Friday, February 24, 2017

Neglected Gem #96: Adventures of Don Quixote (1933)

Feodore Chaliapin as Don Quixote in G.W. Pabst's Adventures of Don Quixote (1933).

Adventures of Don Quixote is one of the true curiosities in movie history, and not only because it’s the one adaptation of Cervantes’ book by a major filmmaker that was actually completed. Orson Welles died without finishing his, and Terry Gilliam’s closed down early in the shoot when he hit one insurmountable difficulty after another (all of which are chronicled in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha). This 1933 film is the work of the great German director G.W. Pabst, best known for his silent films with Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. He filmed three versions of the novel, one in French, one in English and one in German; all three starred the great Russian opera basso Feodor Chaliapin, who turned out to be both a magnificent camera subject and a mesmerizing actor. He doesn’t get to sing Mussorgsky (Chaliapin was celebrated for his Boris Godunov), but he does sing, and even though the music by Jacques Ibert is mediocre, these abbreviated arias are among the movie’s high points. Chaliapin had appeared in a couple of silent movies, but Don Quixote was his only major movie role, and his last. (He died in 1938.) If his name rings a bell today, it’s probably because his son, who bore his name, played the marvelous old grandfather in Moonstruck who asks his dogs, with magisterial impatience, “Why do you make me wait?” before taking them for their evening constitutional. (Chaliapin Jr. died in 1992.)

Chaliapin, whose acting is as expressive as his singing, is the chief reason to see Don Quixote, which is available on a Video Artists International DVD that includes both English and French versions. Overall it’s a fascinating picture, not least because Pabst and his co-screenwriters (Paul Morand, Alexandre Arnoux and John Farrow) have trimmed Cervantes’ dense picaresque to just about an hour’s running time and yet retain its dramatic coherence. They’ve conceived it as a series of set pieces, one of which, the episode in which Quixote tilts at the windmill, is truly stunning. I’d say it’s not just one of the most sublimely realized adaptations of a famous literary escapade but one of the most amazing sequences in world film. My second favorite scene is the one in which Quixote attacks a flock of sheep, believing them to be giants, which is rendered more fully in the English print than in the French one.

George Robey and Feodore Chaliapin.
Except for Donnio, who plays the bespectacled Carrasco, Quixote’s niece’s fiancé, and Renée Valliers, who plays the serving girl he dubs Dulcinea, the supporting casts in the two versions are different. Both Dorville and George Robey provide ample support for Chaliapin in the role of Sancho Panza, who falls into the role of squire to Quixote’s Knight of the Woeful Countenance; their comic styles are quite different. Mady Berry and Emily Fitzroy alternate in the part of Sancho’s henpecking wife.

The movie has real visual grandeur as well as considerable visual quirkiness. Nicolas Farkas and Paul Portier shot it; the art direction is by Andrej Andrejew; and Max Pretzfelder’s costumes include some gorgeous outfits for the court of the Duke of Fallanga (Jean de Limur and Miles Mander) as well as a gown fitted over a farthingale, for Quixote’s niece Maria (Mireille Balin and Sidney Fox), so voluminous that makes her look like a disembodied head and torso fixed to the top of a wedding cake. The film is a little formal: you’re always aware that Pabst is shooting a literary classic, and perhaps because he’s more comfortable in his own period, it lacks the fluidity and emotional potency of Pandora’s Box (an adaptation of a pair of turn-of-the-century Frank Wedekind plays that he transposed to the 1920s) and his early talkie, Kameradschaft, about a mine explosion on the border of Germany and France. But the end of Don Quixote, when the Inquisition burns the protagonist’s books and he dies of a broken heart, is quietly affecting. Chaliapin’s Quixote seems to buckle under the weight of defeat, and Pabst lingers on the pages being turned to ash; they’re still dominating the frame as we hear Chaliapin’s final aria, assuring Sancho that the real Quixote lives on – and we see one book that isn’t consumed by flame, Cervantes’ towering watershed novel.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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