HCF REWIND NO. 241: MADAME DUBARRY [Germany 1919]
ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 22nd September, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 114 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 18th century France, Jeanne Marie Vaubernier is a seamstress with a boyfriend named Armand de Foix. Jeanne is instructed to deliver a hat but is distracted in the street by a royal procession. The horse of Don Diego the Spanish envoy tramples on the hat, and Don Diego not only pays for the damage but also becomes sexually involved with Jeanne. The two men fight over her, and Armand shoots Don Diego and is imprisoned. Jeanne falls into a marriage with the Count Dubarry, but a meeting with King Louis XV soon results in her becoming the king’s mistress…
I don’t feel that I’ve explored silent cinema enough, even thouth I’ve obviously seen a few of the classics. It seems amazing to think that there were three decades of cinema before the ‘talkies’ arrived where audiences had to be satisfied with moving pictures with no sound except for a usually non-stop musical accompaniment. I’m not sure I would have sought out Madame DuBarry as a film to buy and watch, but I’m very glad that, courtesy of Eureka Entertainment, I’ve now seen it. Madame DuBarry is an early film by Ernst Lubitsch, who later became famous for his elegant, sophisticated comedies. I supposed you could call them early ‘rom-coms’, but they’re actually far superior to most of those [I pride myself in being able to appreciate and enjoy most kinds of film, but really struggle with ‘rom-coms’] and much more diverse in subjects and situations. Check out my review of Lubitsch’s great 1932 sex comedy Trouble In Paradise, released by Eureka last November, to see what I mean.
Madame DuBarry is a different kind of film to what Lubitsch is associated with and the filmmaker was still finding his feet, though he made films of quite different kinds early on his career including even an early Egyptian curse movie, The Eyes Of The Mummy. This 1919 effort is a historical drama, a rags-to-riches tale set just before and during the French revolution. If you’ve seen one of the versions of Marie Antoniette in which the character of Madame DuBarry usually appears [the 1996 version had her played by the glorious Asia Argento], then story and subject-wise you will have a good idea of what to expect. There were at least five other versions of Madame DuBarry’s story, the first in 1917 starring famous early screen vamp Theda Bara. This 1919 one was re-titled Passion in the US and was apparently a bit of a sensation. Some later versions were cut to 85 min, but Eureka present the full version including, I was pleased to see, the final scene of a guillotined head being thrown into a crowd which has been missing from many prints. It’s astonishing how violent and also how blatantly sexual many silent films were compared to the early days of sound where the Hays Code soon came into practice and movies became very restricted. Madame DuBarry, with its heroine obviously sleeping her way to the top, may have had a hard time with the US [and the even stricter UK] censors it If had come out 20 or even 15 years later.
She’s definitely a bit of a tart this Madame, and sometimes it’s hard to know whether to like her or not. She begins the film with a boyfriend called Armand whom she supposedly loves and remains in love with throughout, but jumps into bed with the nearest rich man at the slightest opportunity. Don Diego has his way with her, but, being no Zorro this Don Diego, is then killed in a [disappointingly brief] duel by Armand. I couldn’t help but think of Groucho Marx’s famous line: “I’m fighting for this woman’s honour, which is more than she ever did”. With Armand in jail awaiting sentence, Jeanne is persuaded within minutes to marry the Count DuBarry, who, when he’s trying to chase up some money he’s owed, thinks nothing of sending his wife to use her wiles to do his dirty work for him. Then she meets the King, and with speed even James Bond would be jealous off, he almost immediately becomes a notch on her bedpost [what does she do when they first meet despite being instructed in how to behave? Give him a peck on the cheek!] and is installed as his mistress. However, she still supposedly loves Armand, and uses her influence to have him freed and then, when he becomes a soldier, promoted so he can eventually be nearer her. However, poor Armand has had enough of Jeanne’s sleeping around and by now hates her. Also, the poor people have by now had enough of the repressive monarchy, whose days are numbered.
The film’s narrative is coherent and easy to follow even if you’re not very familiar with silent films, though it’s not very historically accurate, hugely compressing events [ In reality, King Louis XV died 15 years before the beginning of the French Revolution]. Nonetheless the story is involving, even if one finds it hard to care about Jeanne, so much so that one’s sympathies are almost totally with Armand when he rejects her, and certainly maintained interest for this critic who, truth be told, was expecting a bit of a slog. Despite some of the IMDB reviews, I found the film moved at a fairly fast pace, with scenes generally quite short, and I certainly wasn’t bored. And even if all the court intrigue and bed hopping gets a little tiresome, the French Revolution scenes near the end are really vivid with expert use of an increasingly large number of extras which show that Lubitsch could have become a great director of historical epics if he wanted to. There’s something about watching depictions of historical events in really old films like this that, despite the sped-up action and the fact that movie cameras obviously didn’t exist, that almost makes it feel like you’re viewing a visual recording of the actual occasion.
While not at all a comedy, the first half of Madame DuBarry does sometimes show a lighter touch then you may expect. One especially amusing and clever sequence is when Jeanne is round the house of Don Diego dining. The Count DuBarry pays a surprise visit and she hides behind a partition. She attempts to tease and tickle her date without attracting the attention of the unwanted guest, but it is eventually revealed that the Count can see the entire episode in a conveniently placed mirror. Some later scenes are more funny in an unintentional manner, like when the King stuffs a scroll down Jeanne’s cleavage and she looks like she’s about to have an orgasm, and there’s a change of heart right near the end which makes no sense at all. Then again, the astonishingly lustful performance by Pola Negri is one of the film’s strongest points. I’d never seen one of her films before and here she projects an un-bridled sexuality with just the right touch of innocence: she just loves sleeping with lots of men and doesn’t see any wrong in it. When her husband says in so many words that she may have to use her body to get Choiseul to pay him the money he’s owed, most female movie characters would be aghast. Jeanne seems rather excited by the idea by the lustful expression on her face. Unfortunately her laughably heavy eye make-up makes her look a bit grotesque, while it’s sometimes hard to tell one wigged, fake-spotted guy from the other. Emil Jannings as the King isn’t really given a chance to shine until his final scene.
There are some very impressive sets in this film, though Lubitsch largely ignores them and concentrates on the characters until the final quarter, where the Revolution mayhem is proceeded by an indoor funeral procession shot from a distance where we can finally admire some of the ornate interiors. I often find that silent films tend to suffer from inappropriate scoring, but Madame DuBarry’s often very dramatic music works very well. Though I haven’t been able to confirm this is the case, the very well-recorded music track is probably a re-recording of the original score [here by William Axt] as is the case with some other restorations of silent films from Germany [i.e.Nosferatu, Metropolis]. Madame Dubarry just falls short of being a neglected classic from film’s early years, and for me suffers by not allowing us to care about its heroine much. It is nonetheless really rather enjoyable and I think you may be surprised how absorbing it all is.
• New high-definition 1080p presentation of the main feature on the Blu-ray, and progressive encode on the DVD
• Original /French / German intertitles with newly translated optional English subtitles
• Lubitsch’s earliest surviving film, Als ich tot war 
• 36-PAGE BOOKLET