Danse Macabre, 1922

Director: Dudley Murphy
"Midnight in plague-ridden Spain -- Youth and Love flee from Death who follows their path --"
Time for some high culture, horror lovers! In this little-known short film, Saint-Saens' supernatural opus soundtracks dancer Adolph Bolm's fantasy of the archetypal conflict between Love and a mean-fiddlin' Death...

At the stroke of midnight, the two young lovers, Youth and Love, enter an ancient castle. At their heels is the spectre of Death, who stalks them from the shadows as they dance, playing an eerie tune on his violin. Love falls ill, overcome by Death's nearness. As a despairing Youth prays for her well-being, a cock-crow brings the sunrise and Death fades from sight.

Olin Howland leads the Dance of Death
It's worth remembering that although silent movies work perfectly well without dialogue, they were rarely intended to be shown silent. Danse Macabre is not a horror film but a dance film, featuring choreographer Adolph Bolm's interpretation of Saint-Saens' symphonic poem of 1874. Its makers, like any film makers of the silent era, assumed the presence of a musical accompaniment, whether a full orchestra or a lone pianist. Though not physically a part of the film, this accompaniment is essential -- take it away, and the film loses its meaning altogether.

Danse Macabre was the fifth and final film released by director Dudley Murphy's own production company. He'd started out by taking a variety of frustratingly short-lived jobs on the periphery of the film industry before deciding that his future was in directing features. He engineered his own big break by self-producing four musically-inspired shorts in late 1920, Soul of the Cypress, Aphrodite, Anywhere Out Of The World, and an untitled fourth he later referred to as 'my Japanese film'. They were given a limited release on the east coast before financial battles with his distributors forced him to move on.

At a time when film exhibitors in the big cities would commonly use orchestral numbers or dances to fill out a programme, Murphy was intrigued by the developing contemporary practice of merging film and music (see Satanic Rhapsody, 1917, for example). Buoyed up by the positive reception given to his first four films, he set up Visual Symphony Productions with associate Claude MacGowan in December 1921. Their intention was to produce short films to be screened with specific musical accompaniments, inspired by a French system which allowed a film to be manually synchronised with the tempo of a live orchestra.After Murphy's first four films were re-released, Danse Macabre was their first joint production, and premiered in July supporting Joe May's The Mysteries of India

The mooving skeletons of
Danse Macabre's main titles
The film begins with a nifty animated sequence in which skeletons spell out the title and the grinning figure of Death appears in eerie purple shades. From then on, the action concentrates on the two principal dancers' attempts to evade the clutches of Olin Howland as Death. Most of the credit went not to Murphy but to Adolph Bolm, a celebrated Russian-born ex-Ballets Russes dancer who had relocated to the United States in 1917. Bolm's was the name in all the trade ads and was seen at the time as the film's main creative force. Page, his partner, had studied under Bolm for several years, and was revered for her pioneering work as both a ballerina and choreographer, which she continued until well into the 1960's.

Mention must also be made of Olin Howland, a character actor whose career (also under the name Olin Howlin) bridged the silent era and the television age. You can see him minus his Death's-head as the town drunk Jensen in Them! (1954) and as the unfortunate old man consumed by The Blob (1958). Howland's contribution to the film's uncanny atmosphere is equalled by lighting director L. Francis Brugiere, who adds some expressionistic shadows to the cramped New York studio sets.

The critics welcomed Danse Macabre's marriage of highbrow intent and crowd-pleasing execution, but Visual Symphony Productions folded after this one release, allegedly because of difficulties in securing financial backing. The film makes explicit the assumptions that were already in place in the early twenties about the importance of sound to the film medium. You can watch it with the lights out if you prefer, but don't watch it in silence.

(Some information taken from the book 'Dudley Murphy: Hollywood Wild Card' by Susan Delson)

End Credits:
Adolph Bolm (Youth), Ruth Page (Love), Olin Howland (Death).
Choreography: Adolph Bolm, Lighting: L. Francis Brugiere, Animation: F.A.A. Dahme, Music: 'Danse Macabre' by Camille Saint-Saens, Producer: Claude H. MacGowan.
Visual Symphony Productions, USA
Running time 7 mins.

Both this film and Murphy's earlier Soul of the Cypress are included in Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1947 (Image)


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