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Thursday, June 05, 2014

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. Marion was one of those (few) who knew how audiences had smartened up against backdrop of 20's roar. They'd seen every yarn spun a hundred times and were ready to lighten up. If only John Gilbert could have gone on making ones like this and leave squawk to those who'd quicker cede his kind of likeable bombast to arid stillness of microphones.


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.

5 Comments:

Blogger Tom said...

Yes, it was certainly a treat for me to view that beautiful print of red blooded costume adventure the other night on TCM.

No one will ever accuse the film of much subtlety, least of all in its human relations. The Cossacks is very much a chauvinistic man's world in which women know their place (working the fields while waiting for their men to return from war).

Nothing quite as satisfying for a hot blooded Cossack as killing a Turk or two or ten, then bragging about it afterward.

While there's nothing in this fun romp to compete with the charming simplicity of the scenes that they had had in Big Parade, John Gilbert and Renee Adoree were still an impressive screen pairing in this one, too, I felt.

Particularly effective, I think, was that scene in which Gilbert climbs into Adoree's bedroom window after he had made such a jerk of himself (his impulsive hot blooded character very reflective of the actor playing him) and tried to make amends, only to discover from Adoree's tear stained face that it was too late.

And it's ALWAYS a pleasure for me to watch that wily old character actor, Ernest Torrence, this time as Gilbert's father and the leader of the Cossacks. The tension between father and son truly erupts in a furiously paced scene of whip brandishing carnage between them, with Pops decidedly coming out second best.

I think that the grim brutality of the torture scene in the film's final reels will come as a surprise to many, perhaps even a little off putting to some.

But I'm with you, John. It's a heck of a lot more fun watching Gilbert in a physical romp like this than in a lot of those talkfests that MGM would soon be planting him in.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Wonder what became of Yurka Kuls?

5:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer reflects on "The Cossacks" and John Gilbert's career:


After Gilbert signed that fabulous contract with M-G-M, he never again made films having the prestige or popularity of "The Wedding March," "The Big Parade," "La Boheme," or "Bardelys the Magnificent." There would still be the pictures with Garbo--they were a team after all, and she was as well served by them at this time as he was--and interesting curios like "Man, Woman, and Sin," but the latter was almost a throwaway, so far as the studio was concerned. Most of his pictures were almost programmers, with his own salary the most prominent part of the budget, but with little ambition to sustain the popularity which made that salary possible. The effect was to undercut his stardom, and this occurred well before the disaster of his first talkies. Gilbert was aware of what was happening and made scathing public comments about "Twelve Miles Out" or "The Cossacks." As to the latter, the "cheapness" he complained about had less to do with the production values as the story. He wanted something with emotional depth. Of course, there are some who would say that this damage was deliberate and put the blame on L. B. Mayer. I think that they're wrong, however. It would be better to say that Gilbert was mishandled, not out of hatred but misunderstanding or indifference. The same thing was happening to Clara Bow at Paramount, as B. P. Schulberg put her in picture after picture intended to exploit her popularity, but not to sustain it. Gilbert at least had "The Big Parade," which played for a year in some venues. People who saw it would want to see that sensational star again, whatever he was in. Too often they would be disappointed, but not always, it seems. Apparently "The Cossacks," for all of Gilbert's misgivings, is a pretty entertaining film. I missed it last Sunday, but there will be other opportunities in this digital age, with its commonplace miracles.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Well, as an actor, Gilbert's complaint about the lack of emotional depth in The Cossacks is certainly understandable.

He had given one of the great performances of the silent era, in my opinion, in The Big Parade, and there isn't much room for subtle nuances in this characterization. I'm hard pressed to say that I even liked his hot headed juvenile character, certainly not the macho one which he very abruptly becomes.

Renee Adoree, though, brought charm and sensitivity to her role, I thought.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Ernest Torrence's broad acting, it was a performance could only have been done during the silent era. That Scottish accent of his might have been a tad jarring for a Cossack leader if the film had been made a couple of years later.

10:31 AM  
Blogger opticalguy said...

Thanks for featuring this film so prominently. I got to see it on the free-on-demand option the last day it was available. Yeah … it's total hogwash BUT really FUN hogwash. Stunning look to the film and I suspected some of those extras in the scenes of the "jolly Cossacks" frolicking looked pretty darned authentic. Why the jolly sadists boasting of killing are supposedly redeemed by their religiosity still baffles me and it does seem like a desk-bound executive's fantasy of "when men were MEN!"

I agree with the poster TOM who said, "particularly effective, I think, was that scene in which Gilbert climbs into Adoree's bedroom window after he had made such a jerk of himself (his impulsive hot blooded character very reflective of the actor playing him) and tried to make amends, only to discover from Adoree's tear stained face that it was too late." This is when good acting makes hokum into GREAT fun.

Ernest Torrence is a ton O'fun (his soft, gentle, Scot's accent would have not worked for the Cossack chief so I'm glad it's a silent. Renee Adoree does a LOT with little.

The technical side (about 5 or so matte paintings and a couple of splendid optical composites (the cliff collapse) really show MGM's technical superiority to most others. The least convincing matte is the shot of the Cossacks riding down from the pass to the rescue but it looks way cool.

I just wish I'd recorded it!

9:01 AM  

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