Sunday, September 21, 2008

Lola Montez

When I watched Max Ophuls’ “Lola Montez” (1955), I was delighted to find a shout-out from the 1950s to my adopted city of San Francisco. There’s a scene where the ringmaster of an American circus (Peter Ustinov) offers Lola Montez (Martine Carol) a job as the main attraction---a sort of freak/fetish object whose scandalous life story will titillate the audience. In listing his own résumé the ringmaster mentions that he found the three headed woman for Barnum, booked the only elephant that could play the piano and, in New York, filled the house for four weeks with the anarchists who killed the Sultan of Turkey. In San Francisco the run was five and a half weeks. Bravo! We’ve had our reputation for a long time.

Speaking of reputation, the film has a good one with many critics and I was primed to like it, but ended up enjoying it more as an introduction to the historical Lola Montez than as a work of art. The central conceit of the film is that Lola has finally taken the job with the circus and we cut between the big top show that tells the story of her life and the actual scenes of it. This framing device is interesting initially but increasingly serves to distance the viewer from the material. It doesn’t help that Martine Carol is not a good actress. I wanted to be moved by the material but was just occasionally amused.

The film is an odd mixture of the modern and the old fashioned. Ophuls’ cynicism about human beings oozes out of every frame, resonating strongly in these degenerate times. He also shows a feminist understanding of how Lola’s beauty and fearless pursuit of sexual affairs fascinates society at the same time that it causes it to want to destroy her. In the final scene of the film Lola kneels in a decorated cage with her hands through the bars, so that two lines of men can file by and kiss them, having paid a dollar for the privilege.

On the other hand, the story telling in the vignettes that make up the tale seems a bit musty. It has a whiff of Ruritania or “The Student Prince” about it. Of course a supporter could argue that this is completely appropriate given her affaire with Ludwig I, King of Bavaria.

The film is finally more fun to think about afterwards than it was to watch but does make me want to see some other of Ophuls’ works. As I said before, it also got me interested in the real woman. I can recommend the Wikipedia article on her. Did you know the only house she ever owned was in Grass Valley, CA?

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