Love and revenge in The Eagle (1925)

Agata Frymus, University of York

23 January 2018


Big budget costume dramas were a prominent fixture in the changing landscape of early and mid-1920s Hollywood. Such productions were instructive in responding to ‘a specific spectatorial desire for escapism into an ahistorical time of myth and magic, inured to the ravages of urbanization [and] industrialization.’[1] In other words, silent historical epics were tailored to cater to audiences’ desire for spectacle, whilst also providing a conceptualisation of chivalry and romance untarnished by the shifting gender discourse of the time of their production. Vilma Bánky’s stardom was constructed around the notions of respectable (and largely passive) femininity, concepts which were easily accommodated by this type of drama. Because it was one of the most conservative genres, at least as far as gender portrayal is concerned, it gave its female protagonist a chance to fulfil the role of damsel in distress.

Figure 1: Rudolph Valentino’s star appeal was used in The Eagle’s publicity campaign.

The opening sequence of The Eagle (1925) depicts the first encounter between Lieutenant Dubrovsky (Rudolph Valentino) and Masha (Vilma Bánky) as the handsome man saves her from being kidnapped. One might extrapolate the significance of their meeting for the further development of the plot, given that the motion picture builds upon the trope of the ‘damsel in distress’, a patriarchal fantasy that has long foregrounded the depictions of love in mainstream art. In accordance with this representational pattern, the act of rescue perpetuated by the hero equates Bánky’s character with the trophy awarded for his exceptional bravery. At that point, Dubrovsky is unaware of Masha’s precarious status as the daughter of the man who had seized Dubrovsky’s dying father’s familial estate. Whilst Bánky exchanges the look of the film’s protagonist, her ‘to-be-lookedness’ within the scene is counterbalanced by the negative position appointed to Catherine the Great, who observes the rescue action unacknowledged by Valentino’s gaze, with her face ‘momentarily transfigured in desire.’[2]

Figures 2 and 3: Seducer and seduced: Valentino as Dubrovsky with Masha (left) and Catherine the Great (right).

Portraying Catherine the Great in terms of sexual insatiability was by no means a development pioneered by The Eagle, but a long-standing tactic that has persisted across a plethora of other cultural texts.[3] Suggesting debauchery in relation to the monarch operated to highlight the notion that female political power constitutes an ultimate reversal of the ascribed gender positions. Much of the film’s comedic potential is built around the juxtaposition between the young, seemingly inaccessible Masha and Czarina, an older and sexually aggressive woman who pursues soldiers in her own guard in exchange for military status. Masha’s standing as a representational antithesis to the Czarina is inadvertly highlighted through visual means, particularly by costume: whilst the former wears delicate gowns and elaborate Russian dress, the latter is seen mostly in military uniform.

Moreover, Bánky’s heroine gains in moral stature because she is constructed in opposition to the corporeal aspects emblematised by the Czarina and, by extension, in referencing the idealistic notions of the spirit rather than the body. Historian Arthur Marwick has traced some aspects of this discourse back to the body vs. mind philosophy of the nineteenth century, which supported the notion that female beauty is evaluated in the context of the emotions it invokes in a heterosexual man; if the feeling is lustful, then the woman cannot be morally virtuous.[4] Confronted with this notorious man-eater, Dubrovsky chooses to desert the army rather than to conform to Czarina’s advances, eventually assuming a new identity as a Robin Hood-esque hero, the defender of the downtrodden, by the name of Black Eagle. ‘I enlisted for war service only’ proclaims the proud lieutenant, as he leaves the Czarina’s chamber in haste. To paraphrase Wood, The Eagle testifies to the universality of Western fantasy because it reduces two major female characters to archetypes of the Mother and the Whore, which embody the two fundamental myths of women continually re-inforced within patriarchal society. In the initial scenes of The Eagle Valentino is defined as a target of seduction, a ‘reluctant male trapped by the lustful designs of a female seductress’, which constitutes an ultimate reversion of his most famous role of predatory lover in The Sheik.[5]

The main challenge encountered by Dubrovsky in his quest to challenge Kirilla ? the corrupt man who robbed him of his inheritance ?  is the fact that the villain has a familial relationship with his love interest. One might argue that this obstacle naturally falls into the remit of ‘courtly love’, [6] in the sense that Masha’s inaccessibility not only elevates her status as an object of desire, but also creates the chief force driving the narrative forward. For Lacanian theorists, this is a culturally persistent trope, where hindrances and complications function to strengthen the desire to attain one’s goal. ‘Obstacles’, writes John Richardson, ‘are necessary in this understanding to preserve the illusion that without them the object would be instantly accessible.[7]

Masha’s initial rejection of Black Eagle’s advances (‘I don’t associate with masked men as a rule’) is hardly surprising, given the representation of romantic courtship in the bulk of popular Hollywood productions, as well as within Western cultural texts more broadly. Popular fictions on page and screen have long favoured a narrative contrivance in which heteronormative unity is achieved through the process of deferred courtship; that is, where the heroine is initially reluctant to fall under the hero’s spell, but does so eventually after he proves himself worthy of her affection. The ‘seduction plot’, was one of the central motifs of eighteenth-century sentimental literature that has been successfully disseminated across s great number of films, albeit in varying forms.[8]

As the action moves on, Dubrovsky gets closer to his arch nemesis – and, most significantly, to his daughter – by applying for the position of a French teacher in Kyrilla’s household. Bánky’s character resents Black Eagle at first, thinking very little of his chivalry and compliments. After she discovers the real identity of her French teacher, the narrative trajectory moves to emphasise Masha’s internal conflict: ‘I hate you!’, she screams. Eventually, she can no longer maintain the distance between herself and Dubrovsky, admitting that ‘Day and night I have fought against loving you – fought and lost!’

Figure 4: A still promoting the film seems to emphasise the semi-tragic aspect of Masha’s love for Dubrovsky, the nemesis of her father.

Of course, Masha wields little power on her own, being defined primarily through her relationship with the film’s chief antagonist. Eventually, the masked hero forsakes the oath of vengeance he has taken, concluding that ‘Revenge is sweet, but sometimes a girl is sweeter.’ In its critical appraisal of the film The New York Times deliberated that this dramatic shift is understandable, given the astonishingly good looks of Bánky’s character; ‘her beauty makes the hero’s gallantry all the more convincing.’[9] Thus, The Eagle culminates with the assumption that romantic fulfilment is a panacea for virtually all societal problems, including class struggle. The fight between the underprivileged citizens of the Russian state and the landowning class, epitomised here by Kirilla, is effectively eclipsed by the nuances of heteronormative romance.


References:

[1] Diana Anselmo- Sequeira, ‘Blue Bloods, Movie Queens and Jane Does: Or How Princess Culture, American Film, and Girl Fandom Came Together in the 1910s’, in Princess Cultures: Mediating Girls’ Imaginations and Identities, ed. Miriam Forman-Brunell and Rebecca C. Hans (New York: Peter Lang Press, 2014): 169.

[2] Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994): 269.

[3] Peter Bondanella, Hollywood Italians. Dagos, Palookas, Romeos, Wise Guys and Sopranos (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006): 139.

[4] Sarah Berry, ‘Hollywood Exoticism’, in Stars: The Film Reader, ed. Lucy Fisher and Marcia Landy (London: Routledge, 2004): 183.

[5] Bondanella, Hollywood Italians, 138.

[6] The term is theorised by Slavoj Zizek in his The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Women and Causality (London and New York: Verso, 2005): 89 – 91.

[7] John Richardson, ‘The Neosurrealist Musical and Tsai Ming-Laing’s The Wayward Cloud’, in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, ed. John Richardson, Claudia Gorbman and Carol Vernallis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013): 300.

[8][8] Lea Jacobs, The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008): 181.

[9] Mordaunt Hall, ‘Movie Review. The Screen,’ The New York Times, 9th November 1925, page unknown, available at http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9804E7DB1F38E233A2575AC0A9679D946495D6CF? [accessed 10/04/2017]


Agata Frymus is a PhD candidate at University of York and a recipient of White Rose Scholarship of Arts and Humanities. Her PhD thesis explores the star personae of three silent stars: Pola Negri, Jetta Goudal and Vilma Bánky. Her work has been published in Celebrity Studies Journal and Early Popular Visual Culture; she has an upcoming publication in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

A day, well two days, at the archives… Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Toronto Public Library

Katharina Niemeyer, Professor at the Media School , Faculty of Communication , University of Quebec in Montreal and Chloé Tremblay-Goyette, Research Assistant at the Faculty of Communication , University of Quebec in Montreal

19 January 2018


From Paris to Canada

Over the last few years, I have had the pleasure of visiting the fascinating Bibliothèque Nationale de France  (French National Library), and to analyse the archive material held at the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel  (INA). In 2016, I moved to Montreal (the mainly French speaking part of Canada) where new opportunities for archival research have emerged; such as the rich collections held in the BANQ  (Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec), to name such one. Today, Chloé Tremblay-Goyette and I wish to share our explorative research experience at the archives of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the Toronto Public Library  where we spent two days at the end of November 2017.

We, along with another research assistant, Anne-Marie Charette, are currently working on preparing a project which focusses on the mediatization of terrorism in the 20th century. This project seeks to trace several sources such as historical newspapers, radio and television broadcasts. A lot of material pertinent to this project has been digitized, and is available online ; for example there are a few French-speaking broadcasts available from Radio Canada, and its English-speaking equivalent CBC ; and collections of newspapers from BANQ and Archives Canada, Ottowa. However, much more material remains housed within the archives themselves, and so it is very important for media historians to visit such archives for profound and investigative research.

Day 1 – Toronto Public Library

Libraries, although they are not always labeled officially as archives, can be quite a good source of information in the framework of an archival search. After contacting a few libraries in Toronto looking to know more about their records that could be related to our research topic, we ended up deciding to spend a day in the Toronto Reference Library. Not only had it been pointed out by a librarian as one of the best libraries to access newspapers, but it also had the option to book an appointment with a librarian to help us out with our research. We decided to make an appointment on the 23rd of November, as we were going to be in Toronto for a couple of days exploring different archives. As we are both living in Montreal, we weren’t familiar with Toronto and were quite happy to find out the Toronto Reference Library is in a central location, at about a minute’s walk away from Bloor-Younge station.

Chloé, arrived there quite early (9:00 AM). As there was hardly anyone in the building, she got to enjoy this gorgeous airy library to herself:

A short time later Chloé met Bessie, a librarian from the Toronto Reference Library, who was able to help by providing advice on how to make a better use of the library’s expansive database, which includes Canadian newspapers from across the Pacific to the Atlantic. Katharina joined Chloé in the early afternoon after enjoying the quite spectacular five hour train ride in the morning from Montreal to Toronto, where you can view the beautiful Lake Ontario pictured below:

Although the collection did not hold many items prior to the 1980s, we were able to access main Canadian newspapers like the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail going back to the first half of the 20th century. There is even a special place in the library that is called the ‘Toronto Star Newspaper Centre’. Although most of these older articles weren’t indexed, they had been digitized, and we enjoyed going back to the earliest articles available to understand how the terms and concepts of terrorism might had evolved since early in the 20th century. This helped to stimulate our interest in the research we are planning to do.

Day 2 – Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

On a not-so-cold November morning, we spent the next day at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that is situated quite close to the main train station (it is a five-minute walk away) and even more interesting: close to the famous CN tower.

Geoffrey Hopkinson, Senior Manager of the CBC Libraries and Archive, welcomed us with his colleagues, experienced media librarians Arthur Schwartzel (TV) and Keith Hart (Radio) who had already conducted preliminary research in relation to our topic. The team guided us the whole day, not only through the general research possibilities and the software, but also indicated the obstacles that are related to the latter. As material from 1952 (the year television arrived in Canada) until the early 1990s was only indexed in the 1990s, research based on keywords is not as reliable in terms of synchronization with the broadcast content, as it is the newspaper articles that can be browsed more easily by the nature of their structure and digitization.

Chloé spent the day looking through the two CBC radio databases. Both radio databases did not provide direct access to the records, but to descriptions of them including keywords. There was a possibility to access and to listen to records upon request. The first, and oldest, radio database goes all the way back to the 1950s, and ends in the middle of the 1990s, the second database covers the 1990s till present day, and together they provide a quite extensive overview of CBC radio diffusion. Although there was limited results related to our topic from the 1950s, results started to become increasingly interesting as Chloé searched through later decades. As Keith explained, searching through earlier records, especially through the ones from many decades ago can be quite delicate because the employees who indexed these broadcasts at the time were not always comfortable describing the events reported as “terrorism” in the 1950s, which is actually the same problem for television.

With the help of Arthur, Katharina learned more about the various possibilities for accessing the 32 English-speaking video archives ranging from Yellowknife TV News to the program archives all by experiencing the work of the DIVA’s archive solution (a special CBC robotic system) that offers the possibility to select an old broadcast directly on a computer screen. The tape is selected by the machine that converts the tape into a digital signal and sends the content then to your computer for visioning – physically at a distance between the 7th floor and the basement.

Our fascinating morning research session was then turning into a personal guided tour of the archives, such as the analogue VTR library. Interestingly, all tapes have a unique ID and bar code to facilitate the work for the CBC people. You can even take a virtual tour, but we also took pictures of course:

 

We also visited the Film Vault, where approximately 115,000 cans of film are sleeping at approx. 4°C, quite warm if we look at current Montreal temperatures…

We are both looking forward to come back to CBC, and to also enjoy the wonderful restaurants in downtown Toronto nearby. If you have the opportunity to visit Toronto do not miss a free visit to the CBC museum situated in the same building where you can even find some relics of 1990s technology such as the MiniDisc.

To be continued with ‘Part II: A Day at the Archives… Montreal’…


Katharina Niemeyer is Professor of Media Theory at the Media School , Faculty of Communication, University of Quebec in Montreal and she is an IAMHIST council member.

Chloé Tremblay-Goyette, Research Assistant at the Faculty of Communication , University of Quebec in Montreal, works on the mediatization of refugees in Australian media in her Master thesis


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas on the Radio

Chris Deacy, University of Kent

20 December 2017


In 1944 Cyril Garbett, the Archbishop of York, wrote in the Radio Times that “the wireless and the English tongue are means by which God’s message of love and peace can spread through the world” (in Connelly 2012: 152). Fast forward more than 70 years and we find that when we gather around the radio at Christmas time such a sense of community is garnered that the season takes on the characteristics of a secular religion. Indeed, there are commitments and rituals – even, forms of devotion – on display that it might require on our part a willingness to reframe the boundaries around what we consider to constitute ‘religion’. It might even be the case that the secular can take on religious properties, in a manner which conforms with how for Mazur and McCarthy religious meaning may increasingly be “found in activities that are often considered meaningless” (2011: 2).

It was with these considerations in mind that I wrote Christmas as Religion, in which I argued that the sense of fandom and community generated each year by Christmas Junior Choice on Radio 2 are as fertile when it comes to exploring matters of faith, identity, beliefs and values as those made within religious broadcasting. If, for example, we might be inclined to see our ultimate spiritual meaning to lie in our relationships with others, then Junior Choice might be a prime example of an alternative way to form a concept of religion, with its devotees who construe the two hours of nostalgia and reconnecting with the past on Christmas morning as a form of transcendent, even sacred, time.

Ed Stewart, Christmas Junior Choice

Crucially, we might want to ask whether the fact that the BBC Charter requires the organization to broadcast at least 110 hours of faith-based content per year, across television and radio, adequately reflects the extent to which religion is being produced or disseminated. It may, rather, be the BBC’s secular output that is shaping the content and format of religion today.

On 29 November 2017 the BBC issued a press release titled ‘Christmas Religious Programming on the BBC’, in which its Commissioning Editor of Religion & Ethics, Fatima Salaria, announced that “The BBC’s religion output at Christmas aims to bring communities together to reflect on the true meaning of this very special time of the year” (www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/christmas-religious-programming-2017). She continued that it was the “fantastic mix of traditional carols, festive music, spiritual contemplation and live worship we are offering” that would give audiences “a variety of opportunities to celebrate the festive season in their own personal way.”

Curiously, though, when one looks beyond substantive approaches to religion, in which traditional institutional dimensions of religion are being emphasized, we find that, as Susan Douglas’s comprehensive study of American radio has shown, “Few inventions invoke such nostalgia, such deeply personal and vivid memories, such a sense of loss and regret” and that “there are few devices with which people from different generations and backgrounds have had such an intimate relationship” (Douglas 2004: 3). As well as shaping our desires, fantasies and images of the outside world – indeed, “our very imaginations” – she sees radio as having helped us to “create internal maps of the world and our place in it, urging us to construct imagined communities to which we do, or do not, belong” (ibid.: 5). For Barnard, also, “For most of us, life without radio is difficult to imagine” and, of “all the major mass communications media, radio is perhaps the most ubiquitous and most easily available…, punctuating, enlivening and infiltrating the lives of its listeners” (Barnard 2000: 2).

If this is the case, then radio can function as a tradition-supplying resource which, in addition to transmitting religious content, is able to mediate and engender religious experience. According to Stewart Hoover, “The realms of ‘religion’ and ‘media’ can no longer be easily separated”, as he sets about trying to “chart the ways that media and religion intermingle and collide in the cultural experience of media audiences” (2006: 1), as they “occupy the same spaces, serve many of the same purposes, and invigorate the same practices in late modernity” (ibid.: 9). With this in mind, radio is not just about broadcasting religion, along the lines of the BBC’s charter, but it is about doing religion. As with so much of what religion purportedly does with its adherents through community, radio “creates a unique intimacy with its listeners who can interact with it through their imagination” and, as a companion, can be “used as a friend to provide company, buck us up when we are feeling down or relax us when we are tired and tense” (Fleming 2002: 1).

Crucially, as Douglas sees it, “Most modes of listening generate a strong feeling of belonging” (2004: 8) in a manner which accords with the findings of Abby Day’s research that people tend to identify “their human relationships as most important to them in informing their beliefs and morality” (2013: 68) and that, asked what they believed in, many of her informants would answer that they believe in their relationships with other people as the most important values in their lives. This shift in the understanding of transcendence from a theocentric to an “everyday, human, social” (ibid.: 71) context helps us to understand how, through radio, we have ties to a virtual community of people who share our same tastes and predilections – Douglas refers to when “40 million people, for example, tuned into exactly the same thing” and there is an almost sacred dimension to her talk of how in the “act of listening itself” one knows that they “and other listeners are experiencing that very moment of [their] lives in exactly the same way” (2004: 24) – and to presenters who often speak to us “in the most intimate, confidential, and inclusive tones” (ibid.: 22).

At Christmas time, this ‘secular sacred’ way of understanding the festival is especially pronounced. I recently undertook a study of Christmas output across the BBC’s national, regional and local networks on Christmas Day 2015 where the role of family and community was much in evidence. On Radio Solent’s breakfast show Louisa Hannan conveyed to her listeners that Christmas morning “is the best time to be on the radio”. Her mission was one of ensuring that “if you’re on your own for Christmas we’re here to keep you company throughout the day, and all over the festive period”, and there were frequent references to how “money can’t buy that sort of thing”. The pastoral aspect of radio was reinforced by how for Hannan “I think most of us look back and there is somebody that we’re thinking of, at least one person today”, including those who have lost someone close to them and that “It’s not a nice time is it to be on your own, but we’re here to keep you company”. ‘Conventional religion’ played a relatively small role in the programme, taking merely the form of a pre-recorded homily from the Bishop of Winchester, The Right Revd. Tim Dakin, who related the arrival of a new baby in a family to how “Jesus is the gift God wants us to have… in effect inviting us to hold him in our hands and to discover the hope that living with him brings”, though “Like many refugees today the holy family were left far from their own community, dependent on others and unable to return to their own home”.

The community angle was reinforced on the programme that followed when Tristan Pascoe welcomed those listeners who “may well be finding themselves without someone special for the first time this year”, adding that “You’re all part of the family, you’re very welcome along here and we’re glad to have you”. There was much reciprocity, with Pascoe thanking the listeners for letting him be a part of their special day – “you know I feel I’m among friends this morning, which is lovely” – which he described as “a very intimate feeling, I feel it’s just us out there”.

If Day is correct, then, that “Christianity functions in [people’s] lives to reinforce familial, ethnic and social conditions”, and in terms of how they stress “responsibility for personal destiny” (2013: 68), then the way in which listeners prioritized family, charity, acts of kindness, and the need to reach out to relatives, friends and those dear to us who might be alone at Christmas (as when for Tristan Pascoe “You’re all part of the family, you’re very welcome along here and we’re glad to have you, and I’m glad to be here as well, thanks for having me”), suggest the pre-eminent role of the sacred in British society. Day, indeed, specifically categorizes ‘love’, ‘family’, ‘fairness’ and ‘kindness’ as manifestations of the sacred, and the fact that they are not explicitly grounded in ‘religious’ vocabulary does not obviate the degree to which they need to be factored into what we consider to be the role that religion plays in Christmas radio. If, in short, Day is right that most people ‘believe’ in their relationships with other people, such that their “orientation” is “to people, not to gods, and thus anthropocentric seems to convey best the idea that human beings are ‘centric’ to their lives and it is with them they locate power and authority” (2013: 73), then we need to ensure that we are looking for such demonstrations and expressions of religious and/or sacred behaviour and values in the right places.

So, when Junior Choice returns to the airwaves this Christmas with Anneka Rice in the hot seat, don’t groan or reach for the off button when you hear ‘The Laughing Gnome’ or ‘Nellie The Elephant’. For, it might just be the most fertile – if unlikely – manifestation of religion that you are going to hear on the radio this year.


Chris Deacy is Reader in Theology and Religious Studies, and has been at Kent since 2004.  Chris’ most recent monograph, Christmas as Religion, published by Oxford University Press in August 2016, takes issue with traditional ways of conceptualizing the relationship between Christmas and religion. Instead of associating ‘religion’ with formal or institutional forms of Christianity or seeing Christmas as a commercial and secular holiday, Deacy argues that it is in a supernaturally-themed Christmas film about Santa or a Christmas radio programme such as BBC Radio 2’s Christmas Junior Choice that matters of faith, identity, beliefs and values – traditionally seen as lying within the domain of ‘religion’ – are played out in the world today.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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