French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923-1928 (Flicker Alley) presents of the stateside DVD debut of five silent classics from Film Albatros, a French studio founded by Russian artists: The Burning Crucible, Kean, The Late Mathias Pascal, Gribiche, and The New Gentlemen.
Three of the films star Ivan Mosjoukine, the great Russian actor who fled the revolution and landed in Paris, and the other two are directed by Jacques Feyder. All of them are examples of the sophisticated filmmaking coming out of France in the twenties.
Which is not to say that they are all masterpieces — The Burning Crucible (1923), which not only stars Mosjoukine but is written and directed by the actor, is inventive and full of lively images and playful techniques but is all over the place and jumps willy-nilly through styles and episodes — but they are all tremendously entertaining and full of filmmaking energy. Mosjoukine plays eleven roles in The Burning Crucible, including the leading role of Detective Z, a man of many disguises, and Mosjoukine the director rolls Russian formalism, German expressionism, and French surrealism together in a simplistic but richly imaginative story that at times borders on craziness of Louis Feuillade’s serials of the previous decade.
Mosjoukine also stars in Kean (1924) as the great 19th century stage actor Edmund Kean and in The Late Mathias Pascal (1926), the fantasy epic directed by Marcel L’Herbier that Flicker Alley released on Blu-ray earlier this year. I reviewed it for Videodrone here.
The final pair of films in the set are from Jacques Feyder.
Gribiche (1926) is a simple but lovingly made film about the good-hearted son of a war widow who agrees to let a well-meaning society lady and social activist adopt him so his lonely but loving mom will marry her beau. It’s kind of a “Little Lord Fauntleroy” story except that the American social worker doesn’t dote on little Gribiche, she merely grooms him and trots him out to show off for company, more like a pet or a prop than a growing boy in need of attention. There’s not much to the story but Feyder creates marvelous atmospheres, from the stifling culture of the mansion to the raucous working class fun of the streets of Paris on Bastille Day, where Gribiche escapes his lonely prison.
The New Gentlemen (1928) is the crown jewel of the set. It opens as a delightful romantic comedy of an idealistic electrician and committed union official (Albert Préjean) romancing a pretty but limited ballet dancer (Gaby Morlay) from the Paris Opera while he keeps union strikers in line until their demands are met over a long night. He cuts quiet the dashing figure and his rousing call to unity wins her heart, even though she’s the mistress of a rich Count and conservative politician (Henry Roussel), a man who has almost single-handedly sustained her career in a company of superior dancers. The romance and idealism of the first half, however, slowly turns to satire as our working class hero is elevated to parliament and then to the cabinet of the new government, embracing the change in station with the accoutrements of culture. He’s now the Count’s rival both in love and in politics, and in this the Count as far more savvy.
Sophisticated and elegant and knowing, this deftly-turned satire is rooted in characters and personality and Feyder applies a gentle humor on the surface while letting the cynical turn of power politics and its corrupting influences seep into the film. But this is not about the corruption of an idealist in the gears of influence, it’s about taking control of the machine, and the Count is the master of pulling the levers of power until the status quo is returned. Feyder doesn’t arrive there with bitterness or outrage. It’s a more like a sigh of resigned disappointment in the ways of human nature in the follies of love and life.
All five films in the set are mastered from 2009 restorations from La Cinématèque Français and they are gorgeous, clean and with great clarity, and they have been tinted using original prints as a guide. The set is produced for DVD by Jeffrey Masino and David Shepard and they all feature superb original scores by some of the best silent film composers and performers in the world. The Burning Crucible features a bright piano score by Neil Brand, Kean an orchestral score by Robert Israel performed by a 32-piece orchestra, The Late Mathias Pascal a lovely score composed and conducted by Timothy Brock (recorded live at a performance in Bologna), Gribiche a bouncy, energetic score compiled by Rodney Sauer and performed by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and The New Gentlemen a lush, romantic score by Antonio Coppola performed by The French Octet.
The five discs are packed tight in a standard case with a hinged tray and the set includes a 28-page booklet with an essay and notes on the films by film historian Lenny Borger.