Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Boris Zavelev

The Dying Swan (1917)

With some sadness, I return once more to the work of Evgeni Bauer, who I discovered early in the first year of this project. This movie, which was one of the last he made, will likely be the last one I will review – unless I discover one I hadn’t known was available, or unless new discoveries are made in Russia.

The movie begins with a somewhat somber “meet cute,” in which a young man (Vitold Polonski) looking for a lost dog asks a young woman (Vera Karalli) if she has seen it. She turns away and does not answer, but her father (Aleksandr Kheruvimov) comes over and explains that she is mute. The young couple are introduced as Gizella and Viktor, but they make no further contact at this time. Later, we learn that Gizella is a dancer, and that her “soul” is dancing, but she is deeply sad that she couldn’t speak to the young man. They soon see one another again on a forest path while she is picking flowers and he is out for a walk. When she sees him, she stumbles and falls, turning an ankle. He helps her back to her house, thus learning where she lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Best Cinematography 1915

Capturing images on the screen is where the entire concept of movies begins. What we really respond to in watching a film is simply light, nothing more. The skill required to manipulate light and objects to create images that will impact an audience is tremendous, and often overlooked in the industry. Great cameramen are artists, at least as much as great directors, and accomplished technicians as well.

The year 1915 encouraged the growth of this art form, even as the increasing popularity feature-length movies raised the narrative level of the medium. In “Young Romance,” cameraman Walter Stradling combined striking exteriors with highly deliberate interior shots that show a sense of mise-en-scène rarely seen in American cinema to this time. By contrast, in “The ItalianJoseph H. August creates a stark vision of an urban world of tenements and gangsters, although the opening sequence in the old country also shows a nostalgic romanticism. Russian cinematographer Boris Zavlev, with “Daydreams,” once again merits recognition for his “free” camera which isn’t afraid to move both with and counter to actors in order to place the audience more convincingly inside their world, rather than looking at it from a distance. Back in the USA, Alvin Wyckoff gives us both intimate views of the emotional world of the characters in “The Cheat” and considerable use of contrast and shadows to define the darkening world they inhabit. No doubt this night film style will be picked up and used again in the future. The artistic use of light and shadow is also strong in the crime picture by Maurice Tourneur, “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” which includes some very original angles and unusual images indeed.

The nominees for Best Cinematography for 1915 are

  1. Young Romance
  2. The Italian
  3. Daydreams
  4. The Cheat
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

And the winner is…Boris Zavlev for “Daydreams!”

Daydreams1This year we did see American cinematographers start to break out of the confines of earlier years of production, but the Russians still surpassed them. “Daydreams” feels like a movie from the 20s, not the mid-teens, and a lot of that is due to Zavlev’s freely mobile camera. While last year’s winner, “Silent Witnesses” almost won by default, this year “Daydreams” had tough competition but still managed to pull ahead of the pack. The use of a complex tracking shot to show a character’s change of decision and the effective filming of a stage performance that includes the audience without making them into performers themselves are two great examples of what made Russian cinema the artistic leader it was at the time.

A Life for a Life (1916)

Alternate Titles: Zhiznt zo zhizn, A Tear for Every Drop of Blood, Za kozhduiu slezu po kople krovi, The Rival Sisters, Sestry sopernitsy.

Once again I return to Russian filmmaker Evgeni Bauer, and again I find his work masterful and fascinating. This film also established one of Russia’s most important film stars, Vera Kholodaia, as a major artistic phenomenon.

Life for a LifeThe story is of two sisters, one adopted, who are raised by their very successful single mother. She runs a factory, spending most of her waking hours working, in order to secure the family’s fortune. The adopted daughter, Nata (memorably played by Vera Kholodnaia, who was in “Children of the Age” and a 1914 version of “Anna Karenina”) is a little older, and quite beautiful, but it’s understood that she will not inherit, the money will go to Musia, the younger, less attractive natural daughter of the capitalist mom (Lidiia Koreneva). The young girls are social butterflies, going to dances, parties, and other events, where the men of course regard them as possible prey. Enter Prince Bartinskii (Vitol’d Polonskii), a scoundrel who gambles heavily and has enormous debts. He starts hanging around Nata and they fall in love. He confers with a friend (Ivan Perestiani, who became a director after the revolution, making “The Suram Fortress” and “Three Lives”) about his financial situation, and the friend points out that he needs a rich wife to help him get out of debt and continue his extravagant lifestyle. Nata is not the girl for him, whatever his feelings. But the friend suggests a solution, he is willing to make the sacrifice and marry the lovely Nata for him, if he will marry Musia. Then, the affair can continue, and the Prince will have the money he needs. And so it is done, and the setup for a multi-way tragedy is established.

Life for a Life3This may have been one of the first attempts in Russia to make a “blockbuster” big-budget hit movie, and it was apparently successful with audiences and critics. Based on a French novel by Georges Ohnet, it was not a nationalist epic, along the lines of “The Birth of a Nation” or “Defense of Savastapol.” Instead, it is a romantic story of bourgeois relationships being fouled by aristocratic greed and corruption, an interesting theme for pre-revolutionary Russia. Bauer took advantage of his increased budget by hiring extras and building large, ornate sets. Apparently his use of columns in the background was mocked in the press at the time and seen as an attempt to imitate “foreign” influences. I would agree that there are a lot of them – one in almost every shot, and in one scene a mirror serves to double one of them in case actors should happen to step in front of it. But, I don’t know why this would be seen as “foreign.” Bauer’s set designs generally tended to be busy, and he liked to give the eye more to look at than people; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen columns in other movies by him, I just wasn’t looking for them at the time. Furthermore, I can’t think of a foreign director of the time who used them so much.

Uh oh, columns!

Uh oh, columns!

This movie apparently made Kholodnaia into a major Russian star, earning her the title of “Queen of the Screen,” and she is certainly the one to watch in this movie. She expresses love, joy, guilt, shame, horror, and terrible sadness, sometimes within just a few minutes of each other, but without over-acting, and all the while remaining the focal point of the film. The mom is actually pretty good too – in many ways she’s the real victim here – as is Perestiani. Polonskii and Koreneva have less to do – he mostly looks shifty and smarmy and she just looks stupidly injured. The scene where her mother advises her not to marry the prince is the height of melodramatic pantomime.

Life for a Life2

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavlev

Starring: Ol’ga Rakhmanova, Lidiia Koreneva, Vera Kholodnaia, Vitol’d Polonskii, Ivan Perestiani

Run Time: 1hr 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here (42 Min version)

1915 Century Award Nominations

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medThe nominations for the “real” Academy Awards were announced earlier today, and once again I’ve seen none of the movies up for consideration, and have only heard of about half of them. This is a recurring theme, and there’s no reason for me to be bitter about it. I just don’t go to the movies very much, and when I do, I usually don’t enjoy it much.

But…for those who are interested in my opinions of the movies of one hundred years ago, this is also the day that I announce my nominations for the Century Awards. I did a pretty good job of watching available movies from 1915 over the past year, although of course it’s not possible to see everything and I may have missed some obvious ones. I may be making some last minute additions in the next weeks, depending on how the Inter-Library Loan gods treat me.

This year, I’m sticking with the categories and rules I established last year with no significant changes. That means that “shorts” and “features” are competing in the same categories, as are “adapted” and “original” screenplays, and there are no special categories for “documentaries” or “animated” movies. In terms of movie length, I could have changed the rules this year, in light of the much higher rate of feature film production in 1915, but with Charlie Chaplin vaulting to super-stardom on the basis of two-reel releases this year, it only seemed right to let him compete with the longer movies. I think most of the “shorts” I nominated are his, though there’s probably an exception or two. I’ve never really understood the distinction between “original” (nothing is original in Hollywood) and “adapted” screenplays, and I’m too lazy to care, so there’s just one category there. As far as docs and animated, it comes down to the fact that I didn’t see enough of either to justify a separate category. The only 1915 animated movie I’ve seen is Ladislaw Starevich’s “Lily of Belgium,” so I guess it wins by default. I saw both “Over the Top” and “Mabel and Fatty Viewing the San Francisco Exposition,” both of which are sort of documentaries and sort of not, but that’s not enough to be called a representative sample of nonfiction film in 1915. (Between the two of them, “Over the Top” would win, if anyone’s interested). I still see no reason to separate “foreign language” from English-language silent films, and, yes, I’m keeping “Best Stunts.”

As I said last year, the rules to the Academy Awards say that there can be “up to five” nominees for each category except Best Picture, which gets “up to ten.” If you want to weigh in on the choices I’ve made, cast your “vote” by commenting, and explain why you think your chosen film should win. I’m still the final arbiter (it’s my blog), but I’ll certainly take well-thought-out arguments into account. If I sneak any new nominees in, it will mean exceeding the maximums, but I figure I can break my own rules when I need to.

Finally, before anyone asks, “where’s ‘The Birth of a Nation,’” the answer to that is here.

 

Best Makeup/Hairstyling

  1. The Deadly Ring
  2. A Woman
  3. A Fool There Was
  4. Trilby
  5. A Night in the Show

Best Costume Design

  1. Trilby
  2. The Deadly Ring
  3. A Fool There Was
  4. The Coward
  5. Hypocrites
  6. Alice in Wonderland

Best Production Design

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

Best Stunts

  1. Charlie Chaplin for Work
  2. Douglas Fairbanks for The Lamb
  3. Charlie Chaplin for The Champion
  4. William Sheer for Regeneration
  5. Charlie Chaplin for By the Sea
  6. Luke the dog for Fatty’s Faithful Fido
  7. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for Fatty’s Tintype Tangle

Best Film Editing

  1. The Coward
  2. The Italian
  3. Hypocrites
  4. Cecil B. DeMille for Golden Chance
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

Best Cinematography

  1. Walter Stradling for Young Romance
  2. Joseph H. August for The Italian
  3. Boris Zavelev for Daydreams
  4. Alvin Wyckoff for The Cheat
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

Best Visual Effects (includes animation)

  1. Regeneration
  2. Ladislaw Starevich for Lily of Belgium
  3. Frank Ormston Hypocrites
  4. Children of Eve
  5. After Death

Best Screenplay

  1. Charlie Chaplin for The Bank
  2. Carl Harbaugh and Raoul Walsh for Regeneration
  3. C. Gardner Sullivan and Thomas Ince for The Italian
  4. M. Mikhailov for Children of the Age
  5. Hector Turnbull and Jeanie MacPherson for The Cheat

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Musidora for “The Red Cryptogram
  2. Kate Toncray for “The Lamb”
  3. Marta Golden for “Work”
  4. Gertrude Claire for “The Coward”
  5. Florense Simoni for “The Red Cryptogram”

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Wilton Lackaye for “Trilby”
  2. Marcel Levésque for “The Deadly Ring”
  3. William Sheer for “Regeneration”
  4. Roy Daugherty for “Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaw
  5. Sessue Hayakawa for “The Cheat”

Best Leading Actor

  1. Henry B. Walthall for “The Raven
  2. Charlie Chaplin for “The Bank”
  3. Rockliffe Fellowes for “Regeneration”
  4. George Beban for “The Italian”
  5. Vitold Polonsky for “After Death”

Best Leading Actress

  1. Clara Kimball Young for “Trilby”
  2. Anna Q. Nilsson for “Regeneration”
  3. Vera Kholodnaia for “Children of the Age”
  4. Fanny Ward for “The Cheat”
  5. Geraldine Farrar for “Carmen”
  6. Francesca Bertini for “Assunta Spina

Best Director

  1. Cecil B. DeMille for “The Cheat”
  2. Raoul Walsh for “Regeneration”
  3. Evgeni Bauer for “After Death”
  4. Maurice Tourneur for “Alias Jimmy Valentine”
  5. Charlie Chaplin for “The Bank”

Best Picture

  1. Regeneration
  2. Children of the Age
  3. After Death
  4. The Cheat
  5. Golden Chance
  6. Carmen
  7. The Bank
  8. The Deadly Ring
  9. Alias Jimmy Valentine
  10. The Italian

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.

Daydreams (1915)

Daydreams

Alternate Titles: Gryosi, Грёзы

Evgeni Bauer presages “Vertigo” with this film about death, identity, grief, and madness. A man is suffering due to the recent death of his young wife, and lops off a piece of her corpse’s hair to remember her by. Inconsolable, he wanders the streets aimlessly, until he spots a woman who is her exact double. He follows her to a theater, and watches the performance, in which she plays the part of a ghost in a cemetery. He reaches out to her, distracting the audience from the performance, then goes after her backstage, finding out where she lives. He visits her with flowers, and she receives his warm attentions with mutual interest. He tells his friend that his has found happiness again, then to his surprise his new love begins a flirtation with the friend! Unable to bear the contradictions between the ghost of his wife and the reality of the actress lookalike, he descends into madness, which is aggravated by cruel taunts from the woman. By the end, driven to the breaking point, he snaps when she starts using the lock of hair as a prop in a jest at his expense.

Daydreams1

So, we’ve got another Bauer movie from 1915, and as usual, it’s fascinating. We get the usual highly decorated Bauer sets, shot as usual from a 30-degree angle, with cutting to close-ups within scenes, and use of depth and camera movement. We also get some really nice location shots of a Russian city (I’m guessing Moscow or Petrograd, but I haven’t found a definite answer), including a very interesting tracking shot that follows the main character down the street, then halts as the woman passes, then tracks backward when he turns to follow her. From the motion, I’m guessing that this was done from an automobile, running at very low speed. The other visually interesting sequence is the theater, which includes a large number of extras (at least twenty to thirty), who are seen from front and back. They appear to be “in on” the movie, and keep to character, while some of the passersby on the street stop to stare at the camera. The theater sequence involved several camera angles, and used stage effects to show ghosts rising from the grave and smoke. The “real” ghost of Elena is represented through double exposures, ala Méliès, and sometimes shows up while her double is on the screen. It’s overall a fairly economical production, with much of the action taking place in the main character’s living room, but nevertheless surprises with its advanced techniques.

As far as the story goes, I think it may translate to modern audiences better than “The 1002nd Ruse” or “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul.” The actress seems a bit too shamelessly wanton and cruel to be believed, but I’m inclined to read this as being seen from the perspective of a man whose perceptions are distorted by grief and madness. He, after all, is demanding that she re-fashion herself to “be” his dead wife, when she is clearly her own person with her own motivations and interests. Not the most reasonable way to establish or maintain a love affair. No doubt at a certain point she feels the need to reassert her own identity, and to demand to be treated as her own person. And who would love someone who was constantly moping around about his dead wife? This is somewhat strengthened by the fact that the actor (Alexander Wyrubow, who as far as I know never worked in movies again) is rather a ham, over-acting when sulking, reaching out for his new interest, and when “going mad” with jealousy. It works for the story of someone with a tenuous grip on reality, but also seems to emphasize why the actress isn’t thrilled with her new relationship.

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavelev

Cast: Alexander Wyrubow, N. Chernobaeva

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

After Death (1915)

After_Death

After seeing this, I feel I was entirely too faint in my praise of Evgeni Bauer in my review of “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul.” He was not simply a genius of Russian cinema, but of world cinema. His movies are technically years ahead of anyone else working at the time, including D..W. Griffith – watching them I feel like I’ve skipped ahead to the early 1920s. In this one, he not only uses pans and simple tracking shots, but close-ups, reversals, and edits to suggest the broader world the characters move in. Nothing feels like it is confined to a “stage” by the camera, and the angles and compositions he chooses prevents this even more by giving depth to every scene. The story is an improvement, it is based on a Turgenev story of unrequited love and tragic suicide, and the main character, an introverted young man, made me think of the heroes of Poe or even Lovecraft. Ultimately, it is his inability to express emotions or connect with other people that leads to the horror of this story, and I would argue that it is a horror movie, even though nothing more supernatural than dreams and hallucinations takes place. Years before “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” madness was used to chilling effect in this movie, happily still viewable a century later.

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavelev

Cast: Vitold Polonsky, Vera Karalli

Run Time: 46 Mins

You can watch it for free: here.