overexposure of horror actors continuing to appear in the same movies nowadays, but such typecasting had been going on from the very beginning. To cut the long story of how it happened in 1920s' Hollywood short, the producers thought it made more sense to import the male German leads rather than the more easily replaceable women. Despite often being an important part of ensemble casts, German actresses were less likely to travel than their male counterparts. Maybe it was because the German actresses were nearly all married to directors who had contracted other work for them. Maybe they didn't have the "star" power to sell a movie. Maybe it was just sexism. Who knows? I suspect it was a combination of reasons in every case with only the really big name European actors getting offered roles outside of their own countries. Like everything, there were exceptions to that rule especially when it came to politics and money.

Although that was more of a digression than a segue, let's now have a look at "The Student of Prague" (1926) also known as "The Man Who Cheated Life" to see what a bigger German budget made of it. Unfortunately, the print quality of the Public Domain version available on YouTube (and Alpha DVD) isn't even half as good as the 1913 version. This makes it hard to tell who is who so you'll just have to take my word for it that the acting and special effects are supposed to be better.

The remake of "The Student of Prague" certainly did the right thing by lengthening the scenes. In the original, it's hard to tell what Lyduschka's motivation is apart from being a troublemaker, but it's more obvious that Liduschka is in love with Balduin in the remake. Similarly, the now more attractive Margit isn't only a trophy to be fought over and also has some genuine affection for Balduin. Her love triangle with the latter and Ferdinand von Alten as Baron Waldis-Schwarzenberg is, arguably, still a weak point.

Agnes Esterhazy in The Student of Prague (1926)

Agnes Esterhazy

Casting the Hungarian-born Countess Agnes Asterhazy as a "Komtess" in the former Austro-Hungarian city of Prague (which became the capital of the newly formed Czechoslovakia at the end of the first World War) made her role far more authentic and appealing to a wider audience. In modern times, you don't find many royals involved in show business on a performance level outside of Catherine Oxenberg and the late Grace Kelly (as Princess of Monaco), so there's another novelty to enjoy here.

Allegedly, Agnes Asterhazy was involved in the "Berlin scene" with all of its occult and sexually perverted weirdness, but not that much is really known about her except that she was another victim of the age of talkies and couldn't make the transition. One day I really have to buy a book about early German cinema to see if there is more information available. If you have any book suggestions for me, please leave them in the comments section below.

In "The Student of Prague", Agnes Asterhazy's Margit is portrayed as quite wilful and choosy which is in contrast to Liduschka's subservience and desperation. As both women look quite similar facially, I assume that this female echo of the good Balduin compared to his evil mirror self is intentional. The whole film is about mirrored personality images after all.

Margit isn't evil although she's not the most likeable of characters either. Liduschka's actions, on the other hand, are morally borderline and obsessive, but that's got more to do with her class and self-esteem than anything else. There are so many things which can be read into the differences between the two women that it makes me wish that I was a better writer and more informed about the period to be able highlight them all. Suffice it to say that Liduschka has to be the clingiest girlfriend ever while Margit definitely isn't. In fact, by the end of the film, Margit is absolutely terrified of Balduin with some obligatory fainting thrown in for good measure. Even if Balduin had been the Devil himself, he wouldn't have scared off Liduschka so easily.

Having spent far too long watching these movies over the last three days while being constipated and fighting a malfunctioning furnace which almost caused me and the cats to freeze to death, I'm going to end this rambling here. I've been too distracted to put my best work into this, but I'll post it anyway so that we can all move on. With my ever decreasing number of pageviews since I started this series of posts (only 9 views on the last one which I thought was quite well written), I realise that none of you philistines like silent horror movies, and I'll be glad to see the back of them too.

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