10. Program advertising The Song of Songs (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933).
11. Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta with his clay maquette of the sculpture of Marlene Dietrich featured in The Song of Songs.
14. Transition with Marlene Dietrich in a publicity still from The Song of Songs.
15. Some of Scarpitta’s relief sculpture for the Los Angeles Stock Exchange.
16. Scarpitta and Cora Timkin with his monumental portrait of her.
17. Venus, 1925, by Boris Lovet-Lorski.
33. At least two sculptures were cast, as one was smashed to pieces on film, seen here in a publicity still.
The Song of Songs was Paramount Pictures’ 1933 adaptation of Prussian writer Hermann Sudermann’s 1908 novel Das Hohelied, a story that had, according to Tino Balio, already offered “histrionic opportunities to Duse, Bernhardt, Modjeska, Pola Negri and Elsie Ferguson” (Balio 244), the last two in previous Hollywood adaptations (The Song of Songs, 1918, directed by Joseph Kaufman; and Lily of the Dust, 1924, directed by Dimitri Buchowetzki, both for Famous Players-Lasky). The 1933 version was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starred Marlene Dietrich, in her first Hollywood film not directed by Joseph von Sternberg. In The Song of Songs, which is set around the turn of the last century, Dietrich plays Lily Czepanek, an innocent but sensual, orphaned country girl who moves to Berlin. Working in her aunt’s bookstore, she meets Richard Waldow (Brian Aherne), a handsome young sculptor who lives and works across the street. She succumbs to his entreaties to pose for him, and becomes the inspiration and model for his life-size nude, “The Song of Songs,” and then his lover, the beginning of a fall from innocence.
The titular sculpture was actually made for the film and—although the contract with sculptor Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta expressly stated that “the head of such statue shall be a reproduction of Miss Marlene Dietrich who is the star in the said production, and the figure thereon shall be an ideal figure of your own composition,” and “it is agreed that Miss Dietrich shall not be required to pose for you in any manner other than for the purpose of enabling you to reproduce her head”—Dietrich did, evidently, finally pose in the nude. There was considerable publicity generated around the rather monumental nude figure; one advertisement [fig. 10] shows Dietrich photographed on her knees, embracing the base of sculpture, accompanied by the text:
The sculpture was not made of marble, which would have been a prohibitively expensive and time intensive material for a film prop. In fact, the film shows the process that would have been used (and may, in fact, document Scarpitta’s actual work on the sculpture); a montage sequence shows the initial sketch of Lily’s pose and then the subsequent stages of work: a sculptural maquette [see fig. 11], a full-scale armature, upon which first plaster, then clay is built up. At least two casts (of plaster, later polished; see fig. 12) were made from the clay figure, as one was smashed to pieces by its model, later in the film. Despite the abundant evidence that the sculpture was made additively, the film depends upon its audience’s forgetfulness, or ignorance of technique, near the end of the film permitting the Baron von Merzbach—who used his wealth and influence to persuade Waldow to give up Lily—to say to the sculptor, “you modeled her in marble; I modeled her in the flesh!”
Scarpitta did work often in marble, as with one of the most impressive among the other ten sculptures seen in the Waldow atelier: Transition, a massive, somewhat Rodinesque non finito: a languorous nude—this one indeed of marble—of his wife Nadia [fig. 13-14]. [open endnotes in new window] Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta (1887-1948) was born and trained in Italy. In 1910, he moved to New York, where he became a member of the National Sculpture Society. There he met and married vaudeville acrobat and actress Nadia Jarocki. In 1923 the Scarpittas settled in Los Angeles. He was an active and recognized sculptor of statuary and portraits [fig. 16], including a monumental Mussolini sculpture, which, according to his granddaughter, he not only later regretted undertaking but indeed vandalized when he fought with the partisans in Italy during the war. Among Scarpitta’s most important works are public sculptures for Los Angeles area churches and for panels over the entrance of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange [fig. 15], awarded a prize by the American Institute of Architects. As with most of the other sculptors whose works were disposed around the set in the Waldow studio scenes, Scarpitta’s academic training made him well suited to producing work believable as that of a turn-of-the-century sculptor.
Scarpitta was evidently not the first sculptor approached about the commission, however. Among the director’s papers are copies of telegraphic correspondence between Mamoulian in Hollywood and Boris Lovet-Lorski, a prominent, somewhat more modernist sculptor of the day, in Paris. Lovet-Lorski (born in Lithuania in 1894 and trained at the Royal Academy in Petrograd, a naturalized U.S. citizen by 1925) was well known by 1933 for a series of “bronze female figures with impossibly narrow, boyish hips, and bodies broadening as they rise to the shoulders and wide-spread arms held behind their heads like flowers on a stem.” It was no doubt one such bronze, probably Venus, 1925 (fig. 17, in the collection of the de Young Fine Art Museum of San Francisco) about which Mamoulian wrote to his friend on January 5, 1933, by Western Union:
Lovet-Lorski replied with alacrity, the next day:
A week passed before Mamoulian’s reply was sent, January 13:
Evidence suggests that Lovet-Lorski’s price was indeed too high. Scarpitta’s contract, dated January 12, 1933, engaged him to prepare a preliminary maquette for approval and then the full-scale statue by January 21 (nine days!) for full compensation of $1,000. Use of a more abstract, deco statue, such as Lovet-Lorski was known for, would have been a somewhat daring and anachronistic choice for a story set in the very first years of the 20th century. The figure would also have had a much more abstract relationship to the image of Marlene Dietrich, neither whose face nor figure could be invoked very expressly by it, for either purposes of narrative or publicity. Additionally, although they do not display remarkable consistency, the dozen or more other sculptures seen in Waldow’s studio (figs. 18-19), are all more consistent in style (mostly idealized, academic figural works, although a few betray more modernist influences). Probably some of these, which appear to be reproductions of neoclassical bronzes, came from the Paramount property department [fig. 20]. But a number of works are by contemporary Los Angeles area sculptors. There is little evidence about exactly how these works came to be loaned to the production but it is not unlikely that the sculptors were among those, with Scarpitta, considered for the central commission. A memorandum prepared by Mamoulian’s office at the behest of the Paramount publicity department in May of 1933 identified (by artist, title, estimated value and provenance/ exhibition history) ten of these works seen in The Song of Songs. In addition to Scarpitta’s Transition and another rather celebrated contemporary marble figure, Kneeling Aphrodite, by Montengro-born Vuch Vuckinich (aka Vuk Vukinich, 1901-1974), these included three works by Bulgarian-born Atanas Katchamakoff (1898-1988); two minor works not publicly shown previously by a “young Los Angeles sculptor,” David Williams; and single works by Harold Schwartz (almost certainly Harold Swartz, 1887-1948), George Stanley (1903-1973, designer of the “Oscar” statuette), and Ella Buchanan (1869-1951).
The works by these legitimate, albeit in some cases little known, academic sculptors lend some credibility and artistic ambience to the lengthy scenes set in Waldow’s studio, although the presence of several seemingly completed, fairly monumental, and presumably unsold works in stone and bronze seems unlikely in a period during which most such ambitious works would result from commissions [see figs. 18-28]. There are also works suggested as in progress (clay, presumably, covered by cloths). But beyond their function as realist décor for an artist’s atelier, the figures are vividly engaged by the narration. In fact, most shots set in the studio are carefully composed around these sculptures; they fill what would normally be negative space with positively urgent sensual atmosphere and innuendo.
From the moment Lily first enters the studio [fig. 20], figures point to and constrain her and all the action is staged to keep statues, particularly nudes, much in the frame. A long dialogue in which Waldow tries to persuade the modest maiden that he has only the most clinical attitude toward the nudity of the model, when she balks at undressing, places the two just in front of, and framing, Scarpitta’s Transition, the most sensual nude in the space, plainly giving the lie to such dispassionate attitudes [fig. 22]. And the film is clearly having fun, playing hide and seek with the Hays Office. Conspicuous camera movements veer away at the last possible moment as Lily undresses for her first modeling session, to settle on the corresponding body parts of nude or partially nude statues [fig. 24], “so we will know just what private part she is baring at the cutaway moment,” as Steven Bach puts it (167). Just a year later, when the Hays Office had begun to enforce the Motion Picture Production Code more strictly, this film could not have been released. It emphasizes the nudity of the statuary, particularly of the title work, as well as its likeness to Dietrich. Shots of Richard working on The Song of Songs are quite explicit about the erotic equation of sculpture and model. In a second modeling scene, Lily’s playfulness results in the two finding themselves in an unanticipated clinch. Moments later, the film suggests Richard’s certain sexual attraction to Lily as he stands kneading the statue’s chest and shoulders, his fingers mere inches away from the figure’s prominent, erect nipples, while watching the projected shadow of his model undressing [figs. 29-30]. Mamoulian employs the artworks to evade the censors and to evoke visual and tactile engagement with the figure of Marlene Dietrich.
I have written elsewhere about sculptures of Ava Gardner, commissioned from academic sculptors for two of her films (Joseph Nicolosi’s for One Touch of Venus, 1948 [fig. 31] and Assen Peikov’s for The Barefoot Contessa, 1954 [fig. 32]; see Art in the Cinematic Imagination, 60-64). These sculptural props also mean to reify Gardner’s erotic appeal but a comparison to the range of sculptures used in Song of Songs points to the ways in which they fall short. Much of their inadequacy stems from censorship: they appear as clothed as their model must (according to Gardner’s autobiography, though, Nicolosi misunderstood the parameters of his assignment, initially completing a nude version of her as a Hellenistic statue of Venus, much to the studio’s displeasure). They are not so sensually “handled,” either—in both senses of that term.
But perhaps the most significant difference is the one most likely to be overlooked. In the absence of other “real” works of art, such as those aesthetically and materially persuasive extras in the scenes set in Waldow’s studio in Mamoulian’s film, even sculptures made by “legitimate” artists tend to become mere props. The combination of the conditions around their creation (schedule and budget restraints, and the institution’s probably mistaken perception that permanence of materials is irrelevant to the celluloid destiny of the work), censorship, and their origins on the page of a screenplay, rather than in the imagination and exertion of the sculptor, prevent them from acquiring the “aura” that surrounds the Dietrich nude as it comes into being in the context of art, both in the scenario and on the set of Song of Songs. That aura—such that it is—is one of sensual force. Ironically, one way that artistic power is confirmed within the narrative is an action almost conventional in movies, though unusual in life; the personal assault on and destruction of the object. Such assaults are near clichés of cinematic artist stories, especially assaults on portraits by their subjects, as with Lily’s on The Song of Songs, the destruction of which permits the restoration of her relationship with Waldow [fig. 33]. The sculpture then reifies not only “art” for this movie but passion, collapsing the two.