. Suggested reading:
(1998), Edward Herbst
Silent Movies (1995), Neil Sinyard
(1997), Richard Dyer MacCann
The Movies in the Age of Innocence (1997), Edward Wagenknecht
Few places on earth were the focus of so many escapist fantasies for the American mind of the 1930s as the South Seas. Whether it was because of the Depression or the ongoing madness in Europe, an entire cycle of films – ranging from F.W. Murnau’s Tabu to John Ford’s The Hurricane, from King Kong to Mutiny on the Bounty – looked to the South Pacific islands as a place of sensuality, mystery, romance, and adventure.
Now, after careful restoration by the UCLA Film Archives, an important entry in this cycle is again seeing the light of day. Legong: Dance of the Virgins is worth preserving and seeing in its own right, but its historical importance makes it even more so. Legong is the last surviving silent film shot by a major Hollywood studio (Paramount), and was also one of the last films to use the two-strip Technicolor process. (Becky Sharp, the first film to use the full Technicolor process, was released the same year.) The restorers had to look to Canada for additional prints of the film because it was censored upon its release in England and the United States – the British didn’t like the mild violence while Americans wouldn’t abide the film’s many bare breasted women.
Filmed entirely on location in Bali and employing an "all native" cast, Legong tells the story of Poutou, a young girl whose unrequited love for a traveling musician leads to her destruction. What elevates Legong beyond simple melodrama or footnote status in cinematic history is the treasure-trove of ethnographic documentary material which director Henry de la Falaise used to anchor his story. Legong’s true subject is Balinese life, and de la Falaise’s camera follows his characters to the village marketplace, a rambunctious cockfight, a feverish religious festival, and, in the film’s stunning climax, a mass cremation. We see how the villagers buy wine and flirt and get dressed in the morning, how they dance and prepare food for visitors. The film is crowded with offhand details, such as the young children seen casually smoking cigarettes in the marketplace, or the suitor who dexterously carves a love letter into a bamboo leaf. In one memorable moment, Poutou uses a huge pole to mash the family’s rice, throwing it high into the air and letting it fall onto the grain before catching it on the rebound in an effortless tom-tom rhythm.
The islanders are natural camera subjects – particularly Gusti Bagus Mara, who plays Poutou’s father, a man almost as crushed by his daughter’s disappointment as she is. And, while the subtitles misrepresent the meaning of one of the rituals shown in the film, the scene itself – an intense spectacle that seems to play itself out in the viewer’s lap – is one of the movie’s highlights.
Watching Legong today is like peeking through a keyhole into a vanished world, not only one of simpler people but also of simpler entertainment. The era when a movie would dwell on the expressiveness of a dancer’s hand or on the play of light cast over a bamboo bridge at sunrise seems remote to us today – as remote as a South Seas island.
– Tom Block