The Affairs of Anatol (1921)
Cecil B. DeMille directed this lightweight sex comedy based on a racy play by Arthur Schnitzler, although the story seems to have been cleaned up a bit for the screen. DeMille shows how far he has come since the beginning of his career in the teens, and a young Gloria Swanson is ready for her closeup.
The movie begins with an intertitle suggesting that protagonist Anatol (Wallace Reid) is a man who wants to be a hero – a modern Quixote who tries to rescue women from “real or imaginary” dangers. His wife Vivian is unlikely to understand, and she (Swanson) is first revealed to us receiving a pedicure from her maid, then emerging to peek over a changing screen at the camera. We learn from intertitles that they are newlyweds and her flirting seems to annoy him when what he wants is breakfast.
Anatol’s first “affair” occurs when he meets Emilie, an old girlfriend (Wanda Hawley) at a nightclub, at which he is with his wife and his best friend (Elliott Dexter) one evening. She is out with a sugar daddy (Theodore Roberts) and clearly living a “fallen” lifestyle as she flirts with every man in the place. Anatol invites her to join them, rescuing her from the letch and at the same time irking his wife. Soon, he has put her up in an apartment and is paying for her to get music lessons in order to “refine” her into a cultured young lady, but he still expects his wife to accept that nothing is going on between them.
Emilie has no real interest in being cultured, but she has fallen for Anatol, and hopes to get him to leave his wife. When Anatol realizes that she still has the expensive jewelry that her last boyfriend gave her, he insists that she throw it away to prove her sincere wish to reform. She hides it and throws away the boxes, then tries to use this symbolic act as emotional blackmail to get him to leave his wife. Just as things are coming to a head, she foolishly invites her old crowd over for a drunken party, and when Anatol comes in, he goes into a rampage, breaking everything he has bought her. She returns to the sugar daddy, just as he had predicted at the beginning of the “affair.”
The next “affair” is triggered by a party held by Vivian, in which a Swami hypnotist (Theodore Kosloff) is provided as entertainment. He hypnotizes Vivian to perceive a stream running through the living room, and she takes off her shoes and stockings in order to wade in it. This display of feminine feet outrages the righteous Anatol, who demands that she accompany him on a trip to the “pure” countryside, away from the city and its iniquities.
The second “affair” begins when Anatol meets Annie (Agnes Ayres), a young farmer’s wife who has fled home because her husband discovered that she took money from the church’s box, which he was entrusted to safeguard. She attempts to throw herself from a bridge just as Anatol and Vivian are rowing past in a boat. Anatol sends Vivian to find a doctor, and the “innocent” Annie comes on to him and picks his pocket. Vivian finds them kissing and again is outraged, and Anatol despairs of finding “honesty and loyalty” in the countryside.
Vivian, now thoroughly convinced of Anatol’s infidelity, has made up her mind to leave him, which instigates a third “affair” when Anatol goes out to drown his sorrows. He meets “Satan Synne” (Bebe Daniels, doing her best Theda Bara), who is a nightclub performer and Vamp. She brings him to her place, which is exotically appointed with diaphanous veils, leopard print clothing, and, in the bedroom, a real leopard! This sequence, in some prints, is tinted red to emphasize the Satanic nature of the place. From looking for purity, Anatol has gone to seek evil in its purest form. However, even this appearance is deceiving. It transpires that Synne lives her flamboyantly immoral lifestyle in order to make money to pay for expensive surgical procedures to be done on her husband, a World War I veteran who languishes in a European hospital. Anatol giver her three thousand dollars (a truly unimaginable sum at the time) and leaves without touching her, as she falls to her knees and prays.
Anatol returns home, finding that Vivian is still out on the town. She eventually returns with his best friend, whom she has been spending more time with while her husband is busy. When Max is evasive about whether she has been unfaithful, Anatol convinces Singh (who is leaving the United States) to hypnotize Vivian into truthfully answering the question of whether she has been. She goes into a trance and he contemplates the fact that she will know what he asked when she comes out of it. Ultimately, Anatol decides that he trusts his wife too much to accuse her of cheating and breaks the trance. They appear reconciled.
I feel like DeMille is winking at his audience, here. No doubt many were familiar with the Schnitzler play, in which Anatol is by no means trying to “save” the girls he has affairs with, nor are those affairs so nearly so chaste as those depicted here. Sigmund Freud famously called Schnitzler a “Psychologischer Tiefenforscher” (deep researcher of psychology) on the strength of the first part of the play. Since Freud was associated with sex in the popular mind at the time, this was akin to having the endorsement of a porn star or Hollywood madam ahead of the film. DeMille was playing a careful game of balancing the audience’s salacious expectations with the stringency of censors and would-be censors across America. It seems likely that he pushed the envelope too far for some localities, with the obvious relationship between Annie and her sugar daddy, with the spectacular shots of the nightclub, and especially with the boudoir of Satan Synne.
I mentioned that Bebe Daniels seemed to be imitating Theda Bara here, and I would go so far as to say that this entire “affair” is intended as a satire of Bara’s Vamp characters, as established in “A Fool There Was.” Where Bara is a dominating tease, Daniels is completely over the top, and credit also has to go to Karl Struss, the expressionist cinematographer and to Paul Iribe, the costume and set designer, for creating such a fascinating feminized image of Purgatory for her to live in. By comparison, I was a bit disappointed to see so little of Gloria Swanson, and that she had so little to do except enter into a trance when hypnotized. Her trances inevitably make a modern viewer (well, one with my background at least) think of Norma Desmond, which creates a disconnect from what an audience of the time would see and feel.
There is a misconception, pretty common even among silent movie watchers, that silent comedies were all two-reelers, or that they all starred slapstick “clowns” like Chaplin, Arbuckle, or Keaton. Well, here’s a full-length silent comedy with nary a clown in sight, and at least a few of the laughs have held up to this day.
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Camera: Alvin Wyckoff, Karl Struss
Run Time: 1 Hr, 57Min