Review by Robert T. Trate
Starring: Lili Berky, Victor Varconi, Mari Jászai
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Running time: 66 minutes
Year of release: 1914
For those of us that truly love film, we often look back at our favorite directors. This is usually done because it is easier to dive into a director’s filmography instead of patiently waiting for what they will release next. In the case of Kertész Mihály, better known to the world as Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca and White Christmas, to name just two, he is no longer with us. Thus meaning, all we can do is look back. Until recently, all of Curtiz’s films have either been released or considered lost for all time.
Enter into the world, The Undesirable (aka A Tolonc), his recently discovered tenth film, silent, and from his native Hungry. The film had been discovered in the Hungarian House cultural center in New York and restored by the Hungarian Filmlab. As fan of Curtiz, I saw this as a chance to witness Steven Spielberg’s Duel for the first time, only now I would be one of the few people on Earth that would actually know it was found and restored. A chance too good to pass up.
The film is based on an 1880 Hungarian play that is broken into four acts. The act breaks still carry over from the play into the silent film cards that help narrate the film The Undesirable. Yet, unlike the works of Charlie Chaplin, who supplied comedy and heart to his moving pictures, Curtiz brings to the screen a dark story about a woman trying to find her place in the world.
The Undesirable, which is really an odd title and may be too literally translated, is the tale of Betty (Lili Berky), who on her father’s death bed discovers her life is a lie. Her father turns out to be her Uncle who raised Betty after her mother, Sarah (Mari Jászai), killed her father in a fit of jealously. With nowhere to turn now, Betty heads out into the world to find a job and make her way. She comes under the employment of the Kontra family and works in the house as their maid. They have a son named Nick (Victor Varconi), who falls for Betty and all it all looks like it will work out until the family jewels go missing. Betty is blamed, Nick doesn’t stand up for her, and she is forced to serve out her sentence in her home town.
As this was originally a play, all our characters meet one another at some point and only the audience knows that the homeless old fortune teller is Betty’s mother, Nick needs to find his manhood to win Betty, and the old vagabond is the key to a happy ending. The story plays out as it should with pit falls and near misses at both revelations and redemptions. However, it is when Betty learns that Sarah is her mother that the films takes a dark turn. A turn that is so simple and oddly strange all because of where cinema was at that time. Moving pictures were to entertain and delight people with their science of capturing an image on screen. Here, we get a tragic tale of a woman that is simply trying to find her happiness in the world. The effect of that moment with her mother, on Betty, was incredibly profound and not what I expected at all. Clearly, Curtiz had the gift all the way back in 1914 as a master storyteller.
The frills on this Blu-ray are nonexistent. Sadly, there are no film historian commentaries, documentaries about the film’s place in history, or even its restoration. Upon seeing The Undesirable, you will realize that the film itself is the greatest frill to your Michael Curtiz collection.