© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

1927 French epic "Casanova" provides a special treat for silent film lovers

 Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office
Audrey Kupferberg
Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office

A double Blu-ray/DVD package of the legendary French romance Casanova is now available. It’s a boon for those who love the art of the silent film. Flicker Alley, Lobster Films, and the Blackhawk Films Collection are presenting this long unavailable blockbuster which was restored by the Cinematheque Francaise.

Preservationist Renee Lichtig worked from a finegrain master positive element that was made from the nitrate camera negative. This is a rarity in film preservation, since many silent era productions, if they survive at all, only exist in the form of worn, damaged, or incomplete projection prints.

Casanova, with a running time of 160 minutes, was filmed at the end of the silent film era, released Christmas week of 1927, at the time that The Jazz Singer was captivating audiences with its sound sequences. It is surprising that this ambitious film is directed in a static, old-fashioned manner. At a time when artful German and American filmmakers were utilizing a sweeping, moving camera style, Casanova has primitive stationary camera work. It was directed by Russian émigré Alexandre Volkoff.

More exciting than the camerawork and direction is the star of the film. Volkoff’s friend and fellow Russian émigré, Ivan Mosjoukine plays the title role. Mosjoukine is an impressive presence on the screen. He doesn’t have conventional American movie star looks, but his interpretation of Casanova is memorable.

Casanova, the 18th Century chevalier whose memoirs paint him as a rapacious lover, a gambler and adventurer, is a difficult pill to swallow today. His voracious appetite for sex, his flirtations and frequent passes at women, are not acceptable to many modern audiences. Mosjoukine captures the lusty lover’s enthusiasm for pleasuring women with come-hither looks. However, I am betting that only those with an appreciation for the art of silent film will swallow the story. Casanova is the sorcerer, the gambler, the brave adventurer, the astonishing sword fighter, the great lover. He’s a bit over the top.

Looking beyond the shortcomings of the screenplay and camerawork, Casanova has touches which make it a must for silent film lovers. I literally had to catch my breath when, two hours into the viewing, the screen, previously black-and-white and tinted, went to full color. A reel from a vintage diacetate print survives which features a stencil color sequence of the carnival of Venice. It is extraordinary. We have so few examples of the beautiful stencil color process.

The film, produced by a French studio, was shot on locations in Venice and in the Austrian Alps. It has a very expansive and expensive feel. The creative costumes are something special. One of the costume designers, Barbara Karinska, would win an Oscar in 1948 for Joan of Arc. The new musical score by Gunter A. Buchwald is quite effective.

When watching films from earlier times, audiences are apt to stumble across points that are offensive, specifics that do not agree with our lifestyles. Such is the case in this film. Casanova has a small child servant, and later there are child servants in the palace of the Emperor and Empress of Russia. These children are wearing blackface make-up. It wouldn’t happen today. Then was then.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Related Content