NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
‘This is a great evening for Mr Tempest – he has just learned that he’s heir to a tremendous fortune.’ The Sorrows of Satan
This big studio silent production offered a dynamite combo, with pioneering superstar director DW Griffith adapting an 1895 best-selling novel by Marie Corelli (which had been filmed before in 1917), though by 1926 the two pop culture titans were on the wane as the Victorian era which birthed their sensibilities was blotted out by the jazz age. It’s remembered for two stills, which I first saw in Carlos Clarens’ hugely influential Illustrated History of the Horror Film, and it has to be said that the opening vision of the war in Heaven – armoured angels facing off on a huge flight of steps, with shining Satan turned into brutish Lucifer – isn’t much more than an image, and the climactic bit as a suave prince shows his true form and a batwinged humanoid shadow falls on the terrified protagonist is better staged in the still (where the wings don’t wobble) than the film.
The bulk of the plot is a Faustian fable, set in a nameless city, which is also a sketchy Mary Sue fantasy on Corelli’s part with some warmed-over elements from New Grub Street thrown in. Geoffrey Tempest (Ricardo Cortez), a writer who has lots of ideas but no success, writes bad reviews of writers who have no ideas but much success, and naturally struggles to make his way in the world. The only person who sees his genius is Mavis Claire (Carol Dempster) – note the initials – who lives in the same boarding house and shares her meagre meals with him. They (innocently?) spend a night together, perhaps cheering each other up but irking the stern landladly, prompting a hasty engagement. ‘Now I’ll get the money for the last reviews I turned in,’ claims Torrent in a subtitle. ‘It’ll be more than enough for the wedding.’ However, a reviews editor rejects his pieces on the grounds that people don’t like being told what they like isn’t any good and Tempest rashly says out loud that he’d sell his soul for money – itself a daringly new idea for Corelli, since previous Fausts wanted knowledge or power or fame or Helen of Troy – top-hatted, moustached Prince Lucio de Rimenez (Adolphe Menjou, sleek and slim) shows up at his hovel door with news that a previously-unknown uncle, one of the richest men in the world, has just died and left him a life-changing bundle. It is important, for reasons that are obviously Satanic, that Tempest quit his old life right now, breaking a date with Mavis without explanation (furthermore scuppering their engagement), and meet exiled Russian Princess Olga Godovsky (Lya de Putti), a vamp who ensnares him into marriage though she’s only interested perversely in the demon prince. In the hovel, Mavis suffers – I assume she’s pregnant, though the subtitles are a little coy and she might just be terminally heartbroken.
The real money stuff for contemporary audiences comes in a succession of orgiastic dance numbers with undraped lovelies that indicate the life of excess Tempest leads on his sudden windfall (‘Around the ill-assorted pair, Prince Lucio wound the sensuous spell of a pagan rout. ). However, the girly material is tame and timid beside Brigitte Helm’s cabaret act in Metropolis, the revels of Pandora’s Box or even the sauce of a pre-code Busby Berkeley number. Thematically, it’s odd that Tempest does nothing with his money – he could buy a publisher, stage a play, become Citizen Kane, whatever, … but he just goes to nightclubs and hooks up with a frigid Satan groupie. In the end, Tempest tries to throw Lucio out and he shows his true self and, terrified, the boob reunites with Mavis, whereupon Menjou illustrates the title with a great bit of silent acting – observing the lovers with a sadness which indicates his loss of this soul but also his envy that they retain the grace he lost by rebelling. It’s a shame there’s so little else to latch onto emotionally since everyone else struggles under the symbolic weight of it all. Cortez would be a great hardboiled creep in the talkies (Sam Spade in the first film of The Maltese Falcon) but he’s a pompous stiff as the whiny, suffering, weakling genius. Dempster was Griffith’s girlfriend and the subject/victim of his futile campaign to make her a star – actually, she’s reasonably well cast as the authorial stand-in mousy good girl. Screenplay by Forrest Halston, adaptation by John Russell, subtitles by Julian Johnson.