Christmas Eve (1913)
Alternate Titles: The Night Before Christmas, Ночь пе́ред Рождество́м, Noch pered Rozhdestvom
Thanks to the Devil, everyone will have a merry Christmas this year! This movie by Ladislaw Starevich shows that, in addition to a talented animator, he was a clever director of live action as well. The plot is based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, so once again Russian filmmakers draw on “high” cultural sources, but in this case, the result is rather more Earthy humor than we were getting from our Pushkin fare. The Devil meets up with a witch and goes for a ride on her broomstick, then a series of men come to visit her, each in sequence hiding in a sack to avoid detection by the others. Meanwhile, the witch’s son, apparently a straight-laced lad who is also the town blacksmith, calls on the woman he hopes to marry, a vain creature who demands that he procure the Tsaritsa’s shoes as a wedding gift. Our poor smith heads back home, where he finds all the sacks. He takes one with him to a man “who knows all the devils” and apparently dines by use of telekinesis. The man sees the Devil in his sack and tells him he doesn’t have far to go to find him. Befuddled, the smith returns to the road, where the Devil escapes from his sack and agrees to fly the smith to St Petersburg. Once there, the Devil shrinks down and hides in his pocket, then gives him some presentable clothes for his audience with Potemkin. Potemkin agrees to let him have the shoes and he returns to his village, beating the Devil for good measure and offering, along with the gifts, to let the father of the bride beat him. The fickle girl has lost interest in the shoes, but agrees to marry him anyway.
This is probably the best comedy I’ve seen among the Russian movies I’ve watched so far. Starevich is much more comfortable moving the camera and giving closer views than either Goncharov or Drankov, although he’s no Bauer. He relies more on effects than almost anyone I’ve seen from this period, outside of Méliès. In addition to multiple flying scenes, we get the Devil shrinking, the dumplings flying from the pot into the wise man’s mouth, and a few appearances and disappearances as well. Also, the Devil at one point “steals the moon,” which appears to be an actually working practical light, which he holds as if it were quite hot (which I would expect it to be!). There’s also a curious illuminated prop, which is part of a caroling procession. Finally, in the role of the Devil we get the famous Ivan Mosjoukine, one of the best actors of the period. He puts his all into the role of the degenerated man-beast, hopping about with monkey-like frolics. There’s lots to be enjoyed here, and although Starevich probably relied on the audience’s familiarity with the story, not knowing it beforehand won’t get in the way of watching it.
Director: Ladislaw Starevich
Camera: Ladislaw Starevich
Run Time: 41 Min
You can watch it for free: here.