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Dance of the Virgins

Legong: Dance of the Virgins
Image / Milestone
1935 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 56 53 min. / Street Date November 16, 2004 / 29.99
Starring Goesti Poetoe Aloes, Njoman Njong, Goesti Bagus Mara, Njoman Saplak.
Cinematography William H. Greene
Film Editor Edward Schroeder
Original Music (new score) Richard Marriott, I. Made Subandi
Written by Henri de la Falaise and Gaston Glass
Produced by Constance Bennett
Directed by Marquis Henri de la Falaise de la Coudray

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

There has always been a strong market for travel documentaries, short subjects and sometimes feature-length films about life in foreign lands or among 'primitive' peoples. Robert Flaherty made film history with Nanook of the North, while audiences flocked to see supposedly accurate movies about life in the south seas, where polynesians lived as if in a Garden of Eden. In his DVD-Rom essay on this disc, film historian Peter Bloom describes a number of early 1930s films centered on the idyllic land of Bali. One title, Goona Goona for a while became a catchphrase euphemism for wild sex among the wavering palms.

Milestone has come up with an exotic winner this time. Legong: Dance of the Virgins is a beautifully shot silent travelogue-drama from the middle thirties and one of the last movies shot in Two-Color Technicolor. The plot is a thin retread of Tabu and Bird of Paradise, a pretext to show a number of long-abandoned Balinese rituals and pagaents that are now the film's chief asset.


Bali. A man who loves to raise fighting cocks has two lovely daughters, both virgin temple dancers. One day the eldest daughter Poutou sees a young gamelan player from the north, Nyong, and falls madly in love; father decides it's time for her to leave the temple and marry. All seems idyllic until Nyong meets the younger sister Saplak ... and falls for her instead. Poutou must go through with her final Legong temple dance, knowing that her love will not be returned.

Unlike a lot of independently produced pictures of its vintage, Legong has nothing to be ashamed of. It's a simple story told with a simple style, and each scene gives us a look at some Balinese custom or situation we've never seen before. Lyrical intertitles stress the romantic angle with flowery language that contrasts well with the fresh, honest faces of the lead actors, all unprofessionals. Sweet-faced Poutou is smitten by the young Nyong, but loses him to her little sister. In between we see several interesting dances, activity at a market place and various other details of how these people live. The short feature looks very good in color, with the limited range of the two strip process doing well with the suntanned bodies and colorful clothing.

The print on view was restored to its full length by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. It was released by Paramount in 1935 in edited versions. Shorn of all nudity, the American cut must have come in under 30 minutes, and the British version had a brief cockfight cut out in accordance with that country's ban on anything dealing with animal cruelty. The heroine, her sister and many other females are almost constantly bare-breasted throughout, which surely kept the film from normal exhibition and insured its eventual rarity. It eventually resurfaced (probably in B&W) as one of those barnstorming 'hot' shows that circulated carnival style on the burlesque circuit. It must have been quite a surprise when rowdy audiences expecting bump'n grind action were presented instead with this sensitive art film.

The history behind Legong is equally surprising. Its director Henri de la Falaise is described as the 'dilettante husband' of two Hollywood stars, Gloria Swanson and Constance Bennett. Legong is a Bennett Production; she came up with the money to send him to Bali for three months to film it. Falaise's directing is too good to be called hackwork, although his commercial instincts might be faulted - how could he think it would ever be widely distributed?

The most interesting aspect of this travelogue-docu is its recording of the native way of life, which we are told quickly disappeared from Bali with the tourism craze of the thirties. Although the film is surely simplified, two million Balinese did indeed live in this natural state, by and large - in peace even with their Dutch conquerors.

Another distributor might have taken UCLA's restoration of Legong: Dance of the Virgins and left it at that, but Milestone provides a number of illuminating extras that make Legong a special attraction. First up are two more mini-features, both just under an hour long. Kliou The Killer is Falaise's followup effort, another little drama originally shot in the same 2-color process about a tiger hunt in Vietnam. It's told as a flashback by a pair of condescending French colonials, one of whom seems to be Falaise himself. A young man tracks a killer tiger while his girlfriend waits nervously for his return. There's no nudity this time around. The color version of the film is lost, so what we see is a lone 16mm print that may have survived because its soundtrack has a couple of brief defective stretches.

The other extra docu is Gods of Bali, a less distinguished, artsy film showing dances and ceremonies accompanied by a high-toned narration. It looks a lot more like what passed for art filmmaking back in the early 1950s.

The feature has its original musical soundtrack, but Milestone offers a second new track, a stereo score by Richard Mariott and I Made Subandi, performed by members of Gamelan Sekar Jaya and the Club-Foot Orchestra. The more authentic sound makes the film well worth a second viewing. There's a brief video interview with the two composers.

The informative DVD-Rom article reproduces some of the release artwork for Legong. Katherine Hagedorn and Peter Bloom go into much deeper detail on the film, including Falaise's honored soldiering in both World Wars. Robert S. Birchard supplies a sidebar on cameraman William H. Greene, the Technicolor expert who also shot the special color sequences for King of Kings and Mystery of the Wax Museum.

Most descriptions of Milestone's Legong: Dance of the Virgins makes it sound like some kind of exploitation quickie. In this fine release, it plays like a forgotten mini-masterpiece. DVD truly is becoming the last frontier for the little-known surprises in film history.

The package artwork shown above is slightly different from the released final version.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Legong: Dance of the Virgins rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: optional new music audio track, Gods of Bali and Kliou the Killer, short features, DVD-Rom article, interview with new composers, stills
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 22, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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