Russia’s frozen inaccessibility, its mink-clad aristocrats, impeccable ballerinas, and candy-colored turrets further piqued American fascination when the Russian Revolution toppled the Romanov dynasty in the second decade of the twentieth century. Hollywood, housing a small community of the former empire’s exiles at the time, obliged, spinning stories of the commingling of royal and peasant, the imperial and revolutionary, making cliché out of envisioned tragedies. The number of such movies in the late silent era seems to surge.
In 1927, Resurrection, directed by Edwin Carewe, has a Russian prince falling for a peasant girl and Benjamin Christensen’s Mockery features Lon Chaney running the masochistic gamut from peasant to Bolshevik to martyr for love on the Siberian steppe. The next year brought audiences Frank Lloyd’s Adoration, about Prince Orloff and his wife fleeing to Paris and becoming waiters; The Red Dance, directed by Raoul Walsh, with Dolores Del Rio as a peasant girl reluctant to kill a grand duke on Bolshevik orders; Sam Taylor’s Tempest, written by the cofounder of the Moscow Art Theater and new Los Angeles resident V.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko and starring John Barrymore as a peasant soldier-turned-revolutionary in love with a faithless princess; and a Columbia Pictures stab at the subgenre, The Scarlet Lady, in which a young revolutionary, played by German import Lya de Putti, hides from the Cossacks under Prince Nicholas’s bed.
At least three films wove in a Hollywood take on itself. From 1927, High Hat centers around the antics of a lazy extra on the set of a film about the Russian Revolution. 1928’s Clothes Make the Woman imagines young Princess Anastasia rescued by a revolutionary and becoming a Hollywood star. And, in the middle of it all, Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command, made at the end of 1927 and released in January of 1928, about a White Russian, played by Emil Jannings, who falls from the highest-ranking spot in the Tsar’s army all the way down to a Hollywood extra.
Sternberg, whose films court authenticity and fantasy simultaneously, wrote about the presence of Russians on his set in his 1965 memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, while getting in a jab about his difficult leading man: “I fortified my image of the Russian Revolution by including in my cast of extra players an assortment of Russian ex-admirals and generals, a dozen Cossacks, and two former members of the Duma, all victims of the Bolsheviks, and, in particular, an expert on borscht by the name of Koblianski. These men, especially one Cossack general who insisted on keeping my car spotless, viewed Jannings’s effort to be Russian with such disdain that I had to order them to conceal it, whereas Jannings openly showed his contempt for their effort to be Russian on every occasion.” (Scholar Olga Matich parses the truth about which Russians were actually in Hollywood in a 2005 article for Russian Review.)
Story credit for The Last Command officially goes to Lajos Biró, whose imagination also begat Forbidden Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1924), Hotel Imperial (Mauritz Stiller, 1927), The Way of All Flesh (Victor Fleming, 1927), and the already noted Adoration. As Sternberg tells it, the Hungarian (not to mention scriptwriter John F. Goodrich) merely collected a paycheck. “I wrote the manuscript …,” he insisted. “I saw an opportunity to deal with the machinery of Hollywood and its callous treatment of the film extra.” Emil Jannings took credit for the story idea in his memoirs, and an eleven-page synopsis (titled The General) housed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences library verifies his assertion.
Scott Eyman tells a more complete genesis story with the kind of detail that helps it ring true. Director Ernst Lubitsch recognized the owner of a Sunset Boulevard eatery (scholar Anton Kaes says it was New York) working as an extra on the set of his 1927 film, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg. The restaurateur, named Theodore Lodi, Lubitsch said, was General Feodor Lodyzhensky of the late, great imperial army. Lubitsch passed on the anecdote to Jannings who had built a body of work Sternberg biographer John Baxter calls a veritable German subgenre, janningsfilme, in which “an aging man is humiliated and degraded and dies of a broken heart.” When later someone sued Paramount over story credit, everyone thought it was Lubitsch. But as Eyman describes, he’d been denied credit before and was not going to accept it now when it came as blame. Paramount settled. (A notice in Exhibitors Daily Review identified the claimant as scriptwriter of the unproduced Down on the Volga River, Ramon Jordansky.)
But Sternberg once said that story meant nothing to him anyway and regardless of who wrote what he made it his own, beginning the film in Hollywood with the already broken-down general remembering his past. With sets by former Ufa art director Hans Dreier (who worked on eleven other Sternberg films) and the director’s signature use of props to bestow meaning (watch for furs and cigarettes), The Last Command is bathed in pools of evocative light and swathed in shadows that reveal both mood and character. The spaces between the camera and the action are also characteristically rich in captivating detail, rows of soldiers, bayonets, arriving trains. Sternberg’s tour de force comes early in the film. Called to report to the studio as an extra, Grand Duke Sergius Alexander is caught in the crushing horde of thousands trying to enter the studio gates to retrieve his costume for the day’s shoot. In an extended lateral tracking shot, the camera follows Jannings as he’s jostled through a succession of service windows to get his uniform, boots, and weapon, an impersonal assembly line that is echoed several times in the film.
Held back from release because of its uncomplimentary take on Hollywood and America’s ambiguous relationship with the ten-year-old Bolshevik government, The Last Command got into theaters after a green light from Paramount stockholder Otto Kahn, who made a good call. The film reportedly broke the record at New York’s first-run Rialto Theater when it opened there in January. At the first Academy Awards, Jannings won for best actor for playing the fallen general (and for his performance in The Way of All Flesh), and Lajos Biró garnered an honorable mention in the category of original story. (Ben Hecht took home the top prize for the first in Sternberg’s silent-era trifecta, Underworld.)
1928 continued to be a good year for Russian stories. Lubitsch’s The Patriot featured Jannings as a mad eighteenth-century tsar, and MGM cast its two biggest stars as Russians: Greta Garbo as a spy in love with an Austrian captain in Fred Niblo’s The Mysterious Lady and John Gilbert acting out a by-then familiar drama opposite Renée Adorée in George Hill’s The Cossacks, very loosely based on the Tolstoy story. 1928 was also good to Sternberg who went on to direct the film that many critics consider to be his silent masterpiece, The Docks of New York, which revisited a waterfront setting he had used in his first film, The Salvation Hunters. He had full director credit on ten films before 1930, annus dietrich, the beginning of his six-film collaboration with the German cabaret singer turned actress-icon. In a New Yorker profile in March of 1931, the year Americans got to see the English-language version of Der blaue Engel, the writer begins where most begin when discussing him as if it’s already necessary to recuperate his silent film career: “Dietrich is really only an incident in von Sternberg’s success.” A few years later the director took on a different chapter of Russian imperial history, casting his muse as Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress.
Adapted from an article that first appeared in Senses of Cinema
Presented at A Day of Silents 2016 with live music by by Alloy Orchestra