Friday, May 18, 2012

The Mountain Eagle - For the Love of Film III

Nita Naldi as Beatrice Brent (Image: BFI)
 The Mountain Eagle is Alfred Hitchcock's second feature film, and the only one from his lengthy career that is lost.  No print is known to exist, making it one of the holiest “holy grails” of cinema.  I’ll raise my hand and join the legions aching to see the film, not only because it’s a lost Hitchcock,  but also because it stars my favorite cinema vamp, Nita Naldi, in the unlikely role of a rural schoolmarm.  In which case, it’s a very good thing the film was silent!  Naldi was great fun and not averse to the divinely theatrical in manner of speech; she never let the truth get in the way of telling a story.

Nita Naldi and Bernard Goetzke

Hitchcock recalled greeting Nita Naldi at the Munich train station.  She stepped off the train, he wrote, and “Munich quite audibly gasped.”  She was every inch the diva:
…glamorous, dark, Latin, Junoesque, statuesque, slinky, with slanting eyes, four-inch heels, nails like a mandarin’s and a black dog to match her black-swathed dress. 
She also traveled with her “Papa,” who was not her father, but her longtime beau and future husband J. Searle Barclay. 
Hitchcock further recalled,
I shall never forget one afternoon.  We had been working hard all the day, and Nita was nearly all in.  She had to play one more scene, where she was cleaning Malcolm Keen’s rifle when a face appeared at the window and she pointed the gun at him.
The scene was going well, when, just as she turned the gun to the window, I saw it waver.  It veered from side to side.  It moved up and down.  It went round in circles.
Then, without a word, Nita tilted to one side and fell headlong.
The floor was very hard . . . The set was built on a foundation of stones set in cement.  Before the camera had even stopped turning, she had recovered.  And all she said was:  “Why don’t they build these lousy sets right over here?  This floor’s too gol-darned hard for comfort!”

Well, we already know Nita was a handful and one of the many silent stars I wish I’d been able to meet and have dinner with.  Given Hitch’s love of food and earthy, naughty women, Nita must have been much good fun during the shoot.  We know Hitchcok and Alma socialized with Nita in Paris in 1926.  I wonder if they had any further contact later in New York.  If they did, regretably, there is no record of it. 


Nita Naldi and Malcolm Keen
The film was slated to begin shooting in October 1925 under the title Fearogod (according to The Bioscope).  By November 5, the magazine announced a title change to The Mountain Eagle.  It was noted that Nita Naldi was cast on November 19 and the film was nearing completion by mid-December.  In reality, the film did not finish until almost January 1926.  Exteriors were filmed in Obergurgl, where the Austrian Tyrol stood in for the unspecified rural mountain village called for in the story. Bad weather during the shooting was a constant source of trouble.  The film was released in October 1926 and garnered some good reviews, though by no means a smash hit. 

Alfred Hitchcock did not think much of the film and felt it was best forgotten.  During the interviews chronicled by Francois Truffaut in the indispensible Hitchcock / Truffaut, Hitchcock described the film as being "awful" and added "[he was] not sorry there are no known prints."  Was this a true sentiment or just another of the Master’s beloved quips?  We’ll never know.
So what can we say about The Mountain Eagle? Let me pause right here to note that I owe much of what follows to the late J. L. Kuhns and his research on this film.  His paper Filmography Notes on The Mountain Eagle, presented during the 1996 Hitchcock Conference at Baylor University, filled loads of holes for me; I’m grateful for the information.

On the set, a famous image of Hitchcock and Alma as he's directing The Mountain Eagle (Image: BFI)
The following synopsis has been reproduced elsewhere, but was originally published in The Bioscope of 7 October 1926:
Beatrice Brent (Nita Naldi), school teacher in a small mountain village, incurs the enmity of Pettigrew (Bernard Goetzke), the local Justice of the Peace and owner of the village stores, because he believes that she encourages the attentions of his son Edward (John F. Hamilton), a cripple, who takes evening lessons. Pettigrew, while questioning Beatrice, is himself influenced by her charm and attempts liberties which she strongly resents. He is so furious at the rebuff that he proclaims her as a wanton and she is driven from the village by the inhabitants. Beatrice is saved from their fury by a mysterious stranger known as Fearogod (Malcolm Keen), who lives a solitary life in a cabin to which he takes her for shelter. To stop all scandal, Fearogod takes Beatrice down to the village and compels Pettigrew to marry them, explaining to her that he will help her to get a divorce. Beatrice, however, is content to leave the situation as it is, but Pettigrew, furious with rage, takes advantage of the fact that his son has left the village and arrests Fearogod for his murder. In spite of the fact that there is no vestige of evidence that young Pettigrew has been murdered, Fearogod is kept in prison for over a year, when he decides to escape. He finds that his wife has a baby and he goes off with them to the mountains. When they find that the baby is taken ill, Fearogod goes back to the village for a doctor, where he sees old Pettigrew. Some doubt as to which of the men is going to attack the other first is settled by an onlooker firing off a gun which wounds Pettirgrew in the shoulder. The sudden return of his son Edward convinces the old man of the futility of proceeding with his accusations of murder, so he makes the best of matters by shaking hands with the man he persecuted and all is supposed to end happily.

Okay, so it's not reading like Gone With the Wind, is it?
Bernard Goetzke getting a hair and makeup adjustment from Alma Reville (Image: BFI)

A contemporary review of the film in Kinematograph Weekly stated that "Alfred Hitchcock's direction is, as usual, thoroughly imaginative," but complained that "he has rather over-stressed the slow tempo, and has had a story which is too full of unconvincing twists." It praised the characterization and noted that "many individual scenes are very cleverly handled," concluding, "the mountain scenery is good, and the small village interiors and exteriors are also sound. Baron Ventimiglia's photography is excellent."


John Hamilton as Edward and Bernard Goetzke as Pettigrew (Image: BFI)
The Bioscope gave a fuller assessment:
In Brief: The story of a feud between two men in a small mountain village, which is lacking in conviction but of interest because of skillfull direction and good acting.
Suitability: The undoubted artistic merits of the production should compensate for the weakness of the story.
Direction: The producer, Alfred Hitchcock, has not been particularly well served by his author, and in spite of skillful and at times brilliant direction, the story has an air of unreality. The locality is not indicated, though the village in which the action takes place is obviously continental. This ambiguity may be intentional and to account for the way in which Pettigrew imposes his will on the people with as utter a disregard for law or justice as any villain of Western drama. That a man could be kept in prison for a year on a charge for which there is not the slightest evidence, and in spite of the fact that the prisoner is the most popular man in the district while the oppressor is the worst hated, is against all reason and lacks conviction as much as Pettigrew's facile repentance at the end.
Acting: Bernhard Goetzke gives a fine performance as Pettigrew, and his strong and intellectual face makes his conduct all the more incongruous. Malcolm Keen is admirable as Fearogod, and Nita Naldi achieves considerable success in a part which has fewer opportunities than generally fall to her share. Many small character parts are most admirably played and very skillfully directed.
Staging and Photography: Beautiful pictures of mountain scenery in summer and winter, and picturesque timber interiors, are shown with unusually artistic lighting effects and excellent photography.
Bernard Goetzke as Pettigrew (Image: BFI)
Kuhn’s paper quotes another contemporary review which was found in the Hitchcock scrapbook of press clippings for The Lodger, in which "Lolita," writing for “The Film of the Week” column in Modern, 19 February 1927, notes that:
Some weeks ago I mentioned his first production, The Pleasure GardenThe Lodger is his third picture, although it comes second in order of release to the public. His second, The Mountain Eagle, is due in May and incidentally, is one of the finest pictures of the year. 
The Lodger is not so brilliant as The Mountain Eagle, but nevertheless is well worth seeing.
Is that tantalizing, or what? Me?  I’m still trying to wrap my head around Nita Naldi as a prim schoolmarm who has the wherewithal to handle a shotgun. 

Judging only on the stills alone, this looks like it would be a film well worth watching.  Atmospheric, dark, forboding and some hauntingly beautiful stills extant of leading lady Nita Naldi.  The BFI has a small collection, most of which I culled from their website to illustrate this article.  The Margaret Herrick Library holds what is the largest collection of stills for the film, between 30-35 images which came from the Hitchcock collection.  Two 8x10 vintage stills were recently auctioned with a hammer price of nearly $500!

No poster art is known to exist, save a single lobby card in a private collection showing a german shepherd.  No clue how the dog fits into the story, but he reminds me of another silent superstar, Rinty.

Additional information and some contemporary articles can be found on the Nita Naldi website, scroll down on the filmography page for some more good stuff on The Mountain Eagle.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 film The Mountain Eagle is Number 1 on the BFI list as one of the MostWanted lost films.

Luke McKernan of The Bioscope (an incredibly informative and well produced blog I cannot recommend more highly) gave us a review of The Mountain Eagle during his brilliant and inspired Festival of Lost Films in 2008.  I wish he’d do this again!


Malcolm Keen as Fearogod
Today is the final day of the blogathon. On a personal note I have to give it up to Farran, Marilyn and Rod for all their hard work behind the scenes and in the planning of this massive event. Reading the postings by the other bloggers has been fabulous, educational, and most importantly, fun. It's an honor to participate in an event in which we all share the same passion.   I've had a blast and have learned so much. 

Our work, however, is not complete.  I hope that people reading my humble musings have read the rest and have donated a little cash for the kitty. I know times are tough for everyone, myself included. A $5 donation for the love of film would mean so much to the National Film Preservation Foundation and make a rare film available for online streaming. Is $5 such a hardship, I hope it's not. You may not have heard of Graham Cutts before the blogathon, but you certainly know the name and films of Alfred Hitchcock. Do it for Hitch!


For the Love of Film is a fundraising blogathon hosted by The Self-Styled Siren, Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod. I am honored to be a participant for such a worthy and noble cause. If you like what you've been reading, or not, please consider making a donation to the NFPF to help reach the goal of making what remains of the 1923 film The White Shadow available for online streaming. Any amount is a welcome and is tax deductable. Be it $5, $10, $20 or $100, no amount it too small to help reach the goal of $15,000. Donate Here or hit the pic of Hitch or the donatation button to the right. By all means, just donate!

4 comments:

Penfold said...

Great blog, and thank you for pulling together so much information and imagery on The Mountain Eagle. I feel now that I'll recognise it if I spot it out and about......
......and a donation will be the next thing I have to do; but as a Brit and a contrarian, I'm not going to do it for Hitch; he doesn't need the help too much; I'll do it for Graham Cutts, a fine director of fine films, maligned by Hitch when too dead to defend himself or put the record straight about who did what on White Shadows....a contemporary report of the filming at the studio fails to mention Hitch at all....but Hitch being Hitch, and history being written by the winners, that malign view continues in certain circles with little opposition. If only The Rat Trilogy, for example, was widely available....anyway, thank you and the other bloggers for not adding to the disinformation about Mr Cutts out there, some of which came from the original press release on the White Shadows discovery...for which some people, who I will not name, should hang their heads in shame for displaying such ignorance about film history....but a chunky gift to the NFFP follows. Congratulations again on a fine piece, and all power to your collective elbows.

Tinky said...

Well, la Naldi can't have been all THAT prim if she inspired so very much male interest. It's wonderful to see how much is known about this lost film--but of course all you share only makes me want to see it! Nicely done ... and I couldn't agree more about the blogathon. It's an education each year.

Anonymous said...

J. Searle Barclay?
Could that be J. Searle Dawley? (a famed Edison director).

rudyfan1926 said...

For the anonymous, no, it was J Se are Barclay