THE RED DANCE is a Russian Revolutionary super-epic silent made by Raoul Walsh at Fox Pictures — visually it’s a stunner, while narratively it conforms to all the requirements of the Hollywood take on tsarism vs communism: we shake our heads sorrowfully at the abuse of power under the reign of Tsar Nicholas, then shake our heads sorrowfully at the naughty communists stirring the people up so as to exploit them. It’s not actually an unreasonable stance, given what was to come, although it conveniently ignores Kerensky and the fact that the original overthrow of the Tsar was not the work of Bolsheviks alone — the overall political purpose is similar to Charles Foster Kane’s: those with money and influence should look out a little for those without, for their own safety and security.
Also, like the later RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS, it makes the bizarre and inaccurate inference that Rasputin was a revolutionary. I guess with two lots of evildoers on opposing sides, adding in a genuine wild card like Old Greg, who weakened the system from within without seeming to have intended it for any political purpose, would have been too damned complicated.
Walsh serves up spectacular set-piece scenes by the score, aided by gigantic sets and dramatically sweeping camera movements: was this his biggest film other than THIEF OF BAGDAD? It’s certainly more fluidly and dynamically handled. The leading man is Charles Farrell, looking chunkier than I’ve ever seen him, as a Russian commander torn between loyalty to the Tsar (that well-meaning fathead!) and love of a humble schoolteacher’s daughter, played by Dolores Del Rio, a quite passable Russian since she doesn’t have to speak. Although her rather flamboyant body language does suggest a Latin temperament rather than a Slavonic one.
Poor Dolores — while everyone else is in a Fox epic movie, she seems to spend the first hour trapped in a Lars Von Trier movie — her mother was shot dead before her eyes by Cossacks, her father dies in prison, and she’s mistreated by the book-burning, brutal farmers she lodges with, until hulking soldier Ivan Linow turns up and tries to rape her. The farmers respond by selling her to the guy, but in the meantime she meets Farrell, Linow sobers up, and turns out to be a typically Walshian hero-lout, a great good friend and a hard-drinking womanizer with a sentimental streak. Quite a turnaround.
The thing that really ramps up the preposterosity in this thing, though, is the title cards. Written by Malcolm Stuart Boylan, whose credits stretch from 1920 to 1963 (this guy could be the model for Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby, such is the downward spiral of his career), they plumb the depths of silliness at every turn, and seem to specialize in flat-out absurdity and self-contradiction. Boylan obviously loves his dramatic paradoxes, but maybe he loves them too much?
The plot is arse-out daft to begin with — someone is sabotaging the Russian military effort in WWI, by issuing orders to retreat when they’re winning, subtle tricks like that. That someone is obviously a traitor, but somehow nobody knows who that someone is. Charles Farrell is tasked with finding out “who signs the orders” — a phrase that calls our attention to the fact, which could perhaps have been more carefully disguised, that it ought to be possible to get that answer by looking at the orders and reading the signature on them.
The solution turns out to be Rasputin, given the sinister treatment by Walsh, who nearly always shoots him with his back to the camera, so we can see his power reflected in the faces of those dealing with him. But this part of the plot is swiftly abandoned in favour of dopey romance with Charles and Dolores, in which the injustice of Russia’s feudal state is boiled down to a comparison of footwear.
If you’ve seen RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS or Barrymore’s earlier TEMPEST, or MOCKERY, you can probably predict the ending — disillusioned with both monarchy and communism, the couple flee into honorable exile, aided by a pal. I was slightly surprised to see them leave by an aeroplane, produced out of nowhere for the purpose, but why not? You’ve got to have some kind of novelty in an entertainment as by-the-numbers as this one. Still, the impressive spectacle and striking design compensate for the banality of the conception, and in Linow’s lovable brute you can see Walsh beginning to figure out what really interests him in movies.