July 26, 2019
Zaza – US, 1923
When I first saw Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, a film that frequently appears on lists of the top 100 American films of all time, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was a film that was essentially about deception and greed. Think about it. Marilyn Monroe’s dream man is wealthy and has a yacht, Tony Curtis, after learning this while in disguise as a woman, then engages in a little more trickery by masquerading as a wealthy yacht owner. Meanwhile, his partner in fraud starts being just as materialistic by entertaining the advances of a millionaire he clearly doesn’t love, all in the name of achieving security. I found it hard to laugh, and even though I’ve had the film in my collection for a few years now, I haven’t been able to convince myself to give it a second try.
The problem, it seems to me, is that the characters are not entirely likable, for who really wants someone to succeed in finding “love” under these circumstances. In the end, Some Like It Hot rewards the very qualities that are loathed in countless other films, films in which love is portrayed as superseding evils such as classism. In fact, Monroe herself made one such film, How to Marry a Millionaire, in which she, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable announce their plans to marry rich in the first scene and then spend the rest of the film learning that the pursuit of financial security may prevent you from seeing that Mr. Right Enough is standing in front of you. The characters openly talk about the changes they’re going through and the decisions they make, and in the end, they are better people. In Some Like It Hot, no one learns anything. The guy gets the girl, and the girl doesn’t care that she was lied to. Even Lemmon’s character has the option of being pampered for life.
I mention these two films because Allan Dwan’s 1923 film Zaza makes many of the mistakes of Some Like It Hot while denying its characters any of the soul-searching and growth found in How to Marry a Millionaire. Its central character is Zaza (Gloria Swanson), the star attraction of a music hall in France. Just why she is so popular is a mystery, for the only thing we see her do onstage is swing on a giant swing and toss her shoes to patrons who all have one thing on their minds. Adding to Zaza’s peculiarities is the fact that she is one of the biggest divas to ever appear on the silver screen. She abuses her maid, hurls insults at anyone who gets in her way, attempts to sabotage a rival’s act, and, in one scene, violently goes after a fellow performer, nearly stripping her in the process. These early scenes hardly establish her as a character we root for to get her man.
Zaza is being pursued by a duke, but she has her heart set of winning Bernard Dufresne (H.B. Warner), a French official who has a habit of showing up just before her act and leaving shortly after. Now normally when a movie presents us with a scenario such as this one, we start to see a bratty character differently through exchanges with a loved one. Therefore, we expect Bernard to bring out the best in Zaza, and that when he does, we will come to see her behavior in earlier scenes as a survival technique and not reflective of the real her. Not so here. There is never a moment in which Bernard explains what he sees in Zaza, and nary a moment in which the two of them do much conversing at all. Sure, he fawns over her, she dotes on him, and they steal quick kisses, and all of that hints at a connection. Alas, it is simply never convincing. In fact, after Zaza is injured onstage and her knight in shining armor flies to her rescue, she makes her maid promise not to tell him that she is better. See, he might leave, and she wants to keep him there as long as possible – even under false pretenses.
There is a transformation in the second half, yet it comes across as half-hearted, mostly because we are expected to just take the film’s word that Zaza just wakes up one day and decides to be a better person. Sure, there’s a nice scene in which Zaza makes up with her former rival, and a scene in which she meets a young girl who confirms a heartbreaking truth, but having spent half the film seeing example after example of Zaza’s bombastic and unhinged persona, it’s hard to accept such a sudden change. And because the film spends so little time exploring the feelings between Zaza and Bernard, their eventual reunion, seven years and one World War later, lacks the emotional pull that it requires.
As Zaza, the normally reliable Swanson is all over the place, and her manic persona hurts the first half of the film, especially when every other member of the cast seems to be avoiding the physical excesses that are sometimes found in silent films. She tones it down in the second half of the film, and these scenes work better. I felt that I was seeing a real person, rather than an overly-excessive persona. As Bernard, Warner does a decent enough job, but, then again, not much is expected of him other than looking conflicted, ashamed, and forlorn.
By the end of the film, I still had no clue what he saw in her – other than sheer physical attraction. And there’s nothing wrong with that, all long as we’re clear that that’s what is intended, Here, alas, we are disappointed. We are meant to see Zaza and Bernard are having a love so strong that is could stand a long separation and years of no communication. In other words, we are supposed to be see their love as one that is pure and meant to be. What this really means, though, is that greed and a focus on the superficial win out in the end, and that’s hardly a message worth celebrating. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino)