Before Michael Curtiz came to Warner Brothers in the ‘20s and became one of Hollywood’s most reliable directors of prestigious productions like Casablanca (1942), he cut his teeth on dozens of Hungarian and Austrian silent features as Mihály Kertész. Miraculously, an English print of his long-lost A Tolonc (1915), listed on Wikipedia as The Exile and on this Blu-ray as The Undesirable (the title on the print), was discovered in the basement of New York’s Hungarian House cultural center. Digital restoration reveals an astoundingly sharp image, perfect in textures and background details like dishware patterns and signs, now beautifully tinted and with a lush new score by Attila Pacsay.
The heroine of this “woman’s film” is a formerly abused wife (Mari Jászai, identified in the titles as a “famous tragical actress of the Hungarian National Theatre”) who has spent 15 years in prison for killing her husband: a premise that still feels relevant. The story of her release is cross-cut with the narrative of her grown daughter (Lily Berky, giving the film’s most natural performance), who gets a job as a servant, puts up with the checker-suited husband’s advances, and falls in love with the strapping Magyar-garbed son (Várkonyi Mihály, who came to Hollywood as Victor Varconi).
At just over an hour, a lot happens in this broadly gestured, melodramatic story. There are slapstick interludes and literal mustache-twirlings before a wedding dance in national regalia as the plot’s tragedies and culpabilities are forgotten quickly. Apparently, audiences of the time were familiar with the concept that you could die by drinking sulphur from matches. Despite dated elements, this restoration demonstrates how a clean, clear image helps us literally to see a movie as more impressive than it would appear in a battered, jerky, faded presentation. Time just melts away.
Curtiz’s pacing feels relatively modern. There are only a few medium close-ups in a story mostly told in simple set-ups and medium shots, and it’s edited with fluid cross-cuts. Sometimes, as in primitive films, the title cards slightly anticipate the action, and they have a few misspellings. László Fekete’s photography makes excellent use of outdoor locales, which rivet the attention even more than what’s going on in the foreground. The story includes three moments of double-exposure, although critic Glenn Erickson speculates that the seamless effect might have been achieved with glass reflections.
While IMDB dates the film at 1915, the Blu-ray calls it 1914 and various sources report it was filmed that summer before the outbreak of WWI in the Transylvanian city of Kolozsvar. In an online article, Michael Atkinson points out that while the filmmakers were Jewish, their story aims at a secular and universal tone. Another article gives historical background from notes at the 2011 showing in Pordenone’s Silent Film Festival.
As produced and scripted by pioneering Hungarian filmmaker Jenő Janovics from a play by Ede Tóth (“a classical Hungarian peasant-play, written in 1880, in 4 acts” declares the credits), the story won’t be proclaimed a masterpiece of dramaturgy anytime soon, at least outside of Hungary, but never mind. Discovering such an early Hungarian film is cause for celebration. Presenting it in such amazing shape can make film buffs as intoxicated as the philandering husband, and it’s a much more harmless vice.