Sunday, June 10, 2007

A little more Mosjoukine

I've begun posting on YouTube some clips from Mosjoukine's great masterpiece, "Michel Strogoff" (1926), directed by Victor Tourjansky. (And yes, I translated this one, too.) It's set in 19th-century Russia, but it's based on an adventure story by Jules Verne. The story's been remade several times, for cinema and TV. Mosjoukine plays Michel Strogoff, a heroic Guards officer who is sent incognito by the Tsar on a secret mission from Moscow to Irkutsk in Siberia. The Tartars are in revolt, and the evil Ivan Ogareff has escaped from prison and joined forces with Emir Feofar Khan to seize control of central Russia. Michel must reach the Grand Duke in Irkutsk with a letter from the Tsar, outlining the strategy for fighting back.

Mosjoukine got some blame for taking a role like this, and later on, that of Casanova. (He was actually the first choice for the role of Napoleon in Abel Gance's epic, but he turned it down.) It was thought that he was wasting his genius making crowd-pleasing movies like this, when he should have been pushing the boundaries creatively, as he did in his earlier movies. Since he was forgotten when the sound movies came, it probably doesn't really matter now. I think that he has a better chance of being rediscovered as a result of his more accessible movies, like this one, which is really a great adventure yarn, with lots of big sweeping production values.

The opening scene is a good example, with a ball at the New Palace in Moscow. Splendid set, beautiful costumes, and some of it was hand-coloured, to make it even more lovely. The restoration is good, but can't get the colour to look as bright as it must have when the film was new. Mosjoukine isn't in this section, he's introduced later, but we do get to meet the "comic relief", the two journalists, Jolivet and Blount - they play the standard Frenchman and Englishman, but they actually do become real characters, not just comic foils. And they sort of stand in for the audience, as constant observers of what is happening. Both actors were French, by the way, but I especially like Gabriel de Gravone as Alcide Jolivet, forever with his little box of candies for emergencies.

The second scene shows Michel travelling under the name of Nicolas Korpanoff, heading down the Volga with Nadia Fedor, a young woman he's helping to get to Irkutsk to rejoin her father. Also on the boat is Ivan Ogareff, disguised as a gypsy, and his sweetheart, Sangarre.

The last scene is in Ichim, where Michel comes face to face with Ogareff (not knowing who he is). Ogareff insults him, but Michel has to swallow the insult in order not to jeopardize his mission. As a result, everyone thinks he is a coward, especially Nadia. But as she remembers his heroic behaviour of the past few weeks, she realizes that he can't be a coward, and she finally understands that he is really the secret courier from the Tsar.

One thing that was so remarkable about Mosjoukine was his hands - very beautiful and expressive. He was renowned for the way he underplayed on film. He developed that style himself; if you watch his early films from Russia, you can see him still working out the best way to play to the camera, and he still can overdo it sometimes, as was not unusual when stage actors made the transition to film. But at a time when silent movies often had broad overacting, Mosjoukine was unique for the way he could express so much with the tiniest movements.

There's a scene coming up in the second half, where he and Nadia reach a gutted village and have all but lost hope of making it to Irkutsk - it's my favourite in the whole movie, and again it's because of the economy of movement and those beautiful hands of Mosjoukine. I hope to get that one up this week.


Blogger Min O'Pause said...

Very cool!


3:47 pm  

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