Legong: Dance of the Virgins was shot on location in the village of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia, between May and August 1933, and featured an all-Balinese cast. Directed by Henry de la Falaise, whose full name was Henri Marquis Le Bailly de la Falaise de la Coudraye, Legong was one of two films produced by Bennett Pictures, for which La Falaise—Gloria Swanson’s third husband—served as the principal along with his then-wife, screen star Constance Bennett, founder of Bennett Pictures Corporation. La Falaise traveled to Bali with Gaston Glass and cameraman William Howard “Duke” Greene, the highly regarded Technicolor specialist who later won an Academy Award for his work on Phantom of the Opera (1943). Legong and La Falaise’s now-lost Kliou, The Killer (1937), a jungle story about a deadly tiger, were among the last of the two-color Technicolor films produced in Hollywood. The “exotic” Balinese mise-en-scène contributed to the success of the film at the box office; it played for an exceptionally long ten-week run at the New York World Theater in 1935.
The title refers to one of the most celebrated of all Balinese dances. According to popular legend, Prince Karna (a Balinese prince who ruled during the 19th century) dreamed that he saw young nymphs in heaven performing a refined and graceful dance. When the prince awoke, he fulfilled his vision by teaching the dance and the music of his meditative dream to his village. The dancers are accompanied by traditional Indonesian bronze instrument ensembles called gamelans. In the film, a young girl, Poutou, has been selected as one of her village’s legong dancers. She is to remain “the chaste maiden and sacred dancer of the Temple” until she falls in love, after which she will dance for the final time in celebration of her impending marriage. Poutou is attracted to the young musician Nyong, a talented newcomer in the local gamelan, but Nyong’s interest is soon diverted to young Saplak, Poutou’s half-sister. The two meet each other clandestinely, in groves and on bridges, but several villagers see them together and disclose their secret. Ostensibly a tragic love story, Legong: Dance of the Virgins belongs to a genre of interwar narrative films shot in an exotic locale, which adapted indigenous folklore to American and European tastes.
The 1920s and 1930s saw the first wave of mass international tourist trade. Bali was becoming a popular destination for Western artists and intellectuals who believed that they had found an enchanted land faraway from war-torn western Europe. By the mid-1930s, Bali, a Hindu jewel in the Muslim crown of the Indonesian archipelago, was well established as a resort for the jet set and about 30,000 tourists visited the island each year. As historian Tessel Pollmann explained in 1990, Bali had well-paved roads, rolling rice fields, and was virtually unspoiled by the ravages of colonial agriculture. The allure of beautiful young girls and willing boys was an added attraction, making Bali the “Eastern Paradise” of the 1930s.
The centerpiece of this vision was the artist colony in Ubud, whose most famous member, painter Walter Spies, served as the unofficial guide to the best-known visiting European and American artists, musicians, filmmakers, and anthropologists during the late 1920s and 1930s. Spies was a Moscow-born German expatriate artist who served as an indispensable cultural broker, facilitating long-term visits to Bali by anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, composer Colin McPhee and his anthropologist wife Jane Belo, and the dance ethnographer Beryl de Zoete, among others. Spies was perhaps best known for his unique style of painting, which combined surrealist techniques with Balinese scenes and myths. Spies settled in Bali in 1927, where he lived and painted in order to “free himself of the indoctrination and prejudices about taste and beauty” until his untimely death in 1942. Although no records have been found indicating whether Spies had anything to do with Legong, it is likely that La Falaise and his crew were indebted to Spies and other Western expatriates for access to Ubud villages and their ceremonies.
While Western tourists and artists flocked to Bali during the 1920s and 1930s to enjoy “the good life,” the Balinese peasantry on the island lived in near abject poverty, largely due to the virtual collapse of the export economy and an exploitative taxation system established by the colonial Dutch administration. American travelogue films about Bali from the 1930s implied the fantasy of female promiscuity, untainted by disease and urban squalor, complemented by rich cultural performance traditions in an abundant landscape. The disrobed native woman was often noted in trade reviews of the films, such as Isle of Paradise (directed Charles Trego, 1932) and Goona-Goona (“Love Powder,” produced by André Roosevelt and Armand Denis, 1932), both of which were precursors to Legong: Dance of the Virgins. Goona-Goona eventually lent its name to the subgenre of exotic films set in Bali. A documentary film that Robert Flaherty had planned to make with F.W. Murnau in Bali during the late 1920s—Bali: The Ultima Thule of Our Desires—was abandoned in favor of Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1929). (Ultima thule is Latin for the highest degree attainable and best describes American and European perceptions of Bali as paradise.)
Legong is punctuated by scenes of everyday Balinese life such as the marketplace, a cockfight, and extended sequences devoted to the Djanger and Legong dances. Cockfighting is the favorite sport of Poutou’s father, Bagus, and the short sequence depicting his fascination with the sport emphasizes the role of the wager and chance in the film. Perhaps the most impressive of the traditional performances in the film is the Barong temple dance, described as a myth about a prince who is turned into a lion by the evil witch Rangda. The emotional intensity of this ritualized dance reaches its pinnacle when Barong, a mythical beast who protects the community, performed by two dancers, confronts and tries to kill Rangda, the personification of death and destruction, performed by a man wearing a frightening mask and a costume with pendulous breasts. During the mock battle, the followers of Barong receive protective powers from him as they attack Rangda. They demonstrate how strong these powers are when, in trance, they turn their ritual swords upon themselves without injury. The film’s intertitles make exaggerated claims here about “sham suicides,” asserting that, “through courage born of madness—they set out to slay Rangda, the witch. But in accord with the grotesque legend they must fail. And having failed, must sham suicide.” The Barong-Rangda ritual, a centuries-old tradition that serves to reenact the balancing forces of nature, is considered a stabilizing event by the Balinese rather than an uncontrolled display of primitive passions.
Legong: Dance of the Virgins was reconstructed in 1992 by the UCLA Film and Television Archives using censored prints from the United States, Britain, and Canada. At the time of the film’s distribution by Paramount Pictures Corporation, scenes of nudity were trimmed for domestic release in the U.S. and shots of cockfights excised from the British prints. By duplicating and splicing the remaining negatives, the film was restored to its complete length.
Presented at SFSFF 2013 with live music by Gamelan Sekar Jaya and the Club Foot Orchestra