Fresh Silent Stock On TCM Shelf
The Cossacks (1928) Takes Love and War In Light Stride
The Cossacks is outsize action romance done with a wink. If you didn't catch it on TCM this past Sunday, be sure to on the next bounce in July, because here's a pre-talkie that shows what fun hep people had with stuff taken seriously for most of an era headed toward finish as The Cossacks went into summer 1928 release. Yes, Gunga Din did have a big brother, or should I say sister?, because ace scenarist Frances Marion, the quick wit behind Valentino's tongue-in-cheek Son Of The Sheik, was also back of this, and she knew from fun to be had with bigger than life formula without ridiculing it outright.
The Cossacks is about, well, Cossacks, who like to kill Turks, and that's all we need to know. They wear florid costumes and fight like demons. Russian politics of a sort John Barrymore dealt at Tempest address of a year before is not at issue here, question alone being, is Gilbert going to quit being a layabout and take up swords like a man? He does, and for no more weighty reason than to impress Renee Adoree, and us, with rides to rescue and endurance of Turk torture before receipt of a happy ending. The Cossacks was based on Tolstoy ... not that any of him was left once multiple minds at Metro had input. A troup of on-the-level Cossack riders were said to have been imported, horsemen that would make Hollywood stunt pros look to laurels (250 brought from Russia at cost of a quarter-million, said publicists, this two years ahead of The Cossacks' release, which shows how long the film was in gestation). The riders would be used in a Tim McCoy MGM western in addition to The Cossacks, and would canvass the US as promotion assist, sample being the above ad when the film played Cleveland's Stillman Theatre.
What exec Irving Thalberg and Metro brass wanted wasn't authenticity, let alone fidelity to Russian literature, but just enough flavor of each to vary studio concoct of Gilbert plus action plus love, and it didn't take genius to mix those. A Frances Marion, who'd get scenarist credit after numerous others had punted the assignment, knew that where Metro and its public were concerned, simplest alchemy was a most effective. MGM was among early applicators of a ten-heads-are-better-than-one theory, which wouldn't do most of their movies a lot of good in 1928 or after when the policy got even top heavier. Committees were already rife at picture-making, with Thalberg to make final call. The Cossacks was broth to which many poured ketchup, reminding me of the scene in Meet Me In St. Louis where Katie, Lon, and Grandpa want to do the same. Was that moment in 1944's musical meant to spoof overage of cooks in Leo's kitchen?
The Cossacks went to Broadway's Capitol Theatre for June 1928 opening, that venue being home to MGM product not quite of roadshow caliber. The Capitol's goal here, as always, was to fill enough seats to justify holdover beyond a single week booked. Crowds sufficient to keep The Cossacks around for a second (or more) frame would decorate trade ads and make urgent the need for outlier showmen to date the show, perception of a hit being everything ("Anyone Would Road-Show It," said publicity). Extended Runs as touted by Metro sales for summer 1928 included Garbo in The Mysterious Lady, Ramon Novarro in Across To Singapore, Lon Chaney's Laugh, Clown, Laugh, and Marion Davies in The Cardboard Lover, in addition to The Cossacks. In fact, there were two John Gilbert vehicles in current play, the modest Four Walls also on that season's release chart. Fantastic, and ongoing, success of The Big Parade made any subsequent Gilbert saleable. He'd appear in four for 1928, had done the same the previous year ... was there oversaturation afoot? Clouds that would burst upon JG after arrival of sound may have seen start of darkening here.
Jack sometimes opened a big mouth to the press, studio lockdown of star statements still a few years in offing. He said The Cossacks was too cheap to amount to much, this in advance of the show being finished, which didn't help toward folks' anticipation and attendance. Judged by Gilbert's up-down behavior, he may well have been bipolar, unrecognized per 20's diagnostic skill, and having to treat symptoms a best way he could with alcohol and serial marriages. Jack could be manic and make it work in fast action and romance context of The Cossacks, but where pull-back and shut-up was needed, his was a wire too live for a system built on discipline/control. That, however, was much of what commended John Gilbert to his public. Fan press called The Cossacks "a slice of rich, red meat," Screenland's review using as header "Hotsy-Totsky." The meat after eighty-six years tastes still fresh, as evidenced by clean survival of elements (I noted no nitrate decomp), plus a typically outstanding score by Robert Israel. TCM's is happy comeback for a most entertaining barnstormer that is The Cossacks.