The lovely Louise Brooks plays a typist at a Paris newspaper who enters a beauty contest in “Prix de Beauté (1930),” the opening film of the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF). The festival began Thursday, July 18, and finishes on Sunday, July 21 with “Safety Last” (1923, starring Harold Lloyd).
In Prix de Beauté, Brooks, as Lucienne Garnier, displays her fantastic ability to express emotions as she becomes Miss France and then Miss Europe. Her celebrity catches the attention of rich and successful men and antagonizes her fiance, André (Georges Charlia); he threatens to leave her if she doesn’t disown her beauty crown. André calls beauty pageants vulgar, but they seem all the rage in this European story. Eventually, André convinces her to walk away from the adulation and lead a normal life. She returns with André to a modest apartment and much lowered expectations.
Lucienne goes from shy typist to a commanding presence as a Miss Europe contestant, revealing her rich inner fantasy life. In one key scene, Director Augusto Genina portrays Lucienne on the catwalk in her bathing suit in front of an enthusiastic crowd in Spain. They cheer her on in this popularity contest, assuring her ascension to the Miss Europe title. Lucienne clearly enjoys her sudden fame and her sparkling presence garners the attention of a wealthy prince, played by Jean Bradin. Lucienne travels as Miss Europe, procuring fancy clothes, wearing fur coats, staying in fancy hotels and enjoying the other trappings of her new role.
Genina provides a major contrast to these trappings of wealth in a scene showing Lucienne, André and a friend visiting an amusement park. Lucienne seems thrilled to watch André slide a weighted toy car on rails to win a distance prize. Several other main fail to move the car sufficiently, but André, with superior strength, outdistances them all and wins the big prize. The scene shows André’s competitiveness and foreshadows the ending, which I still find a bit unexpected. Lucienne feels driven to make choices that suit her dreams, but the plot never makes it easy for her. As Lucienne empathizes with a caged bird in another short scene, I wondered why André couldn’t just see how much things have changed.
The producers of Prix de Beauté, Sofar-Film, also made a sound version of this 1930 film. The SFSFF presented the silent version, of course, which was recently completed by the Cineteca di Bologna. The show featured accompaniment by pianist and instrumentalist Steven Horne.