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Thursday, February 10, 2011

THE VOLGA BOATMAN (1926)


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.

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