Elisabeth Bergner is probably best remembered (in Britain, at least) for playing Rosalind in 'As You Like It', a role for which she spent most of her screen time cross-dressed as Ganymede, the counterfeit boy. She wasn't convincing as a boy in that film, but the theatrical artifice of Shakespeare's verse made her imposture seem acceptable. Here, in her earlier film 'The Fiddler of Florence', Bergner also spends most of her screen time in boy-garb, interacting with characters who genuinely believe her to be a boy. This is a silent film, so Bergner isn't required to speak in a male voice. Even so, her impersonation of a male is frankly unbelievable ... and, because this film's milieu is otherwise much more realistic than Shakespeare's Forest of Arden, Bergner's failure to pass as a boy ultimately causes the entire movie to fail. She's also slightly too OLD to pass as a boy, I'll ungallantly add.
Renée (Bergner) is a strong-willed German fraulein. When her beloved mother dies, her cold father (Conrad Veidt) remarries. Veidt and his new bride are only interested in each other: accordingly, Veidt packs Renée off to a strict boarding-school in Switzerland. (I wonder if this is the girls' school in Switzerland where Stallone had a job once.) At this point in the movie, I was hoping for some 'Madchen in Uniform' theatrics, but -- with a title like 'The Fiddler of Florence' -- other things are clearly impending.
Renée runs away from her Swiss school and heads for the border, presumably passing Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp children going in the opposite direction. At the Italian frontier, she coaxes a peasant boy into giving her his clothes. (Leaving him to wear *hers*, I guess. Yodel-lay-he-hoo!) Bergner's 'disguise' as a boy is deeply unconvincing, not least because she keeps her beautiful long blonde tresses. Renée is now reborn (get the French pun?) as Rene.
As Renée makes her boyish way across Italy, she falls in with two wandering bohemians: a romantic young painter-violinist and his sister. The painter is played by future character actor Walter Rilla, and he gives a far better performance here than this movie deserves. Neither Rilla nor his sister twig that this 'boy' is actually a girl, but Rilla gradually finds himself attracted to the beautiful lad. Ach du lieber!
'The Fiddler of Florence' was written and directed by Paul Czinner, who would later be Bergner's husband, and who at this point was already firmly established as the guiding presence of Bergner's career. Bergner spends most of this film in male disguise, yet the attempts to transform her into a 'boy' are so perfunctory as to be downright laughable. I suspect that Czinner was unwilling to compromise Bergner's substantial female charms, and reluctant to present her to audiences as anything less than 100% feminine. But then why choose this particular story for her? On the basis of 'The Fiddler of Florence' and 'As You Like It' -- another Czinner effort -- I wonder if perhaps Czinner was one of those men who has a predilection for women disguised as boys. Or perhaps it was Bergner herself who favoured vehicles that would require her to wear male disguise. Whoever had the idea, Bergner is simply more attractive (and more believable) as a fraulein than as a boy.
A warning to all Conrad Veidt fans: although that splendid actor is prominently listed in the cast of this film, he actually has only a small role with very little screen time. Impressively, he gives a fine performance anyway. As the father, interacting with his new bride and his daughter in the same scene, Veidt skilfully conveys affection and lust for the former while remaining cold towards the latter. Veidt's brief performance belongs in a better movie. I'll rate 'The Fiddler of Florence' 4 points, largely for some beautiful exterior photography. Give the movie an extra point if you like to watch women pretending to be boys.
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