Variety’s correspondent in Berlin describes the unfortunate fate of Prix de beauté (Augusto Genina, 1930), a film about a beauty queen saddled with a jealous boyfriend, released during the mad rush to sound: “Owing to bad synchronization this talker is a failure. After five days it had to be removed. The Titania Palast has at no times made such a bad business with a film as with this one.”1 Featuring an international cast and crew that included the 23-year-old American actress Louise Brooks in her last major role, it was shot silent in Paris with an observant and fluid camera. Based on an original idea by G.W. Pabst and René Clair (who was originally slated to direct), it became, as happened in the late silent era, a hybrid of silent and sound, with dialogue scenes and other sound effects added to keep up with the novelty of talkies.
Prix de beauté was little seen – and, when it was, poorly reviewed, except for its clever use of sound in the finale (conceived by Clair, who would later say that it was the only thing that was kept of his original script). The much-touted ending depicts Lucienne, the beauty queen played by Brooks, watching her debut as an actress in a film parlant when she is shot dead in the audience by boyfriend André (who, as played by Georges Charlia, comes across more like a stalker). As others have noted, Lucienne’s lovely corpse stretched out under the image of her singing on screen symbolises both the immortality bequeathed by the moving image as well as the death of silent cinema. Writing in Close Up magazine after seeing the movie in Paris, Charles Stenhouse called the finale a “splendour,” at least compared to the rest. Sound was ruining movies, Stenhouse lamented, concluding his exasperated review, “What a state of affairs.”2
Variety’s reviewer, on the other hand, all but suggests that Prix would have been better off leaving sound out: “Direction of Augusto Gennina [sic] is on a much higher level than that of most other directors. It shows the right conception for facts, a natural way of looking at things and reality.”3 The film’s fate greatly improved after the silent version was recovered at Cineteca di Milano in 1998, and it joined the ranks of other great late silents, those movies that make you wish sound hadn’t taken over so thoroughly – Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928), Harbor Drift (Leo Mittler, 1929), The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna (Hanns Schwarz, 1929) and People on Sunday (Robert Siodmak & Edgar G. Ulmer, 1930) among them.
An accomplished veteran of Italian movies who, by the late silent years, was making a career as a pan-European director, Genina provides ample opportunities in Prix for added sound. At the very beginning, Parisians gather on the sidewalk of the newspaper offices where Lucienne works to listen to Le Globe news over loudspeaker. Later, Gaumont speakers are shown as the contenders parade at the amphitheatre during the beauty contest. Named “Miss Europe” as a result, Lucienne celebrates at a party held in her honour, featuring, among other musical moments, a singing Spanish guitarist and a lingering close-up of an accordion in action. When André storms off after delivering an “or else” to Lucienne, Genina cuts to train wheels racing along a track as she tries to catch him. Later, lashed to domestic drudgery and feeling quite regretful, she listens to a tango recording, reliving her moment of glory and the dance that crowned it.
Genina’s compositions, however, are well suited to silence, revealing character and expressing complexities that require no exposition by voice or intertitle. Lucienne, beaming in white and clutching flowers, is flanked by onlookers as the camera pulls back to reveal that her walk “down the aisle” is actually her arrival on the train platform from where she departs for the beauty competition. André is pictured low, small and brooding in a train window on his way to try to drag her back home. Genina intercuts the train ride with Lucienne at her party of triumph, a sequence that also reads as André’s nightmare. Arriving to claim her, André is framed as narrowly as his mind operates, lurking through doorways while Lucienne is chatty and radiant in the other room. When she returns to André, it’s her nightmare come to pass – wearing a shabby dress and ironing his clothes – and Genina makes her a captive bird trapped high in a tenement.
The visuals are their own marvel, shot by Rudolph Maté, who had just finished photography for The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928), with its intense close-ups and impossibly low angles shot from deep trenches dug in the ground. The newsreel-style beginning of Prix de beauté takes advantage of a silent camera to capture Paris at a particularly exciting moment, enlivened by the Jazz Age but not yet completely overrun by mechanisation (pedestrians could still outswarm cars on the streets). The abovementioned dance scene is beautifully mobile and expressively lit, with Lucienne and her partner rendered as twirling silhouettes. In another scene, workers at closing time seem to funnel out of the camera, their dark figures exiting the narrow factory door and clarifying in the brightness outside.
That the added sound ruined the film for contemporary audiences is another kind of shame, because Prix de beauté’s startlingly feminist outlook deserved a wide audience. Lucienne’s problem is not her ambition, but the world’s stingy allowance for women’s lives. Yet Genina never suggests fame is the solution to Lucienne’s man problem. She makes the decision to reunite with André, and the better-heeled suitors lurking about in her exciting new world present alternatives that are equally unappealing. Even the prince (Jean Bardin, looking as smarmy as George Sanders’ Addison DeWitt), who offers her the film role for the aptly titled La chanteuse éperdue, is shown leering at her from a compartment window as she boards that first train. In a sense, Prix de beauté and Lucienne share a similar plight. Just as sound both imperiled and elevated the film, its protagonist is also undone by the very thing that gives her potential.
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Prix de beauté (1930 France 108 mins)
Prod. Co: Sofar-Film Prod: Romain Pinès Dir: Augusto Genina Scr: Augusto Genina, Bernard Zimmer, Alessandro De Stefani, René Clair, G.W. Pabst Phot: Rudolph Maté Ed: Edmond T. Gréville Prod. Des: Robert Gys Cost: Jean Patou
Cast: Louise Brooks, Georges Charlia, Jean Bradin, Augusto Bandini, André Nicolle, Yves Glad, Gaston Jacquet