October 22, 2013
Poaching European talent has always been a popular Hollywood pastime, from Murnau to Lubitsch to Lang. Not every import had such an impact however, as proven by the reception of Caravan, a lavish 1934 roma musical directed by one Erik Charell. Charell and his leading lady Lilian Harvey had become a hot commodity after the international success of their German film operetta The Congress Dances (1932). Fox decided to make Caravan a “super-special” with a budget over a million dollars, importing French heartthrob Charles Boyer as the male lead. It was a financial and critical disaster, with the NY Times moaning that it was “an exceptionally tedious enterprise”. Charell’s professional career was over – but what a way to go out (Harvey also flamed out in Hollywood after four films). Fully utilizing the emerging mobile camera technology, Caravan is a perpetually moving marvel, pirouetting through the romani like a fellow reveler. The average shot is thirty seven seconds long, so even expository conversations become epic journeys through the cavernous sets – providing an anarchic sense of freedom. Screening as part of MoMA’s “To Save and Project” series of film preservation, Caravan is a major re-discovery.
Caravan was based on an original story by Melchior Lengyel, a Hungarian writer who later wrote the scenarios for Lubitsch’s Ninotchka and To Be or Not To Be. Clearly hoping to generate some of that Lubitsch magic, Fox packed the creative team with Europeans, from Charell and Lengyel to art director Ernst Stern and composer Werner Richard Heymann. The story is a mistaken identity farce, with shades of Ninotchka, as Countess Wilma (Loretta Young) will inherit her family’s vineyard on her twenty-first birthday – as long as she is married. She has been promised to a dashing young Lieutenant (Phillips Holmes), but instead she grabs fiddling roma Lazi (Boyer) and gets him to sign on the dotted line. After Wilma takes on Roma garb, the Lieutenant falls for her, not realizing it is the Countess.The social structure is set on its head when the Countess marries Lazi, and then invites his whole clan to stay in the mansion. Through an increasingly manic series of reversals, soon the roma people occupy the mansion while the upper crust are out on the street (getting the cops, but still).
In a scene as subversive as The Last Supper sequence in Viridiana, the romani traipse into the marble be-decked mansion and proceed to turn it into their personal nightclub, shocking the waitstaff and sending the Countess’ wedding party guests home in a huff. With respectable civilization ousted, the libidos come unsheathed, hilariously so in the case of the Countess’ beloved governess (Louise Fazenda, a slapstick veteran and a thorough delight here) who makes eyes with a strapping, bare chested lothario. The cast is filled with brilliant character actors, including Fazenda, Eugene Pallette, C. Aubrey Smith, Charley Grapewin and Noah Beery. Pallette’s turn as a bewigged, nigh-criminal roma pops off the screen with its brazen idiosyncracy.
Charell uses a combination of crane and tracking shots to wend his way through this chaos. In a dream of revolution, armed guards arrive to roust them out, but they too get caught up in the music, and the rousing dance begins again. Historian Tino Balio supposed he used the proto-Steadicam “Velocilator”, a Fox studio update of the Bell & Howell Rotambulator. The Rotambulator used a central column on a turntable, which could set the camera at any height between eighteen inches and seven feet. The camera could raise on the column for crane-like shots, and hydraulics could be used to control panning and tilting. The Velocilator reduced the weight of the machine, and replaced the column with an angled boom arm that could raise or lower the camera. No Hollywood feature fully explored the capabilities of the moving camera since Paul Fejos’ Lonesome , another European director whose experimentation shortened his career.
Charell was experimenting not just with camera movement though, but with editing in the midst of movement. In elegant flashback sequences, he cuts seamlessly from the present-day Countess and governess’ POV of her master bedroom to the entrance of a little girl – the Countess as a toddler behaving badly. When the camera swings back to the governess, there are tears in her eyes, remembering the days of youth. All this is accomplished without gauzy dissolves or other obvious markers of shifting time. It takes only a few seconds of screen time, but establishes the deep emotional bond between Loretta Young and Fazenda. It’s this offhand mastery that is so striking about the movie – every detail has been thought through to achieve maximum expressiveness.
Caravan was presented in a print restored by MoMA, but I only saw it because Dave Kehr recommended it at the end of his preview piece on the “To Save and Project” festival. In a bit of serendipity, Mr. Kehr has been hired as the new Adjunct Curator in MoMA’s film department. He told Scott Foundas at Variety that:
“My real concern in the last 10 years has been that, as much as we’ve made progress on the preservation and restoration of films, access to those films has really been slipping away,” Kehr said by phone Monday afternoon. “I hope one of the things I’ll be able to accomplish is to work on that idea, both at the Museum and elsewhere, and explore other ways of getting those films to the public, other kinds of distribution that don’t involve going to a nice auditorium on 53rd Street.”
So while it is difficult to see Caravan today, it sounds like Kehr is eager to get these titles back out into circulation through digital channels, or otherwise. While I will miss my weekly routine of reading his Sunday NY Times DVD column, it sounds like Kehr will be doing even more valuable work at his new position at MoMA.