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Monday, 6 July 2009
Stars: Lon Chaney and Ricardo Cortez
Highly forgotten today, this is a silent film featuring a few major names, not least Lon Chaney himself, one of the biggest stars of the entire silent era. This one comes between two of his more famous films: a wonderful Tod Browning film called The Unknown and what is likely to be a far less wonderful Tod Browning film called London After Midnight, judging from the reconstruction I've seen of it. It's a lost film, one of the most sought after lost films of them all, not far behind F W Murnau's 4 Devils and the full version of Greed.
Here Chaney surprisingly plays only one role, that of a unibrowed Russian halfwit called Sergei, and he looks more like Paul Muni than Lon Chaney. Then again he never looked the same from one film to the next, so such a look is hardly surprising. We're in Siberia during the Russian Revolution and a beautiful young woman appears to him in the forest and asks him to guide her to Novokursk. I wonder why that never happen to me. Anyway, he takes very good care of her, protecting her in every way possible, even suffering defiantly through a whipping by the enemy without giving her up.
Of course she's not just some random beautiful young woman. She's the Countess Alexandrova, on an important mission to deliver orders to the army at Novokursk. Sergei doesn't realise this, of course, doing his job purely out of devotion and her promise to be his friend, and neither does a Russian soldier called Dimitri who is sent to escort her from the hospital to the army HQ. He takes her for a peasant and tries on the sort of arrogant charm you might expect given that he's played by Ricardo Cortez, riding high himself in 1927 after playing opposite Greta Garbo in one of her best films, 1926's Torrent.
So while Dimitri romances the Countess and gets her avid kisses in return, our dim witted Sergei only gets jealous because she appears to be going back on her promise to be his friend. She does ensure he's fed and given employment at the house of a nouveau riche war profiteer called Gaidaroff, a character played by someone as utterly un-Russian as you could get: the Mack Sennett regular Mack Swain, a regular foil to Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. Such was the universal appeal of silent movies that he can play Gaidaroff without anyone having to complain about his accent.
Sergei is given work with the Gaidaroff's gatekeeper, Ivan. Now Ivan doesn't just have notably scary teeth, he also has notably subversive ideas that he is just itching to try out on dim witted Sergei, who eats it all up. After all, if every man is rendered equal then the Countess must surely accept his kisses instead of Dimitri's. How could anyone resist a unibrowed peasant when his only competition is Ricardo Cortez? Well, he is a halfwit, after all, and he gets his chance when the army rushes out to save Vladisk from the Cossacks and the reds seize the opportunity.
The cast are decent but don't get much opportunity. Barbara Bedford is an agreeable Countess, whose eyes widen and nostril flare accordingly, but she sinks a little too often into the damsel in distress mode that doesn't quite fit with her obvious capabilities. She's a forgotten name of the silent era, having risen as high as playing opposite Wallace Beery in The Last of the Mohicans, William S Hart in Tumbleweeds and Lon Chaney here, only to drop down the credit list as the sound era took over, from initially higher slots in films like Tol'able David and The Lash down to uncredited roles as the thirties ran on. I don't remember her voice from the sound films I've seen her in but I presume that must have had a lot to do with it.
In support, Ricardo Cortez has next to nothing to do, not even as much as Mack Swain and Emily Fitzroy, playing his screen wife. Future western leading man Johnny Mack Brown was on his second credit and so only gets a couple of lines. It would be another year before his star would rise in Garbo movies like The Divine Woman and A Woman of Affairs, as well as through being Joan Crawford's leading man in Our Dancing Daughters. But Brown was no name here.
The real name everyone paid to see was Chaney's but there's another one that warrants mention too: that of the director, Benjamin Christensen. This Danish director had rocketed to fame with his third film, Häxan, later mangled into an American version under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages. This is only the second of his films that I've seen, though he had done some work on the Lionel Barrymore version of The Mysterious Island, and it looks very good indeed. It ends up as an unremarkable historical melodrama with an inevitable Chaney ending, but that's not the fault of Christensen or the cast.