About Alexander Volkoff’s “Kean” (1924)
Silent Guest Star: Herr MikeGebert Und Herr Kino Eye
Herr MikeGebert wrote: “Thought of Kean last night while watching James Whale's The Great Garrick; they both have a certain larkish approach to portraying a great actor as a big playful ham (a tiger costume figures prominently), though Kean takes it into more traditional biopic territory (including, as you note, one of the screen's most protracted death scenes).
The most intriuging thing about Kean to me was a scene of rapid cutting, a la Napoleon (on which Volkoff worked), a dance number which turns kaleidoscopic in a frenzy of edits only a frame or two long. In Film Comment around 1980, Michael Powell (who was working for Rex Ingram in Nice at the time Volkoff and the other White Russians were making their exile films in France) wrote that when he first saw it in 1924, the audience held up their chairs to prevent the film being shown further until the projectionist agreed to rewind it and replay this sequence. (I think he said they did the same for the dinner-roll dance in The Gold Rush.)
As I wrote back in livelier days on poor a.m.s.:
"I have often wondered whether the origins of extreme rapid cutting as a style might not be lost in the lost work of Gance's assistants (who were quite prominent directors in their own right), the White Russian emigres Alexander Volkoff and V. Tourjansky. I have no proof of this, but they leave Russia for France and in no time rapid cutting appears simultaneously in a) their pal Gance's films, b) their own films (such as Volkoff's Kean), and c) in the cinema of Russians they had worked with who stayed behind. An interesting coincidence, no? More plausible than the conventional explanation, which is that Gance invented it for La Roue and oh by the way, it also got invented separately (with a whole theoretical apparatus behind it) in Russia by people who watched Intolerance over and over. "
Und Herr Kino Eye added: “Here's my review on Kean and the film Mosjoukine was in before, Burning Crucible. ( At this time, Herr MikeGebert confirmed to him. “Though German, also directed by Volkoff )
In regard to the dance sequence you mention, Mosjoukine was in a German film, the White Devil, which besides being a pretty good film, has a show-stopping dance sequence, which as I remember, has a MOTIVATED (that is, the shot made sense in context of the scene), complete TRIPLE 360 degree pan shot, a shot I've never seen done in any other film. I've only seen the film once, so would have to watch the film again to be sure what was happening, but whatever it was, it was a coup de cinema.
Mosjoukine directed his next film, Le Brasier ardent [The Burning Crucible] (1923), a surreal fantasy about a couple with marital problems. After a fight the wife, Elle, leaves the house. The husband, a wealthy industrialist, follows his wife to a private club, which turns out to be an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole adventure full of hidden doors and secret passageways. Eventually the husband hires "Detective Z" (Mosjoukine, who also plays at least four other roles) as a 'love consultant' in an attempt to win back his wife. Detective Z responds to this challenge by first flirting with Elle, and then abandoning the effort to go home with a toothache. Somehow this intervention returns Elle to her husband and we have a happy ending. Le Brasier Ardent is full of crazy kinetic energy, but there is also a brittle coldness to the film since there is little time invested to give any empathy to the characters.
Mosjoukine would never again be in the position of creating such a plum part for himself where he could play so many multiple characters, but in 1924 he did the next best thing by starring in a movie about a famous stage actor, Kean. Edmund Kean was famous for being one of the first English actors to have such broad popularity that his fame crossed both class and geographic boundaries. One must remember that in Europe, the acting profession was once regarded with suspicion and distaste. In Shakespeare's day, actors were considered only slightly better than the bear baiters competing for crowds outside the Globe. Kean helped elevate the profession into what would be celebrity status for later performers such as Henry Irving. Mosjoukine plays the actor as a tortured romantic genius, denied his one true love by a jealous husband. This lets Mosjoukine have some delicious business such as when Kean is stopped in his efforts to see his love and then must go out and play Hamlet. Mosjoukine plays the scene on at least two levels - a spurned actor almost mad with rage playing a Danish prince also raging against the world”.
And then Herr Graf Ferdinand Von Galitzien commented: “This German count shares ( a bizarre fact this, the aristocracy sharing something with the ordinary people... ) such suspicions about those White Russians rapid cutting influences in Herr Abel Gance work; probably the French director was the first one to use that editing in a proper way, that is to say, in dramatic film terms, a fact this that would be developed years later by those Bolshevist and well-know directors as Herr Eisenstein, so finally "la roue" has come full circle.
This German Count appreciates ( a rare fact this, the aristocracy appreciating something from the ordinary people ) Herr Gebert und Herr Kino's old comments ( almost as old as this German aristocrat ) about "Kean" and Moskoujine peculiarities”.
Finally Herr Kino Eye suggested: “Perhaps we should have a film festival, with a clip of a The White Devil's Triple 360 degree pan, followed by La Roue, followed by Ophul's La Ronde, (or should we use the original title, "Reigen"?) followed by a week being treated for a motion sickness disorder”.
Published in “alt.movies.silent”.