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I saw one reel of 'The Flame', plus some fragments -- in Beta video format, no less -- in October 2006 at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Sacile, Italy: totalling 44 minutes. Stefan Droessler and his indefatigable staff at the Munich Filmmuseum are attempting to reconstruct 'The Flame', which was Ernst Lubitsch's last European production.
Several people have rated this film on IMDb, so I assume that they've seen complete or near-complete versions. Also, a Moscow colleague of mine whose reportage I trust has told me that there's a complete print in Russia, seized by the Red Army during the Second World War. So far, I've only seen what was shown at the Sacile festival.
Pola Negri plays Yvette, a Parisian prostitute during what appears to be the late 19th century. (After the siege, I guess.) Refreshingly, she doesn't WANT to be a prostitute, and is eager to give up the game. (I'm well weary of movies which depict prostitution as a fun-filled life with plenty of fresh air and chances to meet people.) She meets Adolphe, a handsome and naive young composer who doesn't seem to realise what Yvette does for a living. (Can't be much of a composer, then.) Adolphe has noble aspirations for his music: no mere tunesmith he, Adolphe intends to write only the purest operas. Yvette marries Adolphe and moves in with him (his cold-water flat is marginally less appetising than hers; we see them both). Yvette hopes that Adolphe's purity and optimism will elevate her into his world ... but it seems more likely that she will drag him down into her own demi-monde, especially when they run out of francs. Meanwhile, Yvette's pimp Gaston is lurking in the wings...
CAUTION: The above is what I figured out from the fragments I saw at Sacile; it's possible that some of the footage was intentionally misleading. Pola Negri is excellent as Yvette: she conveys deep beauty and erotic sexuality, yet also manages to be convincing as a woman who hopes to escape her life of prostitution. Ferdinand von Alten appears briefly as one of her clients. The sets in this film (Montmartre streetscapes, and the flats of the two leading characters) are impressive, and the more so for Lubitsch's willingness to convey squalor. (Unlike Sam Goldwyn, who produced 'Dead End' -- a drama taking place in a slum -- but who refused to have any garbage in his slum!) Theodor Sparkuhl's camera work here is, as always for Sparkuhl, superb.
I've read a copy of the script for Lubitsch's last production before this one, 'The Wife of the Pharaoh', yet no scenarios nor cutting continuities for 'The Flame' are known to survive. The film is adapted from a stage play, but we've no certainty that the adaptation is faithful to its source. Herr Droessler has established that Lubitsch shot an alternate (more upbeat) ending, specifically for the American prints of this film. In the event, American prints of 'The Flame' were heavily re-edited by Stateside distributors. The film flopped in America. Some fans of Lubitsch will blame the distributors for this. I'm not so certain. I've given favourable IMDb reviews to several other Lubitsch movies, but I've seen enough of his work to know that Lubitsch was capable of the odd clunker. Apparently at this point he was obsessed with getting an offer to work in Hollywood, and Lubitsch was intentionally changing almost every aspect of his craft -- including his lighting and editing -- to cater for American tastes as he perceived them to be. I feel it's very possible that Lubitsch -- hoping to make an 'American' film in Germany, but not really knowledgeable of American tastes -- managed to dilute his own very real talents in creating a film that wasn't true Lubitsch and wasn't truly a Hollywood-style film, either.
As I've seen only portions of this film, I shan't rate it. I don't know who those people are who did rate this film for IMDb. From what I have seen of 'The Flame', I should very much like to see a more complete print ... with either the original cynical ending meant for European audiences, or the 'happy ever after' ending meant for Americans.
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