I am exhausted; thank God this year is all but finished with us. The flu, the mess at Versailles, the almost-nervous jokes as the Volstead Act looms (that strange, sometimes amazing, sometimes damnably frustrating, man, Woodrow Wilson, unsuccessfully attempting to veto the thing), John Reed’s exhilarating (I dare to write) account of those “ten Russian days”--and the dark-Red ones that have followed, both for him and in this country--everyone, it seems, once again relieved to have an arch-fiend at the ready to load all ills on its scaly back--but into which wilderness will we exile our fears? I must be careful what I wish for: As 1919 wanes, there still will be 1920 to contend with. As a consolation, it appears that women’s Suffrage is all but ensured; maybe their addition to the electorate will make a change. We men have had our run--cold-eyed Queens notwithstanding--and I hope the ‘20s will thrive under a feminine hand.
I feel like Axel Heyst in Conrad’s Victory--filmed by Maurice Tourneur with horror's honest eye (even if his script softens some of the final blows)--seeking peace in isolation, only to suffer under--as Heyst puts it in the film--“a feeling of something slowly closing in on us.” He lives in a menacing world, fire-lit and humid--invaded by Conrad’s Unholy Trio: Mr. Jones, his white suit and smoked glasses giving him the air of a Futurist cipher, an oiled automaton of inscrutably deep cruelty; Pedro with his mercenary air and Svengali smile, like tiny grappling hooks; and Lon Chaney as Ricardo, Death as an affable simpleton--and again, Chaney hides himself to expose the intimacies of his character--as nauseating as they may be. It is, for long stretches, a remorseless gaze into the pit, dreadful and filled with fire. Tourneur expends a great deal of invention, perhaps even genius, in the service of psychotic doom.
Meanwhile, J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton also scatters its characters to a far corner, where the butler rules as King, and the lady--Gloria Swanson, more like a ripe and pendulous fruit than a person (lolling at the opposite pole from Theda Bara and her burnt-silk languor)--his, well, slave--DeMille cannot avoid the lure of the Ancient, and supplies a Babylonian interlude--I must admit, when I write about the cinema I sometimes feel I have become completely unmoored from not only all taste but sense--and I also must admit I do love it so. Where was I? Well, either about to contemplate the plot, or babble on like a dizzy schoolboy over Swanson. The scene of her morning, ahem, ablutions is orchestrated as unadorned erotica, from the dressing-gown slipping as she enters her bath to the cold sparkle of her rose-water bath. It is at such moments that my wife shows the most patience with my love of this liveliest art.
But I digress. Perhaps.
The wilderness island in Male and Female is infinitely more Enlightened than Victory’s literally volcanic setting. It is Peter Pan's Neverland as a Rationalist’s dream, waiting to serve Man—while Woman waits to do the same, it appears. “A male fantasy,” my wife observed, "as much as Peter's is a child's"--and she was not speaking of Miss Swanson’s toilette. And perhaps it is: When they return to England, followed by their social positions, High and Low, the Male is not cast into exile for his dream: In a cinematic postscript, Crichton finds hearty American solace on a farm, his fellow former servant, Tweeny, at his side, the two of them glowing with western bounty. Not the “impassive” ending of Barrie’s original, but an assertion of maleness, square-jawed and triumphant.
And I must admit I enjoyed the sight--almost as much as Swanson’s dainty foot slipping into her equally dainty slipper. Perhaps, then, the worst of the century is behind us, and the next decade will be more cheerful, at least in the area of the ankles.