This is my contribution to the Russia in Classic Film blogathon, being organised by Movies Silently. Please take a look at the great range of posts on films, stars and directors with Russian links.
Anna Sten in Nana, from the Doctor Macro website
She’s known as ‘Goldwyn’s Folly’ – if she gets a mention at all, that is. But, after seeing a few of her films, I feel that actress Anna Sten deserves more recognition. The Russian star was a victim of over-hype by the studio – with failed attempts to turn her into the “new” Garbo or Dietrich, rather than creating an image around her own screen personality. She was also advertised as the “Passionate Peasant”, which didn’t sit well with the glamorous photos used to celebrate her beauty.
Either because of too much publicity, the studio’s choice of roles or for some other reason, Sten failed to set the box office alight. That’s not in doubt… but I do get fed up with the claims in reviews of some of her films that she “couldn’t act” or “lacked talent”. Her success before arriving in the US surely proves the opposite – and her acting ability also shines through in the films she did make in Hollywood.
Born in Kiev, probably in 1908 though records vary, Anna was half Ukrainian and half-Swedish. She attended theatre school and, after being discovered by legendary theatre director Stanislavsky, appeared on stage and in a number of Russian and German silent films. She went on to star in German talkies, including an acclaimed production of The Brothers Karamazov made in 1931 – I’ve just seen this and it’s a forgotten gem.
I’ve been watching a few 1950s Westerns lately, and enjoyed this gorgeously-filmed Technicolor offering from the start of the decade, starring Gary Cooper. It’s one of his lesser films, and rather uneven, with some unbelievable plot twists, but still a good role for him. Cooper plays a haunted man – a former Confederate officer, Blayde “Reb” Hollister, who has lost everything in the war. For Reb, the conflict is still going on, as he turns outlaw and has a price on his head. Ruth Roman stars opposite Cooper, with Leif Erickson, Raymond Massey and Steve Cochran also featuring in a fine cast.
Cooper was pushing 50 when he made this, and his leading-man looks are noticeably fading. But his weary, melancholy features make his role as a lonely outsider all the more poignant. His character is someone who has been left behind, and is trying to make his way in a world which has moved on without him. This reminded me of Bogart’s character in a film director Stuart Heisler made the previous year, Tokyo Joe, who is also emotionally stranded after a war, though in his case it is the Second World War. (Both films also have a strong focus on love triangles, as does Blue Skies, the only other Heisler film I’ve seen, which, as a Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire musical, is otherwise worlds away from this one, )
I’ve been meaning to write something about this little-known but powerful melodrama directed by King Vidor, which was made under the Hays Code, but feels like a pre-Code in its sympathetic portrayal of an adulterous passion. Unfortunately I’ve left it a little too long since watching it and my memories are starting to fade, but I do want to write a brief review and post the lovely stills that I’ve collected together from this production. Gary Cooper stars as a hard-drinking and debt-ridden author suffering from writer’s block, a character said to have been based on F Scott Fitzgerald, with Anna Sten as a Polish farm girl who he falls for. Gregg Toland’s atmospheric black and white photography helps to create a feeling of unbearable tension, especially in the later scenes.
Since writing a posting about dogs on film a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been wondering about cats’ roles in the movies- and have now come up with a few, with some photos and video clips. Individual cats might tend not to play big parts, but there are still quite a few featured in movies. Once again, these are not necessarily the best five movie cats, but just five I like – and I’d be interested to hear other suggestions. I don’t have much time tonight, but wanted to keep up my Monday series – and I will also hopefully be posting a full movie review later this week!
Alice in Wonderland (1903): My daughter, Charlotte, drew my attention to this very first film version of Lewis Carroll’s classic. Just nine minutes long, it has been restored by the BFI complete with the original colour tints. The Cheshire cat in this is a family pet and looks amazingly grumpy! It was directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, and was based on Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations – and, as the BFI points out, made just 37 years after the novel was written. The film is severely damaged and not easy to watch, though I think it is worth it – but, if you don’t have time for the whole thing or can’t put up with the picture quality, the cat features at 4.56.
I’m continuing my series of postings on William A Wellman films with a look at another of his smash hits. However, Beau Geste is very different from most of his movies that I’ve discussed so far. Returning from Technicolor to atmospheric black and white, this is a melodramatic imperialist adventure in the vein of Gunga Din or The Four Feathers, which were both released in the same celebrated movie year, 1939. At the outbreak of the Second World War, military danger and heroism were in the air. Gary Cooper takes the title role as Michael “Beau” Geste, with Ray Milland and Robert Preston as his two brothers. The story is set in the pre-First World War period, as the three all run away from their English home to join the French foreign legion after the mysterious theft of a rare jewel. They end up in the Sahara, commanded by a sadistic sergeant (Oscar-nominated Brian Donlevy). Based on a bestselling 1920s novel by now largely forgotten writer PC Wren, the film is a strange mixture of wildly noble gestures, as its title suggests and a surprisingly gritty depiction of war – all shot through with humour and set against an idealised English Edwardian childhood. I found it compelling to watch, but did feel that it fell away a bit in the middle.
The movie is available as a region 1 DVD in the Universal Backlot series, as well as a region 2 Spanish DVD. There is also a region 1 box set which includes it, the Gary Cooper Collection. I don’t know what the quality of any of these DVD releases is like, as I saw the movie on the Sky Classics satellite TV station in the UK, which showed a beautiful, sharp print.
My review will inevitably be full of spoilers, and this is a film where the plot twists are important to the effect – including the shocks in the opening scene – so, if you fancy watching it, I’d suggest doing so before you read on.
After seeing Borzage’s Depression drama Man’s Castle, I was keen to see more of his pre-Code work – and, having now seen A Farewell to Arms twice, must say I think it is a masterpiece. I’ll admit that I don’t remember Hemingway’s novel very well and am not sure how much resemblance the film bears to the book (not much, according to Hemingway himself, who was unimpressed). But, if you don’t worry about comparisons with the printed page, the film itself is powerful – with great performances from both Gary Cooper and top-billed Helen Hayes, Oscar-winning cinematography by Charles Lang, and a blend of wild romance and dark, unsentimental depictions of war and suffering.
When seeking out this film, it pays to be careful which version you watch. There are a lot of public domain DVDs around containing a censored version from a later cinema release, cutting out 10 minutes of footage, including two sexual encounters which are vital to the plot. I ended up watching the film in this mutilated form to start with, and was confused by how much it jumped around in the early scenes – and also by the fact that some conversations made no sense. However, when I looked up some information about the movie, all became clear. I realised that it was in fact 89 minutes long, and what I had seen was a 79-minute version cut to remove the pre-Code content.
Since I’ve just been starting to get into silent movies, I was pleased to have the chance to see this little-known silent melodrama at the BFI in London, where it was screened as part of their Josef von Sternberg season. I was especially attracted by this film because it stars Clara Bow and Gary Cooper, who also both feature in Wellman’s Wings, made the same year, about which I’ve been busy obsessing lately.
Clara Bow and Gary Cooper
However, this is a very different type of film, a woman’s emotion picture with a soapy flavour, centred on two friends, played by Bow and Esther Ralston, and their love lives – at times I was reminded of later films like The Old Maid or Old Acquaintance starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. The friendship between Kitty and Jean is central throughout and just as important as their relationships with the men in their lives. As the title suggests, the film is full of lurid warnings about the dangers of divorce and the terrible effects on the next generation – though, bizarrely, as the story centres on a desperately unhappy marriage, I’d have thought it actually works as an argument for divorce rather than against it.
Now that I’ve seen two great William Wellman silent films, Wings and Beggars of Life, I’d love to see the rest. Sadly, I can’t, and I won’t be able to see all his early talkies either. Some of his early movies have been lost (along with an estimated 90 per cent of all silent movies), while, perhaps more infuriating still, others do exist but aren’t available to see.
The lost film of his I’m saddest not to see is The Legion of the Condemned (1928), which starred Gary Cooper and Fay Wray and was another aviation melodrama based on a story by John Monk Saunders, also writer of Wings and The Dawn Patrol. It was based on the fliers who signed up for the Lafayette Escadrille, a French squadron largely made up of Americans, in the First World War – a subject which had personal resonance for Wellman, as he served with the French himself, and which he was to return to in his last film. This movie apparently showed its heroes as motivated by a death wish, with various reasons for wanting to die in battle. Cooper, who had just a small part in Wings but made a strong impression, here played a daring pilot, with Wray as the spy he had to take over enemy lines. I found a review from the New York Times which is patronising and makes fun of the apparently far-fetched plot, but still to me gives a feeling that this must have been a powerful movie. It would be great if a print did turn up one day.
Just thought I’d pass on word that there is going to be a season of Josef von Sternberg movies at the BFI (British Film Institute) in London during December, including some exciting rarities! I’m especially intrigued by the sound of Children of Divorce (1927), a silent movie starring Gary Cooper and Clara Bow, as I’ve just seen them both in Wings, which was made the same year.
It is amazing to me to realise that this haunting and dazzling silent epic was so nearly lost forever, despite being winner of the first Oscar for best film. It had been thought that no copies of William Wellman’s early masterpiece still existed, until a print was discovered in the Cinémathèque Française archive in Paris and quickly restored. Watching it and seeing how powerful the imagery and acting are, with great performances by Clara Bow, Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, plus a memorable cameo by Gary Cooper, it makes me wonder how many other great movies have indeed been lost to us.
Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen
Although this film does survive against all the odds, and has been shown in a few cinemas with an organ accompaniment, it hasn’t as yet been released on DVD, except as a video transfer on the “grey market” and on a Chinese DVD, which I believe has subtitles that can’t be removed. After watching it twice in a good unofficial copy, I’d love to see it fully restored. According to the article on it at Wikipedia, which includes a good clear plot summary, the original release was colour-tinted and had some scenes in an early widescreen format, as well as some prints having synchronised sound effects. A special edition DVD could try to re-create all this, and have a commentary from a film historian – I’d rush out to buy it! However, even a DVD without all those bells and whistles would be very welcome.