Varieté (also known in the English-speaking world as Trapeze, Jealousy, and Variety) is a prime example of the damage censorship can do to perfectly good movie. In this case, Ewald André Dupont’s 1925 film, with a screenplay by Dupont adapted from a novel by Felix Hollaender, was hugely popular in Europe but was released in the United States in so mutilated a form that it’s a wonder anyone bothered to see it at all (thanks a lot, Hays Code!). As restored in the Blue-ray release by Kino-Lorber, Varieté is revealed to have a story that, although melodramatic, is also complex and actually makes sense, providing no barrier to enjoying the film. In truth, it’s not even that shocking, even if viewed through a 1920s lens, which makes the meddling of the censors all the more deplorable.
When we first meet Boss Huller (Emil Jannings), he’s Prisoner 28 in a correctional institution, doing hard time for a crime or crimes he has always refused to discuss. Now his wife has petitioned for his release, and he must tell his story or forfeit his chance for freedom. Irising signals a flashback to his previous life as a contented father and husband and manager of a small variety show. A former trapeze artist who gave it up after a serious injury, he would clearly love to be flying through the air once again, but recognizes the merit of his wife’s (Maly Delschaft) argument that he shouldn’t take the risk in light of his current responsibilities.
Contented households don’t make for interesting movies, of course, and this happy home is soon disrupted by the arrival of Bertha-Marie (Lya De Putti), an orphan brought to the Huller home by a ship captain who hopes he can employ her as a dancer. No one can determine where she’s from or what language she speaks, but her exotic beauty and ability to shake her money-maker prove attractive to the rather crude audiences that attend Huller’s variety show. This sets off the melodrama, with additional complications created by the young, handsome, and sleazy theatrical manager Artinelli (played by British actor Warwick Ward), whose character you might regard as an early version of a role Harvey Weinstein has apparently been playing in real life for years.
Like many early films, Varieté capitalizes on the western fascination with “exotic” women (like Cincinnati-born Theodosia Burr Goodman, a.k.a. Theda Bara, and Chinese-American Wong Liu Tsong, a.k.a. Anna May Wong, who was born in Los Angeles). The dark-haired de Putti, born in what is now Slovakia, enjoyed success in the movie business in both Germany and the United States, often playing a spin on the vamp role. The real star of the show, however, is Jannings, and he’s every bit as good here as in his better-known roles in films such as Der letze Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924) and Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930).
While the restored plot is pretty much what you would expect for the time, it’s perfectly adequate as a vehicle for Karl Freund’s cinematography, which is this film’s greatest draw. Freund employs just about every cinematic effect available to him, but always in a way that enhances the experience of viewing the movie, and always finds a way to make even the most straightforward scene interesting. He also does a significant historical service by creating a cinematic record of many vaudeville acts (polo on unicycles, anyone?), reminding us of the joys offered by a form of entertainment largely put out of business by (oh, the irony) the movie industry. He outdoes himself in capturing some high-flying trapeze performers, cutting back and forth between their act and that of the spectators watching it, and sometimes apparently putting the camera itself on a trapeze. I don’t know exactly how he got those shots, but there’s little indication that those scenes could have been done more effectively even if Freund had had access to all the technology available today.
Kino-Lorber recently released a beautifully-restored version of Varieté on Blu-ray and DVD, with the choice of two musical tracks: an excellent, period-appropriate score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, and a bizarre modern score by the British band The Tiger Lillies. I recommend the former, which enhances the experience of watching the film without claiming center stage, but if you’re up for something different you can always try the latter—because that’s the point of offering a choice, right? Other extras included with this release include a featurette on the process of creating the soundtrack by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (7 min.), a visual essay by Bret Wood (10 min.), and a feature-length (79 min.) 1922 version of Othello directed by Dimitri Buchowetzki and starring Jannings and de Putti. | Sarah Boslaugh