She (1925)

Hello, everybody, it’s Pam again, back with yet another review of a silent movie about a mysterious queen of an unknown people. It seems like I just can’t get enough of them. This time I’m reviewing a movie made from the ultimate lost-race novel: She, by H. Rider Haggard, published in 1887, back in the good old days when Britannia ruled the waves and everybody was sure the unexplored parts of the world were just crawling with lost races. The book’s in the public domain, if you want to read it. Be warned, though, the language is outdated, the plot is far-fetched, and its attitude to non-white races condescending at best.

This is not the first silent movie that was made from this novel. There seem to have been at least four made before this one, but this one has the advantage of having H. Rider Haggard’s assistance, and he’s the one who wrote the intertitles. Besides, there’s not much choice if you want a silent movie, since it’s the only version that’s available in its entirety on Youtube. There are also several versions with sound, but today I’m in the mood for a silent movie. So let’s rediscover the lost race!

Meanwhile, back at the MMT offices in Indiana...

Nate: Kelby! Come here.

Kelby: Ugh, fine, what?

Nate: I can't find any decent images online for Pam's movie review. The only prints available are terrible, not even worth the effort to cap.

Kelby: ...and?

Nate: And I need you to put on this Depression Era swimsuit top for me.

Kelby: No.

Nate: Yes. Do you want to eat this week? Put it on.

Kelby: I hate you.

Nate: And then put on this 1920's lady's flapper hat and go stand in front of that vaguely 19th Century African scene so I can take your picture.

Kelby: I really hate you. Why am I doing this?

Nate: Because I told you to. And because I want to see if you and Jonesy can recreate some scenes from this movie for me, to see if Pam will go for that.

Kelby: Did I mention I hate you? And she won't go for that.

Nate: Maybe she will, she has a sense of humor. And you look fabulous as She in black and white.

Kelby: I do, don't I?

Nate: Yeah, sure, lets go with that.

The movie gets right down to the action, as we see a man, Mr. Vincey according to the intertitle, staggering into the office of a certain Horace Holly, a Cambridge University professor. Poor Dr. Holly is not a handsome man. In fact, he’s been nicknamed The Baboon, and the book makes it clear that this was an accurate description of his physical appearance, but in this movie, Dr. Holly is chubby and has very thick eyebrows but is otherwise not that bad-looking. He’s also a man of calm temperament and a kind heart. The staggering man, who seems to be at death’s door if not actually walking through it, confirms this impression by telling Dr. Holly he (the man) won’t live to see tomorrow. His ailment isn’t mentioned, but judging from the handkerchief pressed to his lips, it’s probably tuberculosis. Evidently he and Dr. Holly haven’t been in touch, because he informs Dr. Holly that he (the man) has a son. He also informs – not asks, mind you, informs – Dr. Holly that Dr. Holly is now the boy’s guardian. If you’re wondering why the boy’s mother can’t take care of him, it’s because, as was so often the case in melodramatic Victorian novels and in real Victorian life, the boy’s mother died when he was born.

This is quite a bit to lay upon an acquaintance you haven’t seen in some time, but Dr. Holly steps up to the plate and agrees to do it. The man gives Dr. Holly a small piece of paper on which he’s outlined the education he wants Dr. Holly to give to the boy, whose name is Leo. He also hands over a large box that is to be opened on Leo’s 25th birthday. So far as I can see, he doesn’t hand over any cash.

Fast-forward about 24 years. It’s now Leo Vincey’s 25th birthday, and the mysterious box is to be opened. What could be inside? Dr. Holly’s probably hoping it’s money to reimburse him for the expense he’s gone to in raising Leo, but if so, he’s going to be disappointed. What’s actually in the box is a large piece of something dirty and broken-looking. I have no idea what it could be, but fortunately the filmmakers help us out with a letter Mr. Vincey left in the box along with the whatever-it-is. As a matter of fact, it’s something that will give Leo “proofs of the extraordinary antiquity of [your] race.” The second paragraph suggests that it has something to do with Ethiopia. The final paragraph suggest that Leo seek “the Pillar of Fire and the Queen whose days and loveliness do not fade.” Why go to so much trouble just to find out how far back your family tree goes is not discussed, but I guess it was a 19th-century British thing.

Well, doesn’t this sound a lot more interesting than getting an MBA and going to work for a large corporation? Leo certainly thinks so. But how to find the Pillar of Fire, not to mention the ever-beautiful Queen? Mr. Vincey foresaw that question, and he left help on hand. A large part of the space in the box is occupied by what appears to be a large pottery shard with writing over 2000 years old on it. Probably you are no better at reading 2000-year-old writing than I am, but the movie helpfully translates by means of a flashback. We’re transported to a vaguely Egyptian-looking room, where a heavily-veiled woman appears to be rather upset with a young man and woman. The intertitle explains that the young man, Kallikrates, fell in love with the narrator, presumably the young woman, to the displeasure of the Queen, who was in love with Kallikrates herself. It appears that this Queen, like Antinea, doesn’t handle rejection well, and she had Kallikrates killed. The narrator, we assume, escapes, or at least lives long enough to write a message on the pottery, urging her son to kill the Queen. If he fails, his son, grandson, great-grandson, etc. are all to try to kill the Queen, until finally one of his descendants succeeds. It seems the Vinceys haven’t done well at their task, and now, 2000 years later, it’s all up to Leo.

Leo takes very little, in fact practically no, convincing to set out on this incredible journey, and Dr. Holly is equally eager to come along. Since this is 19th-century England, they can’t possibly go without a servant, and Dr. Holly’s servant Job realizes this and goes with them. One might remark that it’s odd that of the three men, not one has any sort of attachment that will prevent him from leaving at a moment’s notice and being gone indefinitely. Dr. Holly’s job must not mean much to him, not nearly as much as Leo’s family means to him. I mean, how many of us would walk away from everything to avenge the 2000-year-old murder of one of our remote ancestors?

Fortunately they have the clue that the Queen is probably somewhere in Ethiopia. We skip the long boring journey from England to Africa and pick up the story where they are landing on the coast of Libya (or “Lybia” according to the intertitle). We haven’t really had time to build up sympathy for the main characters, but I, and possibly you, can’t help worrying about them. The movie has foreseen this and is now offering reassurance to us doubters. If you are wondering if our heroes have misinterpreted the pottery shard and are nowhere near where they need to be, possibly not even on the right continent, don’t worry. The next intertitle reassures us that the Queen is nearby. Are you maybe thinking they’ll find the Queen and she’ll say blankly, “Kallikrates who?” After all, 2000 years is a long time, and when you’re the most beautiful woman in the world, you surely aren’t short on boyfriends. Again, this is an idle worry. The memory of Kallikrates still burns bright in the Queen’s 2000-year-old brain. Also, we’re shown what appears to be a throne room with a veiled woman sitting on a fancy chair. I think this is the Queen, and when she throws back her veil, hugs herself, and casts her eyes up to the ceiling, I think this means she knows her beloved Kallikrates is approaching. I wish I could say she really is beautiful. It’s possible she is, but the print on Youtube is of such abysmal quality that I really don’t know what she looks like, except that she has long dark hair.

Luck is with our trio. Scarcely have they set foot on shore when they’re captured by some natives and a white man with a long beard and a staff, who informs them they’re going to be taken to “She-who-must-be-obeyed,” the queen Leo’s seeking. What a lucky break! (And possibly a mistake on the part of the moviemakers, since the coast of Libya isn’t that near Ethiopia.) The natives and the old man lead them through a series of caves and passageways. It looks as though part of the movie is missing here, because the next thing we see, Leo has gotten himself married to a native girl. Since I’ve read the book, I’ll cheat a little and explain to those who are reading this review, assuming that anybody is, what happened. It seems that among these people, the women get to pick their husbands. When a girl takes a liking to a man, she kisses him in public. If he kisses her back, they’re married. This is what just happened to Leo. The girl’s name is Ustane, and she’s rather pretty, but even so, Leo seems to be rushing into things a little. I wonder how this romance went over in the United States? The natives, including Ustane, are played by white actors but are in blackface makeup. Given the extremely racist atmosphere in the United States in 1925, I would have thought even a fake-interracial romance would have made the movie unacceptable to a large part of the population. (This movie was a joint British-German production, not an American movie, although it had a number of American actors.)

As most Westerners assumed in 1925, these natives are cannibals, and suddenly for no particular reason, they decide Leo and Ustane will make the perfect dinner. Fortunately for them, after a brief laughably-staged fight between Leo and the natives, during which it’s obvious that Leo’s blows aren’t coming anywhere near his “attackers,” the old man returns in the very nick of time. He chastises the natives, takes Dr. Holly to meet She, and leaves Leo in the care of Ustane to recover from his ordeal, which the intertitle tells us left him gravely ill.

When Dr. Holly is ushered into She’s presence, she’s still veiled, but even the poor quality of the print allows us to see that otherwise she isn’t wearing very much – no more, in fact, than a sort of G-string and a long transparent scarf. Her hair’s in braids, which hang down in front and pretty much cover her breasts. The actress doesn’t move around much, especially when the camera’s close to her, so the naughty bits stay covered up. She was played by Betty Blythe, an actress who was notorious in her time for being willing to take off as much of her clothing as her director told her to, and she makes Antinea seem modest by comparison. She has a much better body than Stacia Napierkowska, if you like them on the thin side, and you’ll be seeing plenty more of it as the movie progresses. Unfortunately for the male viewers, the print quality is too poor to appreciate it fully.

Dr. Holly, at least, seems to like what he sees. He seems completely smitten and humbly begs She for a glimpse of her face. She complies, although she warns him that it could be fatal. It very nearly is, judging from the way his eyes bug out. We viewers mostly see only her back, and I just have to be catty and say that despite the poor print quality I think I see a hint of back fat, but we are granted a few seconds of her face, although the camera never gets very close. So what does the face of the most beautiful 2000-year-old woman in the world look like? It’s hard to say. All you can really see is that she has the same smooth white oval face, small heavily-lipsticked mouth, and large dark eyes with lots of eyeshadow that most silent movie actresses had. A search for images of Betty Blythe on the Internet shows that this is what she really looked like, more or less a generic version of a silent movie actress. You’ll also find her reputation for being willing to take off most of her clothes for the camera was accurate.

But to get back to the action, Leo is still lying at death’s door, and another scene of She shows she’s still agonizing over her lost Kallikrates. She’s unbraided her hair and put on more clothes, possibly as a sign of her grief. We get an unnecessarily long sequence that tells us only that Dr. Holly is madly in love with She and She is still in love with Kallikrates, all the while poor Leo is still lying near death.

Ustane and Job are sitting disconsolately at Leo’s bedside (which looks very uncomfortable, like a slab of rock as a matter of fact), when in rushes Dr. Holly. He holds up his hands imploringly and stands still for an unnecessarily long time (was part of this supposed to be edited out?), but he relaxes when a heavily-veiled woman walks in. The sight caused Ustane to rush to Dr. Holly and cling to him as if for protection. Okay, was something else cut out? Dr. Holly spent most of his time with She staring googly-eyed at her, and he never mentioned who Leo was, or that he was married to Ustane. Nor did we see Leo tell Ustane that he’s the spitting image of She’s old heartthrob Kallikrates, or for that matter see that Leo is aware of this himself.

Despite Dr. Holly’s plea that Ustane has been nursing Leo, She orders her out of the room, or rather cave, since all this is happening underground. But maybe Ustane was scared because it’s a known fact that She just doesn’t like other women, because She looks at Leo as though it’s a complete surprise to her that he looks like Kallikrates.

I must say I don’t share She’s taste in men. Leo is played by Carlyle Blackwell, a famous leading man of the time. However, in my opinion he’s not that good-looking to begin with, and his looks aren’t improved by an overwhelming mass of wavy hair that must have taken forever to style every day. It’s long enough to look almost like a woman’s bob. He looks, in fact, like the sort of man that would be made seriously ill by the feeble little fight we saw, so I guess at least he was well-cast. He’s an extremely wooden actor, too, and I can’t understand how he became famous.

To get back to the movie, She takes one look at Leo/Kallikrates and goes into a frenzy. It looks as though poor Leo will die before she gets a grip, but finally She calms down and pulls out some medicine that She says will cure him. A few seconds later, Leo regains consciousness, then appears to die, although judging by She’s and Dr. Holly’s reactions, he’s actually fallen asleep. For some reason, She is fully dressed in this scene. Maybe it’s cold in the cave.

Once Leo’s return to health is assured, She turns her attention to Ustane and demands to know who she is. Dr. Holly reluctantly admits that Ustane and Leo are married. She has a solution: she’s going to kill Ustane. After reminding She that she had Kallikrates killed for another woman before, Dr. Holly leads a reluctant Ustane to She to beg for mercy. She lets Ustane off easy and merely banishes her, but Ustane isn’t going quietly. Ustane refuses to leave Leo, which seems very unwise to me. After all, he’s not the only fish in the sea, and anybody who is 2000 years old must have incredible powers. Indeed She does, and she places her right hand on Ustane’s head and turns a patch of hair snow white! She says she did it so she’ll always be able to recognize Ustane. To me, Ustane’s lucky this is all She did to her, and Ustane must agree, because she runs away. Leo’s been sawing wood the entire time and has no idea what went on between She and Ustane.

To celebrate Leo’s recovery, She gives a party in his honor. The guest list is a little unusual, because dead people are also invited. I guess when you’re 2000 years old, you must have a lot of dead friends. Music and dancing are provided by the natives, but despite this, the party seems to be dragging until – horrors- She spots Ustane, who doesn’t seem to know how to quit when she’s ahead, clinging to Leo!

Oh, no, what’s She going to do? Turn the rest of Ustane’s hair white? No, it’s worse than that. She makes Ustane raise her hands in the air, twirl around and vanish (!) I guess there was zero budget for special effects. Ustane manages to get in one last parting taunt to the effect that “He loves me, not you!” but despite her brave words, Leo seems pretty much unmoved by the loss of his beloved. He staggers once and clutches his throat briefly, and that’s the extent of his emotion. According to an intertitle, he informs She that he “abhors” her and will never be hers. To me, though, this seems to be less a broken heart and more simple common sense, because marrying someone with powers like that seems to be a very bad idea indeed. What would she do to you if you forgot her birthday? Or maybe not common sense or a broken heart, either one, because when She commands Leo to look at her, it’s clear he’s quite tempted. (She’s naked above the waist except for a very skimpy jeweled bra.) And really, since he barely knew Ustane and there was no sign the marriage was even consummated, why not? Apart from the fact She is a ruthless killer, that is.

So She continues to entice him until he kisses her, showing more passion for her than he ever did for Ustane. Poor Dr. Holly, who is watching from a corner, is broken-hearted. More cattiness: the print quality in a lot of this scene is better than usual, good enough to see that She’s skirt and bra were a little too tight, and there’s an unflattering bulge of flesh between the waistband of her skirt and the back strap of her bra.

Leo has demonstrated his enthusiasm for She’s charms, but apparently She feels the need to give him the final proof of her love. No, no, not what you’re thinking, get your mind out of the gutter! What She does is lead him into a cave, point to a large rectangular stone slab with something covered with a sheet on it, and tell him she’s spent every night of the last 2000 years sleeping next to the body of Kallikrates. Ah, true love! As the clincher, She pulls back the sheet to show Leo and Dr. Holly, who’s still tagging along, the miraculously-preserved body of Kallikrates himself. Leo actually seems rather pleased by this sign of her devotion, and it looks very much as though there’s going to be a wedding soon.

By now you may be asking, did She just happen to live 2000 years, or was there something special at work? And why would a woman who seems likely to live forever want to marry a man who’s going to die in what to her must seem a short time? The movie has answers to these questions. Somewhere in the depths of She’s domain there lies a fire, and bathing in the fire will grant eternal life. It isn’t easy to get to, but She, Leo, Dr. Holly, and Job set off so that Leo will have the chance to become immortal. After many perils, they finally reach the magical flames. But Leo is afraid, and to reassure him, She steps into the flames herself. She actually takes off her clothes before getting into the fire, and I don’t know if she was wearing a flesh-colored body suit or in fact got naked, but she had pulled her long hair in front of her before she took off her dress, and the flames concealed her almost immediately, so there isn’t much to see. Alas for true love lost! It seems immortality is a one-time offer, and the second time you get into the fire, you vanish in a puff of smoke – at least this is what happens to She. Leo screams and collapses, but She’s gone. Dr. Holly has to pick up poor Leo and carry him away like a very large baby. On the way back, Leo sees a white bird which he takes to signify that She will be reborn, and he vows to wait for her. And with that, the movie ends.

This movie seems poorly made for 1925, and if I didn’t know otherwise, I would have thought it had been made at least ten years earlier. Most of the acting is the exaggerated gestures suited to a stage, not a movie screen, and the scenes themselves look as though they were set on a stage. In fact, a lot of the acting is too stiff and wooden to look good even on stage. American movies had progressed beyond this by 1925. The sets were crude. The music’s annoying, too, it’s just some classical music tacked on with no effort to match the mood of the music to what’s happening on screen. The movie makes the mistake that a lot of movies based on books make, which is to leave out some things under the assumption that the audience is familiar enough with the book so they won’t miss them. This might have been a reasonable assumption in 1925, but H. Rider Haggard isn’t nearly as popular now as he was then, and anybody unfamiliar with the book will probably find the movie difficult to follow. Most important, I don’t think Betty Blythe was the right choice for She, although when you try to think of an actress to play the most beautiful woman in the world, you realize how few really beautiful actresses there are. I’ve already mentioned what I think of Carlyle Blackwell. My choice for She would have been Nita Naldi. She wasn’t any more beautiful than Betty Blythe, but she was good at playing femmes fatales, and she had the sort of toughness you’d expect someone who’s managed to keep her throne for 2000 years to have. It’s hard to imagine Nita Naldi mooning over the same man for 2000 years, though.

This movie’s probably not worth watching, unless you can find a decent print and want to ogle Betty Blythe. Jacques Feyder’s Queen of Atlantis is looking better and better to me.

The End.

Written in September 2016 by Pam Burda.

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