Poor Louis J. Gasnier! Doomed to be remembered for a single late work, Reefer Madness, a.k.a. Tell Your Children (1936), the worst film he or maybe anyone else ever made. It's a piece of staggering incoherence and incompetence which can take a simple scene and put it through a kind of fractal mirror-maze of bad cutting and coverage so as to render you constantly uncertain how many people are in a room and which way any of them are facing.
It was not always thus. Gasnier began directing in France around 1905, worked with the great Max Linder, and was a perfectly serviceable craftsman by the standards of the day. By 1925 he was in Hollywood and working at a high level in the industry, directing Clara Bow in Parisian Love, a tale of "Apaches" (French street roughs) and the upper classes, and a forbidden love affair that crosses these class boundaries...and maybe breaks another taboo too.
Perhaps the film's racy subtext is responsible for the rather allusive intertitles, which often leave one slightly uncertain what's going on. Or perhaps we can blame Gasnier for the confusion, since he does already evince a tendency to cover a scene from many different angles, all in wide shot, and cut between them at dizzying speed, so that the eye struggles to keep up with the scattered figures. Still, from what I can tell, something rather odd is going on in this movie.
Clara plays a ferocious street criminal, an Apache dancer in bars but also a real burglar working alongside her willowy young lover, Armand. Wounded during a robbery, Armand is captured by the master of the house, his old college professor Pierre Marcel (two first names: weird but OK I suppose).
What follows is never fully explained, maybe because it just can't be, but Prof. Marcel keeps Armand prisoner as he recuperates, and sets about reforming him. Since his romance with Clara is a big part of his devotion to the underworld life, Marcel breaks it off by supplying him with a new, respectable girlfriend. But how respectable can she be when, upon first being introduced to the bedridden Armand, she kisses him on the lips at Marcel's request?
What we seem to have here is a glaring example of the beard, the female character introduced merely as an alibi of heterosexuality for two male leads. And indeed, Gasnier's two leading men seem quite into each other, and their intimate scenes are played for all the Wildean undercurrents they can muster. Is this what they mean by "Parisian Love"?
Soon Armand is a new man and off to America to sell a new kind of burglar alarm he's invented. (His girlfriend is never seen again, vanishing from the movie as soon as her presence is no longer required to separate the two guys.) Clara, having disguised herself as a French maid (Ooh-la-la, the form-fitting black satin!), has tumbled onto Marcel's plot to cut her out of the picture, so she disguises herself again as a society lady and seduces the prof, leading him into marriage.
How can the plot get out of this mess, with the hero out of the country selling burglar alarms to Yanks, the heroine married to the wrong guy, and the wrong guy occupying a bizarre place in the narrative somewhere between Henry Higgins and a gay sugar daddy? Well, Armand returns unexpectedly, Clara falls into his arms, and Marcel grants her a "Paris divorce" as a wedding present, before stealing Armand's return ticket to the States and taking off, a sadder and possibly more confused man. What has he done to merit this tragic (for him) ending? Possibly precisely what the movie is at pains to deny/obfuscate...
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.