Czars, Bullets and Hard Lines.
1928 the last days of silent films (The Jazz Singer 1927 being first sound synced film) sees director Josef von Sternberg (Shanghai Express) bring us a tale of two different worlds, that of Czarist Russia and that of Hollywood USA. Where a Director is looking for his next extra and suddenly recognises a face from his past. This is #146 in the Masters of Cinema release from Eureka (See Special Features below).
Hollywood 1928 and big time director Leo Andreyev (William Powell, The Great Ziegfeld) at Eureka Film studio is looking through piles of photos of Russian actors and extras for his next epic film about the Russian revolution. His frustration shows as he flicks through the photos, disgruntled at the lack of talent to fit the character he has in mind until he comes across a photo that sparks something in him.
Sergius Alexander lives in a one room apartment. A man of no means in these beleaguered times, he appears to be a doddery old man with a head twitch. He takes the phone call in the hallway and is told to be at the studio at six am ready for outfitting and filming.
Sergius is outfitted at different windows with uniform, boots, hat and sword, he and everybody else is off to do their make up.
Whilst in the make up room his head twitching starts to annoy one of the other extras and when Sergius puts on a medal that he says was given to him by the Czar of Russia, they make fun of him and ask why he has the facial tick and this starts off a flashback to Russia 1917.
Grand Duke Sergius Alexander is the cousin of the Czar of Russia and the head of Russian army which is fighting on a two thousand mile front. The army is worn down and moth eaten as the revolutionary’s have captured their supply lines.
The Grand Duke loves his country and hates the idea of these revolutionists taking over his motherland and then two of the most wanted are found during a routine passport screening
They are Lev Andreyev (Powell) and Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent, The Seventh Victim). He is the leader of the Kief Imperial Theatre and she is his leading lady. Sergius demands to know why he isn’t in uniform, ‘weak lungs’ is the answer. Disgusted at this, he strikes the man with his whip and has him arrested. But Natalie is a different prospect as he takes a liking to the pretty revolutionist.
The rest as they say is history. This is a brilliant slice of history and Jennings deserves the very first Academy award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Evelyn shows her fervour as the lead of the revolution.
“If he does it again – remove the coat and shoot the contents!”
Special Features confirmed as:
· High-definition presentation on the Blu-ray
· Original organ score by Gaylord Carter (uncompressed on the Blu-ray)
· New video interview with critic Tony Rayns
· Sternberg Till ‘29, a video essay by scholar Tag Gallagher
· A 32-page booklet featuring an excerpt from von Sternberg’s autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry, two original reviews from 1928, a 1929 profile of Jannings, and archival images.