1 January 2004 | tonstant viewer
Fascinating Lead Actor
Anyone expecting froth like the Ronald Colman or Howard Keel versions is in for a surprise. This is more a story of revenge and torture; cliches of oriental cruelty abound. Hajj kills two characters onscreen. He's given ample motivation, but it's still a shock coming off of the kitschy campiness of the later versions.
The reason for the film is the presence of Otis Skinner. A quick check at the ibdb.com (Internet Broadway Data Base) shows a long and illustrious career with considerable experience in Shakespeare.
We are taught that old time acting in America was stagger-and-clutch until the Stanislavsky Moscow Art Theater played Broadway in the 1920s. I was expecting to see exaggerated postures and popping eyeballs, and indeed, some of the supporting cast gives just that.
However, Otis Skinner surprises with a totally relaxed, confident presence, casual, underplayed and almost modern, right up until the last reel, when he finally gives way to stage-sized reactions that are too big for the camera.
This is a man of 62 who had been a matinee idol for most of his career. Rather than trying to twinkle and seduce the audience, he just does what he wants to and waits for us to come to him. To some eyes this may not look like acting, but he doesn't want it to look like acting. He is behaving, at ease with his body and its expressiveness, and that's what contemporary movie acting is all about.
Many elements in the film have dated to the point of silliness (there's a problem with a number of match cuts, where an action is shown in long shot and then wrongly repeated in close up). The supporting cast varies from OK to actively bad. However, the lead performance is for most of its length quite contemporary in its refusal to break a sweat. Paul Muni at his most passive is still much hammier than this.
I'm glad we have this most satisfying evidence of one of Broadway's legendary stars.