Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Ivan Mosjoukine

Queen of Spades (1916)

About a year ago, I reviewed a 1910 Russian film of the same name by Pyotr Chardynin. This movie is surprisingly different, although that may result from the sources: this movie is based directly on the novel by Pushkin, while the earlier one is an adaptation of the opera by Tchaikovsky (itself based on the novel). Apart from that, the greater length of this version allows for a more complete telling of the story, which is more lightly sketched in the other version.

Queen_of_Spades_(1916_film)Ivan Mosjoukine is German, a young soldier from a good family with little money. Each night, while his comrades stay up and gamble, he watches them play cards, fascinated. When asked why he doesn’t join their games, he replies “I am not in a position to risk the essential in the hope of acquiring the superfluous.” At dinner, his friend tells him about his Aunt, the Countess (played in flashback by Tamara Duvan), who also does not play cards. When she was a young woman, she went to Paris and lost a great deal of money to the Duc d’Orleans. He insisted upon her paying up, although she couldn’t afford it. In desperation, she turned to the Count Saint-Germain (played by Nikolai Panov), the famed occultist and alchemist. He assured her that she didn’t need money, she just needed the secret to winning at cards, which he gave to her. She then asked for a return match and won all she had lost back and more. Her nephew cannot understand why she refuses to use her power still.

Queen of Spades1916German becomes obsessed with the idea of learning the Countess’s secret. He cannot sleep, so he walks the streets of St. Petersburg, eventually coming across the Countess’s house and seeing her going out for the evening with her young ward, Lizaveta (played by Vera Orlova). An idea strikes him: he spends his days hanging around outside the house, apparently mooning over Lizaveta. He passes her love notes whenever she comes outside of the house. She is smitten by the handsome and earnest young man, and eventually lets him know how he can sneak into the house while the two ladies are out at a ball. When they get home, Lizaveta waits eagerly in her room, but German goes to the old woman and demands her secret. She won’t speak, so he pulls out a revolver. On seeing it, the Countess promptly dies. Finally, German goes to Lizaveta and tells her the Countess is dead. That’s the last we see of Lizaveta in this version. Now German goes home and broods, when he is visited by a vision of the Countess. She tells him a sequence of three cards that always wins: three, seven, ace. Now he knows the secret! He arranges for his friend to get him into a gambling night run by “Chekalinskii,” a Moscow high-roller. He arrives and makes his bet on the three, winning a substantial amount from the house. The next night, he come in and bets on the seven, winning again. When he comes in for the third night, he is sure he has won, until Chekalinskii says “my ace beats your queen.” German looks at the Queen of Spades in his hand and sees the face of the Countess. He has lost, and he goes mad, winding up in a lunatic asylum, hallucinating about cards.

Whoa! Got enough Maybelline on there, Ivan?

Whoa! Got enough Maybelline on there, Ivan?

The direction of this by Yakov Protazanov is more stylized and varied in technique than the 1910 version, though in the end the pacing doesn’t work as well for me as the original. We get Ivan Mozzhukine’s tormented performance, which is good, as all his work is, but frankly it doesn’t have enough of an arc to hold my interest: he’s obsessed by cards at the beginning, and he’s still obsessed in the end. It doesn’t help that for some reason he wears heavy eye-liner that makes him look like an early Goth or Bowie fan. The most obvious difference in plot is the lack of a scene where Lizaveta kills herself when she realizes that German never loved her, but just used her to get to the Countess. That may be an addition Tchaikovsky threw in – it does seem quite operatic. In any case, that made the 1910 version seem like more of a tragic romance to me – perhaps German does love her but thinks he needs the money in order to “deserve” her. Here, German’s just a jerk, even if he is a driven, intense and at times fascinating jerk. Mozzhukine’s intensity in this film reminds me of Conrad Veidt in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or of Lon Chaney as the armless man in “The Unknown.” I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that this ends with an identical scene to “Natural Born Gambler” in which a person plays cards with himself in prison.

Queen of Spades 1916 1Protazanov seems to have had a bigger budget for extras, sets, and costumes, but not really enough imagination to keep the story moving forward as easily as the shorter film. What really stood out for me was the clear delineation between the main story in post-Napoleonic Russia and the flashback to pre-Revolutionary France. The accuracy in costumes is vital to this division, as well as some wise elements of set design (lots of mirrors to represent Versailles, for example). Some elements of the production could be said to prefigure Expressionism, as the set design and use of backlighting comments to some degree on the subjective state of the characters. The best camera move comes at the end, a long backward tracking shot as German approaches the gambling table for the final time. That said, Protazanov sticks mostly to square-shaped sets with exits and entrances, and minimal camera movement in very long takes.

Director: Yakov Protazanov

Camera: Evegni Slavinsky

Cast: Ivan Mosjoukine, Vera Orlova, Tamara Duvan, Nikolai Panov, Pavel Pavlov, Yelizaveta Shebueva

Run Time: 1 hr, 3 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.

House in Kolomna (1913)

Alternate Titles: Little House in Kolomna, Domik v Kolomne

 House in Kolomna1

Ivan Mosjoukine is rightly known for the diversity of the roles he’s played: I’ve now seen him both as the Devil and as a transvestite soldier! In this light romp based on a poem by Pushkin, the young daughter of a widow is carrying on an affair with Ivan, during the occasional breaks she gets from Mama’s watchful eye. When Mama asks her to go out and find a “cheap cook,” she seizes her chance and goes straight to her soldier. He agrees to dress up as a woman and goes home with her. Of course, the new cook proves to be incompetent at cooking and other womanly duties like sewing, giving the widow massages, or leaving the house (since he’s afraid he’ll be recognized). That’s OK, though, because the daughter is always there to bail her/him out of trouble, and they get to carry on their lovemaking in her room whenever Mama’s not around. One day, the cook fakes sick to get out of going to Mass, but Mama thinks maybe “she’s” planning to rob the joint, so sneaks back and catches “her” shaving, which practically gives her an apoplexy. The movie ends with a comedic moral about cheap cooks and men wearing skirts.

 House in Kolomna

I found this to be a pretty effective “situational comedy,” not so different to gender-bending comedies from the US of the time, but possibly a bit more feminist. Why feminist? Well, the person in control of this whole situation is the daughter, not the man, and even in the bedroom scene, she clearly places herself in the dominant position. Mosjoukine gets into his role and exaggerates both feminine and masculine body language for comedic effect. The liner notes claim that he enjoyed himself so much that during outdoor scenes he attracted crowds of astonished people. The movie was also shot by Ladislaw Starevich, better known for his animated movies, and directed by Pyotr Chardynin, of “The Queen of Spades.” Once again, I would assume that the targeted audience was probably familiar with the source material, but here we see an unusual number of intertitles to clarify, and also to slip in some sly jokes here and there. Probably these are lines from Pushkin that the audience would have expected to see; even with my severely flawed Russian I caught that some of the intertitles rhymed, or made plays on language.

 House in Kolomna2

Incidentally, Fritzi Kramer, over at Movies Silently, also recently reviewed this film. Check out her thoughts here.

Director: Pyotr Chardynin

Camera: Ladislaw Starevich

Starring: Ivan Mosjoukine, Sofia Golovskaya, Praskovya Maksimova

Run Time: 30 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Christmas Eve (1913)

Christmas Eve

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.

 Christmas Eve1

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

Starring: Ivan Mosjoukine, Olga Obolenskaya, Lidiya Tridenskaya, Alexander Kheruvimov, Petr Lopukhin

Run Time: 41 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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.