Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Zaza (1923)



Zaza (1923)

In 1923, Gloria Swanson was a bonafide star. She had over 40 films under her belt and a few more years of silent film fame ahead of her before the industry transitioned to talking pictures. Then there is her fabulous comeback with Sunset Blvd. (1950) which is a completely different story.

Hollywood director Allan Dwan, inventor of the camera dolly, had his eye on Zaza, a French play by playwright duo Pierre Berton and Charles Simon. The play was a major hit, capturing the end of the Gay Nineties of Paris for future generations. It was adapted into film a couple of times before Dwan got his hands on it. Dwan convinced Adolph Zukor of Paramount to buy the rights for a film adaptation and he had one star in mind for the lead role: Gloria Swanson.

Dwan and Swanson had met briefly at a Hollywood party before but had never worked together. The director's reputation preceded him and Swanson knew well that he had worked with countless other big name film stars. It was inevitable that they would work together. However Swanson was worried that Zaza would prove to be just another period costume picture. She'd been in several leading up to 1923. According to her autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Dwan told her "I want your costumes to be authentic and exciting, sassy and vulgar, and Norman Norell will give me exactly what I want." In this film adaptation, Dwan and his team switched things up to portray the story in a more modern setting with costuming to match.

Swanson was so excited for the role that she delayed having minor surgery in New York City to be in the film. Dwan convinced Paramount producers Jesse L. Lasky and Adolph Zukor to speed up the filming schedule for Swanson's sake. They found a mansion on Long Island that doubled as a French chateau. Swanson stayed in actor Richard Bennett's NYC apartment and commuted to Astoria and the mansion for filming each day. This was back when Paramount had a studio in Astoria, Queens and did a lot of filming on Long Island.

To star alongside Gloria Swanson, Paramount enlisted H.B. Warner, an actor whom contemporary audiences will recognize as Mr. Gower from It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Back in the early '20s he was a well-known stage actor and went on to play Jesus Christ in Cecil B. Demille's King of Kings (1927). Also in the cast is Mary Thurman who plays Florianne, Zaza's on stage rival. Tashman had much promise as a film star but tragically died in 1925 at the age of 30 when she caught pneumonia while making Down Upon the Suwanee River (1925). (Side note: that film also stars Charles Emmett Mack who also tragically passed away while making another film two years later.) Fans of Helen Mack will delight in seeing her at the age of 10 playing the role of Lucille Dufresne.

Zaza (1923) is a story about famed soubrette Zaza (Gloria Swanson) who dreams of performing in Paris and falling in love. She has her eye on patron of the arts Bernard Dufresne (H.B. Warner) but her drunk Aunt Rosa (Lucille La Verne) is trying to persuade her niece to snag Duke de Brissac (Ferdinand Gottschalk) instead (after all he has a nice wine cellar!). Zaza is a temperamental star, quick to bouts of anger and loves to drive her rival soubrette Florianne (Mary Thurman) mad with jealousy. Both Zaza and Florianne want Bernard but what neither of them knows is that he's married and unavailable. However, Bernard can't help himself and gives into Zaza's charm. She wins him over at her French chateau where she is recovering after a fall. They spend time together before Bernard is called away for a position in Washington D.C. He's been estranged from his wife who comes back into the picture only when she sees his prospects increased. Eventually Zaza discovers that not only is her love Bernard married but he also has a charming little daughter Lucille (Helen Mack). She can't bring herself to break up the family and she runs away from Bernard. The story becomes less about life about the stage and more about the romantic drama caused by Zaza and Bernard's passionate love for each other. The story doesn't end there and you'll have to watch the film to find out what becomes of the two.


Gloria Swanson in Zaza (1923)
Gloria Swanson as Zaza


Even though Dwan promised Swanson that this wouldn't be another costume picture, Zaza (1923) is kind of another costume picture. My fellow vintage fashion enthusiasts will delight in the extravagant and sometimes ridiculous fashions donned by Gloria Swanson in the film. Imagine the merchandising that could have resulted from this film? Swanson wears Z-shaped earrings and a bracelet with Z mark on it that could have easily been sold to young women who wanted to be as fabulous as Swanson. Swanson wears a fantastic flower dress, dons an outlandish feathered hat, 1920s shoes that are to die for and in one scene she has what looks like about 50 earring type jewels dangling precariously from threads of teased hair. It must be seen to be believed.

Gloria Swanson as Zaza. Photo source: Pinterest


The film starts out as a comedy but quickly turns into a romantic drama. It was quite enjoyable and worth watching especially if you have an interest in Gloria Swanson. It does have his bad moments including one racist remark uttered by Zaza and an unfortunate scene with a hunchback. This is one of those films in which the history of the movie is even more interesting than the plot.

Swanson worked well with Dwan and they went on to make 7 more films together. The play Zaza was adapted several times including a 1938 version that starred Claudette Colbert and Herbert Marshall. Zaza revitalized Gloria Swanson's career, which had been in a funk after all those costume pictures, and it catapulted her fame. Any anonymity she enjoyed prior to Zaza was long gone.


Zaza (1923) Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber


Zaza (1923) is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. The music for the film is by my favorite silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis whom I've written about on this blog numerous times. He adapted the music from the original 1923 cue sheet.

Thank you to Kino for sending me a copy of this film for review.

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