Wednesday, 29 June 2011

picture of the day: jodphurs in oils

Nils Asther painted in 1918 by Einar Jolin (1890-1976)
Liljevalchs Gallery, Stockholm

picture of the day: silent cossacks

Renee Adoree as Maryana (centre) Nils Asther as Prince Olenin Stieshneff (right).

click photo to make it bigger

September, 1928
The first half of this picture goes to really unnecessary extremes to prove that the hero is a sissy. That fact having been established, it requires only the twinkling of an eye to convert him into the boldest and bloodiest of Cossacks. From then on, things go from bad to worse. Turks are slain indiscriminately. John Gilbert and Ernest Torrence are tortured right before your eyes. And worst of all, a Turkish sabre is run straight through the beautiful diaphragm of Nils Asther, who is the hero of the piece so far as I am concerned, as no other man can hold my gaze when he is in the vicinity. This is all about the love affair of a Cossack maiden who prefers John Gilbert to Nils Asther. Renee Adoree is this lovely but misguided girl.

Hittebarnet (The Foundling) 1917

Hittebarnet (The Foundling)
Director Holger-Madsen, Denmark, 1917
Nils Asther plays 'Kurt'. In 1916, when it was filmed, he was 19.

Film stills are from the Danish Film Institute

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

picture of the day: para lectores y amigos

Nils Asther. Signed photograph and dedication in Spanish to Sintonia
a film magazine from Argentina.
Photography by William Grimes, MGM.

Solen der dræbte (The Killing Sun, Die tötende Sonne) 1918

Solen der dræbte (The Killing Sun) is a 1918 Danish silent film directed by Hjalmar Davidsen.

Nils Asther  (21) plays Jan, Elisabeth's son from her first marriage

These stills are from the Danish Film Institute website.

Monday, 27 June 2011

picture of the day: hearth

Nils Asther by the hearth, 1920s publicity shot, 
portrait by Clarence Sinclair Bull, head of MGM stills from 1924 - 1941

By Candlelight (1933) dir James Whale

Nils Asther as Prince von Rommel, By Candlelight, 1933
In By Candlelight, a butler Josef (Paul Lukas) woos a Countess, when during a train journey he is mistaken for his master, the Prince von Rommel (Nils Asther). Josef admires his master, the Prince, for his slick techniques with the ladies, and tries to copy them with the Countess. Unfortunately, he enjoys only varying success. Meanwhile, the Countess (Elissa Landi) also has been glossing the truth, and is really only her maid, Marie.

I've watched By Candlelight several times now and I still can't help smiling at it. It's so witty and deft and intelligent. It was directed by James Whale, better known for cult horror films like Bride of Frankenstein, but he is completely at ease in this genre too.

Asther often complained about having to play these sort of parts - handsome cads in lightweight romantic comedies. But here he just does it so well. He's an absolute pleasure to watch, seducing married ladies with an twinkle in his eye. Whale got a fantastic performance out of him. Also, like Capra, he managed to restrain Asther's tendency to overact. 

The dialogue is a joy, written by PG Wodehouse, in an adaptation from a German play by Siegfried Geyer. At one point, an aggrieved husband calls at the Prince's apartment - a regular occurrence at this household, we gather - after believing that his wife, an opera star, is inside dallying with the Prince. 

Josef, the butler, answers the door after a pause.

Aggrieved husband: "I rang three times."

Josef: "No sir, four."

"I'm Baron von Ballin and I want to see the Prince."

I'm very sorry sir, but His Highness has gone to bed."

"So early? Alone? I don't believe it."

(Piano music begins from inside the apartment.)

"Does His Highness play the piano in bed?"

"Yes, Sir. His Highness is very musical."

The Baron storms into the apartment, towards the sound of his wife's singing - which is coming from the Prince's bedroom. But when the Baron enters the room he finds it empty. The opera singing is coming from a record player. The Prince invites the Baron to sit down with him until the record finishes, explaining that it is one of his favourite songs. There is some tension as the Prince peers nervously at the Baron over the record cabinet door- because while the record is finishing, the errant wife is being safely stashed elsewhere.

Later in the film, another wronged husband telephones the apartment. Josef picks up and informs the Prince who it is on the line:

Prince: "Conte Von Leer? But the cops told me he was dead."

"He sounds like a very angry corpse, your Highness."

The Prince von Rommel deals with an irate husband while his butler, Josef, gasps in amazement (Nils Asther, Warburton Gamble, Paul Lukas)

A discreet sign between master and butler signals that a straying wife has been safely removed from the apartment

Later that night, as Josef pulls off his shoes, the Prince asks:

"You must be quite a Casanova, Josef... Do you handle your own affairs as well as you handle mine?"

Josef replies sadly: "They are not like yours, Your Highness. Cooks, parlour maids. Perhaps a governess at Christmas."

The Prince handles one of his enjoyable affairs

The Prince has several sayings, like:

"Women, madam, are like cigars. Once you let them go out they are never so good again."

"A woman's smile is like a bathtap. Turn it on and you're in hot water."

The Prince also uses a whole armoury of tricks to ingratiate himself with the fairer sex. The title of the film, By Candlelight, refers to a regular routine the Prince has arranged, where Josef must bring in branches of candles after he deliberately knocks off the lights. 

This must be done a fixed number of minutes after a woman is brought home, so that the Prince can situate himself to take advantage in her confusion.

Prince, disengaging himself from the lady in the dark: "What happened to the lights, Josef?"

Josef: "A thousand pardons, your Highness, the fuse burnt out. I'll attend to it at once."

But perhaps the Prince's most successful ruse is the 'Shah of Persia'. Josef watches in admiration as the Prince uses this trick on the Countess von Ballin.

The Prince, holding out a cigarette case to the Countess: "Cigarette?"

Countess: "What a perfectly exquisite case." 

"You like it? It was given to me by the Shah of Persia."

"Really? It's beautiful. I've never seen one like it."

Prince: "My dear, it's yours."

"Oh no, I couldn't take it."

"Why not? If you like it, I want you to have it."

Countess: "You're very generous, but how could I possibly explain such a gift to my husband? You're very sweet. But thank you just the same."

And the Prince returns the cigarette case to his pocket
Josef watches closely, amazed at how simple it is, and how well-disposed the Countess now has become towards his master. He practices it later in a mirror to an imaginary target.

Afterwards, when Josef meets Marie on the train, he uses the Shah of Persia trick on her. But Marie has no qualms in taking the Prince's expensive cigarette case - and Josef is caught out and must get the case back. This leads to the denouement of the film, in which the servant becomes the master, and master the servant, and the Prince decides to play along, for amusement's sake, and the film becomes one of cinema's first screwball comedies.

The Prince becomes the butler, to the consternation of the real butler

On release, By Candlelight got good reviews and was a modest box office hit.  

You can read more reviews of it here, here and here.

Asther was to make two more pictures for Universal in the 1930s - Madame Spy with Fay Wray (1934) and The Love Captive (1934). Then he left Hollywood to film in England for the rest of the 30s.