This film is based on the 1899 French play of the same name produced on Broadway by David Belasco and starring Mrs. Leslie Carter. Surviving prints of the film are housed at the George Eastman House and the Library of Congress.
Adaptations of successful stage plays or blockbuster musicals into films is a common sight to see at multiplexes. They're usually a great opportunity for a director to show their visual flair while allowing a cast to express their dramatic - or comedic - range to a larger audience than a Broadway venue could hope to reach. However, one of the key aspects of any play or stage show is the dialogue. With the importance of the spoken word, it's impressive to see the number of stage shows and plays that made their way to movie screens during a time when recorded synchronized sound was unavailable. With 1923's Zaza, director Allan Dwan manages to sidestep the need for spoken dialogue with impressive visuals and a flamboyantly passionate performance from Gloria Swanson to create an engaging and often intense film.
Life for Zaza (Gloria Swanson) hasn't been all sunshine and roses. From streets, she's risen to the height of fame as the lead feature of a music hall routine that brings in the crowds and the hoards of adoring men. That also brings in the envy of other performers who envision themselves in Zaza's position. Zaza isn't without love as her frequent liaisons with men of high stature lead to heartbreak all the while having to protect her fragile position as the main attraction.
As I haven't seen or read the original stage production, I can only guess at how successful this adaptation of Zaza is. Everything that I've learned about the Pierre Berton play would indicate that it is a dramatically witty piece of work that gives every actor a few great lines and several moments to shine center stage. As a silent film production, Zaza is all visual and it tells its story well. Each set is loaded with detail objects and people to set the scene of a woman at her peak - and those around her who can't wait to push her off. Every frame has something to look at beyond the central characters to convey the cluttered and messy lifestyle Zaza leads. With such a mess around her, it's quick to see that she is a mess that needs to clean herself up.
Of course, if you've ever seen Sunset Boulevard, the magnetic attraction the camera has with its leading lady Gloria Swanson is palpable. Like her late in life alter-ego Norma Desmond, Swanson owns the film. Every scene she's in is filled with a manic wildness while exuding an amount of calculated restraint that fits right in with a character whose life teeters on the edge. Then there are the catfights she gets into with some of the ladies looking to pull her down from her lofty position. They're certainly entertaining, almost comical moments, but at the same time with how well she puts up a fight, it's easy to imagine a younger version of Swanson's Zaza doing the exact same thing to topple someone else. Granted, there are some terrific performances from H.B. Warner as Bernard, Ferdinand Gottschalk as Duke de Brissac, and Lucille La Verne as Rosa, but make no mistake, this is Swanson's show and she owns it.
While the film more or less follows the traveled trail of a person's fall from glory and return to prominence, it doesn't meander in melancholy. There's always a bit of playfulness to the show that even when the chips are down and Zaza is at her lowest, a simple glare from Swanson tells you Zaza has a trick or two up her sleeve. This is all a credit to director Allan Dwan who keeps a lean pace for this 84-minute film production by relying on his actors' abilities to convey thought and emotion with physical presence rather than interrupting the flow of a scene with a title card so the audience can read about what they're thinking. While it works as a silent feature, there's this part of me that wishes Zaza had been made about twenty years later just so we could hear Swanson's voice and inflection with some witty dialogue. But that could just be me recognizing I'm long overdue for a screening of Sunset Boulevard. As it stands Zaza is a very entertaining flick that allows its performers to show their stuff.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Zaza arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc, the disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case. Also included is a booklet containing a terrific essay about Gloria Swanson by Imogen Sara Smith that features poster and marketing artwork inside. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Zaza sets the Blu-ray stage with a decent but still flawed 1.33:1 1080p transfer. Considering the age of the production, this is a good looking film, but it's hardly the same restoration effort that was provided for recent Kino silent film releases such as The General or Steamboat Bill Jr. Details are fine, there are a few soft shots here and there, but by and large, facial features and costuming details come through nicely. Grayscale is pretty flat offering only a minimal sense of depth and dimension to the image. The print sourced for this transfer features its fair share of wear and tear in the form of near-constant constant scratches and speckling. Things do improve over the course of the feature and much of this wear even out, but there are a few instances of jitter that crop throughout the run.
With a DTS-HD MA 2.0 piano score from composer Jeff Rapsis that follows the original 1923 cue sheet, this is a pretty fantastic score for the film. The piano work gives the film a nice old-time feel with the right blend of jaunty entertainment and hitting the lower dramatic tones. It never feels overly dramatic or too wild and fits the tone of the film perfectly.
Audio Commentary features author Frederic Lombardi who wrote "Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios." It's an informative and engaging commentary track as Lombardi clearly knows his stuff and offers up plenty of information about director Allan Dwan as well as this film's production history and reception.
Zaza is essentially a film with one arm tied behind its back. As an adaptation of a stage play, it has to circumvent dialogue with visuals and a commanding physical performance from its leading lady Gloria Swanson. Some of the story subtleties may be lost in this silent translation, but the great performances and the visual panache from Director Allan Dwan creates a perfectly entertaining feature film. Kino Lorber brings this classic piece of silent-era filmmaking to Blu-ray in fine order with a decent video transfer, a fresh and lively new piano score, and a great commentary track and essay booklet to round out the bonus features. It may not be the greatest film ever made, but it's fun to see Swanson go full Norma Desmond in some scenes making Zaza absolutely worth a look.