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This historical piece, set in the Huguenot days of France, is Norma Talmadge's 37th feature film and the longest to date at two hours. The plot involves a man forced into servitude who falls in love with the sister of his persecutor. It was Ms. Talmadge's fourth involvement with director, Frank Lloyd and the cast included future star, Wallace Beery. Copies of this film exist at the Library of Congress and the George Eastman House. Thanks to Greta de Groat for her web site on Ms. Talmadge, from which the above was gleaned.
We have here a high-priced costume drama with a standard story: they're
in love but they're both so noble they can't tell each other, so we
have to go through the entire movie.
I have found myself not too fond of Miss Talmadge's movies, so you need to take that into account in this review. Nevertheless, this turns out to be a decent film for the era. It was a spectacle production and it shows with a great shot in the opening and the sumptuous costumes: too sumptuous perhaps. At times the movie seems to drag -- I saw the 111-minute road-show version instead of the 72-minute version meant for the nabes, and I think they held most of the shots too long so that the ladies in the audience could take a look at the fabrics. Nonetheless, besides a decent script -- their families hate each other, of course, and it's the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, which is raised to start the plot rolling and then never mentioned again -- there are some good performances.
Top among them is Wallace Beery who, as the Duc de Tour, manages to combine most of the seven deadly sins. He really makes you want to hiss. Likewise, Conway Tearle does himself proud. True, he has the thankless job of being the leading man in a starring lady' film, and who remembers anyone in those except Claude Rains occasionally dressing down Bette Davis? Nonetheless, he does get to do some acting, some nice fencing and one or two good lines. Contrast that with the deadly environment of THE DANGEROUS MAID, a costume drama he made with Constance Talmadge -- that was the Bloody Assizes -- and in this you'd think he's Tommy Meighan if not quite Douglas Fairbanks for screen presence.
I think that if you want to see a Norma Talmadge movie, you'd be best off seeing KIKI, a terrific comedy. But this is a costume drama and more typical of her starring vehicles, so if you need to see one of those, this is watchable. But I'll bet the 72-minute version moves better.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I viewed the Library of Congress print of this overwrought and overlong
costume drama. With a title like 'Ashes of Vengeance', I was hoping
that this movie would be about a cricket match between England and
Australia. Some hope!
We take you now to the court of France's King Charles the Tenth during the July Revolution of 1830, where His Majesty Chucky hereby decrees that all the members of the noble house of Vrieac shall be executed, for no discernible reason except that their name is Vrieac and because his mother says so. (His mother being the dowager queen.) All the various Vrieacs vamoose, except for Rupert (Conway Tearle), who gallantly saves the life of his fiancée (Betty Francisco: does she have a brother Sam?) by indenturing himself for five years' servitude to the Comte de la Roach, I mean Roche.
The Count of the Rock (for it is he) is played by Courtenay Foote, wearing an overgrown Van Dyke beard and moustache that seem to be competing to see which one looks more ridiculous. I laughed outright several times while Foote was on screen, simply because he looks so cartoonish: his performance was made even more risible because he plays his entire role in Snidely Whiplash mode.
SPOILERS AHOY. Rupert falls in love with the Count's sister Yoeland, played by Norma Talmadge. She secretly loves him, but she's too haughty to admit it, so she refuses to give him a tumbrel. (Thanks, Adolph Green.) Then Rupert saves Yoeland's life. The rest of this long movie is strictly Plot-o-Matic.
A considerable amount of effort (and budget) went into this period piece, and much of it shows on screen: there are elaborate costumes and headpieces throughout, and some impressive sets. The costumes and hairstyles look more 18th-century than early 19th. As is usual in Hollywood movies set in the past, everything is extremely clean (unless it's dirty on purpose) and all the lead characters have perfect teeth. (I couldn't be sure about Courtenay Foote: his moustache got in the way.) Even though I've written historical fiction myself, I've difficulty getting worked up about the fates of fictional characters in historic settings where real people were experiencing genuinely dramatic problems. 'Ashes of Vengeance' is far too concerned with the plight of the poor aristocrats, with too little concern for the peasants. (Let them eat brioche, I guess.)
Silent-era Hollywood did make some good epics about French history. I strongly recommend 'Orphans of the Storm', 'Intolerance' and 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' for their powerful stories, historical accuracy and (comparatively) realistic enactments. 'Ashes of Vengeance' features some work by talented people on both sides of the camera, but their efforts ultimately fail to gel into an aspic worth consuming. I'll rate this overdone soufflé 4 out of 10, more for the sheer amount of effort and budget involved than for actual results.
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