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.
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.
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.
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.