I have recently been researching an essay on David Lynch and looking at the response of the Surrealists to cinema in the 1920s and 1930s. As a result I came across a couple of gems.
In an article published 3 May 1929 in the journal Merle, Robert Desnos recalls the delight of watching the serial film Les Mystères de New York, which he’d seen as a teenager and which had recently been re-screened in a Paris cinema. The series starred Pearl White (image below), who Desnos describes as ‘the archetype of the heroine who overpowers the hearts of those murderous Don Juans.’ According to Desnos, she dominated the dream-life of countless male cinema goers who were in love with her.
Les Mystères de New York was a French adaptation of a US series Exploits of Elaine. You can watch episode 10 of the US original here, and there are two episodes of the French version (2 and 14), half-titles in French, here and here. Viewing these fast-paced films with their zany plots it’s easy to see what appealed to Desnos. These were not highly polished or arty films. They were ‘naive in their mise en scene, in their scenarios, the cinematography mediocre’. But they were, Desnos says, ‘before everything totally passioanate.’ (For Desnos’ article see Les Mystères de New York, in Nouvelles Hébrides et autres textes 1922-1930, Gallimard, 1978.}
The second film I’d recommend watching is Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, 1935), which Andre Breton considered a ‘triumph of Surrealist thought’. The film tells the story of two people, Peter (Gary Cooper) and Mary (Ann Harding), who as children were very close. Years later they meet again. She is married but they both realise they have never loved anyone but each other. After a fight with the husband, Peter is convicted of murder and imprisoned for life. But the lovers discover they have the ability to meet in a shared dream world. The last third of the film is particularly captivating.
In ‘As in a Wood’, an essay published in 1951, Breton wrote:
What is most specific of all the means of the camera is obviously the power to make concrete the forces of love which, despite everything, remain deficient in books, simply because nothing in them can render the seduction or distress of a glance or certain feelings of priceless giddiness. The radical powerlessness of the plastic arts in this domain goes without saying (one imagines that it has not been given to the painter to show us the radiant image of a kiss). The cinema is alone in extending its empire there, and this alone would be enough for its consecration. What incomparable, ever scintillating traces have films like Ah! le beau voyage or Peter Ibbetson left behind in the memory, and how are life’s supreme moments filtered through that beam!
(Le beau voyage is the French title of a 1927 silent feature directed by Robert Z. Leonard called A Little Journey. This doesn’t seem to be available to stream.)