The White Russians Are Coming

Litvak hit Hollywood, via RKO, with a remake of his recent L’EQUIPAGE, with Miriam Hopkins, Paul Muni, Louis Hayward (replacing Annabella, Vanel, Aumont) and Colin Clive. We get a big-budget studio Paris 1917, with an air-raid interrupting a big musical — an excuse to show fishnet-stockinged girls running for the shelters. It’s a great big glitzy, vulgar spectacle, as Litvak films are even when he’s peddling “quality,” but I can never associate Litvak with “white elephant art” because his films all have a compulsive, jittery dynamism to them — the zip pan is his signature move, but the camera will be dollying or booming rapidly on either end of the zip, to add force to the nervousness.

The theatre scene isn’t in L’EQUIPAGE but the hero’s departure by train plays out line for line the same. Litvak has even been allowed to import his editor and his composer — and all the expensive wide shots, making this one of the most literal remakes ever.

But the same year, Litvak made his first Hollywood original, and it’s much more worthy of note, but it, too, is laid in Paris.

I don’t know why we hadn’t sought out TOVARICH before. Of course, I’d made no systematic attempt to see all Litvak’s films, and of course he’s not really known as a comedy director. But his early French and German films are mostly light comedies. TOVARICH, however, is much better and funnier.

Charles “Bwa-yay” Boyer is also not massively associated with comedy, except as the inspiration for Pepe le Pew’s voice. But CLUNY BROWN is one of my very favourite films, and he’s amazing in it. He’s an ideal screwball actor because he can do silly things with the utmost seriousness and precision. Hollywood really missed a trick by not letting him do more funny films.

Boyer plays a penniless Russian with forty billion in the bank: money entrusted to him by the Tsar when the Revolution struck. Now he and his wife Claudette Colbert (really good, avoiding her occasional lapses into mannerism) are starving in a Parisian garret, unable for ethical reasons to touch a single sous of the vast fortune. This absurd situation starts things off on a light note which is maintained for so much of the film that you never expect things to get serious at all, and then Basil Rathbone walks in and they do, very. It makes for a real surprise.

Since the couple’s privation is essentially self-willed, we don’t worry about it too much, and then they get a job as servants to Melville Cooper (THE LADY EVE) and Isabel Jeans (GIGI) and start to really enjoy life. Their master and mistress are besotted with them, they’re winning a fortune at cards with the son and daughter of the house… enter Rathbone.

We sensed the film might need some shaking up — you can’t have a film just be fun and games forever, generally, though this manages it for two acts — we weren’t expecting to meet a man who as actually subjected our light comedy leading man and lady to physical torture. For a while it seems that Rathbone may be disposed of in the manner he would later enjoy in WE’RE NO ANGELS — the rat poison is to hand, after all. But the ending is stranger and more surprising.

This is based on a play by Jacques Deval, translated by Robert E Sherwood, adapted by Casey Robinson — all good people. Not too much opening-out has been performed, and the end of act curtains are still visible, in the form of fade-outs. Which is fine — the film is still a film, photographed from inside the action, using movement and music and cutting to create cinematic beauty. As in MAYERLING, Litvak exults in people having an out-of-control good time. In the previous film, Boyer’s debauchery had a tragic undertone, but here it’s just Lubitschian joi de vivre. Russians are mad, the film tells us, and they like it.

Depending on your sympathies, this is either a dry run for ANASTASIA (and in Yul Brynner, we may think, Litvak found his new Boyer, commanding yet crisply amusing), or its the original from which ANASTASIA is merely an off-cut. I actually like this one better, but fortunately we don’t have to choose.

Note: unlike most of the European influx, Litvak seems to have had no trouble starting at the top in Hollywood, perhaps because MAYERLING had been a big hit — it came out in time to capture the interest of a public recently wowed by Edward VIII’s abdication. Given that Litvak seems now to be mostly regarded as a minor figure, it’s worth noting what a big deal they thought him back then. And when he eventually returned to Europe, of all the emigres who went back, he alone kept Hollywood’s interest, backing him in big-budget US productions films in France to the end of his days.

THE WOMAN I LOVE stars Emile Zola; Becky Sharp; Louis XIV; Henry Frankenstein; Moose Lawson; Mrs. Raskolnikov; Frau Berndle; Bunker Bean; Red Ryder; Salty Sam; Scottish Farmer Without Mustache; Winnie the Pooh; Charleston; and Sylvanian Agitator.

TOVARICH stars Gerry Jeffers; Pepe le Moko; Sir Guy of Gisbourne; Marie Antoinette; High Sheriff of Nottingham; Aunt Alicia; Morris Gershwin; ‘Pap’ Finn; Tailspin Tommy Tompkins; Count Alexis Rakonin; Colonel Weed; Maggie Jiggs; Mrs. Wellenmellon’s Hairdresser; Anna Dora, an Actress as Actresses Go; Mud Mask; Mrs. Watchett; Homer; Lord Henry Delves; Madame Napaloni; Norman Bissonette; and Dr. Kluck.

3 Responses to “The White Russians Are Coming”

  1. I watched Tovarich from the recommendation here tonight instead of the debate and enjoyed myself immensely. One aspect you didn’t bring up, I really loved the Max Steiner score. He’s not one of my favorites, but the addition of balalaika to his more traditional Hollywood style really peps the thing up.

  2. bensondonald Says:

    Side note: There was a Broadway musical version in 1963, with Vivian Leigh winning a Tony in the Colbert role. There was a cast album but the show didn’t seem to have much of a life thereafter. Here’s a number with Ed Sullivan giving a strange, overlong intro:

  3. Thanks!

    The movie sets up one musical number (the balalaika) beautifully, and I guess the 14th of July celebrations at the start would be another. So glad to be spreading the word a little about this one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: