Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Arsenii Bibikov

Best Production Design 1915

Set design can be overlooked as an important element in constructing an illusion, but when it’s done badly, you notice immediately. Filmmakers coming from a theatrical tradition suddenly had the power to create much more convincing stages for their players to act on – but also suffered from the fact that the conventional stage doesn’t look as good on screen as in person. Audiences became more demanding, and the cost and skill involved in making a movie set went up correspondingly.

In 1915, a high bar was already place for production designers, and the movies nominated for best production design reflect this. “Young Romance,” in addition to taking advantage of the natural scenery of a Long Island resort, used set design to show the parallels and contrasts in the two leads’ paths and highlight their meeting. Evgeni Bauer, himself a former set designer, contributed two movies to our list. In “Daydreams,” we get a sense of an urban Russian bourgeoisie from long ago, both from outdoor and indoor shots, while “Children of the Age” shows a more decadent, or glamorous, variation on the theme by emphasizing garden parties and romantic rendezvous. In “The Cheat,” we see a similar world in an American context, often by night and with long shadows. Finally, “Alias Jimmy Valentine” shows us fascinating labyrinthine bank vaults and decaying urban tenements.

The nominees for Best Production Design for 1915 are…

  1. Young Romance
  2. Daydreams
  3. Children of the Age
  4. The Cheat
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

And the winner is…”Children of the Age!”

Children of the AgeBauer’s unique eye for mise-en-scène gives us a fascinating world of contrasts: from the simple home of the working man to the backlit greenhouse where his wife and her future lover meet. While the others were all worth celebrating, this was finally my favorite.

Children of the Age (1915)

I stumbled across this Evgeni Bauer film while looking for media on “Child of the Big City” – someone has uploaded an Italian translation to Wikimedia Commons with the wrong title in English and Russian! Lucky for me, because it means I get to watch more Bauer.

 Children of the Age1

This is a shorter movie than would be considered “feature-length” today, although at the time it would have counted as long enough to take seriously. Like many of Bauer’s films, it explores the conflict of class and intimate relationships. This time, we get Vera Kholodnaia (later in “A Life for a Life” and “The Woman Who Invented Love”), later to be known as “The Queen of the Screen” in Russia, as the starring victim. She plays a lower-middle class housewife whose husband (Ivan Gorskij) has a job as a bank clerk and who has a very small baby at home. They can afford a maid, showing us that they aren’t truly working class, but their apartment is small and Vera has to sew and do other household chores. One day while she is shopping in a fascinatingly Russian-looking shopping mall, she runs into an old school friend who apparently has married up or come into an inheritance, because she can afford a chauffeured car. She gives Vera a ride home and they talk of old times. The husband returns, and eyes the car suspiciously, then agrees to meet the friend and his wife at a garden party.

 Children of the Age

At the garden party, a libertine older man (Arsenii Bibikov, who we saw before in “Child of the Big City” and “The Peasants’ Lot”) takes notice of Vera and finagles an introduction. He gives her champagne and begins a flirtation, to which Vera is politely responsive. Probably she’s flattered at the attention, but we have no sense that she means to cross the line, and as soon as her husband arrives, she leaves with him. Arsenii is not satisfied, however, and encourages the friend to bring her around more often. Vera does begin to come along to more “society” events, while the husband waits at home in a gloomy room, his worst suspicions haunting him. Arsenii then comes up with the expedient of having the husband fired from his job. Now the situation is increasingly grim, and Vera, who continues to resist any improprieties, is becoming dependent upon Arsenii. Finally, he manages to trap her in his car, and gives her a long, sustained kiss before the fade-out. Vera returns home disheveled with a look of shock on her face, and begins mechanically to pack her things. Evidently she’s going away for the weekend, over her husband’s protestations. While she’s away, he gets summoned for what he seems to hope is a job interview. Turns out it’s Arsenii, who offers him money to leave his wife. The husband responds by trying to kill Arsenii, and it requires two burly servants to throw him out. During this distraction, Vera and the friend have returned to her house and made off with the baby. The husband writes a goodbye note and shoots himself.

Children of the Age2As with “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul” and other Bauer melodramas, we get something different to what we expect in a Western movie here. The husband may seem to be the “leading man,” but he’s utterly helpless and ineffective throughout the film. Vera is the real star, and even though she ultimately loses, her battle between the temptation to aspire towards a classier life and remain loyal to her vows is a dramatic journey that gives her considerable work to demonstrate each emotion as she feels it. The version I found of this had no Intertitles, although I suspect that there were some originally which were not preserved. The movie works well enough despite this, and it is largely due to Vera’s performance, combined with Bauer’s direction and the typically excellent camerawork of Boris Zavelev. Interestingly, where he usually avoids 90-degree angles, a lot of the scenes in Vera’s apartment are shot dead-on, as if to emphasize the cramped space and lack of opportunity it offers. Some of the shots in the garden party also are framed at 90-degrees to the wall, but with the actors off-center, and the table at this party juts into the middle of the screen like a dock at a bay, making it hard to see the individuals seated there, even as we see the chaos of their merriment. There are a lot of close-ups in this movie as well, even for a Bauer film, suggesting the importance of intimacy with the characters. Bauer’s usually cluttered sets are reserved for the more up-scale locations, while the apartment is appropriately spare.

In all, this was a satisfying view, although I wish the Intertitles had been preserved and I hope to see it in higher definition someday.

Alternate Titles: Deti Veka, Дети века, Children of the Century

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavlev

Starring: Vera Kholodnaia, Ivan Gorskij, Arsenii Bibikov, S. Rassatov

Run Time: 37 Min, 30 seconds

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

Child of the Big City (1914)

Evgeni_Bauer

I’m always excited to see another movie by Evgeni Bauer, who is probably my favorite filmmaker from the period I’m studying (so far, at least). Bauer was more daring than most of his contemporaries, and could see that cinema had the potential to be a new way of telling stories, not dependent on older models like the theater, and he avoided theatrical conventions in bringing his visions to the screen. He also had a taste for unusual content, for stories that one wouldn’t be likely to see in American movies of the time.

 Child of the Big City1

I’m tempted to interpret this movie as a combination of the “Lost Girl” narrative typical of American movies with the “Vamp” that would become a hit with Theda Bara the next year. But, really, it is neither of these, although common elements can be found. Marya (or Mary, the English Intertitles vary) is a poor seamstress who works in a sweatshop but dreams of romance. One day, while window-shopping, she gets picked up by two young gentlemen who take her back to a fancy apartment for dinner and drinks. She, unaccustomed to the alcohol, rapidly gets drunk and accepts a proposition to become the “companion” of Victor, the younger and less grabby of the men. At this point, the story takes a turn as we are told she is “ruining” her new companion (presumably by spending a great deal of money on clothes, nightclubs, and a nice apartment). He begs her to join him in a more modest lifestyle, but she has gained a taste for riches and looks elsewhere for someone who can provide her the life to which she is now accustomed. Oddly, she chooses the butler for this purpose, but maybe butlers made more in Russia in those days. Victor continues to obsess over her as he sinks into poverty and hangs around the door to her apartment. Eventually, he sends up a note begging to speak to her again, and she dismisses him with three rubles. He dies on the spot, and she runs off with her society friends to Maxim’s.

 Child of the Big City2

Although this movie wasn’t quite as daring as some of Bauer’s other work, I found it satisfactorily innovative. There are a number of nicely-framed shots, including overheads and a shot up an elaborate stairwell. I liked a shot where we see Marya window-shopping from inside the store, then the reversal where the two men proposition her from outside, to the stern glare of the shopkeeper looking out at them. I also was impressed when a scene opened on an elaborate (closed) door to a nightclub, allowing us to just glance through a small glass window as a car pulls up outside, then moments later the door opens to reveal the arrival of the dinner party. In the existing print, the tracking shot into the nightclub dancer is cut into awkward jump-cuts, which may be an experiment that didn’t quite work (for me) or it could be a mistake in the restoration. There’s another good tracking shot backward as Marya leads her followers out into the night, but it cuts a bit too quickly to be fully effective. Once again, we also get a good sense of lighting, with practicals that seem to provide actual light on the set, and a great proto-noir shot of Victor in silhouette in front of an over-exposed window. On the whole, Bauer’s cameraman Boris Zavelev avoids “square” set-ups and uses diagonal angles, but where he does shoot straight-on, it’s used to emphasize the lack of choice a character (usually Victor) has in his next move. Many of the sets are heavily decorated with baroque props, emphasizing the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy classes.

Child of the Big City

Alternate Titles: Ditya bolshogo goroda, Дитя большого города, The Girl from the Street, Devushka s ulitsy

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavelev

Starring: Elena P. Smirnova, Michael Salarow, Arsenii Bibikov, Lidiya Tridenskaya

Run Time: 37 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Peasants’ Lot (1912)

Making hay while the sun shines.

Making hay while the sun shines.

While American film makers like D.W. Griffith were making “progressive” films about the hardships of working people in the USA, Russian film innovator Vasily Goncharov did something similar with this movie. It might also be seen as a more sophisticated version of his “16th Century Russian Wedding,” except that there’s no surviving wedding, just a melodramatic story of young Russians in love. This movie once again illustrates the superior artistry and emotional power of Russian film in the pre-revolutionary period.

What's that behind your back, Ivan?

What’s that behind your back, Ivan?

Here, young Petr (Ivan Mosjoukine, who we’ve seen in “Christmas Eve” and “House in Kolomna”) is in love with Masha (Aleksandra Goncharova, from “16th Century Russian Wedding” and “The Brigand Brothers”). They make time together in a haystack, to the approval of his father, and convince her father that they should be wed. While they are planning, a fire destroys the house of Masha’s family, and they sink into poverty as they are forced to sell off their most important possessions, including the cow that brought in most of the family income. Masha goes to the city in search of labor, as many young peasant people did in Russia during the Czarist period. Just as with an American film in which a healthy, honest young woman from the farm seeks her fortune in the city, Masha soon falls into a dangerous and corrupting situation. She becomes a serving-girl to a wealthy man with an automobile and ulterior motives. Back on the farm, her father becomes ill and the family dispatches a letter asking her to send money quickly. She gets it the only way she can see how – by asking the master for it and doing what he asks in return. She delivers the money, and confesses how she got it, and she and her father commiserate over their unfortunate lot. Petr is now married, and Masha turns to another suitor, but they seem to be mooning over one another as they work together in the fields once more. The version I saw ends suddenly with a shot of Masha’s wedding, she not looking happy at all in her finery.

Take that, Murnau!

Take that, Murnau!

As the fortunes of film preservation would have it, that’s all we have of this movie, because the last reel was lost at some point when the Soviets were “preserving” all Czarist-approved movies. It’s hard to imagine a happy ending, but there might have been a clearer lesson. As it is, we get enough of the flavor, at least to see what Goncharov was doing in trying to make a film about the Russian people (idealized though his view of them seemed to be), rather than Russian high culture like Pushkin and Tolstoy. Especially noteworthy here was the camerawork of Louis Forestier, the Paris-born cinematographer (he also shot “The Brigand Brothers” and “Queen of Spades”). He’s very interested in what the camera shows, what it does not, and when and how to reveal things. In one shot, a critical feature is blocked by Ivan Mosjoukine’s gangly frame in the middle of the shot, until he turns and sees it in the distance, and suddenly that becomes the center-point of the action. In another, a pan begins with two characters seemingly in a harsh street environment, then slowly revealing another direction for them to walk off towards the front plaza of the rich man’s house. The scene where Masha first arrives in the city is highly reminiscent of the farmer couple’s entrance to the city in “Sunrise,” except where F.W. Murnau had to build an elaborate crane and expensive street-set, Forestier gets the same effect with real streets and streetcars, without even needing a close up to achieve it.

Speaking of which, Fritzi Kramer, over at “Movies Silently,” says that this movie “aches for close-ups.” There aren’t any. There aren’t any Intertitles either, and although I had to watch it twice to be sure I caught everything, I don’t regard either of these as weaknesses. We maintain a distance from our subjects in part because they are more archetypes than individuals, but more importantly because it seems like the respectful distance they would ask of us. They are not prudes, these Russian peasants, but they don’t just let any stranger into their intimate worlds. The lack of Intertitles in a semi-literate world also seems highly appropriate. Each outdoor shot takes beautiful advantage of the countryside, and the indoor spaces are always at a pleasing angle, rather than the square “stages” of a Biograph production of the time. Overall, I found it as affecting as the best of Griffith’s melodramas, and better shot than any of them.

Alternate Titles: Krest’ianskaia Dolia, Крестьянская доля

Director: Vasily Goncharov

Camera: Louis Forestier

Starring: Ivan Mosjoukine, Alexandra Goncharova, Pyotr Chardinin, Lidiya Tridenskaya

Run Time: 35 Min (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.