Thursday, November 24, 2011

Do the Mamba

There are fewer more unique experiences to be had than the one I had last Monday evening. At my local revival house - and Australian icon - The Astor Theatre, I was amongst the first people in some 80 years or so to witness Albert Rogell's 1930 technicolour epic, Mamba, on the big screen. This movie had been presumed lost for decades, the original 35mm nitrate prints figured (correctly, for the most part) to have been burnt to crisps in a movie studio bonfire that doubled as the famous "burning of Atlanta" sequence in Gone with the Wind. Stories such as this occasionally pop up in the cinephile's radar - just earlier this year an early Alfred Hitchcock film was found in New Zealand - and yet the story of Mamba had escaped my knowledge. If it weren't for the one, sole print turning up in a house in Adelaide, South Australia, I never would have and neither would the world. Mamba would have gone been forever lost to the world of cinema and that's a damn shame.

Made by Tiffany Pictures in 1929 and released to spectacular acclaim and box office success, Mamba was the first ever technicolour drama to be made in America or anywhere else in the world. Several other technicolour motion pictures had come before, all musicals and all rather unexciting if you believe those in the know, but Mamba was the first of its kind. So much so that Technicolour used Mamba as the focus point of an ad campaign to sell their gear. Tiffany Pictures went bankrupt in 1932 after essentially being run out of the distribution business by the likes of MGM and Warner Bros. At that time these film distributors own cinema chains (much like Hoyts in Australia, I presume) and they did not take kindly to Tiffany Pictures' instant success. The era's own version of The Weinstein Company - a bunch of rich dudes making expensive movies - were eventually roadblocked from releasing their movies in the most profitable cinemas in the most profitable locations. Despite the success of movies such as Mamba, they shut up shop and their studio was purchased by Columbia. Such is life.

Now, Mamba - remember, it was thought lost for over half a century - was screened at The Astor via digital because the surviving 35mm print would, quite literally, bite the dust in a modern day film projector. Film historian Paul Brennan, who was on hand to provide a lengthy history of the era and Mamba's place in Hollywood history, is hoping to get the film fully restored like so many of its more well known contemporaries and I certainly hope it does. The film's visuals deserve better than what it currently has. The gorgeous colours of the East African setting look remarkable given the circumstances, but having seen the film I can only imagine what they would look like with a healthy dose of TLC. The soundtrack, painstakingly matched from the original gramophone sound discs to the on screen visuals, remains more or less in tact, but it too could use with a good polish as some dialogue is undecipherable and wonky.

As for the quality of the film itself? Well, Mamba certainly isn't a particularly great movie, but it's a thoroughly entertaining one and its place in cinema history is a vital one that demands attention. Starring Jean Hersholt as August Bolte, nicknamed "Mamba" due to his snake-like qualities, as a slimy fatcat in pre-WWI German East Africa who returns from travel abroad with a beautiful (if disappointed) bride as a means of gaining the respect of the soldiers whose home he shares. The bride, a dazzling Eleanor Boardman as Helen, falls for Ralph Forbes' nobel soldier character, but before long WWI has broken out and the locals have revolted against the European white man. It's all fairly standard adventure romance stuff, but you get what you pay for with Mamba. There are laughs to be had at the horrified expressions upon the faces of Helen's bridesmaids (Melissa McCarthy and co eat your hearts out!) upon seeing their friend's mysterious beau for the first time, or the way Forbes dons a ridiculous pair of high-waisted safari shorts to do battle with the hostile ethnics while worrying amounts of blood pour out of an invisible wound in his chest. This final sequence is actually quite exciting once you get past the ridiculous scenario and outfits. It reminded me a lot of the "Odessa Steps" sequence from Battleship Potemkin, which is always a good thing. And if the central romance between Boardman and Forbes is rather dry, then at least Hersholt is there to enliven things with his greasy performance.

I was amongst the first to see this film on the big screen in some 80 years and I hope to not be amongst the last.

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