Based on Louis-Henri Murger’s 1847-49 Scènes de la vie de bohème, King Vidor’s accomplished La Bohème marked star Lillian Gish’s first film at M-G-M and proved the studio’s biggest financial success in 1926. Murger’s signature work inspired, as well, operas by Puccini and Leoncavallo and many other stories and plays, among them the Broadway musical Rent.
Four men (two of them homosexual partners) share part of an attic in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1830; they are impoverished, struggling writers and artists whose boisterous demeanor seems less a defense against fear than a tacit acknowledgement that success, if it comes, first requires that considerable work be done and dues be paid. Each month, though, there’s something else to pay: rent. As the film opens, the men’s most pressing need is to gather up enough money to meet this as their landlord is threatening eviction. Murger based his material on memories of his own struggles as a young writer.
Rodolphe is one of the four, and Mimi, his neighbor, occupies another attic apartment. It is winter. Mimi, an orphan, sews and embroiders to survive, but she, having failed to make rent this month, even after pawning everything of value she owns including her one winter coat, has been evicted. Her predicament is at least temporarily remedied, by Rodolphe and friends and a rich aristocrat who lusts after Mimi. She and Rodolphe fall in love, but the latter’s jealousy over the Count’s attentions stresses Mimi, who wholeheartedly supports Rodolphe’s efforts to establish himself as a playwright. Tubercular, Mimi dies on the successful opening night of Rodolphe’s play.
Vidor’s film stays “light” too long—a problem of many Hollywood silents. Its ace-in-the-hole: Gish, whose acting is poetic, deeply affecting, stupendous. Gish’s Mimi is blatantly doomed from the start, a departure from previous Mimis, to sharpen Vidor’s emphasis: her powerful introduction to Rodolphe of mortal awareness—a sense of life’s transience.
None of the other performances matter, but they are all good enough. John Gilbert, who himself was smitten with Gish, plays Rodolphe, and a younger Edward Everett Horton than we’re used to, his endearing mannerisms already in place, plays one-half of the gay couple. When Horton first appears, one does a double-take worthy of Edward Everett Horton!