15 February 2003 | bullybyte
Arguably the best ever performance by a film actress.
This film was made by the Austrian Sascha Film, with money provided by (probably) the German UFA and (certainly) the British Stoll film companies. Stoll's involvement allowed the company to film in Britain. Most of it is filmed in London, with occasional scenes in Cambridge and Paris. The story is by P G Wodehouse, of Jeeves and Wooster fame.
The story is rightly regarded as pretty lightweight. A restaurant cashier, who has a mutual attraction to the restauranteur, has a secret passion for dance. As soon as she finishes work she is off down to the dance studio for a practice. She has a chance meeting with a handsome impresario, who promises to make her into the greatest dancer the world has ever known. She leaves the restaurant. It is only now that the restauranteur reveals his love for her. She is caught in a dilemma. She must choose between the cosy life she has known and her urge to become an acclaimed dancer. She chooses the latter, but is lamed after, dressed as a golden butterfly, she is accidentally dropped from a prop spider's web at the London Colliseum and falls through the stage. There are a few amusing shenanigans towards the end as the restauranteur and the impresario fight for the love of the ex-dancer who now walks with a stick. It has a happy ending. That's all there is to it. So why is this film so good?
Reviewers over the years have been trying to pin down director Michael Curtiz's style. Oh they may be fast-moving films; he may be good at crowd scenes; unusual camera shots, shadows on the wall etc. But what is Curtiz's hallmark? The answer is so glaringly obvious that generations of reviewers, who cannot see the woodland for sheer trees, miss it time and again. Whether the actor be Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn or Elvis Presley, they all give their best performances when they are being directed by Michael Curtiz. That's Curtiz's style, pure and simple: he get's the best out of the performers. And Lili Damita, who at the time was fleetingly married to Curtiz, is no exception. In this film Curtiz practically gives Damita free reign to show everybody what she can do.
From the moment she appears right at the beginning dressed in that brilliant white blouse, sitting behind her cash desk, smiling at the camera, we know that this film is going to be about her photogeneity and her skills in the art of film mime. Excellent are the best striptease scene I have seen in a film. (She can do in a few seconds what Kim Basinger could not do in a much longer time in "9-and-a-Half Weeks.") After she has decided to become a dancer, she returns to the restaurant where she once works, and gives a display of gaity tinged with sadness. But her greatest scene has to be when, while she is recovering from her fall, she tries to dance again, to prove to herself that she can still perform. She doesn't collapse in a groaning sobbing heap like Bette Davis or Joan Crawford would, the realisation that she will never dance again is written on her face where we the audience can see it. I have not seen all of Damita's silent films; but, if "The Golden Butterfly" is not Damita's best performance, then all I can say is I have some good filmwatching to look forward to.