DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

French Masterworks – Russian Emigrés in Paris: 1923-28 (2013)

Five interesting silent features made by Russian emigrants to Paris.

Published on June 10, 2013

French Masterworks – Russian Emigrés in Paris: 1923-28 (2013)

Five Films: The Burning Crucible (1923); Kean (1924); The Late Mathias Pascal (1926); Gribiche (1926); The New Gentlemen (1928)
Cast: Ivan Mosjoukine, Michel Simon, Lois Moran, Gaby Morlay
Directors: Ivan Mosjoukine, Jacques Feyer, Marcel L. Herbier, Alexandre Volkoff
Studio: Albatros Productions/ Le Cinematheque francaise/ Flicker Alley FA0029 (5 DVDs) [5/14/13]
Scores by: Antonio Coppola, Timothy Brock, Robert Israel, Neil Brand, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orch.
Video: 1.33:1 or 16:9? black & white and tinted
Audio: PCM stereo
Subtitles: English
Extras: Additional scene from Gribiche not in the restoration, 28-page illustrated booklet with notes on each of the five films plus an essay on Films Albatros
Length: 660 minutes total
Rating: ****

Similar to the exodus of German directors and actors due to the growth of the Nazi party there in the 1930s, a collection of Russian filmmakers had moved to Paris following the 1917 Revolution. They set up in an old Pathe studio in the Paris suburb of Montreuil and made some of the best French films of the 1920s, which have now been restored by Le Cinematheque francaise with new musical scores from five different sources. Altogether they made 16 feature films. They certainly weren’t into 90-minute features; one of the five runs 171 minutes.

Most are rather slow-going by today’s standards, with many closeups of speaking heads but no intertitles to explain what they are saying, which can be a bit frustrating. The intertitles are also on screen a very long time, and if one wants to fast-forward some of the sections, the English subtitles fail to appear—only the French. Plus, only the 16:9 Full setting on my HDTV provided everything in the frame (although stretching it somewhat). The supposedly correct 4:3 aspect ratio cropped off the left and right of some of the intertitles as well as screen details on the sides in the frame. Many of the scenes were at extremely low light levels; even changing my display to the higher brightness I normally use only for 3D films failed to make all the details in the dark scenes visible. Most of the films are well-restored, but occasionally there are serious light damages left in for some reason.

Ivan Mosjoukine left a great career in Russia to come to France, but in his new country he exceeded his previous career. He is the main actor in the first three films here, and directed The Burning Crucible, where he plays 11 different parts. It opens with the female lead having a nightmare which never seems to be fully explained, although the character played by Mosjoukine shows up in her real life later on. He explains in an opening intertitle that his theme is treated in a deliberately exaggerated manner, and it is. The influence of the German expressionist movement is seen in some of the scenes, and it has a number of rather avant-garde elements in it. Mosjoukine’s cinematographer went on to film the first part of Abel Gance’s famous Napoleon. The Burning Crucible probably laid on too much of Mosjoukine’s loves of fantasy and various sorts of disguises, and was a commercial failure. So after it he was just an actor and not a director.

Kean was considered the height of Mosjoukine’s acting roles. It’s sort of a filmic bio of the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, and is torn between the classical decorum of his performances and the excesses of his private life. The usual slow pace is relieved in some spots by some rapid-fire cutting, which had become popularized by Abel Gance. Kean was one of the most expensive productions of Albatros, and used Versailles and other very French buildings as stand-ins for British town houses. The Late Mathias Pascal, the nearly three-hour adaptation of a Pirandello novel, is about a young man who allows his family and friends to think him dead, and starts a second life under a new name. The film has sections of both realism and fantasy, plus gravity and playfulness, more than just a star vehicle for Mosjoukine.

Gribiche was the first of three films to be directed by Jacques Feyder. In it, a working-class young man gets attention for committing a “good deed” and then agrees to be adopted by a wealthy American socialite. He hopes that will allow his widowed mother to marry a man who is unwilling to take on a stepson. Its sets contrast tenement settings against Art Deco luxury interiors. Actor Jean Forest plays Gribiche, and the film has a good deal of ironic humor and wit about it. 

The New Gentlemen (Les Nouveaux Messieurs) stars Gaby Morlay as a pretty young dancer (and not a very good one at that) in the Paris Opera Ballet, who is at the center of a tug-of-war between her old aristocrat count and protector and a young leftist electrician and union organizer. Though no sex is shown, she is obviously living with the count, which would not have been approved by the Hays Code in Hollywood which started in 1934. Also, Hollywood would have had the dancer deciding at the last minute on the young electrician, even though he had lost out politically. The French film has her wavering, but in the end returning to the senior count, who has gained the upper hand politically and cleverly sent the young man to a faraway foreign post. An interesting fantasy scene shows the count as an MP, falling asleep at a parliament meeting and dreaming that the deputies have all turned into nubile young ballerinas dancing up and down the aisles. Somehow very French.

The new musical scores are a nice feature, especially those with more than a solo piano. These is even an attempt to sync up portions of them to sound  somewhat appropriate when on-screen characters are singing or playing instruments. And it was interesting to see that when the story line called for a bell ringing, there was a closeup of the bell ringing on the screen.  The tinting of scenes also adds interest, working especially well with blue for the night scenes. (I recall a Hollywood sci-fi movie did that with colored filters on the projector in the 1950s, but I think these films tinted the film stock.) The original French intertitles are retained, with optional English subtitles in a choice of either white or yellow letters, superimposed over them at the bottom. And there are no gaffes that will cause you to snicker in these new translations.

—John Sunier




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