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Legong (Dance of the Virgins)

Legong (Dance of the Virgins)(1935)

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Home Video Reviews

With all attention thrown to those who are first, a new DVD is showing that there is something to being last. Milestone Film & Video has just released a DVD of Legong: Dance Of The Virgins (1935) which, with its DVD companion piece Kilou, The Tiger (1937), was the last two-strip Technicolor film ever released and is considered by some to be the last silent movie released in America.

Both Legong and Kilou were documentaries written and directed by the Marquis Henri de la Falaise de la Coudraye and financed by his then-wife, the actress Constance Bennett, now best known as Cary Grant's ghostly wife in Topper (1937). The Marquis was an aristocrat and World War I hero but came to fame in America after he married Gloria Swanson in 1925, making her the first Hollywood star to marry into royalty. It did not last however, and in 1931 he married Constance Bennett, then one of the major stars of the new talkies. Two years later he left her back in Tinseltown to take off to the South Seas with a cameraman and a Technicolor camera.

The alert reader may have noticed that it says above that the Marquis "wrote" the movie. Documentaries of that time, under the influence of Nanook of the North (1922) director Robert Flaherty, did not remain mere observers to what was happening in front of the camera. The style at the time was to create a fictional story for locals to act in a manner that would bring out the details of the way they lived. Legong's story concerns a dancer on the island of Bali who pines for one of the musicians who accompanies her dance. He, however, is in love with the dancer's half-sister. As the story progresses we see traditional dances, local customs and an elaborate cremation ceremony.

The Marquis shot the movie in two-strip Technicolor, the early form of color photography used in the late-silent/early-talkie era that only represented part of the visible spectrum. Although it made seascapes come out green, it did a decent job representing flesh tones. And what a lot of flesh tones there are in Legong! Part of what attracted moviemakers to Bali was the fact that both women and men wore nothing above the waist. Normally this would be banned under the Breen Office but in those days exceptions were made for women of non-white origin.

So Paramount Pictures opened the film in New York in 1935, a silent movie with a synchronized music score but no sound effects, making it one of the last silent movies released by a major American studio. Two years later the Marquis followed it with Kilou, The Tiger (1937) shot in French Indo-China (now Vietnam), again silent, two-strip Technicolor and with more native toplessness. That movie was believed lost but Milestone has managed to recover a black-and-white print from a private collector that is included on the DVD.

The main feature, Legong: Dance Of The Virgin, however, still remains in beautiful color and has been restored to its original length by combining prints from several countries where each had censored out different material. The soundtrack features the original synchronized score along with a newly recorded score in the Balinese style by Richard Marriott and I Made Subandi. In addition, Milestone has fleshed out the collection with a 1952 black-and-white documentary on Bali, which takes a quite different interpretation of the meaning of the dance. Together the three films present a wonderful package of seeming paradises and the way they were presented to Western audiences.

For more information about Legong: Dance of the Virgins, visit Milestone Films. To order Legong: Dance of the Virgins, go to TCM Shopping.

by Brian Cady