The Sunday Intertitle: Dying Is Easy

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KEAN (1924), directed by Volkoff, starring Mosjoukine. Very lavish, and with the stylish lighting effects and ripe symbolism I expected of its director. It’s a hopeless farrago of Edmund Kean’s real life, omitting or distorting or downright negating nearly every salient fact about its subject, but it does capture a vivid spirit of excess and debauchery. Regardless of willful historical inaccuracy, it’s a striking film.

Mosjoukine, a great actor, isn’t really able to suggest Edmund Kean the great actor, since all his Kean does on stage is strut about and flirt blatantly with female members of the audience. His poor Juliet never gets a look in, as he’s too busy making goog-goo eyes through a gauzy veil at the Danish ambassador’s wife. She’s played by Nathalie Lissenko, the real-life Mrs. Mosjoukine, who’s very good — less showy than her hubby. She clearly understood screen acting, whereas arguably he only understood, or was only interested in, Great Acting. It’s either ironic or extremely apt that his face was used by Lev Kuleshov to demonstrate that montage could create the effect of emotion on an actor’s face without any performance at all.

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It’s offstage that Mosjoukine/Kean comes alive, dancing the hornpipe in a furious montage sequence, knocking back rum and flaming punch, which forms a brazier ardente to create some of the aforementioned dramatic lighting.

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He never gets to collapse on stage while playing Othello with his son (he doesn’t even have a son in this), nor does he say “Dying is easy; comedy is hard,” but expires in the suburbs, quoting Shakespeare to the end. A brief special effect shows his hand skeletonizing as he experiences the early signs of death — like Mrs. Bates skull seeping through the skin of Norman’s face at the end of PSYCHO.

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It’s very subtle, because his hand is so pale. You may have to trust me on this one.

A further hideous irony — Mosjoukine’s stardom was handicapped by sound (truncating a possible Hollywood career) and by unsuccessful plastic surgery back in Europe which is said to have robbed his face of character and limited his expressivity. He ended up needing Comrade Kuleshov to help with his performances. He died of tuberculosis in 1939.

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2 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Dying Is Easy”

  1. There’s Kean and then there’s ‘Kean’. This sounds very much like an adaptation of the play Dumas wrote for Frederick “the one from Enfants Du Paradis” Le Maitre, who loved Kean so much he took the K and put it on the end of his name. He also loved flirting and brawling. Sartre loved ‘Kean’ so much then he rewrote it, maybe taken with the existential aspects of actors playing actors suffering breakdowns on stage. I seem to remember it ends with Kean giving up the stage and running off to the States to settle down with the gal be should have been with all along. I love happy endings.

  2. Yes, I should have said, it’s based on the Dumas. And the similarities with Le Maitre, at least as portrayed in Les Enfants, struck me more when I read the Wikipedia entry on EK. His life as portrayed in the play/film doesn’t reflect the “disputes with playwrights” stuff which is such a mad feature of Les Enfants and Kean’s real life story.

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