Movies are often produced in one way or another by actors who appear in them through their various production companies or in league with other investors.
The general practice dates from at least from the days of Charlie Chaplin and silent screen stars. But can you identify a movie produced and financed entirely by an actor? No studio, no outside investors. Just an actor (a first-time actor at that) – who, as part of the deal, insisted on taking the movie’s leading role?
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to spotlight one of the most interesting but little known figures in movie history whose sole but significant contribution is that he financed not a vanity project, but a truly classic movie directed by Danish-born director Carl Dreyer.
Now stay with us, please. This not yet another arid academic analysis of Dreyer’s output, which stretched from the silent era into the 1960’s (the director died in Copenagen in 1968 at the age of 79).
His amply justified claim to film immortality is based on his body of excellent, atmospheric movies – but one stands out. It’s the 1928 silent classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc, made in France and starring French actress Maria Falconetti (pictured above).
We know, we know. You are insufficiently patient to sit through a silent film.
But if, as the familiar line goes, you have to see one silent movie, make it this one. Under Dreyer’s stern and severe direction, Falconetti turns in an astonishingly anguished, emotional performance as a young future saint about to be burned at the stake. To see it is not to forget it.
Dreyer made the movie in France because that’s where the financial backing came from. Writes film historian David Thomson, Where else could any director raise 7 million francs for such a subject? But where else could a film be made that was unequivocally religious? The film was distributed in France by the production-distribution giant, Gaumont.
Today, the film is extolled in ecstatic terms. The pinnacle of silent cinema — and perhaps of the cinema itself, wrote critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. The Passion of Joan of Arc finished No. 9 on the top-10-alltime-best-ever movie list compiled last September by the British film journal, Sight & Sound.
It may dismay cineastes who cherish the film to discover that it was a commercial flop when it was first released. So much so that director Dreyer feared for his career as the sound era concluded, and “talkies” were introduced. French studio backing evaporated, and financing for a future movie was hard to come by.
Dreyer figured that for his first sound movie, his best move was to try to film a more commercial subject. And back then, as now, vampires fascinated the public, and presented a good shot at some meaty box office. But that age-old hurdle: where was the production money to come from?
Up stepped one Nicolas Louis Alexandre de Gunzburg (aka Baron de Gunzburg), a French-born aristocrat of Russian-Jewish heritage, who was in his late twenties when Vampyr — as Dreyer’s film was to be titled – was in its earliest planning stage.
The Baron, a handsome, free-spending gay man (pictured below) who moved freely in artistic circles, knew of Dreyer’s project, and agreed to back the picture completely with private family money on one condition: that he play the leading role.
So it is that when you see 1932’s Vampyr (the Criterion Collections’ DVD package is a great place to start) you’ll notice that among the vampires and other creatures of the night — including a whacky doctor who gets asphyxiated in flour — there’s this handsome young man with a haunted look, dressed like a stylish banker. As “Julian West” (his nom de screen) the Baron turned in a creditable acting job in a great movie.
His acting ambitions sated, Gunzburg left Europe and the film business, and wound up editing high-toned fashion magazines in the U.S. He died in 1981.
Although he eventually made money as the producer of Vampyr when public interest in Dreyer’s career was revived in the 1960s, the Baron never again financed another movie nor acted in one.