Saturday, October 04, 2014

Gornichnaya Dzhenni / [The Chambermaid Jenny]

Vladimir Gaidarov as George Anger, Olga Gzovskaya as Jenny, and Iona Talanov as François, the butler. Click to enlarge. Olga Gzovskaya and Vladimir Gaidarov are one of the three real-life couples starring on day one in Pordenone this year.
Горничная Дженни [La cameriera Jenny / Chambermaid Jenny] (I. Ermoliev – Russia, 1918) D, SC: Yakov Protazanov; DP: Fedot Burgasov; AD: Vladimir Balliuzek; C: Olga Gzovskaya (Jenny [the young Countess Chamberot]), Vera Pavlova (Countess Chamberot), Vladimir Gaidarov (George Anger), Olga Kondorova (Baroness Anger, his mother), Iona Talanov (François, the butler), Dmitri Bukhovetskii (Nicol, a footman), Pol Mak, Vladimir Balliuzek (George’s guests); filmed: 1917-18; orig. l: 1793 m.; DCP (from 35 mm, 1429 m), 69' (transferred at 18 fps); titles: RUS; print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA.
    The screening ran 54 min.
    With e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Günter Buchwald - added with bass (XX) and violin (XX) - at Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), Pordenone, 4 Oct 2014

Peter Bagrov (Catalogue): "Chambermaid Jenny was made during a transitional period in Russian film history. The years 1918-1920 are known as an “interregnum” of state-owned and private film companies. The latter were centralized in Yalta, on the Crimean seashore. The Mediterranean climate here favoured filmmaking, and in case of emergency Crimea was the best gateway to Constantinople and further on to Europe – a path which most of the Yalta filmmakers followed sooner or later. The weather and the landscapes were so atypical of Russia they almost called for exotic melodramas set in an abstract country (something like a high-society Ruritania). Since the outbreak of World War I Russian films were purely entertaining and had little connection to everyday life. After 1917 this connection disappeared completely. Chambermaid Jenny seems to fit the pattern. There is nothing French in the story or the settings – only the names clearly indicate that this has nothing to do with the Russia of 1918. What’s really remarkable in this little-known film is its genre – a fact that was not missed by the press: “To move away from the clichéd forms of film art [Protazanov] tries to render on screen human life with all its tragic and at the same time comic streaks, to render it so that there is no caricature, and one can feel the breath of true tragedy and sufferings of the human soul. In accordance with these tasks the film to be released shall bear the title of a tragicomedy.”"

"Russian pre-revolutionary films knew class distinctions, just like Russian society: drama was a high genre, comedy a low one; and they were not to be mixed. The sets, the pace, and, first and foremost, the acting, had to be utterly different. Protazanov was the first one to break the law. So the Russian film historians Yevgeni Margolit and Marianna Kireyeva have every reason to call Chambermaid Jenny as revolutionary as Father Sergius – for the Revolution destroyed all the class barriers."

"Russian filmmakers were obsessed with death. Needless to say, practically all melodramas had a tragic ending. Yevgeni Bauer went further, starting a fashion for beginning a film with a funeral. Protazanov followed the lead in Chambermaid Jenny. The opening scene is a funeral, and, what’s more, the composition is a typically “Baueresque” one: a coffin in the background, a combination of curtains and columns forming a frame within a frame in the foreground, many flowers, and the characters situated in a statuary grouping of a sort. But this is not an imitation – it’s a parody; Protazanov called Bauer’s films “a cheap spangle made of ornaments”. For Bauer such an opening would indicate fate and despair, whereas Protazanov’s film turns out to be light and optimistic."

"After the death of her bankrupt father a young countess has to offer herself as a chambermaid under a false name. The young master falls in love with her. She loves him too, but the class difference is an obstacle to their happiness. Not only is there a happy ending, but the melodramatic plot is constantly overshadowed by dozens of humane, “household”, funny details. Funny not only for the audience, but for the characters as well. When the countess has to write herself a letter of reference, when the old butler teaches her manners, she is capable of laughing at herself. You would never see that in a prerevolutionary Russian film, because comical characters would never look at themselves from the outside, and dramatic characters were not supposed to laugh at all."

"There is nothing extraordinary in a wedding finale – after all, we know that the chambermaid is in fact a countess, so the class distinction here is imaginary. But the film has a truly democratic pathos. Jenny is good-humoured and open-minded: she enjoys chatting with her comrade chambermaid, and she grows to respect the old butler. At the end they are all friends, and the young aristocratic couple drinks champagne with the butler."

"When introducing his idea of a “tragicomedy” (or “lyrical comedy”, as this genre would later be called in Russia) Protazanov had an actress in mind before he came up with a story: the main part was intended for Olga Gzovskaya (1883-1962). A brilliant stage actress, she played at both the Malyi Theatre (a citadel of the “old school”) and the Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavsky admired her and was easily influenced by her; Gordon Craig cast her as Ophelia in his Hamlet. Her screen career was launched in 1915 at the age of 32, and in the next four years she made 19 films. She was never particularly interested in film art; her goal was to give as much freedom to the actor as possible. So she often wrote screenplays for her own films (and according to some sources co-wrote the script for Chambermaid Jenny), and even invented a popular theory demanding “long scenes” with no interference from an editor. By 1918 she had a reputation as arguably the best actress of both the Russian stage and screen."

"The leading man was Vladimir Gaidarov, Gzovskaya’s husband and her partner in most of her films. Ten years her junior, he was considered no more than a handsome “dressing” for a great actress. But two years later they emigrated to Berlin, and the situation was reversed: Gaidarov became a movie star working with Murnau, Dreyer, Wiene, Oswald, et al., whereas his ageing wife made a few minor films and returned to the theatre."

"Most of Gzovskaya’s pictures are lost. Among those that are preserved, Chambermaid Jenny definitely gives the best impression of her charm and acting skills. Protazanov provided her with all the “long scenes” she aspired to, but did it in a clever way: Jenny is present all the time, either in the background or on the sidelines, living a parallel life – as a chambermaid should. These mises-en-scène should also be credited to Fedot Burgasov, a cameraman who later worked in France (where he was known as Fédote Bourgassof), and shot Kean (1924), Feu Mathias Pascal (1926), Michel Strogoff (1926), Casanova (1927), and Les Bas-fonds (1936). Chambermaid Jenny was only his second film."
– Peter Bagrov

AA: Having seen Yakov Protazanov's austere Father Sergius (1918) whose style seems to hark back to an earlier period it was an interesting discovery to see The Chambermaid Jenny from the same year which does not feel so archaic at all. The visual storytelling is smooth.

Peter Bagrov argues that comedy was innate to Protazanov, and there is here a fine balance of drama and comedy, as Bagrov also states above.

From a funeral to a wedding we chart the saga of the impoverished noblewoman Jenny. There is a war and George, the wounded young officer of the air force, comes home to recuperate. They exchange looks. George hears Jenny at the piano, notices her ease with his little brother at playful dance, and sees Jenny reading books in English. George protects Jenny from the advances of a footman and later even from a fellow officer. The footman tries to frame Jenny as a thief of silverware, but he is exposed. There is a duel with the "offended" officer, and George is wounded again. A family doctor invites a famous specialist who instantly recognizes Jenny as the young Countess Chamberot.

The fairy-tale structure resembles the Nordic lumberjack sagas where the wandering lumberjack turns out to be the inheritor of a prosperous farm. But it is important that he discovers his true loved one as a man, as himself, not as a representative of property. Likewise here we feel that George would have selected Jenny anyway. The fact that she is a Countess is just an external confirmation of her inner nobility, which we have witnessed in many instances.

Olga Gzovskaya is natural and attractive in the leading role, and Protazanov directs the entire ensemble with an easy touch.

Fedot Bourgasov's talent as a cinematographer is already evident here - in composition, lighting, and choosing the right dramatic angle.

The DCP from the Library of Congress is stable and the definition of light is otherwise fine but deep black is missing.

Günter A. Buchwald's trio provided us an attractive hour of musical improvisation.

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