It’s hard to get around the fact that, for a modern movie viewer, silent movies are a lot of extra work. Even for a viewer more used to enjoying silents than most, it can be extra taxing to pay attention without audio cues. For some genres this can ultimately is a bonus – fantasy and horror silents tend to have a dream-like quality that makes the material extra-effective. For comedies and melodramas, it can be a lot iffier.
Zaza, a 1923 comedy that morphs into a melodrama, is an odd duck in any case for a modern viewer. First, there’s the opening narrative cards that tell us what we’re watching is an adaptation of a popular play, and gives us quick descriptions of the characters along with the actor playing them – it’s not an in media res immersive start to a production. We’re informed that Zaza (Gloria Swanson) is a gamine singer from the streets who has become the hit of the town. We meet her in her dressing room, berating her maid to the point of tears to find her dressing gown (which Zaza is already wearing). Zaza is particularly admired by a Mr. Dufresne, who she makes gaga eyes at from the swinging porch that is her number one act.
It’s a strange act, and one that is difficult to credit as the best entertainment in town, but that is part of the charm of this style of movie. Zaza is indeed based on a popular turn of the 20th-century play that has been filmed at least six times. Zaza is a singer, which is difficult to dramatize in a silent movie, so Swanson’s Zaza gets on an enormous swing and flies out over the audience, throwing rose petals at them. It’s a dumb act, but leads to some fun rear-projection shots of Swanson swinging. She’s a big hit, much to the chagrin of her rival Florianne… who naturally tries to murder her for being popular by cutting her swing.
Zaza takes a terrible tumble, breaks her leg, and while convalescing becomes Dufrense’s lover. She wants him all to herself, but little does she know that in Paris he’s an important man, one with an ambitious wife. This leads to a charming mix of melodrama and comedy that rests entirely on the shoulders of its leading lady. All the male characters in the film are pretty stiff and dull, while the women are at turns feisty or daffy. When Florianne comes to the cottage where Zaza now lives to tell her Dufrense is married, Zaza disbelieves her. And demonstrates her disbelief by getting in the mother of all cat fights. It’s an incredible display, and in the end Florianne runs screaming from the house, practically stripped bare by the maniacal Zaza. This is followed up in a later scene at a party where Zaza tries to get close enough to Florianne to apologize, and Florianne is so frightened they practically have to have the fight over again.
Most modern audiences, if they know her at all, will be familiar with Gloria Swanson solely from Sunset Boulevard. In that she gives her justly appreciated turn as a washed-up, old silent star. Here, in Zaza, it’s clear why she was a star in the first place. She outshines everything onscreen, and does it with a real physicality (ironically, according to the interesting though academic commentary that serves as the only extra on this Blu-ray besides the musical accompaniment, Swanson work diligently to keep away from slapstick comic acting throughout her early career). When she’s walking (particularly when Zaza is being bitchy, which is most of the time), Swanson’s rump moves side to side like she’s doing a slalom. She leaps headlong into her cat-fights. She has a charisma about her performance that comes out best when Zaza is trying to suppress her natural irascibility and be sweet.
Zaza arrives on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber in an uncrowded but decent Blu-ray release. There previously mentioned extras, a piano musical accompaniment provides something for the silence, and the commentary track offers plenty of information on the film’s director and its star. The print itself looks decent for a film of this vintage – while certainly scratchy, some shots glow with that particular warmth that black and white movies can get on Blu-ray, which I’ll take any day over the color graded various shades of orange and teal that make up most modern movie pallets. Zaza is a light entertainment and melodrama that was fun to watch, even with the added work of having to make up sounds in my head.