Writers: Guy Bolton and Jules Furthman, from the play by Michael Morton
Stars: Elissa Landi, Lionel Barrymore and Laurence Olivier
|This review is part of the Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. This is my Lionel Barrymore review after Ethel on Monday and John yesterday.|
Really it’s a propaganda piece to warn us that the people who run the Russian Empire really aren’t very nice, but it was released in 1931, when the Russian Empire was long gone and those paying attention were worrying more about a new leader finding his way to power a little further to the west. In 1914, when Michael Morton wrote a play called The Yellow Ticket, it was topical. Europe was about to stumble into war and this play was set only a year earlier. It ran for 183 performances between January and June, starring Florence Reed and John Barrymore, Lionel’s younger brother. In 1916, when Edwin August adapted it to film, initially as The Yellow Passport and, later in re-release, The Badge of Shame, it remained topical because the scuffle that people suggested would be over by Christmas was raging through its third year and Tsar Nicholas II was still in power in Russia. Even in 1918, when filmmakers made two further adaptations, The Yellow Ticket in America and Der gelbe Schein in Germany, the Russian Revolution was still resonating.
Before we get to him, though, we need to experience his Russia from a different perspective, that of Marya Kalish, a teacher and a Jew, which religion is being persecuted by the Cossacks. It’s 1913 and martial law is declared, with all Jews confined to ghettos. No love can be found for those Cossacks in her classroom! After casually mentioning to her children that Russia is so big that it houses 200 million Russians, so many that every time you take a breath one of them dies, little Milva starts breathing quickly just to speed up the process. Her brother arrives home from St. Petersburg, where he was imprisoned for six months for non-payment of unjust taxes, and he brings news of their father, Abraham, who’s seriously ill there. Marya must go to him, but the authorities won’t allow a Jew a passport. Fortunately, by observation of other Jews being allowed onto trains, she discovers another way: the yellow ticket of the title, effectively a license for prostitutes. ‘You can go anywhere with it,’ says Fania Rubinstein. ‘Anywhere there’s men.’
Surely much of the credit here goes to James Wong Howe, the cinematographer, who was still freelancing at the time. He’d started in film as far back as 1923 and wouldn’t john MGM until a decade later. He would be notable for much of his work for them, but the Academy didn’t acknowledge him until 1939 when he shot Algiers and received an Oscar nomination for doing so. He didn’t win for that film, indeed not until The Rose Tattoo in 1956, but he ended up with two wins from nine nominations, his last being Funny Lady as late as 1975. He uses some interesting filmmaking technique to highlight how lively it is at Madam Petrova’s brothel and there’s more when Marya gets to wherever her father is. Presumably it’s a prison, but it looks more like a cross between a deep mine and one of Dante’s circles of Hell. It gets more traditional as it runs on, but it’s never stagebound, never boring and never remotely like the usual adaptations of stage plays to Hollywood screens in 1931. This is a textbook of how it was possible to move the camera.
So, no chance of salvation there! She’s stuck with her yellow ticket, even if it’s brought her nothing but misery. It didn’t get her to her father, as he was dead when she got to St. Petersburg, but it did get her into jail and now it’s got her into acute embarrassment in front of the most important person she’s ever met in her life, ruining her chances of escaping her brand of a ‘crooked woman’ in the process. So she takes the train back to St. Petersburg and finds herself sharing a carriage with British journalist Julian Rolfe. We’re almost half an hour of set-up into the story, but we’re about to really get moving in a number of directions. For one, she’s a revelation for him, someone who has read his work and appreciates it, if only he would reveal the Russia that she knows. ‘I’m sure there’s a lot you haven’t seen,’ she tells him, so he hires her as his secretary. For another, she’s a beautiful young lady with whom he quickly falls in love, proposing marriage within a couple of weeks, not that she’s ready to accept given her circumstances!
At least Olivier was playing a character of his own nationality. Fox did go to some trouble to make this feel authentic, painting the various signs in Cyrillic. However, Elissa Landi was an Italian actor with a cultured accent who comes across more as Scandinavian than Russian. She’s too erudite to work as a common woman, even if she’s educated and taught for a living. Lionel Barrymore isn’t as interested in playing a Russian police chief as he is a movie villain, so his voice, which sounds just as it usually was when playing Americans, isn’t as important as it might otherwise have been. What matters is that he’s a bad man, a ruthless man and an entitled man, even if he’s also a punctual man. The first thing he does in the film is to receive a prison warden who has brought him a set of cases recommended for mercy. These men are up for execution the next day but Andreeff growls, ‘I haven’t time to wade through all this,’ and promptly tears them all in half. Rumour has it that he wears a steel corset and we can understand why.