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Home / Film / Home Video / Crime and Melodrama in the 1920s: Varieté (1925) and Beggars of Life (1928)

Crime and Melodrama in the 1920s: Varieté (1925) and Beggars of Life (1928)

While Ewald André Dupont’s Varieté (Variety, 1925) and William A. Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928) come from two different studio systems—Weimar Germany’s legendary UFA in the case of Varieté, while Beggars of Life was a Hollywood production—they have a striking amount in common. To begin with, both films focus on characters attempting to leave behind the constraints bourgeois life, which captures a certain ethos of the ‘20s that applies both to Germany and the United States. The so-called Roaring Twenties was a time of dramatic social change, with previously unknown freedoms for women, and communities marked by wealth and privilege celebrated this sense of change and chaos with often shocking excess (think F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby or even Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 book Decline and Fall). But the decade was also marked by poverty, capped by the Great Depression in 1929 that changed the fates of America and Europe.

Varieté follows a former trapeze artist who leaves behind his stable if boring marriage to run away with a foreign orphan who becomes an integral part of his new circus act. In search of fame and fortune, the two are roped into a professional threesome with a renowned trapeze impresario, which leads to crime and violence. Beggars of Life follows two drifters on the run from crime—an orphaned young woman, who kills her adoptive father when he tries to sexually assault her, and a kind stranger who takes her under his wing—as they try to find a freer life in the Canadian wilderness. In addition to sharing the theme for this search for a new way to live—albeit through very different means—Varieté and Beggars of Life have a central female character set adrift in the world, orphaned, abandoned, and abused, who sets the events of the respective plots in motion. And to top it all off, Kino Lorber is releasing both on Blu-ray this August, restoring two classic, yet somehow neglected silent cinema titles.

A prolific director largely forgotten alongside other German expressionism masters like Fritz Lang, Robert Wiene, and F.W. Murnau, Dupont’s work in Varieté as a director and screenwriter was unfortunately overshadowed by two collaborators whose legacies would go on to dwarf his own: star Emil Jannings and cinematographer Karl Freund. Jannings, undisputedly one of the great performers of silent cinema, is better known for his starring roles in films like Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924) and Faust (1926), and especially Josef von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930). Contemporary audiences might not be quite prepared for his acting style in Varieté, with his use of bombastic facial expressions to make up for a lack of dialogue, but he’s a wonder in this film as in everything.

The curious element of his portrayal as “Boss” Huller is that the character is given a domestic weight that might seem surprising compared to Hollywood portrayals of tragic male leads—think of Boss held up against Lon Chaney’s knife thrower in the 1927 horror masterpiece The Unknown—though Janning darns his girlfriend’s torn stocking and cares for his infant son without a hint of discomfort or winking irony. Dupont is careful to emphasis that Boss isn’t looking for just a thrill ride with a younger woman, Berthe-Marie (Hungarian actress Lya De Putti), when he abandons his wife (Maly Delschaft, also of The Last Laugh). The implication is that he has given up his career as a trapeze artist because of a mild injury exacerbated by his wife’s fears for his safety. His rejection of his respectable, married life is not an immature rejection of love or responsibility, but a deeper search for freedom that signified many films in a decade wracked by radically changing social mores.

Varieté’s plot is actually told via flashback, after Boss is already in jail and the story unfolds because the prison warden wishes to hear it. It’s a story of passion and tragedy, not unlike The Blue Angel, with a structure loosely mimicking that film, though Sternberg’s tale came slightly later. The plot is more or less a predictable melodrama and it’s clear that Boss has been sent to prison for committing a crime; he murders Artinelli (Warick Ward) when the latter enters into a partnership with Boss and his young love, Berthe-Marie, a traveling trapeze troupe. Not content to possess greater fame, fortune, and charm than Boss, Artinelli seduces Berthe-Marie in what is clearly a rape scene—a subject I will return to shortly—and the two become lovers behind his back. Though he plots to “accidentally” drop Artinelli during a performance, making a grand spectacle of his revenge, his inherent honest nature prevents this and he’s driven to murder the man with his bare hands in their dressing room.

While Jannings makes the character both manly and sympathetic, the real star of Varieté is the cinematography from Karl Freund, which is highlighted in Kino’s recent Blu-ray (and the glorious restoration). Though, again, not as well known alongside his collaborators like Lang and Murnau, for my money Freund is one of the most important figures of the era. Thanks to his work as a cinematographer on many of Lang’s films—including Metropolis (1927)—and a lot of the key titles of Weimar cinema, he also lensed Browning’s Dracula (1931) after emigrating to the United States and made a number of innovations in the new medium of television through his work on I Love Lucy in the ‘50s. And I know this is heresy in some circles, but I prefer his two key directorial efforts, The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935), to the majority of Universal’s horror titles. Varieté serves as a showcase for his talent; in an era when cameras were unwieldy and stationary, he has them soaring above and crammed in between crowds at Boss’s variety show, and somehow has them follow the trapeze artists themselves, whirling through the air at all angles.

Above all, Varieté is a fascinating catalog of this dying artform: sideshows and variety hours, burlesque, vaudeville, and the glory of the circus. Before we see Boss performing as a trapeze artist, he runs what could be described as an erotic carnival or sideshow, where the majority of performers are scantily clad young women. Sideshows, nightclubs, and other performative spaces came to represent freedom from bourgeois life—and often immorality—in much of ‘20s cinema. The key example is Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, but similar themes pop up in many films from the decade. Carnival and funhouse settings are central to expressionist horror films like Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920) and Paul Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, 1924), while a much later film like Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) attempted to capture what these Weimar performance spaces were like.

The star of Beggars of Life, Louise Brooks, actually went on to become an important figure in waning Weimar cinema with G.W. Pabst films like Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929) and Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (Diary of a Lost Girl, 1929). In Pandora’s Box, Brooks’ character Lulu is so desired by everyone around her she’s briefly pushed towards becoming an actress and one of Brooks first major roles, in the Howard Hawks film A Girl in Every Port (1928), features her as a high diver at a carnival. Her incredible sexuality, which was expertly harnessed by Pabst, is central to many of these roles and she remains a powerful symbol for the changing sexual mores of the day.

Lya De Putti’s Berthe-Marie of Varieté is in a loosely similar mold: all the men around her seem to desire her and it is this illicit passion that moves the plot forward. But unlike Brooks’ various characters, Berthe-Marie has seemingly no agency. She’s a foreign stowaway on a ship—The Berthe-Marie where her name has been taken from—and she arrives wrapped in an ornate scarf wearing what appears to be a belly dancer’s outfit (!). She throws herself at Boss, who can’t resist her, and though he dotes on her, later betrays him for Artinelli—though her relationship with Artinelli begins as a rape. Brook’s character in Beggars of Life, known as the Girl, is similarly desired by most of the men who come across her, but is of a different mold than either Berthe-Marie, or a character like Marlene Dietrich’s scornful temptress Lola Lola in The Blue Angel. Like Berthe-Marie and Lulu of Pandora’s Box, the Girl is an orphan, who has inexplicably been adopted by a strange man. He leers at her and makes passes, but when he finally attempts to rape her, she shoots and kills him. She’s interrupted by a Boy (Richard Arlen), who has come begging for food. He takes pity and the two go on a fairytale-like journey through the US, as they flee the Girl’s murder, the cops pursuing them, and a gang of hobos.

Though the Boy seems drawn to the Girl, their relationship has an innocent, childlike quality. He cares for her and comes up with excuses for why she should travel with him, and sticks by her despite the wolf-like predators that come across their path. One such is Wallace Beery’s Oklahoma Red, a hobo toughie who deduces that the Girl is female—she’s been disguised in boy’s clothing—and decides he’s going to make her his mistress. This leads to violence in the hobo camp and a dramatic pursuit; as with Varieté, Beggars of Life has a fairly predictable melodramatic structure. But where most Hollywood films would have to punish the Girl at the conclusion, here the Girl and Boy are allowed to have a potentially happy ending. Oklahoma Red, who is revealed to have a heart of gold, despite the fact that he encouraged an attempted gang rape of the Girl, maneuvers things so that the Girl and Boy can escape together. During an attempted escape of his own, onboard a train, he dies and is thusly sacrificed for his sins and for the Girl’s crime.

The contrast between the sexual relationships in Varieté and Beggars of Life shows the difference between what was permissible for European vs. Hollywood filmmakers. Despite the onslaught of Pre-Code films, where there was an enhanced degree of permissiveness soon to be squashed by the censors and the treatment of Varieté by the American censors is an indication of what was to come: nearly the first third of the film was cut, so that it seems like Berthe-Marie is Boss’s wife and not the mistress he has run away with.

This dual portrait of ‘20s cinema has been brought to Blu-ray by Kino (as separate releases) with an array of special features. Varieté includes the 2015 restoration by Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, a brand new score from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, and the controversial 2015 score from the band the Tiger Lillies. While I enjoyed both scores, the latter is an acquired taste and it’s perhaps best to acquaint yourself with the band beforehand (their Shockheaded Peter musical is a great place to start). An essay by Bret Wood and the inclusion of similarly-themed silent film Othello (1922) with Jannings and de Putti rounds out the release. Beggars of Life includes two commentary tracks, one from actor William Wellman, Jr (the director’s son), and another from Louise Brooks Society founder Thomas Gladysz, plus a booklet essay from critic Nick Pinkerton.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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