She

Rating: 3 out of 10.

The famous 1925 adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s novel is best remembered for Betty Blythe’s varied states of undress. While UFA provides handsome set pieces, the British production falters in the directing and cinematography departments. 3/10

She. 1925, UK/Germany. Directed by Leander de Cordova & G.B. Samuelson. Written by Walter Summer, H. Rider Haggard, G.B. Samuelson. Based on novel She by H. Rider Haggard. Starring: Betty Blythe, Carlyle Blackwell, Heinrich George, Mary Odette. IMDb: 5.9/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

During the first decades of cinema, H. Rider Haggard’s barnstormer of an adventure novel, She (1887) was one of the most popular subjects for adaptation, and unlike some classic tales, it has never really gone out of fashion. In lieu of cinematic adaptations post-1965 (not counting a few straight-to-video efforts), its spirit has lived on in modern interpretations of the immortal ice queen at the heart of the story, much like the spirit of Haggard’s other great character, Allan Quatermain, has lived on in the Indiana Joneses of latter cinema. Whether or not films based on the novel should be featured on a blog dedicated to science fiction cinema can be debated. I have previously omitted this 1925 version because much of what does, in my opinion, qualify the story as at least proto-SF, is missing from this adaptation. But being the hopeless completist that I am, its omission has gnawed on my conscience, seeing as I have reviewed most other feature films based on Haggard’s adventure novels, see my articles on She (1935, review), King Solomon’s Mines (1937, review) and King Solomon’s Mines (1950, review). So, as I am currently in the process of catching up with films that “got away from me” previously, I thought I’d take the bull by the horns and do a write-up on the 1925 version of She, if for no other reason than to put my mind at rest.

She was British author and former missionary H. Rider Haggard’s follow-up to his enormously popular adventure novel King Solomon’s Mines, which laid down much of the foundations for the Lost World genre in fiction. Haggard’s influence was further strengthened by She, which is counted among the most best-selling books written in English of all time. One of the first, if not the first, movie adaptation came as early as 1899, with movie pioneer Georges Méliès’ short treatment The Pillar of Fire. Other short films were made in 1908, 1911, 1916 and 1917 — at least. In this review I will focus on the 1925 film. I have written extensively about Haggard, the novel, its plot, themes, inspiration, legacy and my reason for including it in the SF canon in my review of the 1935 version, so if you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on this, please head over there.

Betty Blythe as She/Ayesha.

If you have read the novel, then the plot of the 1925 movie should be familiar. With the exception of a few alterations, and of course a good amount of omissions and over-simplifications, the film follows the book’s plot very closely. This should come as no surprise, as it was Haggard himself who wrote the inter-titles of the movie. He died soon before the film premiered, so he never had a chance to see it, unfortunately/fortunately.

After a somewhat convoluted beginning, young, handsome (and blonde) scholar Leo Vincey (Carlyle Blackwell) sets out on an adventure to Africa with his guardian, Cambridge professor Horace Holly (Heinrich George) and their valet Job (Tom Reynolds). Their goal is to investigate a fantastic family tale about Leo’s heritage. A clay tablet passed on from his father on his death bed claims to be written by his great-great-great-something-mother 2,000 years ago, after giving birth to a son. The father of the child, the tablet claims, was the beautiful Kallikrates, who was the only man in history to be able to resist the magical charms of the eternal Queen Ayesha, the most beautiful woman on Earth, and a powerful sorceress. But Kallikrates’ love for the boy’s mother was strong enough to allow him to refuse the hand of Ayesha – She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed – and rather than see him with another woman, She killed him.

Heinrich George as Holly and an unnamed actor (probably a heavily made-up Carlyle Blackwell) as Vincey, Sr.

Hooking up with an Arab captain named Mahomet (Alexander Butler), the trio travel to Libya, where, by boat, the find a rocky outcropping called “The Nubian’s Head”, which, according to the instructions left by Leo’s father, should lead them to She. Upon landing, they are captured by a native tribe called the Amahaggers (though I’m not sure if the name was used in the film), led by tribe elder Billali (Jerrold Robertshaw). Billali leads them to the tribe’s home in a network of caves, and tells them that they are indeed governed by a powerful queen they call She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Leo is met by a young native woman, who kisses him, and he returns the gesture. Billali explains that by the custom of their people, she, named Ustane (Mary Odette), has proposed, and by kissing her back, he has married her. Leo accepts the local custom, and immediately develops feelings for Ustane. However, left unattended with the cannibalistic tribe, Leo and Ustane suddenly find themselves being prepared as the main course in the “hot pot”. The party bravely try to fight off the cannibals, but they are too many. Mahomet falls, and Holly, Job and Leo are overpowered. At the last minute, however, Billali and his armed guards intervene. However, Leo is badly hurt, and becomes bedridden, with Ustane watching over him.

Leo’s ancestral grandmother dies in a flashback scene.

Meanwhile, Holly is called to She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, or Ayesha (Betty Blythe) in the Amhagger tongue, to announce their travelling party. Even while shrouded in a see-through veil, Ayesha’s beauty strikes Holly, who asks to see her face. “It may be your doom”, replies Ayesha, but Holly insists. Holly immediately falls for Ayesha’s magical beauty, but she replies she has only ever loved one man, and Holly is not him. Holly begs Ayesha to use her powers to heal the badly wounded Leo, but when she arrives at his bedside, she gets the shock of her (considerable) life: Leo is the reincarnation of her lost love Kallikrates, whom she murdered because he loved another woman. Now history threatens to repeat itself, as Ustane declares that she is Leo’s wife. This time, however, Ayesha threatens to kill the woman instead. Persuaded by Holly, she spares Ustane’s life, but marks her forehead with her magic and sends her away. She then heals Leo, who, despite trying to resist, also falls for Aysesha’s beauty. Now together, Ayesha asks Leo to follow her deep into the caverns, where burns the eternal flame that has granted her immortality, so that he may also live forever by her side. It is a treacherous journey over mountaintops and chasms, and is undertaken by all of the three adventurers. But when they arrive, Leo hesitates to step into the pillar of fire, afraid it will kill him. “What if I step into it first?”, suggests Ayesha, undresses and steps into the flame. But alas, the flame which once gave her immortality now consumes her, and she vanishes in a puff of smoke. Leo is broken from his spell, and as they leave the cave, he witnesses a white dove that momentarily turns into a miniature of Ayesha, that says “I will be reborn, more beautiful than ever”. The End.

Ayesha has stepped into the Pillar of Fire.

The 1925 adaptation of She was a British-German co-production, produced by one of the pioneers of the British film industry, G.B. Samuelson, and co-directed by Jamaican actor and director Leander de Cordova. It was filmed in Germany. The movie is often quoted as the “most famous” adaptation of the novel, and this fame lies almost exclusively with the fact that the movie starred silent movie diva Betty Blythe, perhaps better known for her penchant for revealing outfits than for her acting talents (not to suggest that she didn’t possess them). Gary Chapman at the website Jazz Age Club writes about producer Samuelson: “One of the pioneers of British Silent film, G.B Samuelson had been very active as a producer during the post war period from a base at Worton Hall, Isleworth. However, despite some gems, his output was over ambitious, he continually over stretched himself financially and it was observed that there was a general carelessness in his overall production values. From the end of 1921 he was bought out and changed companies like a yoyo. At the end of 1924 he became part of Reciprocity with a capital of a mere £1,000. One of the first films for the new company was another screen adaptation of Haggard’s novel She.”

Inspired Herbert Wilcox’ success with the oriental film Chu Chin Chow (1923), Samuelson moved the production to Berlin and rented UFA:s state-of-the-art studio in Babelsberg. According to Chapman, “The attraction of the UFA film studios for Samuelson, like others before him, was their incredible range of services and expertise.” He even splashed out to have Chu Chin Chow’s Hollywood star Betty Blythe flown out to Germany once again. Samuelson and Cordova make good use of UFA’s facilities — the film is almost entirely studio-bound and the sets of the catacomb city are quite impressive. However, filming seems to have been plagued by financial problems. Blythe later too Samuelson to court over several cases of mismanagement (more on that further down), and Cordova sued for unpaid salaries. One of Blythe’s complaints was that there weren’t nearly as many dresses for her to wear in the film that she had been promised (and those that were presented were not to her liking), and she said bailiffs kept interrupting filming over unpaid bills. Filming was also apparently moved to a smaller studio after the big set-pieces were finished.

Betty Blythe as Ayesha and Carlyle Blackwell as Kallikrates in a promo shot.

Here one does well to remember that 1924 was the year of the “British film slump”. Internationally, UK had never quite been able to compete with the great film producing nations France, Denmark, Germany and USA, but at its domestic market it had at least been able to hold its ground. But by 1926, American imports had replaced even the modest amount of domestically produced films shown at British cinemas: only 5 percent of all movies being watched by the Brits ware made in the UK. The slump of 1924 closed many studios in London, and those that remained were amateurish and small compared to Berlin and Hollywood, and lacked much of the the supporting industries surrounding the filmmaking process — set building, wardrobe, special effects, etc. In fact, in 1924 Samuelson had acquired a former aircraft hangar in Southall, West London, which was converted into Southall Studios, but apparently it didn’t become a fully functional studio until 1928.

Director Leander de Cordova was also imported from the US, although his sparse directorial credits don’t suggest why Samuelson chose him to direct the picture. And he does seem a bit like a kid who gets to play with grown-up toys and doesn’t quit know how to use them. While the sets themselves are great, and the German crew, along with cinematographer Sydney Blythe (no relation to Betty), a Samuelson stalwart, do a do a great job with lighting and staging, rather little is actually done with all this from a cinematic point of view. Oftentimes, the sets are filmed only from a single angle, and long scenes play out in a static wide shot. When Cordova does cut, it is often to flat and uninteresting medium shots, almost never to close-ups or inserts. His filming constantly fails to capture majesty and power assigned to Ayesha in the book, not least because she is introduced much too early. In the book, she is only mentioned, and there’s a long build-up until we actually get to make her acquaintance. Here, Cordova introduces her in flat wide shots in the very first ten minutes of the film, doing some unflattering dance routine in a negligee, robbing her of much of her mystery.

Betty Blythe and George Heinrich in Heinrich Richter’s impressive set.

Some crowd scenes are well choreographed, while others seem somewhat slapdash and poorly edited. The fight scenes are so-so, consisting largely of wide shots of Leo and Holly boxing at natives from a rock. Mahomet’s death is prosaic — granted, we never get to know him well enough to actually care what happens to him. In fact, this is a problem with the film as a whole, which partly has to do with the way the novel is written — we don’t really care much either way what happens to any of the characters — except maybe Holly. Haggard wrote the novel as a serial, which explains its episodic nature. It’s rather neatly divided in several set pieces that all end on some form of climax and a cliffhanger, but these parts don’t necessarily mesh together into a clear dramatic arc. At one point, Haggard seems to have written himself into a corner: the story needs to climax with Leo confronting Ayesha, but once the explorers reach the catacomb city, we’re only halfway through the book. So Haggard needs a way to stave off the meeting, and the only way he can think of is to incapacitate Leo. Then, for a long stretch, the protagonist disappears from the story, and the book focuses on the psychological battle between Ayesha and Holly: in the book, the already old and wizened man, unaccustomed to female affections (he’s nicknamed “Baboon”), is able to withstand the lures of She to some extent. But of course the silent film can’t go into this detail, nor the interesting conversations between these two fascinating characters. If the cinematic Holly would be able to resist Ayesha’s beauty, it would immediately rob her of her power, a power which is already diminished by the way in which she is portrayed. However, we see little enough of Leo before he gets injured, and the casting of Carlyle Blackwell in the role does little to boost the audience’s interest in him. Blackwell was an American matinee idol of the silent screen, but in the twenties he was largely starring in minor programmers, so his marquee name was not enough for the film to pull in the US. At 40, he’s also too old for the brash, young Leo Vincey of the story, and his blonde wig in the film does him no favours. Blackwell is not a bad actor, but simply has too little material with which to do anything in She, and suffers from the unimaginative direction mainly giving him flat mid and wide shots.

Carlyle Blackwell and Betty Blythe in a promotional shot.

The movie’s one selling point is Betty Blythe, who took the world by storm in her daring and largely undressed title role in Fox’ The Queen of Sheba in 1921 (she appeared completely nude in one scene) and had a similar hit in 1923 with Chu-Chin-Chow. Blythe quickly became a sex object, but apparently the British producers weren’t quite willing to go as far in the nudity department as Fox had done in The Queen of Sheba. The most famous scene of She is when Ayesha seemingly disrobes and steps into the Pillar of Fire nude — you don’t see any actual nudity, as she is obscured by the fire effect. However, she was a trained actress and music artist, and appeared to good reviews in “serious” roles on stage before her movie fame. However, she is somewhat miscast as Ayesha. While an attractive woman in her own right, Blythe’s facial features don’t necessarily give the impression of immortal beauty — she has the kind of almost quadratic face made fashionable for flapper roles by Clara Bow, but one would not describe her as a “classic beauty”. But looks aside, the direction does her no favours, either. As said, she is revealed, in a somewhat unflattering and underwhelming manner, too early, and with a few dramatic exceptions, the cinematography does little to sell the idea of Ayesha’s majesty and power. Like in the 1935 version of the film, Ayesha is portrayed as fawning over Leo, as given to emotional outbursts and temper fits — quite unlike a 2,000-year-old all-powerful, immortal empress. She is also not helped, at least to modern eyes, by the bizarre costumes she wears. This may partly be a question of changing fashion, but the actress herself was also highly dissatisfied with her wardrobe. One of her grievances with Samuelson in court was the inappropriate wardrobe. According to Jazz Age Club, Blythe stated in court that she was promised twelve dresses, but when she arrived there were only three made, and they were not to her liking, so she and her maid constantly made alterations to them, or made completely new dresses: “One of these dresses Betty Blythe said was awful ‘I looked funny in it. It was German and was too big. My role was that of the goddess who lived in the skies. It was necessary to have a particular bodice made. The style in Germany is to wear large breastplates. I couldn’t use them. They made me look like a German prima donna.’” The main problem, it seems, was that Blythe was of the opinion that the dresses made showed off too little of her body. Now, whether the outfits on display were the design of the German costume firm Baruch, which was assigned to UFA, or Blythe’s own fanciful creations, they at least to a modern eye make her seem more like she’s going to a humorous twenties costume party than like an immortal queen.

Betty Blythe in one of the film’s odd headdresses.

The acting style of the film is another thing which throws off many a modern viewer. The style used is the kind of dramatic posing that we so readily associate with silent film, and which has made a lot of people shun any and all movies from the silent era, believing all silents were acted in this manner. In fact, this was a particular school of acting, and was used to larger and smaller degrees in silent films, and sometimes not at all. The style sprung out of the so-called “Delsarte System”, originated by French oratory, singing and acting teacher François Delsarte. The story of Delsarte’s theory and how it was later both misunderstood and misused is quite interesting, but that’s for another post. Suffice to say, that through studying people Delsarte hoped to develop a catalog, or science, of human movement and how it corresponded with emotion — his teachings strived to help performers use natural movement and gestures to connect with their emotions, rather than the other way round, which is the way it often became used in films: using gestures to portray emotions that could not be spoken. To certain degree, this system was a rather nifty shorthand in silents, and on stage, where audience members further away could not necessarily see small nuances in the actors’ facial expressions: it was a way to quickly convey emotions in a code that was familiar to the audience. But it was also a style choice: in no way was it universal to silent films. If you watch The Intrigue (1915), which I recently reviewed, there are almost no Delsarte gestures in it. In some films played in a more natural fashion, you can find subtle examples of it, that also carried over into talkies. For example, you will see much hand-wringing in old films: a shorthand for distress. Another telltale Delsarte gesture is a woman biting the forefinger of a loosely clenched fist: a signal of sudden fear. The teachings of Delsarte became especially popular in the US in the late 19th century, through the writings of one of the pupils of his protege (he never wrote down his method himself), Genevieve Stebbins. The first American drama school was founded on Delsartism. Defenders of his theory claim that as the years went by, and the Americanised “Delsarte System” started being taught by “lesser teachers”, it became more of an empty aesthetic of poses and posturing, which resulted in the stilted dramatics of many silent films. It was an especially popular acting style for historical epics and fantasy films, such as She. But the end result was often that instead of conveying actual emotions, it conveyed a symbol for an emotion, resulting in a kind of Verfremdung effect. This was sometimes suitable, for example in highly symbolic “idea films”, such as Metropolis (1927, review), where it is sparsely used to great effect. However, She is not an idea film, but a film which is supposed to be an emotional roller coaster ride, and the over-used and accentuated Delsarte posing takes you out of emotional state you need to be in to enjoy the story. It is primarily used by the representatives of the natives and Ayesha herself, which is indicative that it was meant to highlight their “alienness” from modern society and lend gravitas to their personas: for example, it is not used by the milling hoards of cannibals, but used to excess by their tribeswoman Ustane, highlighting her nobleness and apartness from her barbaric brethren. I see the point, but it is adopted and overstated to such an extreme that it becomes almost pathetic rather than dramatic.

Betty Blythe.

Another problem with he film is the portrayal of the natives, which are all white actors in Tarzan-like loincloths and cave-man attire, in very obvious blackface. It’s difficult to take them seriously, as they look like something out of a comedy reel. So bad is this portrayal that even Variety called out the cannibals as looking like “blackface comedians, and acting even worse”. Of course, it would probably have been difficult to wrangle up a whole cannibal tribe’s worth of black actors in Berlin in 1925, so one had to make due, but even racial sensitivities aside, the make-up and costumes are community theatre level, as is most their acting, and the blame should probably be laid on the director rather than the actors. Mary Odette, playing Ustane, was a capable actress, as were, I am sure, many of the German extras. The whole thing is not improved by the fact that Jerrold Robertshaw as Billali is made up like a stringy Santa Claus in a ridiculous wig and false beard.

As stated, the film has its moments. The grand sets are impressive, there are a few well-choreographed crowd scenes and a couple of well-directed and exciting sequences. Especially the last scenes depicting the adventure to reach the Pillar of Fire must have been awesome to see on the big screen, with its ominously glowing mountain landscapes and the trio’s final, daring escape over a gaping ravine. Heinrich George as Horace Holly is the only actor in this film to deserve praise — just as in the book it is Holly who emerges as the most interesting character, and George also refrains from Delsarte posturing, giving a highly emotional and intense performance, which stands in start contrast to Blackwell’s blandness and Blythe’s power posing. But the film as a whole feels like throwback to an earlier era of filmmaking. Much of the action is shot from one single position, sometimes without moving the camera even once. It often gives the impression of a filmed stage play, in the style of the tableau movies of the 1900’s. I don’t think there is a single zoom, pan or tilt in this film. Compare that, for example, with the dynamism in the Italian epic Cabiria, made in 1914, eleven years prior to She — filled with pans, zooms, tracking shots, even one of cinema history’s first dolly shots, inserts, close-ups, occasionally rapid editing, etc. Or take the symbolic montage and stark photography of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin from 1919. No, She should not be excuses by a modern audience because of its age. Compared to the output coming from the US, Germany, USSR, Sweden, France and Italy, this British epic was downright amateurish, like an artefact from years gone by. Remember, this was only two years prior to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, films that displayed the artistic fulfillment of silent cinema.

Betty Blythe and George Heinrich.

Apparently the film was a popular success in the UK when it was released, although I have not been able to find any British reviews of the era. It had only a limited release in the US, and was met with mixed reviews. Variety gave it thorough thrashing, although critic Sime’s greatest critique was that an attempt was even made at turning Haggard’s book into a serious film, as such a thing, in his opinion, could not be done. He concludes: “A column could be employed to detail the errors of this production, in everything, from settings, to acting, lighting and direction, besides mob scenes and range shots. But as a picture it is not entitled to over an inch in notice and only is receiving more for being English.” Others were less caustic. The Richmond Times Dispatch wrote: “Many of the scenes of She are impressive and beautiful. The fights between the natives and the explorers are somewhat half hearted after other motion pictures, but they are satisfactory. Miss Blythe fails to get any great emotion out of the role of She. […] Mr. Blackwell is a somewhat negative hero.” However, Motion Picture News gave the film a good notice, praising the film’s atmosphere and calling the settings and cinematography “beautifully handled and curiously impressive”, “The story abounds in thrills and incident and has a decided appeal for those who find pleasure in the contemplation of the realms of the imaginative and supernatural”. The magazine continued to note that “Betty Blythe’s natural charms are freely exhibited” and that Blythe interprets the role “with dramatic vigor”.

On IMDb She has a 5.9/10 rating, based on 160 votes only. Largely neglected today, modern reviews are few and far between. Of course, Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings has seen it. Sindelar writes: “The main attraction here is obviously Betty Blythe, though not for her acting; actually, I think she lacks the haughty imperiousness that would seem to be necessary for the role. No, it’s her costumes that steal the movie; for the most part, they’re either incredibly skimpy or see-through; in fact, she does her scene bathing in the pillar of fire in the nude. Despite these touches, I think this movie is slow-moving and lacking in spectacle; once they arrive in the Ayesha’s kingdom, we barely see any of her subjects, and the only characters appear to be the three heroes, Ayesha, and the native girl. All in all, I found this one a bit of a bore, and would opt for the 1935 version at this point of time.” Gene Philips at Naturalistic! Uncanny! Marvellous is a tad more positive: “Though the film is only able to suggest bits and pieces of the novel’s romantic grandeur, on the whole its co-directors manage to suggest at least some of that grandiosity despite the lack of dialogue.” And Scott Ashlin at 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting faults both the “Dramatic Posing” and the casting: “Heinrich George is great, and this movie has the distinction of following the novel more closely than any version shot either before or since, but those two points really are just about all the 1925 iteration of She has going for it.”

Betty Blythe and Mary Odette in a promotional shot.

I wrote earlier that I refrained from reviewing the 1925 adaptation of She because it lacks the bits and pieces of Haggard’s novel that qualifies it for an SF blog. If I’m being totally honest with myself, I think that was an excuse I made up so I wouldn’t have to review it. I tried earlier on two occasions to sit through the film, but simply gave up the first time and zipped through it on double speed the second. The European 98-minute cut is a daunting experience — it was cut down to 69 minutes in the US. There are a number of factors tribute to the fact that it feels like a slog, and one is that it follows the book so closely. Owing to its episodic nature, the novel itself treads along in a staccato-like manner, one minor adventure or obstacle replacing the other, building up tension and anticipation toward the final confrontation with Ayesha. This psychological tension, however, is difficult to bring out in a silent film, especially one that is mainly shot in wide shots utilising the Delsarte method. And as said, the film ruins the build-up by showing Ayesha and her city in the first ten minutes of the film. All in all, this is one for completists. For all its flaws, I’d recommend the 1935 version of the story for its entertainment value alone.

G.B. Samuelson.

So, whatever happened to that trial between Betty Blythe and G.B. Samuelson? Well, Betty wasn’t just upset about her dresses. Her main grievance was that of unpaid dues. When she arrived in Paris for a shopping trip before heading to Berlin, there was supposed to have been 4,500 dollars in advances for her deposited at a bank, but according her, this was a ghost check, as no such bank as Samuelson indicated existed. Also, at the end of production, Samuelson had returned to London, and again, according to Blythe, left her stranded in Berlin without a return ticket or cover for her hotel room. The court concluded that the bank in Paris Samuelson had indicated did in fact exist, and that Blythe had simply gone to the wrong bank, and she conceded that she did get the 4,500 dollars upon arrival to Berlin. As for the hotel room, it was eventually paid for by Samuelson. No verdict was handed out by the court. But on the whole, it seems clear that the finances on She were badly mismanaged, as Samuelson had 16 claims against him regarding unpaid salaries or bills, including that of the rent of the UFA studio, all of which were eventually settled out of court. The hubbub around She hurt Samuelson’s career, and according to Jazz Age Club, he was never able to re-establish his pioneering reputation in British cinema. He continued working on minor productions as producer and director until 1934.

Betty Blythe figured in the press again later in 1925, when filming the movie Jacob’s Well, which was shot on location in North Africa and Palestine. During filming, her agent notified the press that Blythe had been kidnapped by Bedouins and carried off into the desert. However, according to Chapman, news agency Reuters found her safe and undisturbed in Mount Carmel outside Haifa, and concluded that the agent’s press release had been a publicity stunt. Blythe had a few more minor hits during the silent era, but disappeared from the screen between 1928 and 1931, as the talkies were establishing themselves. For a theatrically trained singer like Blythe, transitioning to sound should not have, and apparently did not, represent an insurmountable obstacle, but nevertheless, her career declined in the thirties, at least in regards to her screen time and the sizes of the roles she played. However, this may have had less to do with Blythe’s qualities as a sound actress than with her age. When she entered the talkies in 1931 she was nearing her forties, an age, as will most actresses testify, when securing good roles becomes increasingly difficult even today, much more so in the thirties. But Blythe soldiered on, even though she was increasingly being relegated to smaller supporting roles in programmers and uncredited bit parts in prestigious films — with credits such as “Spectator in Opera Box” (Anna Karenina, 1935), “Mrs. South” (The Women, 1939), “Customer” (The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946), “Floor Manager” (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 1947), “Dowager” (Lust for Life, 1956) and finally “Lady at Ball” (My Fair Lady, 1964). By 1958, at the age of 65, she apparently decided to retire a long and occasionally spectacular career in the movies, and an even longer one as a hard-working character actress. She only came out of retirement in 1964, probably at the request of George Cukor, with whom she had worked previously, for her cameo in My Fair Lady.

Betty Blythe in “Queen of Sheba” (1921).

The aftermath of She paints a picture of Blythe as an eccentric and difficult person, as does her seemingly self-absorded grievances about her dresses, which the press at the time naturally had a blast with. But I suspect there’s another story here as well. I defense of her fuss about the dresses she told the court, in so many words, that she did not consider herself particularly beautiful, and thus needed to compensate by other means. She was probably aware that her rise to fame rested almost entirely on her readiness to appear in front of the camera nearly in the nude, and may in fact have been somewhat uncomfortable with a role in which so much focus was put on her face. Of course, this is pure speculation on my part. But it would be interesting to know more about this fascinating actress, who for so many decades after her decade of stardom worked in almost complete obscurity. Was this out of passion for acting, or simply to put food on the table?

Carlyle Blackwell as Sherlock Holmes in “Der Hund von Baskervilles” (1929).

Carlyle Blackwell was American movie studio Kalem’s top matinee star between 1910 and 1915, and was then poached by Famous Players, before he went on a European tour and relocated to England for the remainders of the decade. Here, he was the first actor to play the hard-boiled detective Bulldog Drummond on film in 1922, a box office success which he followed up with The Virgin Queen in 1923. His marquee draw was probably the reason Samuelson chose him for the role of Leo Vincey, even if he was too old for it — and Samuelson also probably overestimated his draw on the American market. He also had the distinction of being the last silent era Sherlock Holmes, in the popular German 1929 production of Der Hund von Baskerville. His last role was the lead in a British Paramount production called Beyond the Cities. Apparently, he retired with the advent of sound.

There is little to be gleaned about the life of Mary Odette from online sources, other than that she was a French-born actress who made her film debut in England in 1916, at the age of 15. She seems to have been a popular leading lady in the early 20’s, but was hurt by the slump of 1924 and, like many British actors, made films in Germany and France. In her last movie performance, she played the titular character in the oriental adventure drama Emerald of the East (1929), and she retired shortly before the coming of the talkies to the UK.

Heinrich George.

Heinrich George was an interesting and paradoxical character. A celebrated star of the stage, he worked with left-wing writer and director Bertolt Brecht and sympathised with the Communist Party of Germany. An early film star, he was famous for his intense and powerful performances. His leftist sympathies initially got him in trouble with the Nazis, but he soon became of the most prominent actors of fascist propaganda movies, appearing in films such as Hitlerjunge Quex (1933), Jud Süss (1940) and Kolberg (1945). Ironically, this former communist died in a Soviet prison camp in 1946 after the Allies’ invasion of Berlin.

There is a Louis Levy credited as “music arranger”, which would imply that She had a musical score to be played during screenings at the big movie theatres.

Janne Wass

She. 1925, UK/Germany. Directed by Leander de Cordova & G.B. Samuelson. Written by Walter Summer, H. Rider Haggard, G.B. Samuelson. Based on the novel She by H. Rider Haggard. Starring: Betty Blythe, Carlyle Blackwell, Heinrich George, Mary Odette, Tom Reynonds, Jerrold Robertshaw, Dorothy Barclay, Marjorie Statler, Alexander Butler. Cinematography: Sydney Blythe. Art direction: Heinrich Richter. Music arranger: Louis Levy.

4 replies

      • BTW- Christopher Riordan, who was a young extra in MY FAIR LADY and a friend of Cukor’s has written that many old Hollywood actors came out of retirement for the ball scene (for some it was their last picture) and it was quite an honor to be taken to Betty Blythe and told he’d play her nephew.

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        • Thanks for the information! And I am happy that she was still remembered by a younger generation of actors in the sixties.

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