As I watched the magnificently restored Lola Montès at the Detroit Film Theatre on Jan. 16, 2009, I thought about all of the silent films that are lost forever. Before the 7 p.m. showing of this 1955 French/German film, DFT Film Curator Elliot Wilhelm talked about the long journey that this movie traveled to be restored to the original vision of director Max Ophüls, who died in 1957, perhaps in part because of the mutilation of his last film.
I had looked forward to seeing Lola Montès on the big screen for many years. I first discovered it on the foreign language shelf of the local Blockbuster video store, and enjoyed it immensely on a VHS tape on a 19-inch television set. Last fall, when I heard that it had been restored and would be playing in theaters, I fervently hoped that it would make a stop in the Detroit area. On the last weekend of the Fall 2008 DFT season, a beautiful poster in the lobby of the DFT announced that Lola would be stopping by in 2009.
Elliot Wilhelm’s short speech before the movie further increased my already high anticipation for the film. He provided much insight, context, and perspective for this showing. It was part of the DFT’s 35th anniversary, and 3 million film buffs have visited the historic Detroit Institute of Arts auditorium since the DFT opened in Jan. 1974 with Mon Oncle Antoine.
When the DFT opened, Elliott noted, specialty film theaters were the only chance that people had to see many classic films, in the days before cable television, videotapes, and DVDs. But technology has made more movies accessible, and also has contributed to the restoration of films. Lola Montès has played at the DFT before, but never in the version shown in 2009. In a sincere, heartfelt tone of voice, Elliott said that this showing of Lola Montès was a justification of everyone’s faith in the DFT.
A New View of Lola
When I reflect on seeing Lola Montès on the big screen for the first time, I first think of the face of Martine Carol, who played Lola. Critics have debated Carol’s contribution to the film. Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide says the film “suffers from Carol’s lack of magnetism,” and David Shipman’s The Story of Cinema describes Carol’s performance as “wooden.”
To me, Carol’s limitations helped her in this role. Her narrow range of expressiveness added to the passive resignation and mysterious distance of her character. Most of her acting was in small, skillful reactions to the passions and heartbreak of her fate. And Carol’s physical beauty certainly helped show her appeal to the different men who passed through her life.
Another highlight of the movie was the musical score by Georges Auric. I got a preview of the score on Jan. 11 when Jack Goggin of classical/jazz music station WRCJ featured Auric on his Sunday night Film Classics program. The accompaniment ranged from the playful fanfare of circus music to a waltz theme that was played in many variations, at times with such sheer poignance that you could feel it in every fiber of your body. When I left the DFT, the musical introduction to the next showing of Lola Montès was filtering through the lobby, and I had a hard time tearing myself away from it.
Many people who see Lola Montès will probably be most impressed by the circus scenes, where Max Ophüls uses CinemaScope to its maximum effect. Watching Lola Montès on the big screen reminded me of how well Ophüls used extras in his films. The many different circus performers who raced across the screen from different angles was a good metaphor for the winds of fate that swirled around Lola. And I also thought of how fun it is to see a circus movie in a theater (like it also was on Nov. 22, 2008 when I saw Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in 3 Ring Circus at the Redford Theatre).
Another DFT Season Begins
It was opening night for the DFT’s Winter/Spring 2009 season, a welcome event on this coldest day of the year. In the Crystal Gallery Café, I enjoyed my first bowl of vegetarian chili of the year, served to me by the always friendly staff of the café. A flyer announced a series of Sunday afternoon pre-film lectures, including a 1:30 p.m. talk on Jan. 18 by Elliot Wilhelm before the 2 p.m. showing of Lola Montès.
And it completed a special week of filmgoing at the Detroit Movie Palaces that helped me celebrate my birthday on Jan. 14. It started with an afternoon showing of The Sound of Music (1965) at the Redford Theatre on Jan. 10, and continued with an evening screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) at the Michigan Theater on Jan. 12.
And finally, Lola Montès, on the big screen, in all its original glory.
Copyright © 2009 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.