Retro Cinema – The Last Command
—Interview (1960), Buster Keaton
—Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969), Charles Bukowski
Not what it sounds like, e.g., a same-name 1955 Bowie-Crockett defending of the Alamo, The Last Command uses its title ironically and double-edged. At the Museum of Modern Art, it is among sixteen silent features and four shorts for which Batiste Madalena hand-painted up to eight Art Deco posters a week for Rochester’s Eastman Theatre—in such rush, Sally of the Sawdust costars “C.W. Fields”—fifty-three of which are on exhibit.
To the live accompaniment of Ben Model’s Miditzer “computerized Wurlitzer,” the masterfilm plays on three levels—plus love—with an economy that shames almost every modern take on just one or two.
It holds up against Eisenstein’s also-1928 October/Ten Days That Shook the World, and is less misguided grandiose in Revolution set pieces that show up Doctor Zhivago and Reds for the bloated romances they are, whose cheapened history is exemplified by Beatty and Keaton’s love-making to mood music the “Internationale” at the storming of the Winter Palace. Without countless hired hands, Russian October is visualized in miniature, but blown large and stirring by groupings of people and imaginative juxtaposition of light and shadow. A screaming crowd of at most a few dozen and slogan flags whipping in the breeze spell out more than the eye actually sees, a grittier Delacroix Liberty Leading the People.
Deeper than the overthrow of the Czar, however, are tales of the fall of an arrogant yet pitiful humane leader; and of the related fate of those European émigrés who thronged Hollywood, some to recapture success but most to join the “breadlines” of cinema’s fringes, mirrored in both movie and makers. The original story is by Lajos Biró, a liberal forced to flee Budapest but reestablishing his writing career for screen and stage in America and, later, England. Austrian director Josef Sternberg added an aristocratic “von” to his Jewish name, “discovered” stage actress Marlene Dietrich, and became a screen giant seventy years ago but was pushed from the pantheon for a mixture of an automobile accident, an unattractive personality, and bad luck and bad box office.
For this his finest performance, as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, Emil Jannnings won the first-ever Best Actor Oscar (The Way of All Flesh was also cited), but with talkies his heavy German accent and Nazi sympathies finished him. Sensing the reaction to come, the Swiss opened his autobiographical 1928 How I Got into Movies with the lie of birth in “Brooklyn, America”—also making himself younger—appropriating the childhood home of costar Evelyn Brent.
The Old World background lies in the frame, an acid look at the handful of successful European transplants and the wretched refuse teeming around the “Mecca of the World” industry yearning for redemptive employment. Among the humiliated huddled masses hired as soldier extras for a film about events of 1918, the Czar’s cousin and former commander of his Imperial Army is withdrawn and suffers a palsy of the head. He is chosen to play the commander’s part, not for his impressive height and build, but because self-important director Lev Andreyev (William Powell) recognizes the headshot of his decade-ago opponent and will lord it over the defeated officer.
This wreck of a man gains the sympathy of fellow down-and-outers though not of the director’s sycophants, as he makes up and gazes into a small kit mirror and opens reverie to his glory and fall that occupies the bulk of the eighty-nine minutes.
Inspecting foot soldiers in winter or dining in commandeered palaces, the stern General appears a Russian Von Stroheim, but his concern for overextended troops, contempt for childish Imperial pomposity, and most of all his deep love of country, anticipate his stoic if stunned acceptance of reversal of fortune and come out in talks with Natalie Dubrova (Brent). Disguised as touring Kiev International Theatre troupers, this “most dangerous revolutionary in Russia” is rounded up with coconspirator Lev, who is beaten and imprisoned while her beauty, bearing and legs elicit the General’s “You will, of course, honor us with your company.”
Her adaptability to gowns, pearls and champagne is no more than a biding of time, but her falling in love with the hated oppressor and inability to seize the moment, come too fairy-tale obvious and easy, but then equally puzzling seems her reversal to bloodthirsty form until that, too, is revealed as sacrifice to the heart.
Individual and social past now known, among the apparatus of present ‘twenties moviemaking the shell of the General is toyed with by director Andreyev and prodded and poked by an assistant (Jack Raymond). Lights! Camera! Action!—a single short take, but the appalled cameramen cannot hand-crank. It is expected but so sensitively done that the man’s return to grandeur, zoomed back on with a lone spotlight, prompts “Yes, Your Imperial Highness, you have won [as] more than a great actor, but a great man.” At least one Dream Factory mogul will lose his haughty grand illusion.