This film, sadly, didn’t do all that well in the box office during its original release. Partly this was due to the studio stepping in and making great and sweeping changes – but it’s possible another reason it didn’t do well is because it was gloriously and delightfully batcrap crazy.
In theory, this is a biopic of the life of Lola Montez, a 19th Century Irish dancer and courtesan. The real Lola Montez was actually born “Eliza Gilbert” and spent her early childhood in India, the child of an Anglo-Irish military family. Her father died when she was only six and her mother remarried; but Montez was apparently a handful for her stepfather, and was sent to a convent school. She eloped at age 16, kicked that husband out at age 21, and became a professional Spanish dancer soon after, trying to pose as a Spanish woman. But someone in one of her London audiences recognized her, and the ensuing scandal drove her out to other European cities; the whiff of impropriety followed, keeping her from full acceptance as a dancer but luring powerful men to seek her out backstage, with the composer Franz Liszt, writer Alexandre Dumas and the Bavarian King Ludwig I among her reported lovers. Ludwig I was especially taken with her, granting her a castle and a title; but his subjects objected so strongly that Ludwig was deposed. This was effectively Montez’s downfall as well – she fled to France a while, in the hopes he’d join her, but then gave up and came to the United States, going through another few marriages and seedier dancing gigs before giving up to do social work.
That’s fodder enough for a biopic, and director Max Ophuls could have done just a straight-up retelling and still had a grand epic on his hands. He took a bit of a different approach, however; Ophuls focuses on Montez’ dancing career, from her first years in Paris to her affair with Ludwig I, and ending with her downfall and years in the United States. However, he also stages much of her story as a surreal circus act, suggesting that her downfall was so total that she was reduced to marketing her very life as a lurid sideshow.
It’s bonkers. Peter Ustinov is the ringmaster, narrating Lola’s story and setting up the tableaux detailing each incident from her life, as Lola (Martine Carol) mostly sits statuelike beside him as the audience gawks, or performs a series of fittingly acrobatic stunts (a trapeze act to demonstrate how she was tossed from lover to lover, a high-dive act to emphasize her downfall, etc.). It’s not all circus act, though; more traditional depictions of moments from Lola’s life are intercut with the circus stuff, and there are occasional backstage-at-the-circus moments where various clowns and roustabouts peer through the curtains and gossip about the audience or Lola consults with the manager about some dizzy spells she’s having.
It reminded me of the flips between “reality” and “vaudeville” that happened in the movie adaptation of Chicago, only with less of a clear-cut distinction between what was “real” and what was “stage”. Events happen out of order, the ringmaster turns up in one of the “real life” sequences, and the whole film ends with a pair of clowns drawing a vaudeville backdrop across the screen, implying the whole thing may have been a performance.
This fluid approach to reality, plus the poor showing at the box office, is part of what prompted the studio to make big changes in Ophuls’ work. When the film flopped, the studios tried re-releasing it as a more straightforward biopic, with all of the flashbacks depicting Lola’s life re-ordered sequentially and only a couple of circus scenes at the end. Ophuls spent the next three years – his final three years on earth – fighting the studio to get them to change it back. It wasn’t until 2008 that a team of film historians and preservationists worked on recovering and restoring the original print that Ophuls’ directors’ cut saw light again.
In the studio’s defense, though, it was clear the studio sank a lot of money into this; it looks gorgeous, with lots of scenes set in richly-decorated palaces and concert halls and a series of Lola’s boudoirs over the years, plus the elaborate circus sets with fully-costumed acrobats and clowns and aerialists and teams of trained horses and such. A good chunk of the budget also went to affording Martine Carol, who was something of a flavor-of-the-month It-Girl that French studios were trying to promote then. Many reviewers point to Carol’s performance as another reason for the film’s downfall, writing her off as “bland” and “wooden”. I’d have to disagree, however; she wasn’t that great, but whether they were seeing blandness in the actor or numbness in the character is a question I think is up for debate. Or, at least, Ophuls may have spun things so that Carol’s flat acting may have worked for the role. Either way, it didn’t bother me, and it fit the character in those particular moments.