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Return to Babylon

Return to Babylon (2013)

Right from the opening credits, as arpeggio chords of the enchanting and mysterious The Aquarium by Camille Saint-Saens washed over me, I was drawn into the wonderful era of silent films, and Hollywood of the early 20th Century. For nearly 30 years the public was treated to a fantasy realm by silent moving pictures that really would not have been possible in the same way by talking films. The dramatic and mystical were adorned by stylized Egyptian, Oriental, and Art Deco elements which contributed to their fascination and other-wordly appeal.

The film’s beginning reinforced those feelings due to its use of 16 mm black and white film shot with a vintage hand cranked camera. This replicated the exact look of a film produced during the mid silent era. The techniques and staging rang true, and were a joy to watch. The genuine location settings were very effective in representing the silent era.

The film was basically a series of short vignettes featuring biographies (both fictional and real)
and sketches of a number of famous film stars from the era: Clara Bow, Lupe Velez, Gloria Swanson, Josephine Baker, Alla Nazimova, Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, Erich von Stoheim, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, and many more.

Yet there were two detractions for me. The first was the film’s frequent slide into campiness and hackneyed frank sexual innuendo in the title cards-- and the overuse of dialogue intertitles in general. The second was the choice of actors to portray some of the famous figures. The portrayal of Fatty Arbuckle in particular was cringeworthy, as the stuffing used to increase his girth was obvious, which was not matched by the rest of his body. The actor who played Valentino was all wrong. On the other hand Maria Conchita Alfonso as Lupe Velez, Rolonda Watts as Josephine Baker, Laura Harring as Alla Nazimova, Michael Goldman as Adolph Zukor, and Phillip Bloch as Ramon Novarro, were very well cast, and portrayed their characters in a believable manor.

Directed by little known Alex Monty Canawati, and written by Canawati along with Stanley Sheff, the project was on a shoestring budget, and was developed from 2001 to 2008, only getting enough post production money to have it released in 2013. It never found a distributor, and was finally released on You Tube, where it continues to be viewable in full. Certainly a project of this type would have benefited greatly from a much larger budget. I have a hunch that it was Alfonso and Sheff who kicked in some of the production financing, and were both instrumental in acquiring money piecemeal for the project. As it
remains, it strikes me that this was a fun project whose participation in it by several late middle aged actresses was fueled by their desire to strut their stuff portraying some of the great silent film stars.

I’d had hopes for another film approaching the quality of
The Artist (2011), which is solidly in my list of top 100 films. Unfortunately that was not to be. However at only 75 minutes Return to Babylon is a fun and absorbing watch, and has enough excellence to impress the viewer for what it is and for what it could have been.

Doc’s rating: 6/10