Zaza (Kino Lorber, NR)

In Sunset Boulevard, which boasts one of the most quotable screenplays of all time, nothing can quite compare with Norma Desmond’s “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

Well, maybe her diatribe, within the same conversation with the ill-fated Joe Gillis, about the demise of silent pictures: “There was a time when this business had the eyes of the whole world. But that wasn’t good enough. Oh no. They wanted the ears of the world, too. So they opened their big mouths, and out came talk, talk, talk…”

Enjoyment of those lines, and of the film as a whole, is heightened by the knowledge that Gloria Swanson once did have the eyes of the whole world. She was a huge star in the silent era, appearing in a series of hits for Paramont Pictures directed by Cecil B. DeMille and others; unfortunately, many of her films from those days are not well known today. Swanson made some talkies as well, but only one, The Trespasser (1929) achieved hit status, and by the late 1930s she had pretty much left the movie business behind until Sunset Boulevard came out in 1950.

Zaza may not be Swanson’s most historically important work in the silent (I’d nominate her 1929 Sadie Thompson for that honor), but it’s representative of the type of film that brought contemporary audiences to theatres in droves. It was directed and produced by Allan Dwan, a Hollywood old hand with 407 director credits according to the IMDB, and who was also singled out for praise by Martin
Scorsese as one of Hollywood’s most able “smugglers” (directors able to include political content in their films in ways that would get past the censors). That quality is not particularly on display in this film, a soapy backstager about a showgirl (Zaza, played by Swanson) who exercises her feminine charms and acting ability to achieve her ends, both onstage and off, but Dwan’s professionalism certainly is.

When we first meet her, Zaza is working at an open-air theatre near Paris. She’s the star attraction, having worked her way up from a rough background (in some versions of this oft-produced story, she’s specifically identified as a prostitute). Her place of work is less Stratford-on- Avon than Moulin Rouge, a variety theatre where the acts include showgirls on giant swings. Zaza sets her cap for a married official, Bernard Dufresne (H.B. Warner, who appears as one of the “waxworks” in Sunset Boulevard), who is sufficiently smitten to set her up in a luxurious villa. Then his wife appears, he has a change of heart, and dumps Zaza to return to his respectable life. There’s a coda to the story of Zaza and Dufresne as well, which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling.

A second plot concerns the rivalries among the theatre’s stars, most particularly Zaza and Florianne (Mary Thurmon), who have a catfight of epic proportions. Other featured actors in Zaza include Lucille La Verne, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Yvonne Hughes, and Riley Hatch.

Zaza is a melodrama, and Swanson utilizes every trick in the book to get a reaction from the audience—one minute you’ll be admiring her hair ornaments and jewelry, the next her ability to wring every last drop of emotion from a scene. Dwan uses the full capability of his medium as well, including excellent use of outdoor locations on Long Island (the film was made by Paramount’s Astoria studio), splendid set decoration and costuming, a screenplay guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings, and camera work that always directs your eye appropriately without seeming to do so.

Zaza is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras include a commentary by Fredric Lombardi, an Allan Dwan scholar, a booklet essay by film historian Imogen Sara Smith, and a piano score written and composed by Jeff Rapsis, incorporating the original 1923 cue sheet.

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