The first film version of DON QUOXOTE in the era of the talkies, G. W. Pabst’s multinational, multi-language, 1933 movie was an eccentric effort, indeed. It was, for its time, a big-budget affair burdened by an ever-changing script (reportedly rewritten on the fly, even as the thing was being shot–undoubtedly the reason that the film’s tone was so inconsistent). It seems that this production never quite figured out what it wanted to be–satire, farce, loving tribute, melodrama or heartfelt tragedy?
All the same, it’s an interesting artifact–a footnote in film history, a watchable but deeply flawed effort.
This one was even an early semi-musical (opera star Feodor Chaliapine sings 4 songs while playing the title character with more than a bit of appropriately over-the-top self-importance and vainglory). British dance hall legend George Robey co-stars as Quixote’s servant/sidekick (a role he’d played in a silent film version of the famous story in the 1920s). He plays Sancho Panza as a droll and slovenly fellow who plays along with his master’s wild flights of fancy, even halfway convincing himself that maybe–just maybe–he might end up Governor of his own island (as Quixote has promised). And yet, he’s usually (if not always) well-aware that what Quixote is seeing has little resemblance to the ‘real’ world he knows. Perhaps he doesn’t care because his actual existence is so…drab?
The movie took multiple liberties with the source material. It rearranged the order of several of the title character’s misadventures, altered the identities and/or biographical details of a number of supporting characters and changed the ending in a manner that seriously undercuts Cervantes’s satirical tone (which, as mentioned above was at best inconsistently portrayed throughout). Oh, and in this version ‘Don Quixote’ isn’t merely a knightly title, but is in fact the man’s actual name.
It’s said that Robey in particular was unhappy with the script (in addition to hating the French location’s weather and the work schedule of the shoot). The scene-by-scene inconsistency mentioned earlier is especially evident in Sancho’s character–by turns credulous, dismayed, disbelieving, resigned, respectful and playfully affectionate toward Quixote.
The movie was filmed with identical versions produced simultaneously in 3 languages (French, English and German). The director was G. W. Pabst, an Austrian giant of silent pictures who was never as successful after sound came in. A technically brilliant filmmaker and innovator, his earlier work showed great sympathy for liberal social ideals and often focused on unconventional or socially outcast female characters.He did a great deal to establish the careers of such actresses as Greta Garbo and Louise Brooks.
Later, he had his reputation sullied by association with the Nazis. Trapped in his native Austria when World War II erupted, he made 2 relatively undistinguished historical films for them. After the war, Pabst attempted to renounce this guilt-by-association in films with a distinct anti-Nazi subject matter (including detailing Hitler’s last days in one). But by then the damage to his reputation was done.
If anyone cares to check this peculiar flick out, the openculture.com website has a free-to-view version (in English) of it. An early talkie by a filmmaker more associated with the silent period, I found it among their “101 Great Silent Films” section (DW Griffith’s equally early bio of ABRAHAM LINCOLN, starring Walter Huston is also misplaced there).