Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: May, 2015

Brigand Brothers (1912)

Brigand Brothers

Once again, early Russian filmmakers turn to Pushkin for source material. Here, Vasily Goncharov attempts to interpret the an epic poem of two poor orphans who love the same woman and turn to a life on the run after murdering her father. This movie remains technically unimpressive, especially when we recall that one year later Evgeni Bauer would give us “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul.” Goncharov never seems to have gotten past the limitations of stationary camera and pantomime, which is probably why his career with Khanzhonkov didn’t last long after Bauer and Ladislas Starevich came on the scene. Still, this one does have the benefit of being shot outdoors, in the Russian countryside, and having that rustic, almost-Western look I mentioned in “Drama in a Gypsy Camp.” It’s certainly a much more complex storyline, with a lot of action and love scenes thrown in as the brothers find romance and adventure in their wayward existences, one of them finally dying while escaping from prison. The camera remains at a discreet distance from the action, however, and the production remains a set of scenic vignettes, with little cleverness to the editing technique, except for an occasional cutaway to allow us to see from a character’s point of view.

Director: Vasily Goncharov

Camera: Louis Forestier

Starring: Arsenii Bibikorand, Ivan Mosjoukine, Alexandra Goncharova, Vasily Stepanov

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Sixteenth-Century Russian Wedding (1909)

16th Century Russian Wedding

Alternate Titles: Русская свадьба XVI столетия, Russkaya svadba XVI stoletiya

This short film is a simple historical reenactment. It was produced, as was “Drama in a Gypsy Camp,” by the up-and-coming Alexander Khanzhonkov, who seems to have had a taste in Russian-national themed movies. He retained Vladimir Siversen, the director/cameraman, to shoot this picture, but handed the reins of directing over to Vasily Goncharov. This was probably wise, Siversen seemed to find both directing and cranking the film a bit overwhelming in the last outing, but here the camerawork is consistent and Goncharov seems to have been comfortable keeping the actors in line (liner notes tell us he relied on assistance from Pyotr Chardynin, who plays the father of the groom, in this). The entire movie is shot on the same stage, with only slight changes in decoration and costume to signal the difference between the bride’s room and the groom’s. The wedding hall is decorated with an elaborately-painted backdrop like something out of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but for the most part the art is fairly restrained. All of the actors are shown full-frame, nobody’s feet are cut off, and with considerable headroom, making them appear quite small and indistinguishable on the screen. You’d never recognize any of these actors if you saw them in a different costume. The costumes emphasize the fact that this is an upper-class wedding, not a peasant affair, although some of the dancers at the wedding have more austere clothes, once again a comment on the presumed class of movie-goers in Czarist Russia.

Director: Vasily Goncharov

Camera: Vladimir Siversen

Starring: Alexandra Goncharova, Andrej Gromov, Pyotr Chardynin, Pavel Biryukov, Vasili Stepanov, Lidiya Tridenskaya

Run Time: 8 Min, 25 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Drama in a Gypsy Camp near Moscow (1908)

Drama in a Gypsy Camp Near Moscow

Alternate Title: Drama v tabore podmoskovnykh tsygan

This very short Russian movie came out shortly after “Stenka Razin,” and was produced by Drankov’s major future competitor, Alexander Khanzhokov. It in no way compares. Where “Stenka Razin” is based on a song familiar to audiences, this one seems to have been improvised on the spot. Where the first movie is grand and operatic, this comes off as silly. It claims to have been made in an actual gypsy camp and to be performed exclusively by gypsies, but this authenticity doesn’t help its rushed awkwardness. The one thing I will say for it is that, shot entirely outside in fields and on a cliffside, it has some of the feel of an early American Western, in that it shows off the countryside better than the characters. The story is of an attempt of a gypsy man to woo his intended love. When she resists, he pulls out a knife and stabs her. Then he becomes remorseful and hurls himself from a cliff. The camera is generally placed quite far from the action, and there are only a few setups. There is actually one pan which follows the two characters through the camp, allowing us a good view of all the sleeping gypsies as they sneak off for a rendezvous, but this actually also undermines the “realism” because we can see what look like tourists walking through the wood in the background, making it all too clear that it is actually day. Another “blooper” occurs when we see an ostensibly dead body move in reaction to the people crowding around it. Film making was very new, of course, and the rules were not yet established, so it is interesting to see how the director attempted to create a story, but evidently this movie was a financial failure even with Russian audiences of the day, who were already accustomed to more sophisticated fair from France and other points in Europe.

Director: Vladimir Siversen

Camera: Vladimir Siversen

Run Time: 2 Min, 18 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Romance with a Double Bass (1911)

Romance with a Double Bass

This Russian comedy short relies mostly on situation rather than slapstick for its humor. However, as compared with “Princess Tarakanova,” the actors do rely more on pantomime to get the story across and we have no intertitles at all. In this one, a very different sort of a princess goes out fishing at a local stream. So far as I can remember, this is the one time in 104 years of movies that I’ve ever seen a woman cast a fly in a film (someone can correct me in the comments if Katherine Hepburn actually did it in “Bringing Up Baby” or something, but all I remember is golf). Anyway, once we’ve gotten past the shock of that gender-bending situation, we are introduced to a musician traveling with his friends, who decides to put down his instrument and take a dip, just a little way downstream. His friends move on, and as soon as they do, two thieves show up and steal his clothes, as would happen in any American comedy of the period. The swimmer spies the princess napping and swims up to meet her, but becomes shy, perhaps because he’s only wearing a longjohns-style-swimsuit, and moves on. When she wakes up, she goes for a dip too. She, however, is wearing the latest in Paris fashions in swimwear. Still, while she’s in the river, the same two thieves steal her clothes. When each comes back to land, they discover their embarrassed state, and soon afterward, they discover each other. Luckily, the thieves didn’t take the heavy double bass (I guess there’s a big market in Russia for illegal clothes fencing, but not expensive musical instruments), so the musician convinces the princess to hide in the case while he chases after the thieves. The friends now return and, finding the case abandoned with no musician about, pick it up and carry it to the nearby home of the princess. She bursts out, in front of her father, his guests, the servants, and everyone, humorously ashamed of her semi-nudity.

 Romance1

Charles Musser, in The Emergence of Cinema, mentions a number of American comedies in which women’s bodies are exposed for the pleasure of male audiences. This one differs slightly from that earthy tradition. For one thing, it’s based on a Chekhov short story, suggesting that even where light comedy was concerned, Russian audiences wanted to class up the movies with a little culture. For another, the man in this story is also deprived of clothing, although his embarrassment is not lingered over as much. It’s hard to imagine that female audiences found his skinny frame as interesting as the men found the princess, either. Finally, in the movies Musser mentions, the father is often also the butt of some Oedipal prank, as where the escaping boyfriend topples the peeping father from a ladder in “How the Athletic Lover Outwitted the Old Man,” but here the father is an agent of the girl’s humiliation.

Director: Kai Hansen

Camera: Joseph-Louis Mundwiller

Cast: Vera Gorskaya, Nikolai Vasilyev

Run Time: 6 Min 45 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

 

Princess Tarakanova (1910)

Princess Tarakanova

Alternate Title: Knyazhna Tarakanova

This appears to have been another French production in Russia, made by Pathé, to judge by the images of roosters on the intertitles. Nevertheless, it is clearly intended primarily for Russian audiences as it tells a story from the time of Catherine the Great, that would have been familiar to the class of people expected to attend films there. Princess Tarakanova was a pretender to the Russian throne who is betrayed to Catherine by her lover, Count Orlov, then tricked into imprisonment. Unwilling to renounce her claim, she eventually died in a dungeon in Peter and Paul Fortress of tuberculosis. The movie recounts all of this, also inserting a tragic final visit by a repentant Count Orlov, and also includes an “alternate ending” showing her being drowned in her prison cell, as one legend claimed was her fate.

Princess Tarakanova1

Painting of Tarakanova’s legendary drowning.

Over all, the production here is very stagey, with stationary cameras and scenes shot in single takes. The movie is based on a stage production, and most of the actors make no effort to adapt their acting style for the lack of sound – they just seem to mouth their lines and make the same kinds of motions they would on stage. The exception is V. Mikulina, who played the hapless princess. For most of the movie, we get the impression of a sort of haughty assurance that everyone will realize their mistake, and finally she hams it up gloriously, especially for her (first) death scene, where we get the impression that it was the untimely visit by Orlov that brought about the tubercular attack. Another issue with the movie is that it depends a great deal on written documents to replace the dialog. Every few minutes, Orlov is ending a letter, or Catherine is issuing a decree, so that the audience can be informed of what is happening. Later Russian filmmakers, such as Evgeni Bauer, would avoid such devices where possible. The final “drowning” sequence is only on screen for a few seconds, but I suspect that it is where most of the budget went – the water rushes in to Tarakanova’s cell from two directions, looking like quite a good deal of pressure is behind it. Apart from that, the costumes and sets are nicely authentic-looking, but this isn’t a triumph of national cinema.

Directors: Kai Hansen and Maurice Maître

Camera: Joseph-Louis Mundwiller and Toppi

Starring: V. Mikulina and Madame Pogorel’snaia

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Queen of Spades (1910)

Queen of Spades1

Alternate Title: Pikovaya Dama (Пиковая дама)

This early Russian silent movie is an adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s opera version of Pushkin’s short story. Pushkin is a remarkable cultural phenomenon in Russia, with no obvious English-language equivalent. People often compare him with Shakespeare, who is seen as the ultimate expression of English literature, but this is inadequate. If you were to stop ten people in the street in any English-speaking country and ask what they thought of Shakespeare, the answers would be all over the map. You might find a couple of enthusiasts, but some people would admit they’d never read or seen a Shakespeare play, some would say he was boring or overrated, and some would just be non-committal. If you stopped ten people in a Russian city and asked about Pushkin, the responses would range from enthusiastic to downright rapturous. The Russians love their Pushkin.

Apparently, this devotion was just getting started at the time this movie was made, seventy three years after his death, while the opera was only about twenty years old and would have been familiar to many of the anticipated viewers. That assumed familiarity is important to bear in mind in order to understand this movie. The actions of the protagonist make little sense based on the information we get from the film, which is limited largely to a single intertitle before each scene begins, and apparently even those limited titles were added after the fact; original film audiences saw the movie without them. This demonstrates again the different assumptions in Russia regarding film audiences. While in America at this time, many films were made to appeal to uneducated masses (sometimes with the “intention” of uplifting them), Russian film seems to have targeted an educated middle class, who probably paid more to see culturally familiar material.

 Queen of Spades

The story is a love story in which Herman (confusingly mis-translated in our subtitles as “German”) longs for the attention of Liza, who is the descendent of a Countess. Herman hangs around a gambling table, thinking how if he could win enough money, he might win her hand as well. Coincidentally, the Countess has learned the secret of winning at cards from the famous occultist Count St. Germain, but she jealously keeps the secret, because it was foretold to her that the next person she revealed it to would mean her death. Herman meets Liza and woos her, which really should be all that matters, but now he is even more motivated to get that secret. He sneaks into the Countess’s room (in the movie by way of a secret door in the wall) and wakes her from a nap, brandishing a revolver. She has a heart attack and dies, but apparently not before giving away the secret. Then Liza comes in and finds what Herman has done. She thinks he only pretended to love her to get the secret. They go their separate ways and Herman is haunted by images of the old lady. Liza asks to meet him by the canal, and when he arrives, she sees that he is even more maddened by the secret than before. He leaves, and she jumps into the canal, killing herself. Herman goes to a gambling house, acting weird but joining in for once. His bets win, but when he bets on an ace, he gets the Queen of Spades, which reminds him of the woman he killed. Herman kills himself in despair.

 Queen of Spades2

This rather over-wrought story of tortured love and multiple deaths (sorry Pushkin fans) works reasonably well on the few small sets we see. Standout scenes for me included the ball where Herman gets the key from Liza and the scene at the canal. Apparently, a pit had to be dug in the studio floor in order to give the actress somewhere to go when she jumps in. Similar to American movies of the time, the camera is static and most edits take place between scenes. The sets are all about the same size and we see no close-ups, although the camera is pulled in for a tighter shot of the gambling table for the climax when Herman pulls the deadly card. The ghostly visitations are done through simple in-camera effects ala Méliès. I imagine that at original screenings, the music of Tchaikovsky was played, but I don’t think that’s what we hear now.

Director: Pyotr Chardynin

Camera: Louis Forestier

Cast: Pavel Biryukov, Alexandra Goncharova, Andrej Gromov

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Stenka Razin (1908)

Unlike last night’s entry, this is decidedly a Russian film intended for Russian audiences. We also know who produced it: Alexander Drankov, who would go on to found one of Russia’s first major production companies, and who collaborated with Vasily Goncharov on the script. Like many early silent pictures, it relies somewhat on the audience’s prior familiarity with the subject matter to make sense of the story. Stenka Razin was a well-known figure in Russian folklore, a rebellious Cossack leader who defied the Czar and his bureaucrats. This movie was also based on a folk song which elaborates the story, which we only see as vignettes. The song informed the audience’s understanding of what they saw, but the movie also had music written specially for it, which was novel at the time (Wikipedia claims both that this is the “first” Russian narrative film and the “first” musical score for a movie, but I’m leery of “firsts” and will not pronounce for certain on either point).

 Stenka_razin_1908_still_01

Stenka is in love with a Persian princess he has taken prisoner in a raid. We see him sail up the Volga with his fleet of raiders, back to the home base, along with the Princess, who performs a dance when they arrive, symbolizing their wedding. The other bandits are concerned about their leader coming under her spell and they plot to make him drunk and jealous. They forge a note from a Persian lover and Stenka becomes enraged. He drowns the princess in the Volga for her presumed infidelity. The movie ends at that point (assuming that what we have today is complete), but the song lets us know that the men are horrified by what they’ve done, but Stenka calls out for more wine and celebration, then ends on the same refrain of the boats sailing up the Volga that was at the beginning.

 Stenka Razin

Whether this was truly a “first” or not, it was an ambitious film that demonstrated that Drankov was aware of the powerful dramatic possibilities of cinema from the very beginning of his career, jumping in with both feet to tell a tragic story with the tools at hand. The movie shows all of its action in wide shot, and there are no edits within scenes, with minimal use of forward-facing intertitles to tell us what to expect to see before we see it. It’s an interesting representation of the Russian culture, and contrasts well with seminal films of other nations, like “The Great Train Robbery” or “A Trip to the Moon.”

Director: Vladimir Romashkov

Camera: Alexander Drankov & Nikolai Kozlovsky

Run Time: 6 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)

Fish Factory in Astrakhan (1908)

Fish Factory in Astrakhan

Alternate Title: Zavod rybnykh konservov v Astrakhani

I’m not quite certain whether to label this as a “Russian” or “French” movie. It was made by Pathé in the Russian Empire, and presumably distributed throughout Europe and the US. It would have served as a kind of travel movie, shown to audiences eager to see “exotic” faraway places depicted on their domestic screens. However, there’s a good chance it was shown in the Russian interior as well, where there would be many citizens for whom Astrakhan was nearly as exotic as it seemed in Paris. The movie was found in a Russian archive, where it had been restored, and Russian subtitles added, by a film student in the 1950s. One source I’ve found says it was likely shot by Aleksandr Drankov, which, if true, makes me think it’s pretty Russian, whoever he was working for.

What we actually see is a series of shots taken at an actual fish processing center on the Volga. The fish are delivered, cleaned, salted and shipped out, and we also see the workers during their lunch break. The emphasis on workers may help explain why a Soviet archive felt it was worth preserving. They actually seem pretty happy, for an oppressed working class, and frequently turn and smile to the camera (on the other hand, the presence of the film crew may have been an excuse to slack off). Nearly all the workers we see are women, except for a few men who steer the rafts that are used to deliver the fish. Most of the work is done by hand in a very inefficient and un-ergonomic manner. I have to wonder how long the backs of these workers held up to this kind of treatment. For us today, it no doubt remains an opportunity to indulge in travel to an “exotic” distance in both time and space.

Director: Unknown (see above)

Run Time: 6 Min, 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Watermelon Eating Contest (1896)

Watermelon Contest

Of all the movies I’ve reviewed for this blog, this one may be the most difficult for modern viewers to accept. Even “The Birth of a Nation” has its defenders who claim it is a “classic” or “great” movie, but no one is likely to say that about the “Watermelon Eating Contest.” It plays right into racist stereotypes which make the watermelon a symbol for African American “inferiority” and simplicity, and it does so unapologetically. Charles Musser tells us in “The Emergence of Cinema” that even at the time, viewers in some areas found it “nasty and vulgar because of the spitting and slobbering,” although they were not apparently alarmed by its racism. Indeed, one suspects that these (presumably white) viewers reacted to it in part for the simple effrontery of depicting African Americans at all. I think it’s important to note, however, because the ways in which blacks have been portrayed on film holds a mirror up to the face of America’s racial politics. This is the earliest example I know of, and it sets a low bar for filmmakers to improve on in the coming century and beyond.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 18 seconds

You can watch it for free: here (fair warning: you may find it offensive or upsetting).

Inventor Edison Sketched by World Artist (1896)

Inventor Edison Drawn

“Lightning sketches” that showed an artist at his work during the short running time of the early motion picture camera were a common format for movies in 1896. This example is noteworthy because it brings the celebrity of Thomas Edison together with the novelty of his newest invention, in this case without his having even been filmed in person. The artist in this case was J. Stuart Blackton, at that time a cartoonist for the New York World newspaper. He later claimed that Edison was present for the sketch, however this is discounted by historians, and seems pretty dubious to the casual viewer, given the fact that he never looks up from his drawing during the run time of the movie. Blackton apparently gained considerable fame from this movie, and became so enthusiastic about cinema that he went on to help found the American Vitagraph Company, going into competition with Edison, and then getting in trouble due to patent infringement, before becoming one of the first “licensed” motion picture exhibitors. This movie suffers a bit from the fact that quality of the print has diminished to where it can be hard to make out the drawing, but it’s still an interesting piece of film history.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.