Sunday, September 02, 2012

LA BOHEME (1926)

As the snow falls over the Latin Quarter in Paris, four struggling bohemians are trying to raise rent money so the landlord won't kick them out. Rudolphe is a handsome, hot-headed writer, trying to write a great play but turning out sentimental articles about cats for a magazine for money. Marcel is a painter with a girlfriend who lives directly below them (they even have a loose floor tile that they can remove for communication). Schaunard is a would-be songwriter and Colline is his buddy who seems to spend all day reading; he sells a book to get some money, but then spends it on another book (sounds like me). On the same floor is a waifish seamstress named Mimi, who also doesn’t have rent money; she pawns some belongings, including her coat and her fur muff, but still can’t make rent. The four men manage to scrape together some money when Schaunard goes on the streets singing with a monkey and a tin cup. They also get a nice dinner courtesy Marcel's girlfriend Musette, and that night as Mimi is about to head out for the streets, they invite her in where she gets warmed up and fed, and strikes a spark with Rudolphe. Later, she gets an offer from the aristocrat Paul who hires her to make several projects, but the way he leers at her, we know he's going to want some other favors from her eventually. By Easter, all the bohemians are scraping by and Rudolphe realizes he's in love with Mimi, calling her his muse and beginning serious work on a play. Unfortunately, when Mimi takes his latest cat article to his editor, he won't take it because it's weeks late and fires him. Mimi gives him some money that she's made working for Paul and strings him along, making him think his articles are still being accepted. Misunderstandings pile up, to the point where Mimi gets Paul to find a producer for Rudolphe's play, but Rudolphe thinks Mimi is Paul's kept woman. Mimi leaves the neighborhood and finds a job at a sweatshop, but winds up deathly sick with consumption. The bitter Rudlophe finishes his play, which is a success, and on opening night, Mimi leaves her deathbed for a last reunion with Rudolphe.

This silent film is technically not based on the Puccini opera, but on the novel which was the basis for the opera. I'm only familiar with the modern musical adaptation Rent, and plotlines from the musical are obvious here. The tone veers back and forth between celebratory (the bohemians reveling in their carefree lifestyle, people finding love) and gloomy (poverty, sickness), and most of the scenes involving Mimi (played by Lillian Gish) are overly melodramatic—though Gish certainly looks the part. Her protracted death scene, which includes her being dragged through the streets of Paris by a carriage, is actually quite good. John Gilbert (pictured above with Gish) is generally fine as Rudolphe; when he's being romantic or moody, he's great, but when he's being rowdy or angry, he can come off like an overacting amateur. Edward Everett Horton is almost unrecognizable as the slacker beatnik Colline—his role is not large, but he's fun. Roy D'Arcy as Paul leers constantly, to the point where he seems more comic than threatening. The production design is superb; the opening snowy street of Paris, the bohemian rooms (which are supposed to be shabby but are actually rather appealing) and the Easter picnic are all lovely looking. A lovely film. [TCM]

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