THE MOMENT BEFORE
Robert Vignola (US 1916)
The Moment Before is part of the transitional phase of Robert Vignola (and of early American cinema) from two-reelers to feature films, when he left Kalem and moved to Famous Players to direct the captivating theatre star Pauline Frederick. Based on Israel Zangwill’s drama The Moment of Death; or, The Never, Never Land, this was Vignola’s third film with Frederick and was shot in Florida (standing in for Australia) and New York (with an exterior in the recently built neighborhood of Forest Hills), not far from where Paramount would have its East Coast studio until the end of the 1920s, enabling them to have access to the services of the “famous players” of Broadway. The film’s plot differs slightly from the description in the AFI Catalog, which was presumably taken from trade papers and Gladys Hall’s novelization in Motion Picture Magazine (June 1916).
The film begins by presenting the elderly and elegant Duke and Duchess of Maldon, engaged in charitable acts in a Dickensian village. The following day, the duke falls off his horse and is mortally injured. Mourning the loss of her great love, the duchess collapses in church, and in the “moment before death” she reviews her own life. “It was in her youth that she had fractured practically all the Biblical commandments,” says the intertitle. In fact, when she was young, Madge the duchess was a seductive gypsy, engaged to the fiery gypsy John, but fascinated by Harold, the idle aristocratic son of the Maldons, who was prone to the family vice of excessive drinking. In love with the gypsy, Harold brings her home as a servant, scandalizing his older brother. A fight between the brothers and John’s jealousy lead to a fatal accident that forces both Harold and the gypsy couple to flee to Australia. Here Madge finds Harold, and in a duel between the two men, retrieves a pistol from the ground and kills John. The two lovers gallop away together in backlit silhouette, towards a brighter future but with a dark shadow on their souls. In the final image, Madge collapses at the foot of the altar, recalling the philanthropic works she hoped would make amends for the sins of her youth. It’s the kind of faintly sketched religious touch that recurs throughout Vignola’s work. Without sanctimony nor the melodramatic excesses of the theatrical text, the film reminds the viewer of the gravity and willfulness of the characters’ sins.
The underlying cynicism of the story, exposing Victorian hypocrisy, is built into the reverse narrative mechanism which calls into question expectations created by the not exactly brief introduction of the characters in earlier days; Vignola daringly inserts a flashback within another flashback, when Madge, looking at her palm, remembers the prophecy of a gypsy fortune-teller. Zangwill’s play contains no gypsy context, which was invented here by writer Hugh Ford, who had also directed Pauline Frederick several times.
A constant in Vignola’s films is the use of inventively framed compositions and contrasts of light and shadow to signify moral contrasts, such as at the beginning of the film, when the backlighting of the elderly couple in silhouette echoes and anticipates their moral opacity. Even the carefully chosen set design has meaning, such as the statue of a scantily clad woman by the staircase in the Maldon residence, foreshadowing the female presence that will come to destroy the household’s equilibrium.
Madge is a rebel who doesn’t accept the rules of the clan: she smokes (we are in 1916!), takes up a gun, and shoots to defend her love. It’s a characterization that further confirms the sensitivity of the “woman’s director” Vignola, who would later be entrusted by William Randolph Hearst to help shape Marion Davies’ career. The director’s theatre background doesn’t result in a mannered performance (though Frederick’s gestures in the initial section correspond to acting manuals of the period), but rather reveals his special attention to the work of the actors, whom he even made memorize dialogue as an essential element in the construction of character.
At a time when American cinema, in order to capture middle-class audiences still reluctant to watch local production, tried to attract women, thereby shifting the culture of entertainment from Victorianism to modernity, Vignola can be seen as a skilled and sensitive constructor of female characters and actors in step with their times.
Originally distributed in 5 reels, the film ran 70 minutes according to proposals for musicians published by Motion Picture News (13.05.1916).
The print of The Moment Before presented by the Cineteca Nazionale, Rome, is of the newly discovered Italian version of the film, which is 522 metres longer than the only copy previously known to exist, an incomplete safety duplicate English version with flash titles, first copied photochemically in 1996 from a partially decomposed nitrate that no longer exists.
The dispersion of the material can perhaps be explained by the prohibition of the film by the Italian Fascist censors in October 1922, at which point it’s possible that the connection between the Italian title and the original was lost. We can only imagine some of the reasons/motives that led to the Fascist censorship: the importance of destiny, embodied in a gypsy prophecy that guides the thread of the story; the lack of respect for morals and “proper decorum”; crimes that go unpunished when the characters flee; the rise of egalitarianism. The author of the original story, Israel Zangwill, believed in the melting pot of cultures, and was a feminist along with his wife Edith Ayrton, a founder of the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage in 1912.
For the reconstruction of the film we’ve mainly relied on the Italian copy presented to the censors (the film’s edge codes date it to 1921-1923), which is 522 metres longer than the safety print, and in a better state of preservation. The Italian edit is more didactic, and more diligently respects the order of scenes than what was reported in the American press of the time. In some rare cases intertitles were inserted in the middle of a scene, a practice that certainly belongs more to the 1920s than to 1916.
Harold’s beauty and vulnerability are unsettling, even though the dominant element of the protagonist couple is Madge’s strength. Curiously, Jean Grémillon’s Maldone (1927) later takes up many narrative elements of the film (as does another, earlier film by Vignola, The Vampire, 1913), but organizes them differently, focusing on the male character’s inner life in its fundamental duality and desire to escape to a life of true liberty. Through original parallels and differences, the elements co-exist in a fresh, powerful depiction of nomadic and peasant life.
regia/dir: Robert Vignola.
scen: Hugh Ford, dall’atto unico di/based on the one-act play by Israel Zangwill, The Moment of Death; or, The Never, Never Land (New York, 1900).
photog: Edward Gheller.
cast: Pauline Frederick (la duchessa/Madge, the Duchess of Maldon), Thomas Holding (il duca/Harold, the Duke of Maldon), Frank Losee (il vecchio duca/the elder Duke of Maldon), J.W. Johnston (il gitano/John the Gypsy), Edward Sturgis (Ojoe), Henry Hallam (il vescovo/The Bishop), [Warren Cook, Corra Latimore].
prod: Daniel Frohman, Famous Players Film Co.
copia/copy: DCP, c.52′ (da/from 35mm, imbibito/tinted); did./titles: ENG.
fonte/source: Fondazione CSC – Cineteca Nazionale, Roma.