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MAMBA

By • Jul 29th, 2016 •

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Written by Winifred Dunn, Tom Miranda and Ferdinand Schumann-Heink
Photographed by Charles P. Boyle
Directed by Alfred S. Rogell
Cast: Jean Hersholt, Eleanor Boardham, Ralph Forbes, Claude Fleming, Will Stanton.
1930. 78 minutes Tiffany Productions.

Watching the action and spectacle of the 1930 Technicolor film MAMBA, you feel like you are watching an epic from the more technically advanced sixties, or seventies. “Mamba’ smashed all records at the Gaiety (Theater) for the two weeks of it’s run,” heralded a trade magazine of it’s day. “The jungle scenes are vividly portrayed in natural color…. Marvelous Technicolor effects. Mamba is supreme for any house, anywhere!” For over eighty years, MAMBA went unseen. It was a lost film.

Silent film star Mae Murray, known as “The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips”, and her husband director Robert Z. Leonard decided to form their own film production/distribution company, called Tiffany-Stahl Productions, named for their partner, director John M. Stahl.

During the late twenties, Tiffany-Stahl worked at becoming as big and profitable as their A-list rivals, companies like Warner Brothers, MGM and Paramount. Stahl left Tiffany over a financial dispute. At the beginning of the sound era, Tiffany literally went for broke, and put much of their efforts and cash into a film adaptation of actor/writer Ferdinand Schumann-Heink’s story, “Mamba” – a tale of love and war in pre World War I Africa. (Note; Heink is memorable as the doomed zeppelin commander in Howard Hughes’ HELL’S ANGELS.) MAMBA, with all-sound and all color was to be what THE JAZZ SINGER was to Warners – an entry into the A-List.

Set in Neu Posen in Pre-World War I German East Africa, MAMBA focuses on wealthy Auguste Bolte, an unkempt braggart who behaves like that annoying uncle who gets plastered at family gatherings. Bolte buys himself a beautiful young bride, Helen, to hopefully win the respect of the British and German military men at Neu Posen. Helen is repulsed by her mail-order bride situation, but on the ship to Africa, she falls for a handsome officer named Karl, who is aware of Bolte, and feels that Helen needs rescuing. War breaks out, and Bolte arrogantly discards his draft notice. Once forced into uniform, Bolte tries to desert, but the locale natives, now on a raging warpath, close in on a panicked Bolte like an army of ants on a dead insect. The natives’ storming of the huge, impressive Neu Posen Fort serves as MAMBA’s incredible, suspenseful, spectacular climax. The battle scenes in MAMBA rival later, similar battle scenes in GUNGA DIN, THE AFRICAN QUEEN and ZULU.

Technicolor wasn’t entirely new in 1930, but MAMBA was the first dramatic feature film produced entirely in Technicolor. Technicolor was mostly used for grand musical numbers and single sequences in such epic silents as BEN-HUR and THE KING OF KINGS. MAMBA was the sixth all talking, all color feature ever produced.

Jean Hersholt shines as the dirty, egomaniacal Bolte who is the “mamba” of the film (Mamba is the African word for “black snake”). His other villain roles can be found in Eric von Stroheim’s GREED and Charles Brabin’s THE BEAST OF THE CITY. Hersholt preferred playing bad guys, over saints. This is interesting because in reality Hersholt was a highly generous and giving man. He helped form The Motion Picture Relief Fund, which provides medical help for actors enduring financial trouble. The annual Academy Award – The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award – was named for this Danish actor’s kindly work. Silent era actress Eleanor Boardman plays Helen, and it’s one of the first time audiences can hear this popular actress speak.

Tiffany Pictures had a smash hit with MAMBA, and with JOURNEY’S END, a war drama with the FRANKENSTEIN star/director team of Colin Clive and James Whale. These hit films were not enough to keep the company afloat. It folded in 1932, and MGM obtained the negatives and prints of their films. Rather than preserve the Tiffany films, MGM allowed Selznick to use the highly flammable nitrate Tiffany negatives and prints to help fuel the burning of Atlanta scenes in GONE WITH THE WIND.

Flash forward to the late 2000’s in Australia where film preservationist/historian Paul Brennan locates a silent 35mm Technicolor print of MAMBA. “Sweden’s Talkie-King Jonas Nordin flagged news of MAMBA as a Technicolor talkie of 1929-30, a common interest,” recalled Brennan. “With astonishment, the sole surviving 35mm color print was found in a collection in Adelaide, South Australia.” It was the complete film, except for a scene removed by Australian censors in 1930 (A dialog scene aboard the ship with Jean Hersholt and Eleanor Boardman). Early sound films were sent to theaters with a 35mm print and phonographic discs that were to be synched with one another during screenings. But 4 of the 9 sound discs were still missing. Almost half the print was mute.

Brennan sent out an SOS via Ron Hutchinson of THE VITAPHONE PROJECT for the missing sound discs. Hutchinson put Paul Brennan in touch with Todd Wiener at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. UCLA had all the sound discs, but just a reel or so of the film. A deal was made to piece it all together. Preservationist Jonas Nordin took on the task of synchronizing these separate, newly discovered sound and picture elements. Brennan said, “Every lip-synch had to be remastered, sentence by sentence for just achieving a watchable DVD copy.”

The censored scene was painstakingly restored by Jonas, with surviving audio, and stills from a previous scene. Paul Brennan recalled another reason, alerted to by Jonas, why MAMBA is an extraordinary film for 1930. “It was supposed to be a 3D film, which is why there are so many POV scenes and things being pointed at you, natives running at you and horses galloping at you.” MAMBA today is in a viewable form, but it still needs cleaning up. This restoration-in-progress was previewed to utter astonishment at film preservation festivals in 2012. “MAMBA delivered as a Technicolor epic spectacle made at a time of studio bound sound. Here was an outdoor adventure drama on a huge scale.” Brennan said, about one of the modern screenings, “Audiences stood and cheered, and clustered for more information. In an era of snippets, here was the whole big noisy Technicolor spectacle, unseen for 80 years.”

Veteran Hollywood director Albert S. Rogell gave MAMBA blistering energy. In place of static, droning dialogue, Rogell stages early scenes in pubs and parlors, where drinking songs help advance the plot. In fact, MAMBA opens with an impressive two-minute tracking shot through the huge, elaborate Neu Posen Fort and village. The final battle sequences are magnificent in scope, and in their sharp modern editing, where the audience can gauge how the weapons dwindle against the overwhelming amount of natives attacking Neu Posen. We’re getting there – we hope to see a fully restored MAMBA soon. UCLA believes the restoration will be finished later this year, 2016.

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One Response »

  1. Sounds like a film worthy of any collection to own or to see on revival on the big screen. So now “DOCTOR X” is now taking second place as the first feature in Technicolor!

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