The Spanish Dancer, Herbert Brenon
Milestone Films

The Dance and the Duel in Silent Epic ‘The Spanish Dancer’

Somewhere amid the swigging and carousing in restored silent film The Spanish Dancer it’s love at first eyeball for Don Cesar and Maritana

The Spanish Dancer
Herbert Brenon
Milestone Films
29 August 2023

This film is 100 years old and still bewitching. Polish-born Pola Negri, one of the fiery and tempestuous sirens of the silver screen, headlines Herbert Brenon‘s epic hit of 1923, The Spanish Dancer. To mark the film’s centennial, Milestone Films and distributor Kino Lorber bring it to Blu-ray in its restoration by Amsterdam’s Eye Filmmuseum.

Negri plays Maritana, a Gypsy dancer and fortune-teller who crosses paths with dissolute aristocrat Don Cesar de Bazan, who celebrates having squandered his way into bankruptcy. Aristocrats can get away with that if young and handsome, so Don Cesar is played all smiling and dashing by Madrid-born Antonio Moreno. Hollywood’s first official Latin Lover, Moreno was in pictures a full decade before Rudolph Valentino and stuck around a lot longer, so The Spanish Dancer really presents us with two major stars of the silent era.

Somewhere amid the swigging and carousing, it’s love at first eyeball for Don Cesar and Maritana. She arrives with her cohort of dancers and proceeds to tell Don Cesar’s fortune with tarot cards. The scene is a show-stopper or dance-stopper, with each new revelation in closeup punctuated by a long shot of more swirling and whirling dancers, who pause for her to lay down the next card. The modern score by Bill Ware, with its unusual timbres, contributes to the effect.

The long shots are taken from high between columns by master photographer James Wong Howe, who’s largely responsible for the epic visual style in The Spanish Dancer. As film historian Scott Eyman points out in his commentary, Brenon’s a stylistically conservative director who never budges the camera. He lets the acting and spectacle speak for itself. The uncredited choreographer is Ernest Belcher, and dance historian Naima Prevots spells out for us his incredible and unheralded importance in shaping Hollywood dance.

Maritana and Don Cesar are pawns in a larger game of political intrigue that involves royal scoundrels and their attendant schemers. King Philip IV (Wallace Beery) comes across as a lecherous rascal with plans for Maritana. He’s abetted by the duplicitous Don Salluste (Adolphe Menjou), who also manipulates the jealous Queen Isabel (Kathlyn Williams) to play all sides against each other.

Some random absurdities about dueling at the carnival festivities lead to a death sentence for Don Cesar and an androgynous young peasant named Lazarillo (Gareth Hughes), who spends a lot of time clinging to Don Cesar. The complicated counter-schemes bring about all the predictions made by Maritana before the unlikely flourishes and table-turnings of a happy ending we fully expected.

If the story of The Spanish Dancer sounds like nonsense, it is, and it was nonsense popular enough to be filmed on several occasions. In fact, a competing version was filmed to arrive in theatres simultaneously: Ernst Lubitsch’s Rosita with Mary Pickford. What makes that ironic is that Lubitsch made a star of Negri, and she’d have preferred that he direct her this time as well, but The Spanish Dancer turned out to be the more well-received film.

Here’s more irony. Famous Players-Lasky (later called Paramount) originally planned the Spanish Dancer as a vehicle for Valentino. That’s why the screenplay, based on a popular French play, was first developed by June Mathis, who made it her business to steer his career. He quit the project to be replaced by Moreno, who’s kind of regarded as an also-Valentino even though he was around first. Novelist and playwright Beulah Marie Dix, another busy Hollywood scenarist, refashioned the script to emphasize Negri’s Gypsy lass, but Negri still doesn’t have quite as much to do as you’d expect.

Still, when Negri’s on screen, she’s doing herself proud and imperious. As a vehicle for her self-possession, The Spanish Dancer isn’t as impressive as her lively Lubitsch comedies (also on Kino Lorber Blu-rays) or Paul Czinner’s stylish and romantic The Woman He Scorned (1929), but it will do.

It’s hard to overestimate Brenon’s stature during the silent era. He directed hit after hit and worked with Alla Nazimova, Norma Talmadge, Theda Bara, Annette Kellerman, Louise Brooks, and Betty Bronson. In 1926 alone, his films included the Ronald Colman version of Beau Geste, the lost Warner Baxter version of The Great Gatsby, and Dancing Mothers with Clara Bow. The studio trusted him with high-profile stuff. The Spanish Dancer is an expensive cast-of-thousands spectacle and looks it.

Eye Filmmuseum’s important restoration, which combines elements from four separate prints, was completed over a decade ago. They stopped short of throwing enough money at it to remove the many little scratches and artifacts, so it doesn’t quite have that “shot yesterday” look, but it’s tinted and pleasant to the eye and ear.