I viewed an incomplete print of 'The Wife of the Pharaoh'
that was reconstructed (from several sources) by Stephan Droessler of
the Film Museum in Munich. Even in remnant form, this is a
phenomenal film: an epic piece of film-making, with 6,000 extras
and elaborate sets. The Wife of the Pharaoh is the nearest Ernst
Lubitsch came to making a film like
The Wife of the Pharaoh was released in 1922, the
same year that Englishman Howard Carter unsealed Tutankhamen's tomb.
But at this time, much of the most important work in Egyptology was
being done by Germans, and German interest in ancient Egypt was high
indeed. This film is set in dynastic Egypt (Middle Kingdom, by the
look of it). The sets, costumes, and props are vastly more
convincing than anything done by Hollywood in this same era in films
such as King of Kings, Noah's Ark and the Babylonian
sequences of Intolerance.
There are, of course, a few errors in this movie:
the elaborate Double Crown symbolizing the two kingdoms of Egypt is the
proper size and shape, yet the actors heft it about so easily that it's
clearly a prop made from some improbably light substance. The
Pharaoh receives papyrus scrolls bearing messages written in
hieroglyphics; this is wrong (the messages would have been written in
hieratic, and the King would probably require a scribe to read them on
his behalf), yet somebody made a commendable effort to use the proper
hieroglyphics—which is more than Universal
Studios bothered to do in any of those 1930s mummy flicks.
Emil Jannings gives an operatic performance as the
(fictional) King Amenes. The king of the Ethiopians (Paul
Wegener), hoping to make peace with Egypt, offers his daughter Theonis
to become the wife of Amenes.
But Theonis falls in love with Ramphis, the handsome son
of the king's advisor Sothis. Ramphis wears a hairdo stolen from
Prince Valiant—one of the few really ludicrous
errors in this film. Amenes sentences the lovers to death, then
offers to spare Ramphis from execution (sentencing him to hard labour
for life) if Theonis will consent to love only Amenes.
There are some truly spectacular scenes in this film,
very impressive even in the partial form which I viewed. Paul
Wegener gives a fine performance as Samlak, king of the Ethiopians, but
he looks like he escaped from a minstrel show. To portray an
Ethiopian, Wegener wears blackface and body make-up, and a truly
terrible Afro wig. Also, since his daughter Theonis is presumably
also an Ethiopian, why is she white?
There are fine performances by Lyda Salmonova as a
(white) Ethiopian slave girl (the nearest equivalent to Aida in this
operatic story) and by Albert Bassermann as the advisor who is
spitefully blinded at the Pharaoh's order. Theodor Sparkuhl's
camera work is superlative, as always, and the art direction is
brilliant. Although I viewed only an incomplete version of
this film, I've read a surviving screenplay; the script (with some
lapses in logic) is definitely the most ludicrous part of this film.
But the favorable aspects of this movie very definitely outweigh its
flaws. I'll rate The Wife of the Pharaoh 9 out of 10.
is the slave—not the daughter— of
King Samlak (which is why she is white).
The name of Samlak's daughter who is offered to the Pharaoh is Makeda.
(clarifications courtesy of Raquel).