The Forgotten: Erik Charell's "The Congress Dances" (1931) and "Caravan" (1934)

Two epic operetta-films by Erik Charell suggest a path not taken by mainstream cinema in the 1930s.
David Cairns

Erik Charell. His credits include script contributions to the Hope-Crosby comedy Road to Morocco and the Tony Martin musical Casbah. To learn this after seeing his only two features as director, The Congress Dances (1931) and Caravan (1934), is like discovering there was a guy called Orson Welles who made Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and spent the rest of his career writing gags for Abbott & Costello.

Perhaps Charell wasn't an artist of quite Welles' status. But he'd made a big name for himself in operetta, and both his films are in this mode, though the operetta-film is the genre that time forgot. As out-of-vogue as musicals are, despite anything Damien Chazelle can prove to the contrary, they are the height of fashion compared to actual filmed operettas.

The Congress Dances is set in Vienna as pre-WWI world leaders meet and get distracted by romance, except Conrad Veidt as master diplomat Metternich who is counting on the lovely local ladies to bamboozle his political rivals. Shopkeeper Lilian Harvey is arrested for throwing flowers at the Tsar which are mistaken for a bomb. "You can't even rely on the anarchists these days," laments a functionary. "Oh well, there's still time."

The Tsar intervenes personally to save Lilian from the designated punishment of "21 strokes of the cane on the naked posterior" and their relationship is off to a great start. Insofar as Charell had any chance to establish a set of thematic concerns in his abortive movie career, a certain level of kinkiness was probably going to be part of the mix.

What he did establish beyond question is a cinematic style which could be characterised as pageantry on the hoof. His camera is restless, and periodically his characters join it for spectacular romps through large sets and open scenery, as can be seen midway through the clip at top. If Charell had been able to continue his career on a smaller scale, everything would have been lost, since his is an approach that exults in huge, show-off sequences, insanely protracted trucking shots with hundreds of extras singing, dancing, stomping on grapes.

When Charrel, who was Jewish, quit UFA for Fox, the studio gave him vast resources for his Hollywood debut, in which glamorous stars Charles Boyer, Loretta Young, Phillips Holmes and Jean Parker are engulfed by a sea of gypsies, soldiers, servants, as the camera whisks them all up into an outsize souffle.

Here, his mobile camera is so unrelenting he doesn't even break a shot to go into flashback, simply panning over to reveal that Loretta is now a tiny child. This kind of film fantasy is pure Ophüls, but Ophüls had barely begun his career, and wouldn't start tracking through time until La ronde in 1950.

These two films, as extraordinary as they are, are somewhat exhausting in their largesse. The endless shots suggest Miklós Jancsó's distended parades, even if the version of (Austro-)Hungary presented in each film is rather more sentimental. Both depend on mistaken identity, love at first sight, aristocrats slumming it, class barriers, and spontaneous public singing. The Congress Dances, which was shot in three different versions in French, German and English, is often compared to Lubitsch but the resemblance is likely due to the shared influence of operetta (Lubitsch made himself maestro of the operetta-film genre as soon as talkies began, and basically invented movie musicals), while Caravan is co-written by Lubitsch scribe Samuel Hoffenstein.

Most of the output of Fox, before it incorporated with Twentieth Century Pictures, has been quite hard to see. It's a lost continent, with key works by John Ford and F.W. Murnau just breaking the surface. Who knows what else is down there? If the waters of time can subsume such films as Erik Charell's, what other Atlantean masterpieces lie beneath their surface?


The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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