Monday, August 28, 2023

The Spanish Dancer, Restored, with an Original Score by Bill Ware

Maritana, the dancing Roma girl, and her lover, Don Cezar de Bazan, are characters created by Victor Hugo, who subsequently inspired works by Massenet, Mendelssohn, W.S. Gilbert, and a French stage adaptation by D’Ennery & Pinel, on which this film was also partly based. It further inspired a competing silent movie from Ernst Lubitsch that released around the same time, but to less acclaim. Despite its popularity at the time, the restored print had to be assembled from two 35mm nitrate prints and two 16mm prints. Fortunately, we now have every scene, representing almost the entire original running time. Yet, what really brings the restoration of Herbert Brenon’s silent The Spanish Dancer to life is the new score composed by jazz musician Bill Ware, which cineastes can hear when it releases on BluRay tomorrow, from Milestone Films.

Maritana is a wild spirit, who definitely never does anything the easy way. Perhaps that is why she falls in love with the wastrel Don Cezar de Bazan after reading his dreadful fortune. He does indeed lose his money and his social standing, but he finds allies among Maritana’s people. Don Cezar must keep moving to evade the sheriff determined to send him off to debtor’s prison, but he and Maritana arrange to meet in the Square of the Galloping Charger, when it will be thronged with people for the feast day festival.

Unfortunately, the cash-poor honor-rich Don cannot resist dueling despite the King’s decree to the contrary. That gets him sentenced to death. All is not lost, because the French-born Queen owes Maritana a favor. However, the deceitful Don Sallustre is working behind the scenes, to undermine everyone, for his own benefit. You know he is a devious snake-in-the-grass, because he is played by Adolphe Menjou.

Spanish Dancer
is a rollicking swashbuckler comedy that almost feels like an early silent predecessor to the Richard Lester Musketeer movies, but probably nobody involved in their production had the opportunity to see Brenon’s film in its full glory. It actually turns into a deliciously ironic farce, albeit one that still holds life and death consequences.

Spanish Dancer really gallops along at a brisk tempo thanks to Ware’s original score. As you would expect from a vibraphonist and bassist, it has a strong rhythmic drive and a propulsive underlying beat. Ware’s percussive elements often evoke the vibe of flamenco and other forms of Spanish music, while the orchestration remains rooted in jazz forms. Regardless, it sounds great. In addition to the composer on vibes and bass, it also features Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Bobby Previte on drums, and Rez Abbasi on electric guitar.

It is amazing what a fresh new score can do for a silent film. Suddenly, we are more receptive to the images, because we can better relate to the music (instead of an old timey-sounding piano). What looks exaggerated in isolation becomes passionate or “extreme” in a contemporary sense, when working in concert with the music. This is especially true for the generation that was raised on music videos, who are used to seeing music related only by theme or mood layered over an otherwise unassociated narrative. Ware’s score is a great example, even though he maintains some Spanish and Roma flavorings.

This is a great film to “open up” for contemporary audiences, because it is jolly fun. Pola Negri is wonderfully passionate as Maritana and Antonio Moreno is a likable lug as the Don. He was also born in Madrid and raised near Gibraltar, so there’s that too. More importantly he and Negri really seem to have legit chemistry. Plus, Menjou does his usual moustache-twisting villainous thing, which is always entertaining.

Spanish Dancer
will be an amazing discovery for a lot of viewers and Ware’s original score will make it more accessible for many more of them. The large-scale production still looks impressive and it sounds terrific. Very highly recommended, The Spanish Dancer releases tomorrow (8/29) on BluRay, from Milestone Films.