Early Russian Cinema Volume One: Beginnings
Sten’ka Razin has the distinction of being the first Russian dramatic production — a tribute to the determination of its producer, Aleksandr Drankov. When his first seventeen actualities failed to win serious attention in early 1908, he answered the widespread call for Russian-made films with Sten’ka Razin. This account of the popular brigand leader who dallied with a captured Persian princess was adapted from a traditional ballad “From the Island to the Deep Stream” and Drankov commissioned original music to accompany his film from no less than Ippolitov-lvanov, then head of the Moscow Conservatoire. Energetic promotion ensured the film’s commercial success and launched Drankov’s career as a producer.
Princess Tarakanova marked the arrival of the film d’art formula in Russia. By this time, the original Film d’Art company had become a subsidiary of Pathé, but its first success, The Assassination of the Duc de Guise (1908), remained a prestige model for films aimed at “cultured” audiences with their lavish attention to costume, decor and theatrical acting. This first Russian example was based on a play about the martyred Princess and boasted a cast of well-known actors.
Romance with a Double Bass: “If we are not mistaken, this is the first cinema interpretation of Chekhov’s works. And one must give them their due — they have treated it with all the respect owed to the name of Anton Pavlovich. This excellently acted film is further distinguished by the striking purity and richness of the photography and the beauty of the locations in which the action takes place.’’ (Sinefono, 1911, no.2)
Early Russian Cinema Volume Two: FOLKLORE AND LEGEND
1908 saw the belated start of Russian film production. Up to this point, imported films from France, America, Britain, and the other main European producers had satisfied a rapidly expanding exhibition market. But there was also growing demand for truly Russian pictures — one which the entrepreneurial Drankov first tapped with his Sten’ka Razin, launched with a fanfare in October 1908. The producer who was to become his only real rival over the next ten years did not manage to release his first film until two months later and then it proved a commercial failure — “thus the dream of releasing Russia’s first picture on an everyday theme,” Khanzhonkov recalled in 1937, “failed to materialize.” Today, however, this simple gypsy tale has a plein air freshness and authenticity (it used real gypsies) which Sten’ka Razin lacks.
But this ex-cavalry officer was undaunted. Recruiting the determined Goncharov as his director, Khanzhonkov backed a group of three historical scenarios, of which Russian Wedding was one. Accounts of the filming reveal how little experience was available, but Goncharov’s attention to setting and costume — and his assistant Chardynin’s help with the actors — resulted in films that had immediate appeal, not least for nationalistic reasons.
Rusalka, based on Pushkin’s play about a prince and a mermaid, followed in Goncharov’s resolutely ornate style, with Fester once again creating a decor based on the popular narrative painting of the time. The film’s trick effects and surreal underwater set are less typical of Russian production and may reflect the popularity of Pathé’s trick films at this time.
By 1911, when the unreleased Brigand Brothers was started, Goncharov’s pantomime style seemed dated. Yet with the future star Mozzhukhin already showing his quality, and superb locations around the Moscow River, he managed one of the most expressive of all early classic adaptations — in this case Pushkin’s epic poem.
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