Saturday, March 7, 2015

Russia in Classic Film: The Last Command (1928)

Oh those Russians - so passionate, so revolutionary, so ...Russian! This is my entry in the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently. Click here for a complete list of participants.

Josef Von Sternberg's "The Last Command" (1928) has it all: World War I, the Russian Revolution and Hollywood all rolled into one great film. Based (kind of) on a true story, "The Last Command" tells the story of a great Russian General/Grand Duke who falls victim to some Bolsheviks and ends up as a Hollywood extra working for $7.50 a day.

William Powell as the Bolshevik turned Director
While thumbing through some photos in search of the right face for a small part of a Russian general, Hollywood director Leo Andreyev (William Powell) comes across a familiar face.  He instructs his assistant to call the man and have the extra report for work in his film.

The General as a $7.50 a day Hollywood extra
The lowly extra (played with brilliance by Emil Jannings) suffers the indignities of the cattle call at the Hollywood studios. He appears to be a man who has suffered a great deal. As he gets ready to go on set, the old actor flashes back to Russia in 1917. No longer is he a desperate actor working for crumbs. Instead, he is Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, commander of the Russian Imperial army and cousin of the Czar. He is also the owner of a luxurious fur coat, coveted by his underling, and a riding crop.

The General at the top of his game
The General is a bit of an arrogant elitist and treats his staff with disdain (in one of many ironic scenes throughout the film, we had earlier seen that director Andreyev treats his staff in much the same manner). When an underling is found wearing his beautiful coat, the General humiliates him, threatening to save the coat and shoot its contents if the offender ever dares wear it again.

Not only does the General have to contend with the daily stress of world War I, he also has to be mindful of the revolutionaries that threaten the very foundation of Imperial Russia. Passports are routinely checked to weed out these revolutionaries and 2 questionable passports cross his desk one day: one for the dangerous revolutionary Leo Andreyev and the other for the equally dangerous and extremely beautiful Natalie Dabrovna (Evelyn Brent). Both are working as actors who entertain the soldiers while surreptitiously participating in Bolshevik activities. 
The passport photo that leads to love
The General decides to amuse himself with these 2 and has them sent to his office. An angry exchange with Andreyev results in the General slashing the actor across the face with his whip. Andreyev is quickly whisked off to jail, but the General decides he would like to keep Natalie around as his "guest." To her surprise, she learns that the General is a man of honor who deeply cares for his troops and loves his country as much as she does. Her grudging respect eventually turns to love.

Leo's face after the whip

The General loses his heart (and pearls) to Natalie
The train on which the General and his company, as well as Natalie, are travelling is intercepted by revolutionaries and Natalie, in an effort to save him, pretends to despise him and allows him to be humiliated. She helps him escape (returning to him the valuable pearls he had earlier given her; these will finance his way out of the country). While the General lies dazed from his leap off the train he watches in horror as the same train, carrying Natalie, veers off its tracks and plunges into an icy river. 

Captured, abused and humiliated by the Bolsheviks
Fast forward to Hollywood and a dramatic reversal of roles: Andreyev is the powerful director and Sergius is at his mercy. At last the 2 enemies come face to face. Andreyev hands the General a whip, telling him that he knows Sergious knows how to use it (ouch).

The 2 enemies meet face to face
Sergius prepares for his role as the Russian General in the trenches, but something snaps. When an actor in the scene tells him his has given his last command, the General loses his grip on reality and imagines that he is once again on the battlefield fighting for Russia. After an impassioned performance, he collapses. Andreyev, who has no cause to be kind to him, assures him that the Imperial army has won. An assistant notes that it was too bad the old man died because he was a great actor. Andryev, understanding the love of Russia that binds them, replies that he was also a great man. 

The extra as star
The film is totally Jannings' show. His power is undeniable and his performance was awarded with the very first Oscar for best actor (along with his work in "The Way of All Flesh"). William Powell is clearly poised for stardom and is convincing and alluring as the revolutionary turned Hollywood director. And speaking of alluring, Evelyn Brent is a perfect Von Sternberg muse as the complicated Natalie. 

Natalie showing lots of leg for 1917
The love for Russia crossed class lines and continents, uniting Czarist and Bolshevik in a crazy place called Hollywood in this masterful and unforgettable Von Sternberg classic.


Caftan Woman said...

Brilliant is the only word for Jannings in this role. Such an emotionally memorable film. A true classic of cinema. I've only seen it once, but the impression is indelible.

Silver Screenings said...

This sounds terrific! This is yet another film you've reviewed that I haven't seen, but I see it's available on YouTube. (Yay!) Thanks for introducing me to yet another new-to-me film. :)


What can I add about one of my favorite silents? It's flabergasting (is it right?) and it gets better with each viewing.
Your review did it justice. Bravo!

FlickChick said...

Thanks, CW - Jannnings really is unforgettable.

FlickChick said...

Hi Ruth - it is a great film - hope the youtube version is a good one.

FlickChick said...

Le - yes - flabbergating is a great word - love it!