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Finally Back From Troy
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After I read The Illiad I remembered seeing at Project Gutenberg Australia, a book titled The Private Life of Helen of Troy. It stuck in my memory because it was listed as the number one bestseller of 1926.

As with many bestsellers the subject is scandal. Helen has returned from Troy with Menelaus but is unrepentant and intent on justifying her flight with Paris. The scandal may be ancient history (or myth) but the author, John Erskine, depicts Helen as a modern woman -- circa 1926. In other words, to quote a descrption from the time:

"...the amazing popular novel that had all America peeping through the keyhole of the past to get the low-down on the first flapper wife!"

Flapper, perhaps, but a philosophical flapper who argues interminably in favor of living a life of reckless abandon and passion without ever displaying so much as a spark of either. Her legendary beauty is mentioned but what seems more important is her ability to talk everyone in the household into submission. Let's just say Erskine's Helen is not exactly Betty Boop. The book is funny though, if you like black humor.

According to Wikipedia John Erskine was an educator, musician and author who grew up in Weehawken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. I lived in Weehawken for a few months while I was going to law school. Fred Astaire and sister Adele also spent time none of which has anything to do with the Trojan War, although Weehawken, like Troy, is famous for its towers. Well, its water tower. I wonder, did the similarity occur to Erskine?

At any rate, what surprised me more than Erskine being from Weehawken (aren't we always surprised when it turns out someone is from Weehawken?) was that the book could have topped the bestseller lists. It is a most peculiar novel. Aside from a couple pages at the end, it consists of nothing but dialog, literally. There is no narrative. No description. Each chapter is pure conversation, mostly characters arguing over their views about life, society and ethics. This was the 1920's but the style owes more to Plato than F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Odder still, in 1927 the book was made into a film directed by Alexander Korda. It was a silent film. Think about it. A silent film of a book containing only dialog. No action. People standing around having long, meandering, philosophical conversations. How do you do make a silent film of that?

I suppose it is impossible to know exactly, because only 27 to 30 minutes of 87 minute-long film -- portions from the first and last reels -- still exist, preserved by the British Film Institute and unavailable to the public.

Whatever the film was like, some appreciated it. The Private Life of Helen of Troy was nominated for an Academy Award in 1928, the first year of the awards. Not surprisingly the category was Best Title Writing. That's not a category that makes the Oscars television broadcast. Actually, it doesn't exist these days. Talkies were on the way in and that award was not given out again.

While one might imagine that those titles must have been awfully long to do any justice to the convoluted conversations in the book, the reality seems to be that they just tossed out the chat and showed the Trojan War and the off-stage mayhem that was only discussed from afar. Much more Roaring Twenties.

The Variety review from January 1, 1927 says:

Helen [based on the novel by John Erskine] is all comedy. Satirizing ancient myth in general and Helen's affairs particularly, the titles are topical, while the music is mainly based on pop dance tunes. Wheeling the giant wooden horse inside the gates of Troy is accomplished to the strains of 'Horses, Horses, Horses', etc.

The film kids the husband-wife complex throughout, the king, following the conquest of Troy, making a beeline for Helen's dress-maker to destroy the shop. Meanwhile, he has been trying to go fishing since nine o'clock. When it looks as if Helen is about to take another vacation with her second prince, the king is convinced he's going to get in his trip, and that finishes the picture.

No battles and no slow spots. The action is lively all the way, with Maria Corda in various stages of slight clothing.

Or as the ads put it:

"It took over a year and cost over a million dollars to bring Helen and her playmates to the screen. Hundreds of beautiful women---gorgeous clothes---dazzling pageants of breath-taking splendor..."

Oh well. I kind of liked the idea of trying to do a silent film of the actual book. Conversation is not after all entirely devoid of drama. Imagine Helen's expression of horror and pity when she's told the great Agamemnon has been found dead in his own palace, murdered by his wife Clytemnestra.

Title card: "The poor son-of-a-bitch."

Did I mention they should have hired Fitzgerald to write the titles?

I still think you need sound to film the novel correctly. I don't know enough about movies to suggest a director. Woody Allen? How about John Waters? Divine as Helen? Too bad Andy Warhol wasn't around for the silent film era. Never mind those hundreds of beautiful women. He might stuck to the book and made the film using nothing but titles, with no pictures at all. The audience would have sat in the darkened theatre and read the book. Did anyone ever try that? Or maybe someone should just do a modern update of the old story, with Helen returning to Weehawken.

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