Cecil B. DeMille’s interest in the Soviet Union culminated in an extensive tour of the country where he was fascinated by Moscow’s progress and horrified by the poverty, anarchy & ignorance outside the capital. So, it’s disheartening to find him hauling out a load of boilerplate dramatics & romantic clichés in this independent production about a revolutionary boat hauler who comes between an engaged noble couple. Class differences and the Red & White Civil War are used as mere complication to a love triangle and a story that should feel ripped from the headlines feels ripped from operetta. William Boyd is little more than good-natured as the proletariat hero and Elinor Fair generates no heat as the conflicted love interest. But Victor Varconi makes up for a lot as her wounded fiancé, Prince Dimitri. A DeMille regular (Pontius Pilate in KING OF KINGS/’27), he’s able to bring a complicated character to life without assist. The film also boasts an unusually deep technical pool; Mitchell Leisen & Anton Grot on sets; Peverell Marley & Arthur Miller lensing; no wonder the action & riot scenes are so beautifully handled. A cannon blast in a ballroom is really something to see. But typically, the best scene showcases a bit of DeMille perversity. Unaware of who she is, Dimitri’s men place our Fair lady on a table top and slowly disgrace & degrade her for their own amusement. Yet we see not a frame of her debasement. Instead, DeMille shows a series of close-ups, lustful or disgusted reaction shots of the men as they mentally rape her. Each thrilled & appalled at depravities we can only let our sordid imagination create for us.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For a great Hollywood ‘take’ on the Russian Revolution, try Josef von Sternberg’s THE LAST COMMAND/’28.