Friday, 11 November 2016

The Last Command (1928)

"And so the backwash of a tortured nation had carried still another extra to Hollywood"

The Last Command is a towering 1928 silent epic from director Josef von Sternberg concerning Russian exile Grand Duke Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings) who is hired as a supporting artiste for a new movie concerning the Russian revolution directed by William Powell's Leo Andreyev. On set, the now aged and traumatised Alexander is forced to recollect events from his past when, just ten years earlier, he held for real the Russian imperialist general role he is set to replicate for Hollywood. These events, and how he escaped the revolution by the skin of his teeth, are being manipulated by Andreyev - who had come face to face with the general as an actor identified by the imperialist troops as a 'revolutionist' alongside his companion, the beautiful yet wild Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent) - and will prove too much for Alexander, as he ultimately loses his grip on reality.

The film was based on a real-life character; Theodore A. Lodigensky was a Russian general who had fled from the Communist revolt to the US where he first set up a restaurant and went on to work as an extra in the movies for a daily fee of $7.50 (the same rate Alexander works for in the film) Taking the name Under the name Theodore Lodi, Lodigensky would work in Hollywood for six years around 1929 and 1935, perhaps most famously playing the part of Grand Duke Michael, a Russian exile who is forced to work as a hotel doorman in the 1932 film Down to Earth - a role he knew all too well.

von Sternberg's movie is wonderfully meta (a vibe helped in no small part perhaps by the writer of the titles - including the one I quote at the top of this review - Herman J. Maniewicz, who is perhaps best known for his screenplay of Citizen Kane) drawing parallels with the notion of Hollywood playing at soldiers, with the frustrations Alexander felt in Russia at the beck and call of the Czar who views his troops as little more than entertainment and expects them to do their duty at the drop of a hat more or less just to keep him amused. 

In the role of the exiled general, Jannings would win the very first Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and it's a well-deserved win (certainly when you consider the Academy initially favoured Rin Tin Tin - a dog!) Jannings is larger than life, yet incredibly subtle at the same time. Its a real tour de force of film acting, alternatively eliciting our sympathy as the shaken and doddery exile eking out a living on a Hollywood backlot, adrift in this new country that can never be his home, and then losing it a little as the bear-like, boorish imperialist in the flashback scene, before ultimately winning us back around again when he falls for Natalie, the seemingly untamable yet complex and contradictory revolutionary, played by Brent. By the time the credits roll you more or less believe, as much as the previously vengeful Andreyev, that he was indeed 'a great man', simply by sheer force of Jannings' beautiful performance and the story itself.

The love story that is central to the film between the general and the revolutionary is pretty laughable, relying on the simplistic notions prevalent in an era of expedient filmmaking that could not concern itself too much with detail and dimension, but nonetheless both actors sell it, as we come to see that, despite their differences, Natalie finds in him a soulmate who loves Russia as much as she does. Brent is certainly a match for Jennings in the performance stakes and is utterly captivating to watch, especially during the scenes of Bolshevik revolt; flagwaving and leading the masses as they descend upon the general's train and cackling mercilessly as a man is shot before her. She's the ultimate revolutionary pin up and von Sternberg shoots her beautifully, with a keen sense of the iconic.

Likewise, Powell is really impressive as the Russian exile who has taken to the American dream effortlessly. A famed and feted director, Powell's stylish and urbane presence is not too dissimilar to that which we would come to be familiar with in the later stage of his career in the talkies, with roles such as Nick Charles in the celebrated Thin Man series, which I loved as a child (I wanted to be a cross between him, David Niven and Fred Astaire basically). 

It is in the flashback sequence, clad in jet back furs and an ushanka, that he is considerably less familiar to us; his eyes black-ringed to lend a more romantically swarthy air.  It is those eyes that again impress in the film's final scene, when he turns to his assistant (Jack Raymond) with the most strikingly hooded gaze that it ought to be found in the dictionary under the entry 'baleful'.

Unarguably, The Last Command is a true great from the silent era, I just wish I could buy into the love story a little more as it is on paper (because there's nothing wrong with the performances) to give it the full five stars. As it stands, it's a very noble and impressive 4/5.

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