The Forbidden City and Secrets of Hollywood
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THE FORBIDDEN CITY (1918 - 61 minutes)
Starring Norma Talmadge, Thomas Meighan, Michael Rayle, E. Alyn Warren, L. Rogers Lytton and Reid Hamilton. Directed by Sidney Franklin. Lovely Norma Talmadge plays a dual role in this romantic drama. In an effort to regain his good will, a Chinese mandarin promises the Emperor the hand of his daughter in marriage. The unfortunate mandarin, however, does not know that his daughter has been secretly married to an American and that she already carries his child. A film that will be considered more controversial today than when it was made, THE FORBIDDEN CITY addresses the subjects of race, mixed marriage and social injustice. Made directly from the best film elements available, this Reelclassicdvd.com release is of the very highest quality. Includes an original music score composed and performed by Ben Model of the Museum of Modern Art.
SECRETS OF HOLLYWOOD (1933 - 30 minutes)
Starring Mae Busch, Tom Herbert, Luana Walters and George Cowl. Directed by George M. Merrick. A sound film that features highlights from earlier silents. While at the studio, Mae and her Hollywood friends explore her collection of stills. They reminisce about movies from yesteryear as the stills come to life. A rare, quirky film that features scenes from THE BUSHER (1919), HAIRPINS (1920), THE ROOKIE’S RETURN (1920), THE SOUL OF THE BEAST (1923), THE MARRIAGE CHEAT (1924) and BARBARA FRIETCHIE (1924).
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That's why it's a pleasure to see this new release of her 1918 film. The plot draws it's inspiration from Madame Butterfly and involves a Chinese mandarin who hopes to regain favor with the Emperor by handing over his daughter to join his harem. However, unbeknownst to the mandarin she is secretly married to the American consul.
The film was very well received on it's release. Norma was hugely popular at the time and her audience must have enjoyed seeing her play an exotic, oriental role. She gives a good and moving performance and the film is ably directed by Sidney Franklin.
To a modern audience some the inter titles, written in pigeon Chinese/English are undoubtedly creaky. Also, Norma is clearly wearing some heavy make up which appears to be inhibiting her performance. Nevertheless, she is believable in both the roles she plays and the final scenes are very touching.
The DVD appears to have been produced from a 16mm print of reasonable quality. It's quite dark and a little lacking in definition but very watchable.
Finally, Ben Model has contributed a beautiful and delicate piano accompaniment which compliments the film perfectly.
The exotic Chinese San-San (Norma Talmadge) falls in giddy love with American diplomatic, John Worden (Thomas Meighan). Their inter-racial relationship, however, is considered to be as taboo as the imperial city where god-like emperors reign. (The "forbidden city" in Old Beijing, where the Chinese emperor resided, was a divine place and forbidden to ordinary people.) Their hidden romance leads to a secret marriage, then deception and unspeakable loss.
Thomas Meighan, often cast as chivalrous and unshakeable characters, shines in one of his most sincere and tender-hearted roles as the noble Worden. Norma Talmadge, who appeared in five films that year, is sublime in two roles as San San and their grown daughter, Toy.
Some accusations have been made by reviewers in the recent past of the film being "yellowface" but such is not the case here. (Original contemporary reviews published in major media for the most part made no such observation.) The storyline and characters do not mock the culture or the ethnic background. Foreign roles since the earliest days of filmmaking have always been welcomed as a challenge by actors and actresses.
The art design was supervised and suggested by at least three Chinese experts and was overall meticulously detailed. Costumes possessed luxuriant authenticity and the oriental sets were dressed to be faithful to the pungent dockside, the humble home and lavish palace alike.
Elaborately "framed" artwork intertitle cards punctuate and flow between and within scenes with as much visual appeal as the movie itself, with the same high degree of artistic flair seen in most silent film lobby and window cards of the time. In addition, dialogue and text intertitles for this movie were designed to have one word highlighted by a fancy curlicue with multiple arcs trailing from one of its letters.
The wife and concubines of the warlord emperor were always regarded by him as possessions rather than women to be loved and cherished. When San San is given to the emperor by her own father to gain royal favour, not an unusual custom, the tradition was violated when she appeared in the royal court with a child and married secretly to someone of another race.
She subsequently naively believes the emperor has pardoned her because of her great love for her non-oriental husband. In reality, her betrayal and disgrace is rewarded by allowing her to enter the "valley of peace" - in reality, condemning her to walk through a curtained corridor of warrior spears thrusting with deadly intent. The emperor spares the unharmed infant, named Toy, but not because of any sympathy or change in heart. The intertitle card quotes him: "The half-American child shall live -- to be a warning that between East and West there can be no twain."
The new piano score composed by accompanist Ben Model (of the Museum of Modern Art), is sensitive to the gentle, pervasive early moods of the story, and alternately crescendos to reflect the overwhelming wrath and terror of the emperor's heart of darkness and imperial ruthlessness. Loyal to the feel and sound performance of original silent film piano scores, the accompaniment always enhances and never intrudes into a scene. Multi-talented Model also designed the artwork cover for the on-demand DVD release of the film.
When Toy escapes the imperial palace and travels to Manila, she meets her own true love, a lieutenant. When their desire to marry is denied by the Consulate secretary, the lieutenant has no choice but to step aside for a time. The scene in which a very ill Worden and Toy (who is now a nurse called to tend to him) realize they are father and daughter, is instilled with innocence and tastefully handled - there is one very short kiss upon the mouth. (Until the late 1970's or so, family members worldwide often customarily kissed each other on the mouth in greeting without any sexual inference.) More current reviews give this sentimental scene nasty connotations.
Years of tragedy and sorrow are erased by discovery and looking forward. The lieutenant returns. The gravely ill Worden reaches out.... By joining their hands, that of his daughter's and her sweetheart's, a final moment of happiness which he and San San could have had, is found in a last moment. The twain did meet, East and West, with a father's blessing and approving hand.
Copyright © January 2015: L. Chrystal Dmitrovic