Fred Niblo (US 1927)
What always surprises me is the number of outstanding silent films still confined to the vaults. Yes, The Enemy is missing its last reel. That is indeed sad, but why deny us the pleasure of seeing the previous eight?
For The Enemy is that rarity, a truly pacifist film, almost an M-G-M version of Isn’t Life Wonderful? A friend was showing me a tape of silent-era censor cuts from Finland when a close-up of Lillian Gish appeared – it had such an intensity that I was determined to see more of whatever film it came from. It turned out to be The Enemy, directed by Fred Niblo – whose career was on the wane after his dazzling success with Ben-Hur (1925). Furthermore, the film survived in the old M-G-M vault, ignored merely because of that missing reel.
The Enemy is a fine, sincere piece of work, but it remains a movie – exquisitely put together, but still a movie. Its characters are stereotyped. There is no time for anything deeper. Titles go to the heart of the matter – slogans, admittedly, but effective nonetheless, as you hardly ever see films of this period dealing with this controversial subject.
The great June Mathis, who had written The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), produced two drafts, which were found unsatisfactory, and Willis Goldbeck wrote the final script.
Lillian Gish, who played the lead, didn’t think much of it, or Annie Laurie. “Mother was ill, so I let the studio do them. I just played my part. Nurses and doctors were constantly in the house. My only thought was to get to the studio as late as possible and leave as soon as possible. I remember little of The Enemy. I couldn’t tell you the story if my life depended upon it.”
Pauli Arndt (Lillian Gish) and her grandfather, a teacher (Frank Currier), are peaceful inhabitants of Vienna. Pauli marries a student, but the next day he must leave for duty at the front. During his absence, her grandfather loses his job and he and Pauli become destitute. Pauli finds she is pregnant. After giving birth, she becomes a prostitute in order to buy milk for her child. Her husband is reported missing in action, and Pauli’s misery increases…
Motion Picture Magazine said, “This is frankly a propaganda picture, but one that you’ll welcome as its aim is to stop the next war. It is ragged, repetitious and sometimes extreme to the point of absurdity, but it is a powerful picture and if you’re half the pacifist I am you’ll be stirred by it.”
Robert Herring, Close Up’s critic, thought the film had some “slight quality” because it was surprisingly anti-war. “Gish has a baby and when it dies, she screams out that she is glad her child at least will not be food for the guns. I thought this surprising in a London cinema. War, ‘legalised murder,’ is the real enemy, and the film deals with the overthrowing of values it causes.”
The critics tended to unite in their opposition to the ending – i.e., the last reel. “A happy ending has been tacked on,” said Close Up, “which completely destroys all that has been previously said about war.”
John Colton, a former newspaper man, the co-author of the Broadway hit Rain, and Thalberg’s closest friend, was brought in to write the titles.
“Highbrows will condemn it for its lowbrow ending and lowbrows will condemn it for its highbrow beginning,” said Welford Beaton in Film Spectator. “But even with the manhandling that ignorant supervision gave it, The Enemy is a picture which you must see. There are many shots in it which indicate that Niblo is a student of foreign technic [sic]… He opens the picture with a succession of dissolves which effectively plant its atmosphere, and then with incident and symbolism he tells his story rapidly but clearly. Newspaper headlines superimposed on the whirring wheels of a multiple press tell graphically the sweep of the world war…. Some of his intimate scenes are beautiful and touching, splendid examples of intelligent direction. The wedding of Miss Gish and Forbes is one of the high spots of the picture. It is a superb bit of simplicity in a majestic setting.”
When in l986 it was given one of its rare screenings by the Society for Cinephiles at its annual Cinecon, it was described as being very interesting, and reminiscent of Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm (1940): “… a beautiful MGM print, tantalizing but frustrating – the last reel missing.”
The script survives, so Warner Bros., who have inherited the picture, should be able to reconstruct the ending with titles and stills, and make this refreshingly angry picture, with its vitally important message, widely available.
regia/dir: Fred Niblo.
scen: Willis Goldbeck, Agnes Christine Johnston; dalla pièce di/based on the play by Channing Pollock (NY, 1925).
adapt: Willis Goldbeck.
did/titles: John Colton.
photog: Oliver Marsh.
mont/ed: Margaret Booth.
scg/des: Cedric Gibbons, Richard Day.
cost: Gilbert Clark.
asst dir: Harold S. Bucquet.
cast: Lillian Gish (Pauli Arndt), Ralph Forbes (Carl Behrend), Ralph Emerson (Bruce Gordon), Frank Currier (Professor Arndt), George Fawcett (August Behrend), Fritzi Ridgeway (Mitzi Winkelmann), John S. Peters (Fritz Winkelmann), Karl Dane (Jan), Polly Moran (Baruska), Billy Kent Schaeffer (Kurt).
première: 27.12.1927 (New York).
copia/copy: 35mm, 7693 ft. (orig. 8189 ft.), 93’ (22 fps); did./titles: ENG.
fonte/source: Library of Congress Packard Center for Audio-Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA.