Saturday, November 22, 2008


This afternoon I went to the matinee at the Castro Theatre to see the restored film Lola Montes (French spelling). If you read my first blog postings back in September you would know that I have had a particular interest in Lola Montez, especially her California connection.

Max Ophüls’ 1955 “Lola Montès” was a box office flop, butchered by its producers, then restored as much as possible by producer Pierre Braunberger in 1968. And, now, 40 years later, his daughter Laurence has overseen a superb state-of-the-art restoration. Ophüls’ last film and first in color is the most baroque of his sumptuous period pictures – and to many critics, his greatest.

It is framed by a fictional device, an elaborate circus, in which a dying Lola (Martine Carol) participates in a series of tableaux dramatizing her scandalous career as an internationally popular Spanish dancer with a notorious private life. Montèz was actually born Eliza Gilbert in 1821 in Ireland, the daughter of a British soldier who died of cholera in India, leaving his daughter at the mercy of her cold, calculating mother. Headstrong and disillusioned, Eliza, admiring the freedom and passion of Spanish dances, takes to the stage as Lola Montèz.

If Lola was known more for her affairs than her dancing ability, Carol was known more for her glamour than her acting talent. The producers thrust Carol on Ophüls, but he turns Carol’s clear striving to do her best into an expression of Lola’s determination to live life as she pleases while underneath actually longing for love and security. With typical boldness, she lands it at last as the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria (a dashing Anton Walbrook), but her notoriety threatens a revolution.

As the circus ringmaster, Peter Ustinov is the ultimate showman, stylish and ruthless, literally cracking a whip, wresting the last centime out of the fading Lola, but his remark that “she gave her body but kept her soul” reverberates through the film. By the end, she’s attained the transcendent spiritual dignity of Mizoguchi’s Oharu.

The film doesn’t deal with Lola’s American adventures, which included a two-year stay in a Grass Valley cottage, where she dreamed of being crowned queen of California but more constructively guided the young Lotta Crabtree into becoming one of the country’s most beloved entertainers. Lola turned to religion and died poor in New York at the age of 42 – Martine Carol herself died at 46.     Kevin Thomas  Los Angeles Times 10/08/08.

Peter Ustinov (with whom I share a birthday) is superb as the circus ringmaster in the opening and closing scenes reminiscent of the recent Rock Musical Moulin Rouge (or should I say the influence came from the other direction). A young Oskar Werner (later the doctor in the thoughtful film Ship of Fools and the hero in Fahrenheit 451) plays a Bavarian student who rescues Lola from the mob at the time of the 1848 Revolution.  

One of my few disappointments with the film plot is that it severely truncates Lola’s time and influence with Ludwig I in Bavaria. It seemed as if she had been there only a few weeks or months at most, when in fact she virtually ruled Bavaria for several years. (Refer to my Blog posting “California’s Connection to Wagner’s Ring Des Nibelungen” 09/07/08.) This leads to my other frustration, that there was no mention of Lola’s two years in Grass Valley, California during the Gold Rush. Her tragic comedown is made abundantly apparent, however, with her depicted humiliation in the circus.

Lola is somewhat effectively portrayed by Martine Carol, Franz Liszt by Will Quadflieg and King Ludwig I by Anton Walbrook. The sets –frequently surreal— are ravishing, and there were several nice touches, including a fleeting but accurate view of a model of Ludwig’s Bavarian Maiden in his first scene with Lola in the royal library. One possible anachronism was Lola’s portrait being painted while sitting in a sleigh. I’m certain that sleigh was made for Ludwig’s grandson, Ludwig II, a few decades later.  

The scene before, leading to the portrait's painting was utterly charming. King Ludwig wanted to find a painter for Lola’s portrait and interviewed a number of artists in the palace studio. As he examined the various paintings, his repeated question was: “How long did it take you to complete what you’ve already done?” He ended up choosing a rather inferior painter, who had taken the longest time. Clearly he just wanted Lola to remain in Munich.

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