Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Monte Cristo (1922)

April, 2013

Fox, 1922. Director: Emmett J. Flynn. Scenario: Bernard McConville, adapted by Alexander Salvini and Charles Fechter from Le Comte de Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Camera: Lucien Andriot. Cast: John Gilbert, Estelle Taylor, Robert McKim, William V. Mong, Virginia Brown Faire, George Siegmann, Spottiswoode Aitken.
No one was more excited than I to see the Serge Bromberg-Eric Lange reconstruction of Bardelys the Magnificent that was unveiled in 2008. Directed by no less than King Vidor and starring John Gilbert, this film lived up to its title: it was, indeed, a magnificent find. We all owe Bromberg and Lange a debt of gratitude for rescuing it from oblivion; even the use of stills to bridge gaps in the continuity—a technique of which I’m sometimes dubious—works perfectly well in this reconstruction. If you’re a film fan, and for some reason you still haven’t seen Bardelys the Magnificent, you owe it to yourself to rectify that situation as soon as possible.
            The Flicker Alley DVD is an excellent way to do that. This beautifully produced DVD has a number of noteworthy qualities, not the least of which is inclusion of a second “lost” John Gilbert feature, Monte Cristo—the real subject of these notes. Elegant and understated where Bardelys is sweeping and spectacular, Monte Cristo is inevitably overshadowed by its companion.
            All the more reason to highlight it here, for, viewed on its own terms, Monte Cristo is a thoroughly enjoyable film in its own right. Its restoration was made under less than ideal conditions; no prints or negatives were known to survive until a single mutilated and very choppy print was found in the Czech Republic. Silent-film enthusiasts who have suffered through such prints in the past can well appreciate the silk purse that Lange, Jeffery Masino and David Shepard have made of this one. Occasional awkward jump cuts can still be spotted, but the existing shots have been lovingly restored, the English titles, reconstructed from the original script, complement the visuals perfectly, and all in all the continuity flows so smoothly that the viewer is scarcely aware that any corrective work has taken place.
            The film is based, of course, on The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, père—the same author who gave us that other perennial warhorse of the movies, The Three Musketeers. (In fact, its production may have been prompted by the success of the Douglas Fairbanks version of Musketeers the previous year.) The highlight of the film, unquestionably, is John Gilbert’s performance as Dantes. When any movie star makes a name as a matinee idol, it’s natural to wonder whether the actor in question has any real acting ability. I don’t think anyone has ever questioned Gilbert’s acting, but in any case, Monte Cristo is a textbook case of an actor throwing vanity to the winds and immersing himself in his role. In the early scenes he’s the fiery young lover that we know from Flesh and the Devil and so many other films, but during his years of imprisonment his clothing becomes so ragged, and his hair so white, wild and unruly, that he’s scarcely recognizable. Perhaps most compelling is the second part of the film, when he returns incognito, a changed man, his courtly manners never quite concealing the haunted intensity of his gaze. There are other good performances, too—so many of them that the film can afford to withhold players of the caliber of Renée Adorée and George Siegmann until Part Two, a good six reels into the narrative—but it’s undeniably Gilbert’s picture all the way.
            Like any good film adaptation of a massive, sprawling novel, Monte Cristo takes considerable liberties with the plot. Most of these are concentrated in the second part of the film, when Gilbert returns to exact his cunning, elaborate revenge on his persecutors. The plot revisions are made with wit and good taste, and Dumas purists can perhaps be consoled with the fact that Dantes’ machinations—condensed and altered from those in the novel—are nevertheless carried out with an obvious respect for the spirit of the novel. The pacing of these episodes in a romantic adventure story makes creative use of the audience’s expectations: twice a duel to the death is announced, both times it is averted—and then, unexpectedly, an extended and exciting duel does materialize out of what seems an unlikely setting. Elsewhere, too, Monte Cristo makes subtly ingenious use of its medium. The scenes leading up to the meeting of Dantes and Abbé Faria (that splendid old character player Spottiswoode Aitken) in the prison vividly convey Gilbert’s mounting madness at the relentless sound of trickling water in his cell—and his sudden breathless recognition of another sound: a chisel tapping on the other side of the wall. 
            Even in this print, Monte Cristo is a handsome production, punctuated with striking visuals: the ocean outside the Chateau d’If, a figure framed in a lighted upper window, sunlight among the leaves as two combatants arrive in a woodland clearing to fight a duel. The review at speculates that this reconstruction, based on a European print, may derive from a B camera negative. That’s entirely possible, but the film’s photographic effects—primarily superimposed images, as various characters conjure absent lovers or enemies in their imaginations—are represented intact. And there are individual shots, for example the faces of two newlyweds poignantly glimpsed between the decorations of their carriage, that could only have been photographed from a precise angle. Whatever the source of this edition, we can be profoundly grateful that it was rescued. Its relative obscurity notwithstanding, it’s a film that rewards repeated viewings.

By J.B. Kaufman