Friday, 31 January 2014

Clara take a bow… Parisian Love (1925)

I’ve previously observed that sometimes it’s the smaller films that tend to reveal more about the contemporary appeal of silent stars but the same should apply to the less well-realized ones...

Parisian Love obviously had no shortage of budget, (the sets are lavish), nor acting talent, there’s a top-notch cast, yet it’s not the most convincing of stories with a narrative propelled by unfathomable motivations not helped by some strange cuts (maybe there were more than surviving reels?).

But there is one who keeps you watching through the muddle and whose energy, intensity and indomitable buoyancy keeps everything afloat… Clara Bow.

Directed by Louis J. Gasnier, from a story by F. Oakley Crawford then adapted by Lois Hutchinson, Parisian Love was a vehicle for the rising young star – just 19 when this was filmed.

She was aided and abetted by veteran stage actor Lou Tellegen along with Donald Keith – a likeable boy next door who was placed in a number of early Bow films, most notably The Plastic Age. Here he is unconvincingly cast along with Clara as an “Apache” a French gang member living a life of criminality on the rough fringes of Parisian society: they’re rough tough and dangerous to know, even if they are quite delicately featured…

But Clara, with her background, is eminently convincing as a girl who will stop at nothing: is she acting harder as a lover or a fighter? Either way, she is watchable - a high energy beauty with an emotional force that tramples all over the stodgy script…

Clara is Marie a dancer of ill repute who cons the tourists and the  otherwise unwary in faked bar-room crimes of passion, pretending to dance with one man (Jean De Briac) whilst her supposed lover Armand (Keith) shoots him in outrage.

During one of these mock dance-fights, Armand picks up a card belonging to one of the wealthy guests, it belongs to the wealthy Pierre Marcel (Tellegen) who the three decide to burgle… doesn’t do to leave business cards lying around in Parisian bars obviously…

Marie dresses as a man in true Musidora fashion, and keeps watch as the others break into Marcel’s chateau, but they are caught in the act by the millionaire and Armand intervenes to stop his partner in crime stabbing him. Marcel locks his assailant in another room and persuades the police that Armand is his friend. The police shoot the knifeman dead and are convinced that they’ve wounded the third thief…

Donald Keith and Lou Tellegen share a moment
Marcel recognises Armand from when he was a student of his and, knowing a hard-luck story when he sees it he resolves to rehabilitate the young man… especially after he feints from blood poisoning gained from an earlier injury (missing film?). Now, whether this philanthropic generosity has any more in-delicate motivation is entirely in the eye of the beholder…

Meanwhile… life is tough for Marie as she returns to the run-down apartment she shares with her drunken step-mother Frouchard (a splendidly shambolic turn from Lillian Leighton) and her even more dishevelled husband.

Lillian Leighton and Clara have a frank exchange
Marie gains entry to Marcel’s chateau disguised as a maid and manages to plant a kiss on her love’s forehead as he sleeps in delirium but she cannot wake him as his new benefactor keeps his own watch. For his part, Armand cannot get free to visit Marie and… one thing leads to another and he ends up believing her dead whilst she becomes convinced that Marcel has poisoned Armand against her and persuaded him to become engaged to the more appropriate Margot (Hazel Keener).

Sometimes you just can’t catch a break…

Marie and the Apaches discuss the plan...
Marie decides on exacting revenge and decides to break Marcel’s heart by marrying him to prove a point about how “suitable” she is and she gains support from fellow Apaches who plan to use the plan to rob the rich man.

There follows more twists and turns than in a second division  regency play as true love attempts to find its way through a maze of bad timing and misapprehension.

Clara shows her range
But… through it all Clara Bow plays it full strength and even if her motivation is lost her tears are always real… remembering the childhood trauma that she recalled when required to dry. And that’s the quality of Clara, she is genuinely emotional and honestly appealing in every role I’ve seen her and here is no different.

Lou Tellegen was interesting to watch too, a lot of stage craft had been gained in his time on Broadway with the likes of Sarah Bernhardt and he is grossly under-used here in this curious role. He completely outweighs the light comic touch of Donald Keith whose homely every-boy-next-door persona was a good pairing for the sexually electric Bow – he made her seem a “possibility” to the male audience.

In reality, Gary Cooper was more her style so, sorry boys, you’ll just have to dream on.

I watched the Kino DVD which pairs the film with the more interesting Down to the Sea in Ships… of which more later. It’s available direct and from reputable retailers. Catch Parisian Love if you can, it’s far from perfect but it captures a moment when the studio was trying to capture and refine the raw power of Bow.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Really free… Feu Mathias Pascal (1925)

Can freedom truly exist without responsibility? My politics teacher would have explained the difference between freedom and licence: you need to have some checks and balances otherwise there is nothing to stop half of us being oppressed by the other’s desire to do as they wilt.

The main character in Feu Mathias Pascal (The Late Matthias Pascal) is obsessed with the idea of liberty but ultimately finds it limits his freedom to act not so much as anyone else’s. Mathias Pascal spends long hours in his room reading about liberty and theorising… he still lives with his mother and all the while he is stuck in his studies he is failing to protect her estate and her liberty.

Adapted from Luigi Pirandello's 1902 novel Il fu Mattia Pascal by its director, Marcel L'Herbier, Feu Mathias Pascal is a fable filmed against stunning backdrops in San Gimignano, Monte Carlo and Rome. Not many silent directors used location as well as L’Herbier: just check out L’Alhambra in Eldorado…

Michel Simon and Ivan Mosjoukine
The Pascal’s live in the picturesque and many-towered town of Miragno (imagine a smaller version of Bolgna in its heyday…) and have fallen on hard times. The widowed Madame Pascal (Marthe Mellot) is tricked into selling her property for a fraction of its real worth by her wicked attorney and they downsize...

Life takes an unexpected turn as Mathias (the magnetic Ivan Mosjoukine) is persuaded by a love-sick friend Jérôme Pomino (Michel Simon), to tell the object of the latter’s desire, Romilde (Marcelle Pradot), of his affection… But, as readers of Cyrano will know, this can be a potentially hazardous route and thus it proves as Mathias and Romilde (not Roxanne) find that they are the ones in love…

Ivan Mosjoukine and Marcelle Pradot
They marry and soon have a baby in their modest quarters which are shared by Romilde’s harridan of a mother who is gradually recreating herself in her daughter in spite of their seemingly tenuous genetic connections.

Mathias is thus dragged from thoughts of soaring liberty down to the earthy requirements of board and lodging. He takes up a job as an assistant librarian in a former church packed with piles of dust-coated literature, stacked to the rafters and constantly nibbled at by rats… The head librarian sits high above absorbed in his studies. He leaves his new assistant to it and Mathias devises an elaborate mechanism for herding the rats through use of cats tied to carefully measured strings… The set is enormous and expressive: were you watching Tim Burton?

Insert mother-in-law joke here...
It’s one of many light touches in a film that deals in both sides of the music of chance… Mathias’s unhappy home life is soon an irrelevance as his mother becomes seriously ill and, as she calls out to see her grand-daughter one last time, the child too succumbs to life threatening disease.

Romilde and her mother neglect to tell Mathias of his mother’s request and by the time he finds out it is almost too late for both gran and granddaughter: even so in his hysteria of grief he brings the two together one last time…

Marthe Mellot
The story turns now as Mathias travels away to Monte Carlo in order to recuperate… he finds his way to the Casino and, as luck would have it, wins a fortune in the casino. Then, in a moment resembling a Paul Auster narrative, he reads that he is believed dead after a man’s body was identified as him back home: everyone believing him the victim of his grief.

He is elated: now he can be truly free no money or identity worries and he can be whoever he wants to be. He heads off to Rome where he wanders the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and through a Forum yet to be encroached by Il Duce’s arrogant architecture. He spies an exceptionally pretty girl, Adrienne Paléari (Lois Moran, who beguiled F Scott Fitgerald and many others…) and follows her across Rome to her father’s apartment block.

Lois Moran
So far, so free and yet… Mathias discovers that without a passport and without proof of his identify, he cannot rent a room in a hotel, even though he could afford it many times over.

He finds it easier to rent a room from Adrienne’s father and joins the odd community in what look like the most spacious rooms in Rome. The “dead” man is surprised to find that so many of the lodgers are interested in re-incarnation and the practice of séances used to try re-connect with those on the other side.

There’s an obvious poignancy in the “late” Mathias needing to reconnect with himself but this necromancy is also the plot device driving the remainder of the tale. There’s a fraudulent “archaeologist” Terence Papiano (Jean Hervé) who controls his neighbours lives through the promptings of the dead, with the aid of his brother Scipion (Pierre Batcheff - he of Napoleon, The Chess Player, Un Chien Andalou etc…) under cover of the dark.

Pierre Batcheff
Terence has persuaded Adrienne’s father that his dead relatives believe that she should marry him and it seems that nothing will stand in his way. But he pushes his luck too far when brother Scipion robs Mathias during one performance… Mathias realises that he cannot go to the police as he has no identity… returning to the house though he chances his arm by denying that a robbery has taken place, knowing that Terence will realise that his game is up. Thus compromised the trickster has no option but to follow Mathias’ suggestion that he take his brother on an extended vacation…well away from Rome.

Mathias knows that he must regain his identity in order to pursue his love for Adrienne… but he must also return home to settle his account with his wife, friends and the man who robbed his mother: things he can only achieve as himself, emboldened by the realisation that there is no place like your own face…

Les deux Pascal
Feu Mathias Pascal clocks in at just under three hours and feels like an adaptation of a book with its multiple locations and characters, but it is full of invention from L’Herbier and his cast. As well as the exceptional location sequences, the director inserts a number of clever dream sequences showing Mathias encountering himself and wrestling with his conflicted imagination.

Of course, Mosjoukine revels in the drama and is so charismatically intense it’s sometimes difficult to watch the other performers. He had unusual features and a strangely feline countenance set off against huge expressive blue/grey eyes that allowed him to turn his emotional focus at will. It was rumoured that he was bought to Hollywood as a replacement for Valentino but, whilst he has the charisma and acting skill, he conveys a lot more…under-current than the former.

Ivan Mosjoukine
He displays great range and star power in this film given his character’s story arc and the amount of time he has on screen. One of many Russian émigrés to France after the revolution, Mosjoukine directed as well as acted and I shall certainly be seeking out his other films for Albatross specifically Flicker Alley’s recent box set – temptingly available direct.

I watched their Blu-Ray of Feu Mathias Pascal which has no extras save for a brief booklet…but it doesn’t really need anything to add to what is a magnificent restoration of one of the most adventurous French films of the twenties although I should give special mention to Timothy Brock’s excellent new score which trips alongside this dreamy tale with emotional precision.

The film was perhaps more formally disciplined and less experimental than his earlier works such as Eldorado and L’Inhumaine and was unsurprisingly L’Herbier’s most successful release at the time, also going on to play well abroad, where it continues to impress to this day.

Strange corridors...

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Call of duty… South (1919)

One question kept on being repeated as I watched this film with a room-full of friends and family: “why are they doing this?” The “what were they trying to achieve?” is perhaps more easily answerable, yet there always lingers a bigger question: “what kind of person would put themselves in such danger?”

This was the golden age of polar exploration and there were compelling motivations of national prestige and personal glory that drove Ernest Shackleton and his team to the South Pole and, when all went wrong, they proved to have remarkable qualities above and beyond mere pride.

Under conditions of incredible hardship, when their ship looked doomed and they were many hundreds of miles from help across impossible terrain, the crew kept on functioning: scientific tests were run, the dogs were exercised and order was maintained. Most significantly, for us at least, Frank Hurley’s camera kept running, documenting the hardships and also the hopes of the crew who, under what must have been almost intolerable pressure, kept their discipline and trusted in the energy and invention of their leader.

Sir Ernest Shackleton
Ernest Shackleton had previously been on two missions to the South Pole, once as third officer on Captain Scott’s expedition from 1901-04 when his health failed and he had to return home early and the next time as commander of his own Nimrod Mission in 1909 when his team got to within 97 geographical miles of the Pole: a record which earned him a knighthood.

After Scott had narrowly lost the race to Amundsen in late 1911, the biggest challenge remained the crossing of the Pole from shore to shore, from one sea to the other. It was this that Shackleton set off to achieve in 1914 as part of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition referring to the transcontinental route as the "one great object of Antarctic journeyings".

One ship, the Endurance, would take the team from South Georgia through the Weddell Sea to Antarctica and then, after a crossing of 1,800 miles they would join up with supplies left by a second ship, the Aurora, which would then take them to New Zealand, completing an epic journey from the South Atlantic to the South Pacific… in one mind-boggling, map-defying stretch.

On 8th August, just five days after the outbreak of the First World War the ship set sail and a few weeks later, Shackleton joined them and the show really got on the road. In the circumstances the team had naturally asked British officials whether they should go on but the answer came: “proceed”. The hope was that it would all be over by Christmas after all...

As with Scott’s expedition of 1911, Shackleton’s was a miracle of fundraising with a commercial eye on the future so, just as Herbert Ponting was to record Scott so Frank Hurley was nominated to do the same for this latest adventure. Interesting in this case that a film about so much British pluck was led by an Irishman and filmed by an Australian… let’s just say that this was a film about pluck full stop not to mention discipline and courage.

Breaking the ice...
Hurley’s camerawork is stunning, far more mobile than you might expect and none more so than when he keeps his film rolling on the bough of the ship as it cuts through the icy waters. But he also pans across and upwards to show the depth and range of this forbidding landscape and, through use of close-ups and point of view, places the crew and consequently the watcher in the heart of this deadly landscape.

Unlike Ponting, brave though he was, Hurley was in the middle of the main drama itself – he too was stranded and in peril - yet he kept on working.

The film follows the Endurance as it makes its way south to the Antarctic landmass, smashing its way through ice and passing by enormous ice bergs. It looks unstoppable, reinforced steel providing an extra cutting edge for the spring ice floe: this is the best modern science can offer and surely nature will not be able to stand in its way.

Frank Hurley at work
The film proudly shows us the packs of dogs who were to be the expedition’s backbone once they landed and there’s a typically British fascination with animals both domesticated and wild throughout with a long section on penguins and seals near the end (eat your heart out Herbert P!).

We are provided with various members of the crew including Shackleton himself and you search each line and every nuance of expression for a clue to his character: this is what a brave man looks like… even if the close-ups were taken after the event with him in uniform ready to do his bit in the War. Before the Endurance was able to make land it became trapped in the ice in mid-January 1915. At first this seemed just a temporary setback but then the predicament became much clearer and much more serious. The crew tried many times to hack a channel through the ice to enable the ship to make progress and to break through to clear water but this wasn’t to be.

After some days they were resigned to a long wait for the ice to thaw and they kept themselves busy with research, hunting and football matches. Obviously we only see what’s on film and what Hurley edited and was perhaps allowed to show but clearly the command from Shackleton was strong and effective: moral appears to be high. They knew they had a long wait ahead… until the arrival of the arctic spring later that year.

Yet, when the thaw did start in September 1915  a far more serious challenge arose as the force of the shifting ice started to compromise the Endurance’s hull and the ship began to be lifted from the water. Hurley’s shots of the stricken ice-breaker are amongst the most iconic of the whole journey especially those he shot at night using dozens of magnesium lights… it’s haunting, not just because of the eerie phosphorescent glow but also because you realize that the men could be watching their best hope of survival being crushed and sunk.

The stricken Endurance shot in the dark
Shackleton had the men strip everything of use from the Endurance before she finally sank in November and he established a camp using tents, shacks built from the ship’s timbers and upturned lifeboats. One of these, the twenty foot James Caird, with some major adjustments from the team's carpenters, was used to make Shackleton’s heroic journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Before that the crew had had to use the boats to make their way from the melting ice floes to land an epic adventure in itself.

That Hurley’s film survives is one thing but that it survives in such good quality is another. Apparently he buried film canisters in the snow during parts of the escape in order to preserve them in the event that things didn’t quite work out…

The James Caird is prepared for launch
When Shackleton departed on that final stage, Hurley remained behind with the rest of the crew. The gaps in the story are made up of illustrations and then later footage of both the forbidding ice wall Shackleton and his men had to climb in order to reach help.

Hurley later remarked that the earlier Australian expedition he had been on was a means to a scientific end whilst the British focus was on the adventure first with science as an added bonus. Be that as it may, there was certainly great domestic interest in viewing the strange creatures of the South as Ponting’s film had already proved and there’s some twenty minutes of crowd-pleasing wildlife footage once it’s clear that the men survived.

The crew of the Endurance
In the end Shackleton returned with help and ensured that every one of his crew returned safe: the greatest survival epic of the golden age of polar exploration at a time when far less was known about these still treacherous waters… As I write there are two ice-breakers currently trapped in the ice, a Chinese ship sent in to rescue a Russian.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of Shackleton’s motives you cannot doubt his leadership and courage nor that of the men, like Hurley, who followed him come thick and thin ice.

I watched the BFI DVD which is available direct or from Movie Mail. It comes with a stirring score from Neil Brand which perfectly captures the spirit of the times and of adventure as it used to be: indomitable, brave and with the passion to overcome all obstacles - they endured!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The razor’s edge… A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

Anyone still contending that the British silent film industry lacked quality in comparison with its continental cousins, will have had their arguments weakened over recent years with the restoration and re-evaluation of films by Maurice Elvey, Miles Mander and Alfred Hitchcock all of which demonstrated Hollywood finesse mixed with European élan and very distinct British sensibilities.

Then there's Anthony Asquith whose 1928 film Underground enjoyed such a renaissance last year and who has often been compared with Hitchcock upon the basis of that film and A Cottage on Dartmoor produced the following year. The comparisons are apt as I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so uncomfortable watching a silent film as when Joe holds his barber’s razor at the exposed throat of Harry… the world and the watcher hold their breath hoping that that sharpened steel won’t slice through vulnerable skin yet, horribly, shockingly, it does… “was that an ear?!” gasped my wife…well no, but it could have been…

As with the film we need to rewind to find out what happened and how… Cottage starts in the most thrilling of ways as a young prison escape drops down onto the grass and starts running for dear life across the moors. Asquith follows his progress across the barren moorland – it’s a very modern start establishing desperation from the off.

The man sees a cottage in the distance and, narrowing his eyes, runs on ever more determined to reach his goal… The scene shifts to the interior where a young mother Sally (Norah Baring) is caring for her baby, both so vulnerable and alone. The door bursts open: wind, rain and Uno Henning (for it is he) force their way into the warmth… “Joe!” mouths the girl…she knows him and precisely why he’s come.

Asquith’s style is dynamic and builds the level of tension very skilfully. Joe has unfinished business and yet there’s more going on between the two than simple hate…

After this momentous overture, the film pauses and takes us back to explain how these passions came to be roused…

Sally and Joe work in an upmarket barbershop, providing grooming services for well-heeled clients who don’t have the time to shave or file their nails… nowadays this would be a beauty parlour or whatever the term would be for a modern male boutique.

It's always the quiet ones...
Joe has eyes for Sally and is taking his time about making a move. He has tickets for a talkie but drops them in his nervousness allowing one of his colleagues to step in and make the offer to someone else.

A new customer arrives – the far from metrosexual Harry (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) and starts to impress Sally. He owns land in Dartmoor along with a nice cottage; he’s confident and cash-rich: Joe is consumed with envy to top up his sexual frustration.

Harry takes Sally to the talkies and Joe follows – a night of guaranteed misery ahead. The following sequence is precious as Asquith shows us the cinema’s reaction to a new-fangled talkie showing us just what 1929 thought of the revolutionary but potentially faddy new gimmick. The band stop playing after the supporting silent features and break out the beer and sandwiches, old people struggle to hear the dialogue, straining their ear-trumpets screen ward whilst others fall asleep, deprived of the need to concentrate and ground down by stilted, squawky dialogue…

It’s fascinating in what it reveals of contemporary reactions but most of all it shows how knowing and blasé audiences have always been: go on, how many times have you lifted your 3D specs to peak at the time wondering how long you have till closing time? The drama must always come before the effects.

Just like Alfred, Anthony counter-positions this humour with the enfolding unease of the slightly too intense and extra-ordinary Joe…who, as the audiences tries to work out the talkie directs his unwavering gaze towards Sally.

The next time we see this uncomfortable triangle it’s back in the boutique where Joe is shaving Harry whilst Sally is polishing his nails. It’s an awkward moment at the best of times but Joe has a blade that is oh so sharp just centimetres from Harry’s stubbly neck. Harry chats up Sally and injury is piled on agony as Joe spots a large sparkly ring on the beautician’s finger…

Joe can stand no more and in a move that almost breaks the silence he makes the mistake that will alter all of their lives.

“Don’t move! Or I’ll cut his throat!”

Sally falls back in shock and the shop reels in panic as Joe’s thoughts are translated into potentially deadly action. For agonising seconds the situation is poised and then a policeman is called in, there’s a shout and something dreadful happens. Joe is caught between instant remorse and the desire for revenge…

Away to prison and his escape years later… surely he is intent on settling his account with the couple. But it’s not to be that simple as Sally quite shockingly hides him from the police and even trusts him alone in her room with the child… And there’s more as Harry returns and, after his initial shock and Sally’s pleading agrees to help Joe escape.

This is no ordinary love triangle and I won’t spoil the resolution. Needless to say Sally feels more for Joe than he realised and maybe Harry understands that… and the possibility that he wooed her away with his promise of financial security?

Ultimately Joe’s love for Sally is pure and passionate yet he is prevented from acting on it by his own timidity and social pressures. He’s a very modern hero/antihero who loves Sally as much as his own life.

This was the third time I’d watched Cottage and it affected me more than the first two – there’s some disturbing truths smuggled into this one.

The three leads are all excellent with Nora Baring perfectly cast as the girl who might say no and Uno Henning a ball of Teutonic energy, submerged in a mess of confliction.

I watched the BFI DVD which features a specially-written score from Stephen Horne, whose trademark lyricism is entirely in tune with the film’s spirit, helping to bring out the flavour of true love lost amidst the desolate moorland.

“Over the moors, take me to the moors…Oh Dartmoor, so much to answer for…” as Stephen Morrisey might well have sung.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Vera and Yevgeni join the party… Children of the Age (1915)

Vera Kholodnaya
This is the most overtly political of the films I have seen directed by Yevgeni Bauer and clearly shows his involvement in the contemporary Russian discourse on social equality and unprincipled capitalism. Children of the Age (Deti veka) may not be a long film but it packs a lot into its 38 minutes: class conflict, sexual violence, corruption… and the human misery derived from all.

Bauer’s trademark touches are all in evidence with the backdrop to every scene beautifully constructed not just for the interiors but also with locations showing Moscow and its surrounding countryside. Deti veka is a feast for the eyes throughout with perfectly judged camerawork and cutting allowing an expressive cast to flourish.

Vera Kholodnaya and V. Glinskaya
Two old friends run into each other in Moscow’s Gostinnyi Dvor, a chic shopping arcade off Red Square – the Petrovskii Passage. One is the happily married Maria Nikolaevna (panda-eyed Vera Kholodnaya) who lives in a modest apartment with her baby and husband: a junior bank clerk (Ivan Gorskij). The other is Lidija Verkhonskaja (V. Glinskaya) a woman of means who feels that her friend could have done better. She decides to help her and with friends like these, Maria won’t need any enemies…

Members of the revolutionary garden party...
Lidija invites her beautiful friend to meet her wealthy social set and to enjoy their parties and other pleasurable past-times – picnics, boating and gypsy concerts (gypsies were all the rage at the time!). It’s obviously a good time to be young and wealthy in Moscow and the consumption is conspicuous… so far away from the conflict with Germany (Russia's Great Retreat stared in July 1915 and Kholodnaya's husband had been drafted in 1914) and the suffering of large sections of society.

Mr Nikolaevna fits less easily in with his wife’s new associates and after the first garden party in which his ignored whilst Maria attracts all the attention, he leaves her to it. From the first event onwards, she falls under the gaze of the acquisitive and unprincipled industrialist Lebedev (Arseniy Bibilov) who determines to have her for himself… and friend Lidija is all too willing to help matters along: is she also under the rich man’s control?

Bauer's typically lavish set design: Lebedev pursues his prey...
Lidija arranges for Lebedev to be alone with Maria in a park but she evades his leacherous advances, quickly walking back to Lidjia. But this is only a temporary respite as the elder man reaches in to affect Maria’s life in ways she cannot begin to understand, arranging for her husband to lose his job so as to try and persuade him into giving up his wife and child in exchange for money.

Lebedev is not to be denied and pursues Maria at a picnic after getting her drunk: we are left in no doubt as to the outcome as the two are driven back to Moscow in the old letch’s chauffeur-driven limousine.

No escape for Maria...
This sequence is still harrowing and as Lebedev is mauling Maria, she manages to escape but no one will help her especially after his monied molester plays it all down by claiming that she’s “having hysterics…” Thus the word of the rich counts for all and Maria slumps back into the car defeated –  it’s quite genuinely horrible and not something you’d expect to see in an American film perhaps.

Her will is broken and she returns home dishevelled and ashamed. But that’s not the end and she is about to have her last avenue of escape closed off… Her husband is called to a meeting with Lebedev’s attourney, ostensibly to discuss a new job but when he arrives it is only to offered money to leave his wife and child in exchange for a fee. He refuses and rushes to return home…his world closing down on him.

Ivan Gorskij and Vera Kholodnaya
Spoilers: As he heads home in a defeated daze, Bauer intercuts with scenes of Maria taking their baby away to a life with Lebedev and his strange acolyte Lidija… The car stalls but it won’t offer a reprieve… young Nikolaevna arrives home to find everyone gone…with no future left he writes a note and shoots himself…

So complete is Lebedev’s victory that the viewer’s mind inevitably slips forward a couple of years to when Russian society finally snapped. This is not to say that Bauer was a communist sympathiser or any shade of revolutionary, but the revolution had been building for decades and all walks of life had their own sense of injustice, including bourgoise film makers.

That this all plays out against a backdrop of Bauer’s typically opulent stages somehow makes everything worse. Wealth doesn’t bring true class or happiness and Lebedev having everything, simply wants more.

Maria is betrayed by her old friend and swept up into a world of manipulation in which neither she or her husband has a chance: the kind of hopeless, almost casual injustice that drives desperate solutions. She fights all along the way but in the end is sucked in as a means of securing the welfare of her child… and we can only guess at what lies she has been told about her husband’s response to his pay off. Maybe this is the only way she can think of protecting him too?

Arseniy Bibilov plays the villain with aplomb and Ivan Gorskij is good as the hapless husband. But it’s The Queen of Screen you watch, Vera Kholodnaya, who has a very modern beauty as well as a dancer’s grace (she trained as a ballerina) and an acting style perfectly suited to the screen. Her premature death from flu in 1918 rocked Russia and robbed them of one of their greatest actors.

Sadly only one of her films is currently available commercially – A Life for a Life, also directed by Bauer, which is reviewed elsewhere on this blog – it is to be hoped that Deti veka and her other surviving films are given a western release at some point. Only five survive out of at least fifty features...

For the moment, a fair copy of Children of the Age is available on youtube.