12 February 2024

Behold the Translation of a Savage on Film!

Being an addendum to the recent post on The Translation of a Savage by Gilbert Parker.

Hollywood has blessed us with twenty-three adaptations of Gilbert Parker stories. I've managed to see just one, but not for want of effort. This post concerns the three adaptations of The Translation of a Savage, Parker's 1893 bestselling novel. As I'm intent on getting through all three in one post, criticism and snide comments will be kept to a minimum.


The Translation of a Savage

A "short," but how short? Amongst lost silent films, Translation is so lost that even its run time is unknown. The Edison Films advert above from the May 1913 Moving Pictures World provides a glimpse of what we are missing. Do not be tempted by Newcombe's Necktie, it's The Translation of a Savage we're interested in here.

The description, "little savage" included, is in keeping with Parker's novel. The very same issue of  Moving Picture World issue provides this synopsis:

In Parker's novel, Greyhope, the Armour family home, is in Herefordshire, not Staffordshire; a minor, seemingly inexplicable change. Much more significant is the description of Lali as "the daughter of a primitive trapper" and not the offspring of an "Indian chief." The surviving credits include a character named "Henri - the Trapper," suggesting French Canadian or possibly Métis heritage. We may never know. What I do know is that in Parker's imaginings Lali never runs and hides in the hedges.

Oh, how I wish I could include an image of Lili "looking beautiful in the dress of a woman of to-day," but I've yet to find a single image related to this film.

Behold My Wife!

A better title, would you not agree?

This second adaptation holds no ambiguity; Lali is an "Indian." Of all the material attached to the film, this lobby card is my favourite by far:

Here we see Lali, as portrayed by Mabel Julienne Scott. Are those foothills in the background? If so, they're far from the novel's "Hudson's Bay country" setting. I'll add that cacti aren't native to Manitoba, northern Ontario or  northern Quebec.

The most detailed description I've read is found within a Photoplay Magazine review (January 1921):

The "two-fisted surveying gang foreman" aside, everything fits with Parker's story.

What the reviewer picks out as the film's flaw is shared with the novel:
The only weakness the story reveals is in the lack of sufficient excuse for the English hero's determination to be revenged upon his family. He had little reason to believe they had conspired against him, which weakens his subsequent action and the effect of Lali's arrival in England.

I wonder what's going on here: 

Do you think that's meant to be a Navajo hogan? In Hudson Bay country?

Another lost film, alas. 

Behold My Wife!

Not a lost film! In this final adaptation – I can't imagine that there will be another – the "Indian" wife is played by Sylvia Sidney, the New York-born blue-eyed daughter of Russian and Rumanian immigrants. I'm guessing I first saw her as Juno in Beetlejuice, though its just as likely that I caught Sidney in stray episodes of My Three Sons, Eight is EnoughMagnum, P.I., and WKRP in Cincinnati. Her final role was as Clia in the Malcolm McDowell fin de siecle reboot of Fantasy Island.

The 1934 Behold My Wife! owes so little to The Translation of a Savage that it is pretty much unrecognizable. In this telling, the story takes place entirely in the United States. Frank Armour is reimagined as Michael Carter (Gene Raymond), a sauced son of the East Coast leisure class. His family are overly concerned with appearance, and so conspire to break his engagement to perfectly nice stenographer Mary White (Ann Sheridan). She commits suicide, which is not the result they expected.

Michael is met with the awful news on what he'd thought would be his wedding day. Despite a hangover, he's sharp enough to recognize that his mother, father, and sister are to blame for the dive Mary took out of her apartment window. Michael sets off on a drunk driving tour of the United States, winding up in a New Mexico saloon, where he's shot – accidentally – by an Apache named Pete (Dean Jagger). Gentle beauty Tonita Storm Cloud, Pete's sister, removes the bullet, and gets off the best line: "My father sent me to school. I learned many things in college."

Somehow, Tonita falls in love with a man who is entirely unworthy. I've seen similar tragedies play out in real life.

If anything, Michael Carter is even more dislikable than Frank Armour. In Parker's novel, an inebriated Frank marries Lali upon learning that his fiancée has married another. In Behold My Wife!, alcoholic Michael – sober, for once – is much more calculating. He marries the woman who saved his life as a means of revenge over his fiancée's suicide. Like Frank, he insists that Lali wear "Indian" dress when meeting her new in-laws, then sinks several levels further in asking her to do the same for a formal soirée intended to introduce her to "society." Here Tonita appears in a Parisian evening gown proves charming, clever, and quite a wit, particularly when confronting prejudice. In short, she is a sensation. Michael is enraged, revealing his motivation in marrying her.

A remarkable scene, this is the film's climax. Others may disagree as there's still a murder to come.

Yes, murder.

As I say, this adaptation owes little to Parker's novel. It's a strange film, shifting abruptly between comedy, slapstick, pathos, and tragedy. The plot is absurd, but is held together by strong dialogue and Sylvia Sidney. I acknowledge my promise to keep criticism to a minimum, but her performance is so heartbreaking, when it is not comedic or endearing. Behold My Wife! and The Translation of a Savage have one important thing in common, that being that they are well-intentioned works with flaws flaws that become more evident with each passing decade.

Both Behold My Wife! (1934) and The Translation of a Savage are available – gratis – online.

I recommend them both.

For good or bad, they are part of our heritage.

Fun fact (personal): In the 1920 version, Lali's father, Chief Eye-of-the Moon, was played by Englishman Fred Huntley, who was born one hundred years to the day before yours truly!

1 comment:

  1. A possible parody or inspiration: The Eskimo Baby, made in 1916, starring Asta Nielsen (best known for playing Hamlet) as an Eskimo woman brought back to Europe and reacting to European ways. There's no attempt to depict "real" Eskimo behaviour and the male lead is much more sympathetic than in the films you describe.