An unbridled celebration of womanhood, the Jazz Age and the arts, Allan Dwan’s magnificent 1923 comedy-drama ZAZA, starring the superb Gloria Swanson, arrives in a stunning Blu-Ray evocation from the cineastes at Kino-Lorber, in association with Paramount Home Entertainment.
The movie, based on the 1898 play by Pierre Berton and Charles Simon, has been updated to modern times (well, 1923) to encompass changing technology, The Great War and the unflappable flapper, aka, the new woman.
Zaza is a cabaret superstar, and much reviled by her female contemporaries. And for good reason. A foul-mouthed sidewalk performer (that’s the nice word for former prostitute) turned major celebrity, the bratty twenty-something is, to put it mildly, a volatile bitch. Her talent and beauty being her saving grace, she terrorizes all within striking distance, often hilariously. When she tongue-lashes her long-suffering maid (Yvonne Hughes) about the whereabouts of a garment, the servant meekly replies that her employer is wearing it. The responding title card pretty much says it all: “Idiot, why didn’t you leave it in my trunk where I could find it?!”
When it comes to love, Zaza (whose monogram “ZZ” covers her wardrobe, luggage and likely unseen lady parts) pulls no punches either. Having early-on discovered the power of her sexuality, the woman uses it like a weapon upon her barrage of unsuspecting lovers.
Life finally deals Z a twofer when, a), frenemy Florianne (Mary Thurman) tries to kill her, and, b) true love at last kicks her in the ass with a vengeance. The former is resolved by one of cinema’s ultimate cat fights, while the latter proves a bit more difficult to resolve. The male in question, Bernard (H.B. Warner), is an elusive diplomat, knowledgeable of what a dangerous liaison with the temperamental star might unleash; yet, his obsession matches hers, and they embark on a torrid affair, with the statesman ignoring his professional duties while ensconcing his paramour in a posh rural love nest.
It is Florianne who finally uncovers the secret of Bernard’s strange behavior; he’s married with children. Zaza’s refusal to believe this draws the two women into a bizarre but thoroughly believable bond that melds into a lifelong friendship. It’s an amazing transformation. It’s also a sad visual on what could have been another terrific career (a la Martha Mansfield, Olive Thomas, etc.) sadly cut short. Effervescent Thurman, boldly holding her own against the formidable Swanson, was Dwan’s fiancée at the time. In autumn of 1925, the former Sennett Bathing Beauty contracted bronchial pneumonia in Florida while filming Down Upon the Suawanee River, quickly succumbing three days before Christmas. The camaraderie between Swanson, Dwan (who directed Gloria in eight features and one embryonic sound-on-film short) and Thurman is evident in every frame (as Swanson herself stated in her 1980 autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, “Watching the rushes, I could see that the energy level…was higher than in any other film I had made in years.”). It certainly must have been a hoot of a shoot (lensed in New York City at the Paramount Astoria studios, admirably subbing for France).
The decade following the first half of ZAZA isn’t your typical 1920s movie fairy tale. It’s a journey of transition. Zaza enters her thirties, free of her mean-girl histrionics, relying upon savvy, logic and a perfect union of brain and heart. Never throughout the proceedings (particularly the final act) is the woman NOT in control. What’s outstanding about ZAZA is Swanson’s intuitive acting. Her emerging adulthood is only part of it; through eye contact, luxurious close-ups, and body language (the gold standard for silents), one sees the character conveying thought. It’s one of the greatest performances of the silent era. If all you know about Swanson is Sunset Boulevard, you really need to check this pic out. Had there been an Academy Awards in 1923, there’s no doubt in my mind that Gloria Swanson would have copped the statuette hands down.
The remaining supporting cast warrants mentioning, too, as they masterfully append the lead’s luminous presence. Warner, the always-welcome Ferdinand Gottschalk, Riley Hatch, and Lucille La Verne (as Zaza’s dotty, drunken “aunt”) are quite wonderful. And as Bernard’s daughter, there’s a super turn by future star Helen Mack, who I never knew went back that far in cinema history.
Natch, the scenario is tailor-made for Swanson, so kudos to Albert Shelby Le Vino, who specialized in risqué female-star sex dramas in the 1920s, before turning bizarrely enough to westerns with the arrival of sound. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is by the great Hal Rosson. Finally, one can’t fail to mention the fantastic direction by Dwan, easily one of his best efforts. His breezy, fluid style perfectly matches the mood and temperament of his protagonist. And, for the most part, it’s done with wacky delight (an after-show drinks meeting/rendezvous is riotously supplanted by various hijinks going on in the background).
The aforementioned catfight, obviously a key hype moment, was approached with caution and verve. Dwan purposely had only one set of clothes and props on-set for both Swanson and Thurman. That way both actresses were on heightened call to make every move count; there could be no retakes. It was a strategy that worked beautifully. The battle royal makes the Dietrich/Merkel saloon brawl in Destry Rides Again look like the kiss in Notorious.
ZAZA also answers a question (albeit a trivial one) that has haunted me for decades. In rural 1923, horse cabs were still prevalent, and, at last I see what I’ve always suspected: a taxi meter on the side of the rig. I know it’s a silly bit to bring up, but it’s the kind of stuff I think about.
The Kino Blu-Ray disc of ZAZA is often spectacular, and, I should happily reveal, the first of a series of Paramount silents to be released under the Kino-Lorber banner. Yay! The high-def 1080p images are nicely rendered with surprising clarity and contrast; in addition, a newly composed score by Jeff Rapsis references the original 1923 cue sheets. There is also second audio commentary by Frederic Lombardi, author of Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios and a booklet essay by film historian Imogen Sara Smith.
ZAZA, quite understandably, was a massive hit. Swanson (and it’s easy to see why) listed it as one of her favorite movies (“the fastest, easiest, most enjoyable picture I ever made”). Paramount remade it in 1939 with Claudette Colbert starring and George Cukor directing. I’ve never seen this version, so I am unable to comment on it, save that I can’t fathom Colbert going the thespian tsunami range Swanson emits (but, they could have taken a completely different approach, so I won’t pursue it).
For Swanson fans, for silent fans, for movie fans, ZAZA transcends being a fascinating, entertaining time capsule; it’s a classic collector library shelf must that brilliantly delves into and defines the mystique of star power.
ZAZA. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT # K21222. SRP: $29.95.