Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mantrap vs. The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna--Day Two of the SFSFF

Day two of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival ended with consecutive screenings of Victor Fleming’s marital comedy Mantrap (1926) and Hanns Schwwarz's romantic drama The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna (1929). Both films concern love triangles centered around sexually independent women, one ends happily and the other tragically, not only because of the genre, but because of the nature of romantic love in each or rather how the men in each do or do not understand the woman that they love. 

In Mantrap, a New York City divorce lawyer Ralph Prescott (Percy Marmont) travels to Mantrap, Canada for a respite from the predatory women who crowd his office. There, newlyweds Alverna (Clara Bow) and Joe (Ernest Torrence) befriend Ralph. Backwoods trader Joe has recently met the flirtatious ex-manicurist Alverna in Minneapolis and they were “married in a fever.” However, despite the brevity of their courtship and marriage, Joe has a sympathetic understanding of Alverna. He acknowledges that she must miss life in the city. He encourages a friendship between Alverna and Ralph, because he feels the Ralph can provide some sophisticated company for her. Alverna eventually becomes infatuated with Ralph and forces him to take her with him when he leaves for New York.  Joe pursues them.

Percy Marmont, Clara Bow and Ernest Torrence, Mantrap
The runaway couple find themselves lost in the woods after their guide abandons them, taking their food with him. Alverna impresses Joe with her bravery during their travails. Subsequently, he falls in love with her.  Eventually Joe catches up with the pair with gun in hand.  Instead of blasting away, Joe discusses with Ralph what he should do with Alverna. The two men agree she should take a city vacation, but argue about where. Amusingly, Ralph has already fallen out of love with Alverna when a little earlier, she flirted with a would-be rescuer. Ralph had assumed when she displayed her bravery that she had changed, rather than realizing this was simply another part of her. He’s too insecure to love her if she displays sexual interest in another man. Even after she points out her motivation was to get them needed rations, he dismisses her as a flirt.

Alverna does an amusing slow burn as the two men plan what she should do. Finally she takes off on her own with the boat. She’ll do what she wants and not what she’s told. Though younger then the men, she’s still sees herself as a woman and not a child. Joe returns home dejected after her departure. Interestingly, when Joe’s busybody neighbor tries to run down the absent Alverna, Joe defends his wife. Alverna returns to him and their touching but wry reunion scene captures why Alverna has found her perfect man in Joe—it’s quite modern but not cynical. I prefer not to detail the final scene and leave it as a delightful surprise. The film’s available in the DVD set, Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938 from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Poster for The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna (1929)
The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna also depicts a love story, but one in in the traditionally tragic mode rather than in the modern sex comedy genre of Mantrap. Nina (Brigitte Helm) like Alverna, enjoys expressing her sexuality for the pleasure it brings her but will also exploit it to get what she needs (or wants). In Lie, Nina falls in love with a naïve and handsome army lieutenant Michael Rostof (Franz Lederer) and leaves the plush villa (and lifestyle) that her lover/keeper General Beranoff (Warwick Ward) has provided her. Or rather, she is order out of it when Beranoff discovers Michael in the villa the morning after the pair meet. He assumes they slept together. He’s wrong, but he's incapable of seeing thatNina is actually speaking the truth when she explains the couple slept in separate rooms.  

After her expulsion, Nina lives in increasing poverty, her life only brightened by Michael’s visits.  When Michael finally realizes the dire nature of Nina’s economic situation, he determines to help her by gambling.  Beranoff joins the same high-stakes game that Michael has entered at the officer’s club. Beranoff catches Michael cheating and has him sign a confession. He uses the confession to blackmail Nina in to coming back to him. Before returning to the villa, she lies to Michael about why she is leaving him. She tells him that she is sick of living in poverty and will sell what she is giving to him for free. Michael readily accepts her lie, oddly unable to connect Beranoff’s earlier destruction of his confession with her decision to go back to the general. The ease with which he accepts the worst explanation of her behavior seems to indicate that he never truly accepted that she’d been another man's  kept woman, but simply put her past out of his mind. He clearly doesn’t understand the strength of her feelings for him, as he doesn’t comprehend any of the considerable sacrifices she has made for him.
Michael believes Nina's lie

Further tragedy ensues when Nina returns to the villa. Beranoff has disastrously misjudged the depths of Nina’s current feelings for Michael. Possibly if he had simply let nature take its course, she might have come back to him voluntarily, after a brief affair with Michael. While the two share physical passion and a playful rapport, as evidenced by his acceptance of her lie,  Michael doesn’t really understand Nina. This seems to indicate a lack of true connection—the kind that a long term relationship needs to survive and grow. In addition, Michael, though quite attractive, lacks the sophistication and intelligence of Beranoff. How likely is it that the urbane Nina would have stay enamored of him forever? By kicking her out after an unjust accusation, Beranoff provokes the same the same result as the parent that forbids his daughter to see the boyfriend of whom he disapproves. She romanticizes both the man and the relationship. When Beranoff then forces Nina back to him, she becomes fatally despondent.

The lighthearted Mantrap made an excellent prelude to the operatic tragedy of The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna. The questions it teasingly raised about flirtation, sex and love received a more dramatic treatment in the latter film. Interestingly the comedic characters possessed wisdom lacking in the tragic ones. Ultimately, maybe that lack of understanding is what makes for the devastating beauty of tragedy. As Buddha once said, pain in life is inevitable but suffering is not. However, there is something compelling about watching suffering up on the big screen, especially with fine actors, gorgeous art design, stunning costumes and masterful cinematography and editing.

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