A Manhattan playboy falls for a mysterious European woman, whom he notices is an exact double for a famous socialite who disappeared at the turn of the century. At first he thinks it's just... See full summary »
A Manhattan playboy falls for a mysterious European woman, whom he notices is an exact double for a famous socialite who disappeared at the turn of the century. At first he thinks it's just a coincidence, as the beautiful young woman he's romancing is much younger than the woman who vanished, who would be in her late 50s or early 60s by now. Soon, however, he begins to believe that maybe it's not such a coincidence after all. Written by
"Black Oxen" by Gertrude Atherton was the #1 best-selling novel of 1923, going through 14 printings in a single year. The novel gained a racy reputation, due to its (for the time) frank discussion of women's sexual organs, and because of some innovative language. (This novel featured the first use of the word "sophisticate" as a noun.) The film version was rushed into production almost immediately, but is well-made and not a quickie.
"Black Oxen" (the 1923 novel) is science fiction, although few of its readers realised that fact. The 1924 film "Black Oxen" is a science-fiction movie, but is not immediately recognisable as such because the film emphasises ideas rather than sci-fi gadgetry. The film takes its title from a verse by Yeats: "The years like great Black Oxen tread the world". A much later science-fiction novel, also cried 'Black Oxen' (by New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox, published in 2001), takes its title from this same source.
Lee Clavering (played by Conway Tearle) is a handsome playboy in jazz-era Manhattan. (In the novel, Clavering was a playwright: in this movie, he allegedly writes a newspaper column, but seems to spend all his time carousing.) In a nightclub, he meets a mysterious Austrian beauty named Madame Zatianny (Corinne Griffith) and he's instantly attracted to her. Clavering's older friends Mr and Mrs Oglethorpe are also intrigued by Mme Zatianny, because she is an exact double for Mary Ogden, a socialite of the 1890s who disappeared in Europe many years ago. But Mary Ogden would now be 58 years old, whilst Mme Zatianny is a young woman. Can she perhaps be Mary Ogden's daughter?
SPOILER COMING: As a romance develops between Clavering and Zatianny, he discovers the bizarre truth. Years ago, Mary Ogden went to Vienna and volunteered for a medical experiment, in which her ovaries were irradiated with radium treatments. This rejuvenated the fiftyish Mary, restoring her to the sexual vitality and physical youth of her early twenties. She re-invented herself as the European beauty Zatianny, and has now returned to her old haunts. For reasons never properly explained, the radium treatment works only on women, not men.
This is a strange film, but an interesting one. In flashbacks, we see Mary Ogden as she looked in her fifties: the make-up on Corinne Griffith is not very convincing, and she looks as if she's in her seventies, not her fifties. Also, the movie implies that a woman in her fifties is hopelessly old, beyond any hope of emotional happiness. If this is true, it's down to social prejudice rather than biological fact.
Clara Bow is good in a small role as the Oglethorpes' socialite daughter, and more subdued than usual. "Black Oxen" is a good example of how silent films sometimes had narrative advantages over talking films. Corinne Griffith has to play an American and a (supposed) European. In a sound film, she would have to speak her lines in two different accents. The European accent would probably have been a fairly ludicrous one, dispelling the credibility of her character. Because "Black Oxen" is a silent film, the accent problem is avoided.
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