Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Stars of Public Domain: Sari Maritza(1910-1987)

Heavily publicized by Paramount Pictures in 1932 as that studio's “new” Marlene Dietrich – the original Marlene proving recalcitrant by demanding to work solely with her personal Svengali, Josef von Sternberg – Sari Maritza was in reality nice Dora Patricia Detering Nathan, born in China to a British military officer and his Viennese wife. Stagestruck Patricia did indeed study voice in Vienna, which is where she met British talent coach Vivian Gaye, who became her manager and persuaded her to change her name to the much more exotic Sari Maritza, a moniker hinting of gay operetta and all things Viennese. Unfortunately, Vivian's timing was a bit off. Sound films were rapidly taking over in Europe as well by 1929 and the newly coined Sari Maritza quickly “learned” to speak English “like a native.” “They thought I was a very clever girl,” Patricia Nathan later recalled. They did indeed, as did Charles Chaplin, in Berlin at the same time Sari was making her third motion picture appearance, Ufa's Bomben auf Monte Carlo (released 1932). She was on Chaplin's arm at the London premiere of City Lights (1931) and everybody assumed she would be his leading lady both on and off the screen. That didn't happen and instead she signed with Paramount. By then the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, and Paramount's attempts to turn her into a Continental femme fatale were ludicrous on the face of it and deservedly met with scorn. As a consequence, the homegrown Tallulah Bankhead got all the Dietrich rejects and Maritza instead lampooned herself opposite W.C. Fields in the anarchic International House (1933). Both Sari and costar Erich Von Stroheim admittedly did the dreary WWI drama Crimson Romance (1934), from poverty row upstart Mascot Pictures, solely for the dough, after which Sari Maritza left the screen for good to marry MGM producer Sam Katz. She divorced Katz ten years later and by 1947 was found living in Washington, DC with her second husband, George Clother, “an economics student [!] at Georgetown.” Sari Maritza died in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Sari Maritza's name, and that of Vivian Gaye, resurfaced two years after the former's death, when rumors of a homosexual relationship between early 1930s housemates Cary Grant and Randolph Scott once again did the rounds. According to the gossip mills, they were a gay foursome, the girls, Lesbians of course, bearding for the boys. Reached for a comment, Vivian Gaye dismissed the rumors as completely misinterpreting what was just carefree California living. So there!

Greek Street (US title Latin Lovers; UK, 1930) PD **
Sari Maritza makes her screen debut in this Gaumont-British production as Anna, an orphan singing in an Italian establishment in London. She falls for the owner, Rikki (William Freshman), but he takes great umbrage when she decides to accept an offer from Mansfield Yates (Martin Lewis) to become a star in his upscale establishment. Unfortunately, Yates expects more from Anna than she is ready to give and after having performed two production numbers to great acclaim, she leaves Yates and his high falutin' night spot in favor of returning to her humble beginnings and Rikki.

The only surprising aspect of this early talkie musical is not Sari Maritza's “amazing” way with the English language, which had already been thoroughly debunked, but how fluid  the film moves. Early European talkies are supposed to be even more moribund than their Hollywood counterparts but that is certainly not in evidence here. In fact, the opening sequence, a long dolly shot through a crowded Italian restaurant, the camera occasionally picking out an interesting face or two among the spectators, is as good as anything American cinematographers were doing at the time. There is a second, similar, sequence that demonstrates Percy Strong's ability with a camera, this time following fuddy-duddy Sir George Ascot (Bert Coote, the father of Robert Coote who played the exact same type of characters in Hollywood movies of the 1940s) as he is pushed about by the throng in the very same establishment. Unfortunately, except for the obligatory kaleidoscopic view of chorus girls in action (and, no, Busby Berkeley did not invent the overhead shot of dancers cavorting), the production numbers are static and uninteresting. Especially if Sari Maritza's coloratura gets on your nerves as it did mine. The performances run the gamut from over-the-top (Australian actor William Freshman ladles on an Italian accent with a trowel) to underwhelming (Miss Maritza), but, if nothing else, Greek Street is worthwhile from a historical standpoint.

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