Silent Movie Review: “Gypsy Blood” (Monochrome May Special)
Welcome back to Monochrome May, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of all things ashen and old.
And we do mean old, because today we’re going to take a look at the silent film Gypsy Blood, a lighthearted tragedy (if such a thing can exist) based on the opera Carmen by French composer Georges Bizet.
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch and released in the US in 1921 (1918 in Europe), Gypsy Blood is set in Seville, Spain. The story follows La Carmencita (played by Pola Negri), a young, attractive gypsy dancer who lives day-to-day by taking advantage of men’s affections. One of these sad souls is José Navarro played by (Harry Liedtke), a sergeant in the Spanish cavalry. Despite being engaged to his sweetheart back home and holding fast to his soldier’s honor, José is ultimately overcome by Carmencita’s charms. Unfortunately for him, Carmencita is not keen on being faithful to a single lover – not José, at least.
As the story unfolds, Carmencita also catches the eyes of Sergeant Navarro’s commanding officer, as well as a champion bull fighter. While Carmencita approaches all of these relationships with youthful flippancy, her emotional abuses eventually take their toll on the men pursuing her. This sets off a contagion of misfortunes, including heartbreak, José losing his military rank, and eventually – murder. There are several twists and turns from beginning to end, but the viewer will undoubtedly anticipate the film’s tragic ending well before the actual climax.
Things come to an abrupt close with very little denouement, but that was par for the course at the time of the film’s original release. Thematically, there’s certainly a pervasive moral of how lust can bring ruin to honorable men, and there’s also a dialogue between José’s notions of traditional love and Carmencita’s flirtatious freedom, which are ultimately revealed to be incompatible. There’s honestly very little to show gypsies in much of a positive light, either, as they are shown as bandits, emotional manipulators, and broadly degenerate. There is a stark visual contrast in the costuming, however, where the class split between the gypsies and the well-to-do high ranking soldiers is highlighted by the gypsies’ rips and rags being contrasted with the clean, prim and proper cavalry uniforms.
Negri delivers a magnetic performance as Carmencita. Despite her moral failings, it is difficult to not become enchanted with her flirtatious charms, swagger, and zeal for life. While Carmencita is the most memorable character from the film (thanks due to Negri’s performance), it can be argued that José Navarro is really the main character of Gypsy Blood. José is the most transformed by the film’s narrative, as his fall from honor into despondency is clearly catalogued in his character arc. Liedtke’s performance is less compelling than Negri’s, as once José commits to his pursuit or Carmencita, the character becomes one-note, jealous, juvenile, and tends toward the melodramatic at times.
The era was the forefront of establishing the rules of cinema, and Gypsy Blood employs a lot of the framing and editing techniques still in use today (looking space, the 180-degree rule, etc.). For the most part, everything flows in a natural way and is still easily digestible by modern audiences. It’s all blocked, lit, and framed well, and there are a couple of smart uses of background shadows from time to time. Lubitsch and co. clearly showed a lot of ambition which is evident through scenes featuring big crowds, a sword fight, dancing, murders, a shootout, and extravagant set pieces like the bull fighting arena. There’s even a clever dissolve effect when a conflicted José is visited by the vision of his fiancée. There was certainly no shortage of crowd-pleasing moments for 1918 audiences.
My copy of Gypsy Blood is a DVD edition published by Alpha Video. The print is fairly clean, and all of the text was easily legible (which isn’t always the case). While the accompanying score is certainly not the original (if there was ever an official score in the first place), the Alpha Video orchestrations still match the onscreen action rather well, so no complaints there. On the other hand, this DVD release does not have any film tinting to convey mood, which I’ve seen on other versions online, so a purist might do well to look elsewhere for a more authoritative version. It’s quite possible that the color tints were removed from the 1921 US release, but that is a question for a more dedicated film historian than me.
Since the release of Gypsy Blood in 1918, there have been several other interpretations of Bizet’s Carmen, both on stage and in film. As for Gypsy Blood, it is long since been available in the public domain, so there is myriad ways to watch it at home or online. Negri’s performance alone is reason enough to give it a watch, even if you are already familiar with the underlying story. It is also worth checking out as an early film of director Ernst Lubitsch, who would go on to have a very lucrative and celebrated career in filmmaking.
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