Thursday, October 11, 2012

Torgovtsy slavoi / [Merchants of Glory]

Торговцы славой (Мёртвые не возвращаются) / Miortvyie ne vozvrachayutsia [Mercanti di gloria; I morti non ritornano / The Dead Do Not Return] (Mezhrabpomfilm, SU 1929). D: Leonid Obolenskii; SC: Nikolai Ravich, Leonid Obolenskii, based on the play Les Marchands de gloire by Marcel Pagnol, Paul Nivoix; DP: Aleksandr Dorn, Igor Turovtsev; AD: Ivan Stepanov, Sergei Kozlovskii; ass D: Boris Sveshnikov; C: Anna Sten (Yvonne), Yakov Volkov (Bachelet, official of the military establishment), Vsevolod Aksionov (Sgt. Henri, “the unknown”), Anel Sudakevitch (Germaine), G. Barskii (Major Blanchard), Pavel Pol (Berlureau, a speculator), Igor Stravinskii (Parlo, a Communist worker), Rafail Korf (editor); rel: 4.5.1929; orig. l: 2150 m [6 rl.]; 35 mm, incomplete [Rl. 1 + 4 missing], 1300 m, 47' (24 fps); print source: Gosfilmofond of Russia. Russian intertitles. Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone (Anna Sten), e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Neil Brand, 11 Oct 2012.

Natalia Nussinova: "Anna Sten is often mistaken for Anel Sudakevich. Their filmographies are confused, each is wrongly credited with the other’s roles, and the false legend persists that Anel Sudakevich is actually the real name of Anna Sten. In fact they were two actresses of the same age, who both worked for Mezhrabpom, and they even resembled each other. This duality seems to be consciously exploited in Merchants of Glory, in which they play two women involved with the same man. The bourgeoise Germaine (Sudakevich) is greedy and egoist, languid and sexual, in contrast with the gauche and badly-bred Yvonne (Sten), who suffers sincerely, loves life, howls with a silent cry, and has a quaint, distinctive plastique invented expressly for the film, which was appreciated by the harsh critics of the period as virtually the film’s only merit: “The work of [Pavel] Pol and Anna Sten must be noted. Sten has found a very good expressivity for the role which is new to her, that of a gauche and clumsy girl. But these are the only qualities of this film.”"

"The critic of the Leningrad newspaper Kino reproached Merchants of Glory for using the genre of political pamphlet mainly as a pretext to show balls, revues, variety numbers, and sumptuous dinners in preference to the war scenes, as well as having abused “elements characteristic to the style of Mezhrabpom”, with slow action, interruptions, “endless passes”, etc. (The phrase “endless passes” – бесконечные проходы / beskonechnyie prokhody – was a current critical cliché used to condemn screen time wasted on mechanical activities like walking down streets or getting in and out of cars, when ellipsis was more admired.) In the process, the film adaptation lost the irony and sharp political sense of the play by Marcel Pagnol and Pierre Nivoix, which had demonstrated the  falseness and meanness of bourgeois society."

"The Pagnol and Nivoix play was published in two different Russian editions and translations in 1926, even before it had been published in French. Both Russian versions are severely abridged and altered from the French original. In Pagnol and Nivoix’s original, the story of Sergeant Henri, believed killed in battle in 1916 and now a posthumous national hero and object of speculation, ends with his return home, where he discovers that his wife Germaine has remarried, to the “merchant” of his glory, a situation from which his father also derives profit. The only person who remains faithful to his memory is Yvonne, his distant cousin, an orphan who has grown up in his house."

"In order that his “resurrection” will not impair his father’s chances in an election campaign, Henri exiles himself to the provinces with Yvonne. When he returns to Paris on the eve of the election, it is only because he wants to marry Yvonne under his true name to legitimize the child she is expecting. He yields, however, overwhelmed by the hypocrisy of those who are stronger, apologizing for taking off his hat too slowly in front of his own portrait in uniform, during his father’s electoral address: “Forgive me, it is emotion. I knew him well.” In the Russian translation by Emil Mattern and Vladimir Binshtok, Henri’s premarital relations with his fiancée are chaste, but his conformism is much more pronounced: it ends with Henri agreeing to live for the rest of his life with false papers for the sake of the official career which is promised him. However, in the translation by Yevgenia Russat and Viacheslav Golichnikov made for the production of Merchants of Glory at the Leningrad Bolshoi Drama Theatre, the ending was radically changed: Henri bows politely in front of his portrait and withdraws, taking Yvonne with him and accepting nothing from the hands of the hypocrites."

"The film scenario was clearly based on one of these Russian versions of the play. Yet the story was even further altered. There is now no longer any question of marriage with Yvonne, or of her pregnancy. When Henri recovers from his wounds, and above all from the amnesia from which he has suffered for four years (compare Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire, which also concerns a soldier’s amnesia, and came out six months after Merchants of Glory), he desires the wife who is no longer his, Germaine, and does not seek the consolation of another love. It is evident that Yvonne is in love with him, but Sten’s heroine in the film is only a kid: all the eroticism has passed to Sudakevich. Everything that outraged the Kino critic – the foxtrots and the dancers’ legs which appear in double exposure, the girls astride the canon – are motifs surrounding Sudakevich. As for Sten, she follows the images of this perversity all alone, with a boyish air, drolly curled up in an armchair."

"The revolt of the hero against the merchants of his glory is much more pronounced in the film. Instead of bowing in front of the portrait which robs him of his personality, Henri, like a Dorian Gray, attacks it with a knife. After this he leaves his house and joins a crowd of demonstrators. The revolutionary slogans they display are written in Esperanto, the constructed international language that was very widespread in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, thanks to Trotsky, who called it “the language of world revolution”. We can suppose that Esperanto is introduced into the film in this way to provide a certain abstract quality. All the same, it would have been too daring to represent the Communists winning the elections in France in 1920. And yet this happy ending seemed insufficiently politicized to the critics of the time. The director Leonid Obolenskii (1902-1991) had been an actor, a pupil of Vladimir Gardin and Lev Kuleshov, and a celebrated dancer, trained by the former director of the Imperial Theatres, (Prince) Sergei Volkonskii. This talent – he was particularly admired for his tapdancing – probably explains the abundance of dances in the film, which so outraged the critics. In the 1920s Obolenskii began to work as a director at Mezhrabpom, at first in collaboration with Mikhail Doller (Kirpitchiki / Little Bricks, 1925; Eh, Jablochko / Eh, Little  Apple!, 1926). His first solo direction was Albidum (1928), followed shortly after by Merchants of Glory. Subsequently his career was crippled by the taint of his aristocratic background." – NATALIA NUSSINOVA

AA: What a surprise: the earliest Marcel Pagnol movie adaptation, unknown in the usual sources. As Natalia Nussinova points out above, there is a connection with The Fragment of an Empire in the theme of the amnesia of the soldier who regains his consciousness in a much-changed world. The film is not very good, but the eclecticism of the approaches is interesting. There are furious images from the front, heavy-handed satirical scenes of nationalism, the church, and high society, and dance montages in Hollywood bubbly style (So This Is Paris). Marcel Pagnol's play could have been promising material for Frank Capra or Preston Sturges (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Hail the Conquering Hero). Leonid Obolenskii is no Capra and no Sturges, but some of the force of Pagnol's satire remains. Believed dead, the war hero inspires the founding of a national, populist right-wing party, "Sergeant Bachelet's Honest People's Party", worshipping his image immortalized in a magnificent portrait, multiplied in the party's posters. But Sergeant Bachelet shows bad taste in coming back. Having lost his memory, he has spent years in a mental hospital, but now he has come to his senses and immediately joins the communists. "How much did the communists pay you to pretend you're Henri Bachelet?" ask the furious nationalists. But Germaine knows it's him all right. "I cried on your grave for five years", she says having now married a merchant of weapons. Anna Sten is refreshingly different as the clueless sister. The Esperanto aspect is delightful; I remember meeting in Tampere in the 1970s people disseminating "Esperanto propagando" flyers. The most memorable image is the one of Henri Bachelet tearing his own hero-worshipping portrait. Another memorable image is the moving Mezhrabpom logo in the end: the Promethean hero turning the wheel of time. I don't remember having seen it or paid attention to it before. An incomplete and choppy version, scenes sometimes conveyed in freeze frames.

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