vt Burnt Offering
US / 76 minutes / bw / Fox Dir: Frank Lloyd Scr: Bradley King, Leon Gordon Story: “Burnt Offering” (seemingly unpublished) by Harry Hervey Cine: John Seitz Cast: Elissa Landi, Paul Lukas, Warner Oland, Alexander Kirkland, Donald Crisp, Yola d’Avril, Ivan Simpson, Eva Dennison, Anders Van Hayden, John Lester Johnson, Vera Morrison.
On the eve of WWI, Myra Carson (Landi) is deported from Akkra/Accra, in British West Africa, to Duala/Douala, in the Kamerun/Cameroon—part of German West Africa. A gambling-addicted UK national has apparently committed suicide over her, the last straw for the straitlaced UK military authorities, who’ve been itching for an excuse to expel her—after all, was she not named as co-respondent in a London scandal, and has she not been bouncing from one country to another ever since, giving her occupation always as “oh, just traveling”? The officer (uncredited) in charge of kicking her out clearly relishes his task; the young man who supervises her departure, Lieutenant Enright (uncredited), equally clearly reckons she’s been given a bum deal—although it’s hard for us to work out quite what he means by a remark to the effect that she’s been kind to a lot of the lads.
Once Myra’s ship arrives off Duala, there’s passport authorization to go through. Baron von Sydow (Oland), Commander of the German Colonial Military Police, has decreed that all UK nationals must be detained for thorough interrogation; those held back include a rubber trader called Simms (Simpson), an elderly gentlewoman called Mrs. Butterworth (Dennison), and of course Myra. However, Baron von Sydow’s son, Erich (Kirkland), is on the scene and, instantly smitten by Myra, persuades the monitoring officer Lothar (uncredited) and the passport stamper (Van Hayden) that they should accept his offer to stand surety for the young Englishwoman.
Erich’s father, the stocky Prussian Baron—Oland does really well here—is naturally livid when he finds out, and demands Myra be deported forthwith. Erich and Myra have dinner and an evening on the town before Myra must be returned to the ship—along with French national Rosita (d’Avril) and her beau.
The Baron (Warner Oland) tells Erich (Alexander Kirkland) that Myra’s no good.
The two Brits on the ship aren’t entirely amused by the behavior of their companions on the voyage:
Mrs. Butterworth: If they’d kept that ghastly woman ashore, we wouldn’t have had that disgraceful orgy.
Simms (shudders): You only heard it. I saw it. That French girl threatened to do a sort of . . . nature dance on the table.
Mrs. Butterworth: Oh, how disgusting.
Simms: I hung around for a couple of hours, but she didn’t.
At the end of their evening together Erich drunkenly assumes his luck might be in; only when he’s been severely disabused of the idea that the little he’s done for her entitles him to a night of unbridled passionTM does Myra succumb to his boyish charms and spend a night of unbridled passionTM with him . . . or so we assume, because there’s a tactful fade.
Erich (Alexander Kirkland) pleads his case to a skeptical Myra.
The next morning, still a tad wobbly on his feet (our assumption was obviously correct), Erich has a great idea as to how they can get round his monster of a father. This has become a matter of great urgency because, while Erich and Myra were exploiting the fadeout for all they were worth, war has been declared between Germany and the UK. If they marry, Erich points out, Myra will become a German national and thus not be consigned to an internment camp.
The Baron is, predictably, livid all over again. He sends Erich back to his outpost at the rear end of up-country, confident that Myra will balk at the very notion. Myra is, of course, made of sterner stuff. She adapts to the insects, the heat and all the rest; the only thing she has trouble adapting to is the boredom—there are no books at the outpost and only the one 78rpm record . . . which, just to make matters worse, is a Strauss waltz. (The B-side seems to be Offenbach’s famous Barcarole, but for some reason hardly ever gets played.)
Erich is sent off for a couple of weeks for a conference with native chief. During his absence, his fellow officer and erstwhile roomie Lieutenant Kurt Kurtoff (Lukas) turns up. Kurt is startled to find Myra there—or for that matter any other “white woman” (there’s a lot of white-womanning” in this movie. By the time they’ve had dinner together on his first evening home it’s obvious they’ve fallen in love. Even so, they both try to fight it until, ten days or so later, they succumb to the inevitable and have a night of unbridled passionTM together.
Inevitably, Myra (Elissa Landi) and Kurt (Paul Lukas) succumb to their mutual magnetism.
Next morning, sure as eggs, Erich reappears on the scene. Myra isn’t entirely pleased by this development: “I can’t go on with it! Living with him, loving you—I couldn’t stand it!” Even so, she and Kurt put up a pretense that nothing untoward has happened. Myra uses traditional means to assuage any suspicions Erich might have.
The reason that Kurt is here is that, an engineer and surveyor, he has been figuring out a track that would enable the Germans to enter UK territory with some speed and ease. Since arrival he’s been toiling—despite the amorous hindrances put in his way by Myra—to complete a detailed map of that route. The Baron appears on the scene to examine Kurt’s work; Kurt takes the opportunity to ask for a transfer, so that he’ll never be tormented by Myra’s presence again, but the Baron turns him down flat. The Baron is also abominably rude to his daughter-in-law, and Erich, like the ninny he is, just sucks it up.
Myra: Sorry! It’s yes sir, no sir, did you have a nice trip sir, go ahead and insult my wife sir!
Erich: He didn’t mean to be as rude as he sounded.
The Baron wants Myra deported to neutral Manila, and Myra agrees to go. Erich protests that, in yet another new territory, she’ll have no means of support; his father is less than sympathetic: “You don’t have to worry about her means of support—not her kind.”
Myra is approached by an English spy, Captain Dudley Miller (Crisp), masquerading as Germany military policeman Sergeant Schneider. He offers her £500 to steal Kurt’s map; she turns him down flat because, in a sense, she refuses to betray her loyalty to Erich even though she has never loved him. Erich, overhearing the conversation in the night, first asks his father for money for Myra and then, on being refused, steals the map and sells it to Miller/Schneider so as to be able to give the money to Myra . . .
The upshot is that, on the brink of deportation, Myra and Miller/Schneider are arrested. Myra lies and connives—does everything in her power—to conceal Erich’s part in the crime, and Miller/Schneider, recognizing and respecting her integrity, goes along with the deception. Even so, the Baron sees through it immediately. Erich has committed suicide. The Baron knows (I’m not quite sure how) that his son sent a confessional note to Myra and that Myra burned it. As a result, he’s falling all over himself to beg Myra to forgive him for past hostility; for her part, though, she’d rather carry on “just traveling” in parts anew. As she heads for the dock and another ship, a young officer runs forward to light her cigarette for her, and she gives him her trademark smile . . .
Erich’s farewell note.
I don’t normally give so much of a movie’s plot—despite the spoiler warning at right—but here I think it’s justified if we’re to understand the movie’s dynamic. At first we’re inclined to go along with the fresh-faced Lieutenant Enright in Akkra and believe that Myra was indeed “blameless” in that London divorce case. As the movie continues, it comes to seem much more likely that she was guilty as charged; at the same time we realize, her promiscuity be damned, she has far more integrity than the sanctimonious males—themselves often all too obviously promiscuous—who would leap to judge her. When Schneider/Miller bows to kiss her hand near the movie’s close, he’s the first male we’ve seen to have rendered her the respect she’s due. When she gives that final bat of the eyelashes to the officer who lights her cigarette and makes her way off to do some more “traveling”—i.e., surviving—there’s no sense that she’s a femme fatale off to destroy more men (like, say, Linda Fiorentino’s character at the end of The LAST SEDUCTION ); yes, she will likely use her allure in the future, but only in order to survive as a woman in a male-dominated world.
Elissa Landi was as interesting a character as the one she plays in this movie. Born in Italy and then raised in Austria and England, she was an accomplished novelist as well as an actress; she died of cancer aged just 43. She delivers a very fine performance here, full of nuances as she conveys to us that this woman of the world is worth a dozen of those around her—the brash young idiot Erich, the studly Kurt, the disciplinarian Baron. Oland as the Baron is the other actor who has sufficient heft to equal her: what he delivers is a Prussian count who’s a complete stereotype of that breed until he chooses to let the mask slip. Much of the other acting—especially from Kirkland and Lukas—ranges, alas, between the wrought and the grotesquely overwrought.
The Baron (Warner Oland) recognizes at last what a priggish, unadulterated swine he’s been and confesses to Myra his fatal misjudgement.
There are some great visual moments in the movie, most of them early on. The opening scene in Duala showing soldiers at drill while local people are going about their daily business is beautifully choreographed and is shot with a great depth of field, enhancing the impression that what we’re seeing is a dance. I was reminded of the opening sequence of a much later and totally unrelated movie, Disney’s Aladdin (1992)—not in the details but just in the way that a marketplace scene is staged through movement at various distances and going in various directions.
Another great early visual moment occurs soon after Myra has arrived in Duala and, with Erich’s help, is booking into the local swank hotel. Out from the bar staggers a drunk with a Stein in his hand; seeing Myra at the reception desk, his countenance changes; by the time he reappears through the bar doors with a champagne bottle and a couple of glasses in his hands, Myra has been replaced at the reception desk by a nun . . .
Racial stereotyping raises its ugly head on occasion, as you’d expect from the era and ethos. Compared with much of Hollywood’s output of the time, it’s not overtly obnoxious: the natives are portrayed as ignorant thieves, but not really as villains. And the stereotyping is subverted. Erich’s servant Zakka (Johnson) seems completely loyal, while Zakka’s very lovely daughter Sheba (Morrison), set to be Myra’s maid, is initially lightfingered yet, befriended by Myra rather than treated like scum, which is the custom of the local colonials, responds immediately. This was Morrison’s only screen role. She brings to it not only a great presence and charm but also considerable acting ability; her turn as the uncertain adolescent when appearing in the too-big dress Myra gave her is quite disarming. It’s hard not to think that, had she been white, she might have gone on to a successful screen career.
Myra ((Elissa Landi)) bids a cold farewell to the Baron – she’ll take nothing from him.
Myra leaves the movie as she arrives, with a suicide behind her and no real plan other than to carry on “oh, just traveling.” This makes us realize that the reason she was expelled from Akkra—the suicide of the gambler—might have been nothing of her fault after all, or perhaps it’s just that she’s one of those people who unwittingly leave devastation in their wake. In an early moment, when told she’s going to be given a UK passport that will allow her to be deported from British to German West Africa, she cries that this is a “passport to hell”—hence the movie’s title. Later on we realize the phrase has a double meaning.
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