Saturday, October 17, 2015

Payback's a Bitch

Film: The Last Command
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

There’s a hefty little subgenre of films about the making of films. There may be some that exist before The Last Command from 1928, but I’m not aware of any (although I’m certain that should they exist, I’ll be corrected in the comments below). The Last Command uses the movie industry as an actual plot point—this is a movie that wouldn’t work as it does without the movie industry, which serves as something like a framing story for the flashback that contains the bulk of the actual story here. It also contains one of Emil Jannings’s performances from this year, one or both of which won the first-ever Best Actor Oscar.

In the early days, directors, actors, and actresses were often nominated for multiple performances. In fact, there were four performances nominated for Best Actor for 1928 but only two actors; Emil Jannings was nominated for two and Richard Barthelmess was nominated for the other two. It’s not unlikely that his work in The Last Command was what secured the win for Jannings.

We begin with a director making a new movie. He’s desperate to cast someone as a Russian general and begins angrily looking through them until he comes across the picture of an older gentleman who evidently looks the part. This man is Sergius Alexander (Jannings), who claims to have been an actual Russian general and a relative of Czar Nicholas II. When he attempts to pin a medal on his stage uniform, he is accosted by the other actors and we jump into the flashback that took this man from the greatness of the Russian Empire to begging for bit parts on a Hollywood backlot.

As it turns out, Sergius Alexander really was a Russian general in service of the Czar at the brink of the Russian Revolution. The trouble begins when a few events coincide. First, the Czar is coming to visit, and he needs suitable pomp and circumstance for his arrival. This means that General Alexander needs to recall desperately needed troops from the front. At the same time, while checking the papers of travelers, his men spot two people who are potential trouble. Lev Andreyev (William Powell) and Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent) are posing as actors, but are actually dangerous revolutionaries. Sergius decides to play with them and ends up whipping Lev across the face and having him arrested.

Natalie is a different matter, though. He decides to keep her with him because of her beauty, something about which she is initially resistant. However, when Sergius is commanded to create an offensive because the Czar is visiting the front, he balks. He doesn’t want to spend his men needlessly so the Czar can pretend to be a part of the war. Natalie sees this and realizes that while she has a very different view of Russia, Sergius Alexander truly loves Mother Russia and is a man of integrity. When she has a chance to assassinate him, she is unable to pull the trigger on a man of such character.

But since we know the result of the Russian Revolution, we know that Sergius Alexander is essentially doomed. While traveling, the train he is on is taken over by the revolutionaries, putting him on the edge of being killed by a mob. A series of events happen with a couple of abrupt but completely believable character changes happen and with about 20 minutes left in the running time, we appear back in Hollywood with Sergius getting ready for his extra role in a movie about the Russian Revolution. Yes, there’s a lot I left out there. It’s worth being left unspoiled, because there are some genuinely good and surprising moments here, including a major one that happens almost immediately upon returning to the film’s present.

Jannings, of course, was an acclaimed actor of the silent era and early talkies and with reason. There was something about the man that allowed him to look both dignified and completely pitiable at the same time. In fact, a great deal of what he did here would come into play in later films like Der Blaue Engel, which tells a similar story of the fall of a once-great man. Janning’s last scenes are brilliant, and while filled with the sort of over-expressive acting of all silent dramas, it’s some of the best of the period.

It’s also worth noting that Evelyn Brent was completely ignored by the Oscars in the inaugural year, and that was a shame. While again melodramatic, she believably manages several quick changes in mood and intent with her acting and is completely believable in doing so. It may simply be that the role wasn’t big enough and the Supporting Actor/Actress categories hadn’t been created yet.

If there’s a downside here, it’s the same one that all silent dramas share. The acting is broad and aimed to play to the back row of the theater and it simply doesn’t carry over well into the modern era. Looked at from the perspective of its time, though, The Last Command is a good, solid drama. It’s also a shade under 90 minutes, so it doesn’t wear out its welcome. It’s not a film I plan on watching again any time soon, but it’s an excellent example of a drama of its time.

Why to watch The Last Command: The winning Best Actor performance from the first Oscars, and possibly the first movie about movies ever made.
Why not to watch: Like most silent drama, it’s heavy melodrama and overwrought.


  1. It's been an awfully long time since I saw The Last Command and I was still very leery of silent dramas back then. But I found it a very exciting film and it's one of the films that helped me appreciate that silent drama could be as good as the comedies and the horror films.

    As far as movie about movies, well, that's a whole subject. There's a Charlie Chaplin short called Behind the Screen about the prop men going on strike and Charlie is a scab and Edna Purviance crosses the picket line dressed as a boy and they run afoul of Eric Campbell and start running around in the studio and they stumble on a comedy set and it provokes an epic pie fight in an era of epic pie fights.

    It's hilarious.

    There's also an Edwin S. Porter film from 1901 or so about a guy going to the movies. It's about three minutes long and it's very interesting.

    1. I figured there were probabaly some films that played with meta-film before this, but this may be the first really serious film about it, or at least the earliest one that I know of, where a large part of the plot absolutely turns on the movie industry.

      I still like silent comedies more than I like silent dramas--funny is funny, after all. Films like The Last Command at least demonstrate why silent dramas were popular for the time, though.

  2. This was one of my best discoveries from doing the list of Roger Ebert's Great Movies. I thought Jannings did a great job with this and I found it moving. And there really was a former Russian general who eventually ended up doing extras work in Hollywood that inspired this (although the rest of this film was fiction.)

    On Ebert's list was another film I liked quite a bit titled Souls for Sale. It's a biting commentary on Hollywood from 1923. It contains footage of real Hollywood people, including Erich von Stroheim shooting the movie Greed and Charlie Chaplin shooting a film of his own.

    1. Ah, so there is something that's more of an indictment of the industry, or at least something that goes much deeper behind the scenes before this one. That doesn't surprise me.

      I agree about Jannings. The man really was a hell of a good actor.

  3. I've been working on my silent film knowledge, which still remains thin, and I can't say I'm an ardent fan but depending on the film they can at times knock me out. For me it's more the adventure films like Fairbanks's The Thief of Bagdad or Lon Chaney's horror, the truly bizarre The Unknown is the only silent I've watched more than once, than the comedies that I find more enjoyable.

    Dramas are often a challenge because as you said the acting is for the most part broad. Even Lillian Gish, to my eye so far the master (mistress?) of silent performance, can on occasion lay it on a bit thick. I watched Last Command specifically because of Jannings's win and his work was just amazing and ultimately heartbreaking. It was a bonus that the film was solidly made, it's not something I'd make a point to see again but a fascinating picture. Being a later silent the craft and fluidity had evolved to the level of near perfection to utilize the available resources that would be stymied shortly when they became a slave to microphone placement.

    It was a bit bracing to see William Powell in this, the first time I've seen one of his silent pictures. That's one thing I've found most interesting in the silents I've seen, to see the few stars who made the transition successfully, Powell, Crawford, Garbo, Ronald Colman, in this early form. The women have a flesh impact that most around them do not and the absence of their voices doesn't really affect that impact. Clara Bow is similar, had she not had so many private issues I could see her having continued successfully in sound...she's vivid in Call Her Savage. But for the men their effect was not as strong, for both Colman and especially Powell their voices made them an onscreen presence.

    1. Yeah, seeing Powell in a silent was surprising. In a way, at least for me, it was more jarring to see him in a role that was ultimately serious and at least partially villainous. I associate Powell with Nick Charles, so he's always more of a comic actor in my opinion, even if I know that's not objectively true.

      I've caught up on a couple of Chaney classics in the last few weeks, specifically Laugh, Clown, Laugh and He Who Gets Slapped and enjoyed them both. Your silent preferences are right in line with mine--the adventure stuff, the horror movies, and most especially the comedies because they still work. I could happily spend a week watching Chaplin, Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle, and especiallly Keaton, who I think was a true genius of the silent medium.

      Jannings is someone who sort of made the transition to talkies. He evidently had such a thick German accent that he was forced to return to Germany to make films there, which is part of the reason he became one of the leading actors during the Nazi regime.

    2. I've seen both The Unknown and He Who Gets Slapped several times. That scene where Norma Shearer slaps He and then laughs at him is one of the greatest and most heartbreaking images in all cinema. Except for Pandora's Box, Sunrise and a lot of the comedies, I find these two Chaney films to be the most watchable silent films.

      A really interesting William Powell film is The Canary Murder Case. Powell is Philo Vance, so the film is a kind of a warm-up for The Thin Man. It was filmed as a silent film but the studio changed its mind and its a strange hybrid silent/sound film. Louise Brooks is in it!

      It's more of a film history curiosity than a great film but it's watchable. I saw it on YouTube, so maybe it's still there.

    3. It is:

      Chaney was capable of truly emoting through the silent medium. It's the main reason so many of his films are rewatchable.

    4. I've seen both Laugh, Clown, Laugh and He Who Gets Slapped, both good though I really preferred Slapped. Again both with actresses that made the jump to sound though Loretta Young wasn't a star in silents, that didn't happen until sound.

      I actually thought Norma Shearer was better in He Who Gets Slapped than in most of her sound films. Her theatricality suited the silent medium and without that affected speech pattern of hers she was more compelling. She's one of those Golden Age stars whose appeal doesn't translate well to modern least to me. Of course she had that powerful backup of Irving Thalberg and I'm not so sure she would have survived the changeover without him. I've seen all her films but Strange Interlude and her indicator technique is wearing after a while, oddly in her later films she seemed to be relaxing that and improving-I thought she was at her best in Marie Antoinette and Escape both made after Thalberg's death-only to call it a day.

      If you haven't seen it I highly recommend The Last Laugh with Emil Jannings, it a heart tugger and Jannings's performance is just astonishing.

    5. I have seen The Last Laugh. I'm in the minority on it in that I didn't love it. A big part of that was the stupid cobbled ending that the studio tacked on. It's impressive in what was done essentially without anything like speech, since the film has only a single intertitle, but ultimately, other than that and Jannings, I wasn't a huge fan.