Eisenstein’s October at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Eisenstein was chosen to direct one of the two films commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution thanks to the worldwide success of the amazing Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin) in 1925–26. Early Bolshevik leader Nikolay Ilyich Podvolskiy gave him the commission.

As with BP, Eisenstein chose to work with mostly untrained actors. He selected people who resembled the historical figures they portrayed. Vasiliy Nikolayevich Nikandrov, who plays Lenin, had his head shaved to create the bald spot.

Sadly, due to the changing political climate, Eisenstein was forced to remove people who’d fallen out of favor. After the film’s release, he was forced to release an “updated” version without Trotskiy.

The climactic storming of the Winter Palace wasn’t based upon the 1917 event, but rather a 1920 re-enactment on its third anniversary. This planned mass spectacle involved hundreds of actors, dancers, circus performers, and assistants, as well as several thousand extras. Also present were armoured cars and tanks.

This re-enactment was viewed by 100,000, and was a grand theatrical production starting with the February Revolution and ending with the success of the October Revolution.

Due to the lack of photographic and print documentation of the original storming, the film’s depiction has come to be viewed as legit historical evidence of what actually happened.

Eisenstein wanted composed Edmund Meisel, who’d written a soundtrack for BP, to write a score for October too. The powers that be thought the resulting soundtrack too avant-garde, and ordered another in its place.

In 1966, Dmitriy Dmitriyevich Shostakovich wrote a new soundtrack, which later became a symphonic poem in his Opus 131 (C minor).

In 2011, after a five-year German–Russian collaboration, Meisel’s original soundtrack for the shortened version was restored. The gaps in the full version now feature music by German composer Bernd Tevez.

Overall, October didn’t do nearly so critically and commercially well as BP. The film was accused of being stilted and artificial, too experimental, overloaded with symbolism and allegory, spending too much time on Kerenskiy, and having poor acting.

Futurist poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovskiy, one of the earliest viewers, thought Nikandrov’s portrayal of Lenin was disgusting, superficial, and substanceless, like watching a statue instead of a real person.

Eisenstein’s montages came in for official disapproval. Authorities thought October unintelligible to the masses. Neither for the first nor last time, Eisenstein’s so-called formalism was attacked. The abovementioned editing-out of Trotskiy was also ordered after Stalin came to power and made him an enemy of the people.

Today, October is much more highly-regarded, both as entertainment and a piece of art. In 1928, Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin, who made the other film commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, commented, “How I should like to make such a powerful failure.”

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Eisenstein’s October at 90, Part I (General overview)

Released 20 January 1928 in the USSR and 2 November in the U.S., renowned director Sergey Mikhaylovich Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (Oktyabr: Desyat Dney, Kotorye Potryasli Mir) was commissioned by the Soviet government to mark the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. It was co-directed by Eisenstein’s longtime collaborator Grigoriy Vasiliyevich Aleksandrov (né Mormonenko).

The government also commissioned director Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga) for the occasion. That was released 27 December 1927.

The film opens with the tearing down of a statue of Tsar Aleksandr III in February 1917. We then see a priest blessing the Provisional Government, and a sampling of ordinary citizens.

The Provisional Government, led by Aleksandr Fyodorovich Kerenskiy, vows to continue honoring the commitments Tsar Nicholas II made to the Allied Powers. The war still rages, and the proletariat are still starving and exploited.

On 3 April, new hope arrives when Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Comrade Lenin) arrives at Finland Station, home from exile.  After being greeted by cheering crowds, he praises the revolutionary workers and soldiers who overthrew the monarchy, and vows no support for the Provisional Government.

In July, the Petrograd Committee of Bolsheviks constantly argues for and against an uprising. The people are restless, but are told the Party will lead them when the time comes, and asked to show restraint.

Protestors march on Nevskiy Prospekt, by the corner of Sadovaya Square, to the editorial office of so-called reactionary newspaper The Evening Times. The army fires on them, and mass panic reigns. In response, Kerenskiy orders the bridges raised, to cut the proletarian districts off from the city centre.

The victors laughingly throw copies of newspaper Pravda into the river. They also laugh when the 1st Machinegun Regiment calls for solidarity with the workers.

On 6 July, the Provisional Government orders Lenin’s arrest. Though underground, he directs the 6th Party Congress in absentia and orders an armed uprising.

Kerenskiy is shown in the Winter Palace and depicted as a future Tsar Aleksandr IV or Napoléon. Gen. Kornilov is also depicted as Napoléon. Obviously zero attempt at subtlety or unbiased historicity there!

Prisoners are freed, and the arsenal is in the hands of the people. Petrograd workers take over to defend their city. By Smolniy, Cossacks prepare to fight the Bolsheviks, but immediately change their tune when shown a leaflet promising bread and land. They begin joyously dancing.

Gen. Kornilov is arrested, and banners go up urging the proletariat to learn to use their rifles. On 10 October, the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks again debates an armed uprising. Trotskiy wants a postponement, but Lenin feels vacillating means losing.

Everyone approves Lenin’s proposal, both Bolshevik leaders and common people. Preparations are made for the uprising, and Lenin goes to Smolniy on 24 October. On 25 October, he takes charge. The moderate, sensible Mensheviks are left without a horse in the game.

The bridges are raised again, and the proletarian districts cut off from the centre, as the cruiser Aurora sails in. Now the bridges are in the workers’ hands. The Minister of War is quite displeased to learn the Cossacks are saddling their mounts in preparation to advance the Bolshevik cause.

Kerenskiy escapes in a car with Americans, while the Cadets march to the aide of the deposed Provisional Government. The Women’s Death Battalion unwinds on Tsar Nicholas II’s pool table.

Delegates of the Second Congress of Soviets assemble, and the Provisional Government drafts an appeal to the people, saying they’re the only lawful government in Russia. The Mensheviks open the Congress by reiterating this, but the people feel otherwise.

The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries wisely say the Bolsheviks will be the country’s ruination, which doesn’t exactly go over well. The Bolsheviks carry the day. Later on, the women of the Death Battalion surrender, and the 12th Army joins the Bolsheviks.

Now the stage is set for the cruel, horrifying storming of the Winter Palace, an act which destroyed and plundered countless, priceless, historical treasures and artifacts.

While this film is obviously Bolshevik propaganda, instead of a more historically nuanced view of what really happened, this is a very important piece of film history. It’s full of Eisenstein’s trademark montages, and shows his overall genius as a director.

The film also shows how a desperate, impossible situation led to the drowning out of moderate voices and a mob takeover. It’s happened so many times in history, yet people never learn their lesson.

The Crowd at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Director King Vidor got the idea for The Crowd after his wild success with The Big Parade (1925). He wanted a truly innovative film, in terms of acting and story as well as cinematography. Much of the camera work was influenced by the legendary director F.W. Murnau in particular and German Expressionism in general.

Thanks to his previous success, Vidor got the green light for this ambitious, experimental project from MGM’s wonder boy Irving G. Thalberg. Unsurprisingly, the infamous Louis B. Mayer hated it and held up release for nearly a year.

MGM insisted upon seven alternate endings, which were previewed in small towns. The film originally was released with two endings, the one Vidor intended and a scene of the Sims family around the Christmas tree after John gets a job with an ad agency.

Each theatre could choose which ending it wanted to show, but according to Vidor, most opted against the Christmas-themed ending.

Vidor wanted to avoid casting big names, to add authenticity to this story of everyday people. For the role of John, he chose James Murray. Contrary to popular misconception, Murray had had prior starring roles, and wasn’t an unknown extra who got a big break.

Sadly, Murray’s alcoholism wreaked havoc on his promising acting career. In 1934, Vidor found him panhandling, and offered him the lead role in Our Daily Bread (a sequel to The Crowd) if he could lose weight, clean up his appearance, and stop drinking.

Reportedly, Murray turned down this generous offer by saying, “Just because I stop you on the street and try to borrow a buck you think you can tell me what to do. As far as I am concerned, you know what you can do with your lousy part.”

On 11 July 1936, Murray fell from the North River pier and drownt, aged only 35.

The role of Mary was played by Vidor’s second wife, Eleanor Boardman, who was under contract to MGM. Though she was much more popular and well-known than Murray, she wasn’t a gigantic star like Mary Pickford either.

She had a much happier life than Murray, and lived to the ripe old age of 93.

The Crowd enjoyed modest critical and financial success during its original theatrical run. Some critics, like the venerable Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times, loved it, while others found it boring, drab, and too long. In spite of the mixed reviews, the film earned twice its production costs.

Today, the film is rightly recognized as one of the greatest of both the silent era and overall film history. In 1989, it was among the first 25 films chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

In 1981, famed film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill restored the film, and prolific film soundtrack composer Carl Davis created a new score for it. Though it was released on VHS in the late Eighties, and then on laser disc, it’s inexplicably not on DVD yet.

Warner Brothers holds copyright to MGM’s silents, and has famously not only refused to release The Crowd, but also has ripped it off many free streaming sites. They also famously haven’t released The Wind (1928) either, and only cracked and released The Big Parade in 2013.

With any luck, this amazing film will finally have a proper DVD release and restoration soon. How does garbage like Year Zero get rushed right onto DVD, while classics of the cinematic canon gather dust?

The Crowd at 90, Part I (General overview)

One of legendary director King Vidor’s greatest masterpieces, The Crowd, had its grand première 28 February 1928 in NYC, and went into general release 3 March. This is one of the absolute classics of both the silent era and film history in general.

On its face, it seems like a simple story of normal people going through everyday life, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a grand, powerful, epic human drama, poetry in motion.

John Sims (James Murray) is born on the Fourth of July 1900, and his dad vows to give him every opportunity in life. At age twelve, Johnny sings in a choir, plays piano, and recites poetry. When all his friends share what they want to be when they grow up, Johnny says his dad says he’s going to be something big.

Johnny’s world shatters when an ambulance arrives at his house. With a huge crowd gathered, he walks upstairs and learns his father is dead.

John moves to NYC at 21, idealistically drawn to it like so many others with grand, romantic dreams of making it big. A friend says he has to be good in this city if he wants to beat the crowd. John says that might be true, but all he wants is an opportunity.

One of the film’s most famous shots is a panning up a giant skyscraper, showing just how massive it is, and zeroing in on John in the middle of a mass of desks. This kind of sweeping camera work became impossible in the early sound era, due to technological limitations.

At the end of the workday, John rushes along with the crowd to wash up in the company bathroom. His friend Bert invites him on a Coney Island double-date, which John reluctantly accepts.

John battles another crowd on his journey out of the building and onto the street. Bert then introduces John to the ladies they’re going out with, Jane and Mary. Bert picks Jane, and John likes Mary (director King Vidor’s wife Eleanor Boardman).

John and Mary have a blast at Coney Island, going on so many rides which now exist only in memory. I love watching footage of Coney Island’s golden age.

On the bus home, John sees an ad saying, “You furnish the girl, we furnish the home.” He’s so taken with Mary, he proposes marriage, and she accepts. Naturally, a great crowd sees them off for their honeymoon.

Bert gives them a year or two tops.

On the train, John shows Mary a photo of a house in Liberty magazine, and promises it’ll be theirs when his ship comes in. Mary is quite embarrassed by another ad, “Maybe it’s time to re-tire,” with a kid in pyjamas. Her discomfort increases further when a porter goes to make up their bed.

I love the scene of Mary and John getting ready for bed, and their ensuing nervousness at sharing a bed for the first time. It’s so true to life, a sweet portrayal of an era when many people’s first sexual experience was the wedding night.

After their Niagara Falls honeymoon, John moves into the flat Mary shares with her mom and two brothers. The animosity between John and his in-laws is very mutual.

By April, John and Mary have moved into their own apartment. Though their relationship has started heading for the rocks, their love is rekindled when Mary reveals she’s expecting. John vows to work harder to make something of himself after their son’s birth.

Over the next five years, a daughter is born, and John gets an $8 raise. Mary remains frustrated with their poverty, and John keeps insisting his ship hasn’t come in yet.

When John wins $500 for one of his advertising slogans, it seems their luck has finally turned around. Instead, even worse hard times quickly follow. Will John ever catch a break, or will he be crushed by the all-powerful crowd?

The Circus at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

The filming of The Circus was plagued with problems—Chaplin’s messy divorce from second wife Lita Grey, the death of his mother Hannah, the scratching of the film negative, a studio fire, a windstorm, real estate development drastically changing the scenery, the theft of the circus train, and the IRS going after Chaplin for alleged unpaid back taxes.

Filming started 11 January 1926, and had largely wrapped by November. This included the restoration of the abovementioned film negative, which was discovered to be scratched one month in. Then in September, the fire broke out, and delayed production for a month.

Lita Grey filed for divorce in December, which pushed release back for over a year. They’d been mismatched from the jump, and barely spent any time together. It’s no secret theirs was a shotgun marriage to avoid scandal and trouble with the law (as she was a minor).

Chaplin had to smuggle the film to safety when Lita’s lawyers tried to seize his studio assets.

The divorce was finalized 22 August 1927, and in the largest divorce settlement of the time, Chaplin was ordered to pay over $600,000 and $100,000 in trust for each of their sons ($8,452,874 and $1,408,812 today).

The Circus was the seventh-highest-grossing film to date, earning over $3.8 million in 1928 ($54,444,774.57 today). The film largely received positive reviews, though a few reviewers pointed out spots where they felt the funny business stretched on too long, or felt it wasn’t as poetic and emotional as previous Chaplin films.

It was nominated for four Academy Awards—Outstanding Picture; Best Writing (Original Story); Best Director, Comedy Picture; and Best Actor. However, the newly-founded Academy removed Chaplin from the running by giving him a Special Award “for writing, acting, directing, and producing The Circus” and “Versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing, and producing.” It was meant to honor his overall contributions to film.

Officially, the Academy no longer lists Chaplin’s nominations in their list of nominees through the decades.

Chaplin had plans for a circus film as early as 1920, and began developing his ideas in late 1925. He started with a comedically thrilling scene of himself taking the place of the tightrope-walker and being attacked by monkeys, who tear off his pants. He then wrote a story about everything leading up to it, and the resulting finale.

Aspects of The Circus were drawn from his earlier two-reeler The Vagabond (1916), which featured a mistreated “Gypsy Drudge” (his longtime leading lady Edna Purviance). Another influence was The King of the Circus (1925), the last completed film of comedy legend Max Linder.

The scene where the Tramp is locked into a lion’s cage also parallels a scene from Linder’s feature Seven Years Bad Luck (1921). Chaplin often borrowed plot points and gags from Linder.

The scene with the lion took 200 takes, many of which truly did take place in the cage. Chaplin’s fearful expressions and body language weren’t all acting! He and co-star Harry Crocker (Rex) also spent weeks learning tightrope-walking.

Crocker also plays a clown and disgruntled property man.

A scene of the Tramp’s confusion with identical twin prize-fighters, using double-exposure to depict the twins (played by Doc Stone), was deleted out of concern for the film having too much comedy.

In 1947, prominent Austrian composer Hanns Eisler (who went into exile after the Nazis came to power) created a soundtrack for flute, piccolo, bassoon, string quarter, and clarinet in B flat.

In 1967, Chaplin created his own new musical score, and a theme song, “Swing Little Girl,” to be sung over the opening titles. He was 79 years old when he recorded it. This updated version premièred in NYC on 15 December 1969, and in London in December 1970.