Thursday, June 18, 2015

#1,767. Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1935)

Directed By: Henri de la Falaise

Starring: Poetoe Aloes Goesti, Bagus Mara Goesti, Saplak Njoman

Tag line: "Native Customs & Native Music & Native Cast"

Trivia: This film opened in New York on October 1, 1935 at USD$5.00 per ticket ($84.20 in 2012 dollars)

Henri de la Falaise, the director of 1935’s Legong: Dance of the Virgins, was a pretty interesting guy. A member of the French aristocracy (his title was Marquis de La Coudraye), he was the oldest son of Louis Gabriel Venant Le Bailly de La Falaise, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in fencing. Awarded the Croix de Guerre for his heroism during World War I, Henri de la Falaise met and married Hollywood starlet Gloria Swanson (a union that ended soon after in divorce), then, a few years later, tied the knot with actress Constance Bennett, who founded the production company that financed this movie.

Equally as fascinating is Legong itself, which, despite being made in 1933 and released in 1935, wasn’t only silent (at a time when sound had entirely taken over), but shot in color as well (using the 2-color process that was also on display in Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum). Filmed on the island of Bali, the entire cast was made up of natives, and many of their customs and rituals were featured in the move. Toss in some stunning photography and a story concerning the pitfalls of love, and you have one of the more unique motion pictures to emerge from the 1930s.

There’s an ancient Balinese saying: “Should love enter thine eyes and go to thy heart, beware. For should he whom thou choosest not return thy love, thy gods will frown and disgrace will befall thee”. Always fearful that this might happen to her, the maiden Poutou (Poetoe Aloes Goesti) nonetheless develops feelings for Nyong (Njong Njong Njoman), a musician, whom she intends to marry. To help Poutou land Nyong, her father, Gousti Bagus (Bagus Mara Goesti), arranges for his daughter to make her final dance as a maiden, known as “The Legong”, at the temple in a few days’ time. Alas, Nyong discovers that he’s in love not with Poutou, but her half-sister Saplak (Saplak Njoman). Can Poutou win over the man of her dreams, or is she destined to live out the rest of her life alone, and in shame?

The story itself, a basic tale of love of heartbreak, isn’t the most impressive aspect of Legong. Instead, what truly grabs your attention is the detailed look at the Balinese culture, which director de la Falaise focuses on throughout the movie. For example, even though it was made in the mid-1930’s, the women in this film, including the two female leads, are topless most of the time (the nudity was cut from the original U.S. release, but added back in recent years). In addition, Legong gives us an elaborate dance sequence; an actual cockfight (which the men in the village gamble on); and follows the characters around as they perform their daily tasks, like fetching water from the nearby spring or “pounding” the rice with a bamboo pole.

Some images may seem a bit odd (at one point, a pair of adolescent boys are seen smoking cigarettes in the marketplace), but thanks to the film’s gorgeous cinematography (which captures the natural wonder of this “Isle of Perpetual Summer”), Legong is, at all times, as captivating as it is unusual.

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