Wednesday 17 August 2016

The Yellow Ticket (1931)

Director: Raoul Walsh
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.
Welcome to day three of the second annual Barrymore Trilogy blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. I enjoyed my three picks, selected not just to cover each of Ethel, John and Lionel Barrymore but to follow a further theme: that of writers. On Monday, I explored Deadline - USA, in which Ethel and her screen daughters sell a newspaper while a very determined Humphrey Bogart fights to keep it alive. Yesterday, I watched John the consummate scene-stealer chew up as much scenery as he could find in True Confession, in which a fanciful Carole Lombard attempts to write novels, while other invented stories change her life. Here, I’ll wrap up with Lionel in The Yellow Ticket, an unabashed melodrama with Laurence Olivier as a newspaper reporter on assignment in Russia, where he meets one young lady who shakes up everything he thought he knew. It’s a fascinating picture but one that was clearly made much too late. It must have felt almost as out of date in 1931 as it does today.

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.
But 1931? It was a different world. The heavy-handed anti-imperialist propaganda misses its target because that target, the Tsar, had been in the grave for fourteen years. In fact, Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks who had ousted and executed him, was himself seven years dead, with Joseph Stalin consolidating his positions of power and getting ready to begin the Great Purge later in the decade which saw at least half a million and maybe over a million people murdered by the Soviet government. Maybe Raoul Walsh, who had played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation and built quite a career as a director, with films such as The Thief of Bagdad, What Price Glory and The Big Trail to his name, should have taken on Stalin instead, but no, this was to be one last pot shot at the empire of the long dead Tsar Nicholas with Lionel Barrymore personifying it through the role of Baron Igor Andreeff, a severe man with fingers in many pies but presumably including running the police force, perhaps also the secret one.

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.’
There’s much worthy of note here, both good and bad. A local madam in Kiev signs one for her for 50 roubles with a very pre-code line of, ‘Take that to the police. I’m well known there.’ That reminds that we’re in 1931, a time of freedom from American censors, something that becomes very apparent when some actual nudity shows up, in a St. Petersburg prison, after Marya is locked up for fifteen days for failing to register with the local police, having forgotten about the yellow ticket once it had served its purpose; it’s apparently not as easy to get rid of one as it is to acquire one to begin with. It’s also very melodramatic in the way that many early sound films were, their stories sourced from stage plays. However, if the melodrama fit the time, the action doesn’t. Most of those adaptations of plays were static affairs, focused around wherever the studio could hide the large microphones of the time. This, on the other hand, is a surprisingly dynamic affair, which refuses to sit still for long, leaping around Russia with abandon.

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.
Of course, the leads have to cross paths sooner or later. ‘Isn’t there someone I could go to?’ Marya asks a fellow prisoner, who tells her that the yellow ticket will follow her to the grave. ‘Someone who’s at the head of all this?’ We cut immediately to the name of Baron Andreeff, to whom we’re about to be introduced. Soon he rides off to a Moscow park with his nephew, Count Nikolai, so he can abuse Boris Karloff, three films away from Frankenstein and escape from bit parts like this. IMDb calls him a ‘drunken orderly’, but he’s really a soldier tasked with taking care of the horses of his betters. He’s no orderly, but he’s certainly drunk. After picking himself back up off the ground, he tries it on with Marya on a park bench. Count Nikolai promptly rescues her so he can try it on with her instead, merely with panache. ‘Not only your hands,’ he suggests, ‘but your lips are shaking.’ The Baron then rescues her in turn, so he can try it on with her as well, but the Count retrieves her purse and very prominently returns her yellow ticket.

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!
Rolfe is played by no less a name than Laurence Olivier, in only his second American film. He’d taken a two picture deal with RKO for $1,000 a week, against the advice of Noël Coward, who had become a mentor to the young actor after putting him to successful work in Private Lives. First up was Friends and Lovers and then Westward Passage, but in between the two they loaned him out to Fox for this picture. He plays Rolfe like many of his early stage notices: dynamic but light. While Elissa Landi, playing Marya, allows the plot to weigh down on her like an albatross, Olivier as Rolfe naïvely shrugs it off as nothing that could possibly affect him. Cultural historian Jeffrey Richards suggests in Visions of Yesterday that he really played Ronald Colman playing Julian Rolfe, right down to a mimicked moustache. On one hand, this is a problem, because the material is heavy and pretending otherwise doesn’t change it in the slightest. On the other hand, the material is heavy so Olivier’s light touch works as a breath of fresh air, a welcome break.

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.
It’s hard to describe The Yellow Ticket today. At times, it’s contemporary social comment, but at others period historical drama and, of course, fluffy romance masquerading as adventure. When the Baron introduces the cabinet full of the tools used in assassination attempts against him, we wonder if it’ll become a Eurospy flick. Whatever else it’s doing, it’s melodramatic, often outrageously so. We didn’t need Landi screaming, ‘You’ll pay!’ at the people who sent her to see her father without telling her that he was a corpse. We didn’t need Barrymore’s suggestion that, ‘Russia really needs a new Herod! We need to slaughter the innocents!’ We certainly didn’t need Olivier punching out the Greek who wants to pay Marya for services in her carriage. We understood these archetypal roles immediately. How overtly Walsh hammers his points home underlines how this is really a propaganda film, merely one that loses most of its power for being delivered at least a decade too late. Down with the Tsar who’s already six feet under! Down, I say!

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