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Dennis Doros of Milestone Films considers Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1933-1935) one of his favorite films in the company's catalog, and it's not difficult to see why. Beyond its touching love story and its historical interest both as one of the last features to use the two-color Technicolor process and one of the last silent films that Hollywood released, it also offers a rare glimpse of Balinese culture during the 1930s, shortly after the first wave of tourists from Europe and America began to visit the island.
The film's director, the Marquis Henry (Henri) de la Falaise de la Coudraye (1898-1972), lived a life that was, if anything, more dramatic than the films he made. A member of the French nobility, he fought in World War I and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his valor. Relatively impoverished, he worked as a translator for Gloria Swanson on the film Madame Sans-Gene (1924), whereupon the couple fell in love. The two married in 1925 in one of the most widely publicized weddings of the time, but while working on Queen Kelly (1929) Swanson fell in love with the producer Joseph Kennedy. After the divorce, the Marquis married the actress Constance Bennett in 1931. The couple promptly started up Bennett Productions; their first three films, all directed by him the same year, were French language remakes of RKO productions: chec au roi/Royal Bed, Le fils de l'autre/The Woman Between and Nuit d'Espagne/Transgression (all 1931). After making Legong, he directed another two-color Technicolor film entitled Kliou the Tiger (1935-1937), this time set in Indochina (Vietnam). Only a black and white copy of that film survives. Shortly before the onset of World War II the Marquis divorced Constance Bennett and returned to France, where he married a third wife and fought again for his country, earning a second Croix de Guerre.
Legong's two-color (red and green) Technicolor cinematography, which was widely praised at the time, was by W. Howard Greene (1895-1956). A staff cameraman for Technicolor, he worked on several notable two-color productions such as the silent version of Ben-Hur (1925), Doctor X (1932) and the Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). His extensive experience with the two-color process no doubt laid the foundation for the beautiful outdoor photography of Legong, which was widely praised at the time. After shooting the two films for the Marquis de la Falaise, he filmed the early three-strip Technicolor feature The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) for Paramount, in collaboration with Robert C. Bruce. He later worked on such important Technicolor productions as The Garden of Allah (1936) and A Star Is Born (1937).
Legong was not in fact the first American production shot on location in Bali. At the time there was a bounty of films depicting exotic cultures, the most notable perhaps being F. W. Murnau's Tabu (1931), filmed on Bora-Bora. Other Bali-centered titles released during that time included Balinese Love (1931), Virgins of Bali (1932), Isle of Paradise (1932) and Goona Goona (1932).
In a 1935 interview published in a Dutch newspaper, the Marquis claimed that he and his assistant Gaston Glass originally planned to make a 3-reel documentary. However, during the voyage toward the island they heard one of the cabin boys singing a love ballad about a maiden earning scorn from the gods for declaring her love for a man who doesn't return her feelings. They decided to adopt this as the narrative framework for a fictional film.
The entire shoot, including the trips to and from the island, lasted from May to August of 1933. In the same interview, the Marquis noted the difficulty of finding a young girl for the lead role who was attractive but didn't have her teeth filed yet. (Tooth-filing--Metatah--is a common practice to mark coming of age in Bali.) He also noted the difficulty to find a young man with the build they were seeking, "because men on Bali do not perform any manual labor, nor do they do any physical exercise." Caste differences among the lead players created additional problems in terms of getting the actors to play together comfortably onscreen.
While Legong: Dance of the Virgins evidently takes some liberties with Balinese rituals, it is nonetheless noteworthy for the care with which it handles the culture as a whole. The Marquis and the crew met with villagers before shooting to ensure that the rituals were portrayed accurately, and he took careful note of where he departed established traditions. In fact, the film later became the subject of an article in the Royal Anthropological Institute's journal Man.
The title of the film refers to Legong, a variety of Balinese dance that is performed exclusively by prepubescent girls. Typically they start at age 79 and end around 1314, at the onset of puberty. Originally intended as an offering to the gods and performed during festivals, the Legong's intricate hand, arm and eye movements require months of training. A musical ensemble known as the gamelan gong kebyar performs with the dancers. The best known version of the dance is the Legong Kraton (or Legong Keraton), the "Legong of the Palace." It portrays the story of a king's failed attempt to seduce Rangkesari, a beautiful maiden whose brother vows to go to war with the king as a result. Later the king receives a visit from a bird of ill omen, which he ignores; he is subsequently killed in battle. The other main dance depicted in the film is the Calonarong, which depicts a battle between Barong, a lion-spirit, and Rangda, a witch. After failing to vanquish the witch, Barong's followers go into a trance and attempt to stab themselves with a kris (a Balinese ceremonial dagger), but remain unharmed.
Directed and Produced by Henri de la Falaise
Story: Henri de la Falaise and Gaston Glass
Cinematography: William H. Greene
Editing: Edward Schroeder
Titles: Hampton Del Ruth
Music Supervisor: Abe Meyer
Cast: Goesti Poetoe Aloes (Poutou), Njoman Nyong (Nyoung, the gamelan musician), Goesti Bagus Mara (Poutou's father), Njoman Saplak (Saplak, Poutou's sister).
by James Steffen