Film Title: La Bohème
Studio: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Silent or Talkie: Silent
- Lillian Gish
- John Gilbert
- Renée Adorée
In 1925 Lillian Gish signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: six pictures in two years for which she would be paid one million dollars. She was given complete control over director, story and cast. Miss Gish was the first established movie star to be signed by the studio. As she walked on the studio lot for the first time, banners festooned the place proclaiming that Lillian Gish was now an MGM star! Unfortunately though, no one seemed prepared for her arrival. There were no scripts for her to look at, no story outlines, not even any ideas about what her first project for the studio might be. Miss Gish relates, “So I brought out my little chest of stories, among which was La Bohème.” The studio approved. Irving Thalberg then asked Miss Gish whom she would like as her director. As she had been in Italy for two years, she had seen few recent films. Thalberg screened several for her including two reels of the yet uncompleted The Big Parade. She was so smitten with what she saw she requested the services of that film’s director, King Vidor, as well as star John Gilbert, leading lady Renée Adorée, and comic sidekick Karl Dane. She also asked for and got Hendrik Sartov as her cinematographer. Sartov had shot some of Gish’s later films for director D.W. Griffith including Orphans of the Storm (1921) and parts of Way Down East (1920). After a rehearsal period (something unheard of in studio film making of the day but part of Miss Gish’s contract) production began.
This version of La Bohème is not based on the libretto of Puccini’s opera of the same name, but goes back to that work’s source, Henri Murger’s 1851 French novel Scènes de la vie de bohème, or as it was translated into English, Life in the Latin Quarter. But it was cleaned up considerably for the screen. The film is set in 1830 in Paris’ Mother of the Arts, Bohemia, and the Latin Quarter where young talent suffers and starves . . . and waits for fame . . . However, more certain than love or fame, the visit of the landlord on the first of the month. We meet, Marcel (Gino Corrado) who would have starved to produce a masterpiece . . . as yet he had succeeded only in starving, and Rodolphe (John Gilbert) . . . who had hopes of becoming a great playwright. And finally, Mimi (Lillian Gish), the embroiderer . . . Orphaned, friendless . . . facing life with a glorious courage . . . Rodolphe and friends take their hard luck in stride. Rodolphe resigns himself to writing an article for a magazine called Cat and Dog Fanciers. Marcel sells a picture, Schaunard (George Hassell) acquires a monkey to accompany his piccolo playing, and Colline (Edward Everett Horton) sells a book only to turn around and buy another with the proceeds. But together they have amassed enough money to pay for their room’s rent for one more month.
Next door, however, Mimi is not so fortunate. She pawns her clothes, coat, and a fur hand muff. With that she still doesn’t make her rent money. She tries to pay Benoit (Karl Dane), the landlord’s comical building manager/janitor what she has, but he refuses to accept it as he has orders from the landlord only to accept payment in full. Meanwhile the boys have raised enough to pay the rent but not to buy any food. Fortunately they have a downstairs neighbor, Musette (Renée Adorée), who is sweet on Marcel and who treats them all to a feast. As the boys and Musette bring the food back up to the boy’s room, they see Mimi, carrying all her worldly possessions, heading down the stairs into the cold winter night. They invite Mimi to join them. She demurs, but they convince her, and soon she is one of the gang as Rodolphe declares, “To Mimi we give our friendship, our love, a share in everything we have!” “La Vie Bohème” indeed.
Mimi’s fortunes are about to change, however, as she’s caught the eye of Vicomte Paul (Roy D’Arcy), a true aristocrat, who did nothing, but did it very gracefully. Soon she has all the work she can handle, and then some. And Rodolphe is also making his attraction to her known: her first picnic! Mimi’s heart fluttered with excitement . . . and suspense at what she read in Rodolphe’s eyes. But Rodolphe is a very jealous man. Are Vicomte Paul?s intentions honorable? What is the secret that Mimi keeps from Rodolphe? And what’s with the cough that Mimi seems to be developing?
I would love to say that La Bohème is a great film. It stars two of my favorite stars of the period and is helmed by a director who produced some extraordinary films. But it just falls short. As Vidor relates in his autobiography A Tree is a Tree (1953, 1981: Samuel French Trade), Miss Gish had a definite conception of her own regarding the love scenes between Mimi and Rodolphe . . . She believed that the two lovers should never be shown in actual physical contact. She argued that, if we photographed their lips coming together in a kiss, a great amount of suppressed emotion would be dissipated. She was convinced that, if we avoided this moment, a surge of suppressed romance would be built up and serve to heighten the final impact of the tragedy when Mimi dies. . . . We (Vidor and Gilbert) found ourselves in a quandary, torn between the logical arguments of Lillian on one side, and what the studio and the public expected on the other. Miss Gish was overruled when at the first preview of La Bohème the audience wondered where the love scenes were. The studio ordered retakes of all the important love scenes and Miss Gish’s theories of romance would have to await some other romantic vehicle and the compromise just doesn’t work. Possibly Gish’s theory could have worked, but the audience would need more reason as to why Mimi, who is clearly in love with Rodolphe, and vice versa, would flee (sometimes literally) from Rodolphe’s amorous attentions. Sure, she’s orphaned and friendless, but not even a little kiss for poor Rodolphe? As the picture stands, you’ve got Rodolphe and Mimi in some hot romantic clinches, but in-between Rodolphe has to win his kisses over and over again as Mimi constantly demurs. It serves to make Mimi come off as kind of schizophrenic and hinders the tone of their building romance.
But if the picture doesn’t come off as well as it should have, it still contains some incredible performances and sequences. Lillian Gish, who had been performing in films since her debut in D.W. Griffith’s An Unseen Enemy in 1912, gives an amazing performance here. Every time she appears she owns the screen. There is a sequence when she’s in line at the pawnshop and she’s pawned everything except her warm fur hand muff and still doesn’t have enough to pay the rent. Her various facial expressions of resignation, defiance and loss perfectly express her thought process while trying to make the decision to part with this beloved article. In Rodolphe’s apartment, when he’s off relighting her candle, she sees a stove. She’s freezing and surreptitiously moves close to it trying to warm herself without Rodolphe seeing her, and it is brilliantly played. Likewise, the scene in which she’s invited by the group to partake of their feast, and again in a love scene with Gilbert where she gently touches his hair when he’s not looking, are both equally brilliant. Nobody could convey so much with so little as Gish does in this film. Also noteworthy, for Gish’s performance and it’s staging for the camera, is a scene near the end of the film as Mimi struggles through city streets to return to Rodolphe before she dies. And her death scene is masterfully played. She prepared for three days before filming it by not taking any liquids and wearing cotton pads between her cheeks and teeth even when she slept, or at least so reports Vidor in his book. Gish related that she visited hospitals to observe the progress of tuberculosis in its terminal stages. Whatever the truth may have been, there has rarely been a screen deathbed scene to equal it.
Gilbert is at the height of his charismatic romantic appeal in this film. It was the fourth of six films he did with Vidor (seven if you count his cameo appearance in Show People). The two were friends off-screen and there is an ease apparent in Gilbert’s performances for Vidor. While not quite up to his previous effort in The Big Parade, nor as emotionally raw as he would appear with Garbo in their silent films, he makes a compelling and attractive romantic hero. He was not dubbed the “Great Lover” for nothing. Unfortunately poor Renée Adorée, who was so wonderfully presented in The Big Parade, is saddled with a big unflattering dark wig and heavy period dresses in this one. And her role is nowhere near as good. She would appear twice more opposite Gilbert in The Show (1927) and The Cossacks (1928). Karl Dane also doesn’t have as much to do in La Bohème as he did in The Big Parade, but he makes the most with what he’s given. Vidor stages the action beautifully and Sartov captures the grandeur of the visuals. It’s clear when looking at the film that MGM spared no expense in mounting Miss Gish’s first production for them. And they were well rewarded as La Bohème was MGM’s top moneymaker of 1926.
La Bohème had never been available on home video until Warner Archives released a print, the same print that has shown up from time to time on Turner Classic Movies. But even this print could use a little work. There are three title cards that appear only momentarily, not long enough to be read. It would appear to me that the film is also being screened at a higher frames-per-second speed than is appropriate. The movement appears just slightly faster than normal movement. The accompanying un-credited piano and violin score, if not wholly distracting, does nothing to further the dramatics of the picture.
La Bohème is an important film of its day and features two preeminent performers of silent film. Both Gish and Gilbert are at the peak of their appeal and their art. Vidor’s direction is very good and the sets and costumes support the story well. While La Bohème is not completely successful, it is still an engaging entertainment.
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