Tuesday, February 7, 2017

“Peace…wisdom…and happiness…”


It’s 1870, and the reign of Tsar Alexander II (Paul Harvey) is threatened by a Tartar uprising in Siberia, under the command of the ruthless Ivan Ogareff (Akim Tamiroff).  (Again with the “Ivan” prejudice.)  Alexander dispatches Captain Michael Strogoff (Anton Walbrook) to journey to Irkutsk—a small Siberian town that’s been isolated from the destruction of telegraph wires—and deliver secret military plans to his brother, the Grand Duke Vladimir (William Stack).  The urgency of his mission means that Strogoff must travel incognito as “Nicholas Korpanoff,” but a treacherous woman named Zangarra (Margot Grahame), a confederate of Ogareff’s, has sussed out his real identity and trailed him to Omsk.

Along the way, “Korpanoff” comes to the aid of Nadia (Elizabeth Allan), who hopes to be able to join her father in Irkutsk.  (Strogoff arranges for her to obtain a visa by telling the authorities they’re brother and sister.)  There’s a tense moment at a roadside inn when Ogareff confronts Strogoff (Ivan does not know Michael’s real identity) over who will take the last team of fresh horses for their carriage.  Ogareff tries to goad his adversary into a fight, but Strogoff demurs.  “Not now…later,” he assures his nemesis—and by the time The Soldier and the Lady (1937) reaches its slam-bang conclusion, you’ll know Michael wasn’t just whistlin’ Dixie.

Mention “Jules Verne” (what can I say—I’m a name dropper) and you’ll probably think of his famous science-fiction works like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth.  His 1876 novel, Michael Strogoff, is one of his lesser known books—probably because it has nothing to do with the sci-fi genre with which he’s associated.  But Strogoff has the edge on 20,000 Leagues in the number of film versions it’s inspired: before going before the cameras at RKO as The Soldier and the Lady, it had seen silver screen adaptations in 1908 (an Essanay one-reeler), 1910 (Edison version), 1914, and a 1926 feature from Universal-Films de France starring Ivan Mosjoukine (whose 1921 serial The House of Mystery is featured at my “Where’s That Been?” column at ClassicFlix).   Film historian Richard M. Roberts humorously asks in the program notes he contributed to a new DVD release of Soldier from The Sprocket Vault: “[J]ust how many versions of Michael Strogoff do we really need?”

According to Richard, the 1937 RKO version was co-produced by Joseph N. Ermolieff—once a major film producer under the Tsar who fled to France during the 1917 revolution.  Now in political exile, Ermolieff spent the next several decades as an ex-patriot film producer…and in 1935, supervised a French-German co-production that utilized footage from the 1926 film.  With the star of that 1935 Strogoff, Anton Wahlbrook, Ermolieff sold RKO on a remake that “borrowed” footage from both the 1926 and 1935 films and allowed Walbrook (his new Anglicized screen name) to reprise his role, billed in the posters as “Hollywood’s new star.”

RKO's The Soldier and the Lady was not a success at the box office.  Granted, the movie industry is rife with releases that may have not captivated audiences at the time of release, but in retrospect hold up pretty well…and such is the case with The Soldier and the Lady.  Walbrook, who’s perhaps better known for his later turns in The Red Shoes (1948) and La Ronde (1950), makes a perfectly dashing hero in his English language movie debut.  He’s matched by the first-rate villainy of Akim Tamiroff (whose no-goodity is not played for comic effect), and the movie gets splendid support from Elizabeth Allan and Margot Grahame as the women who enter Strogoff’s sphere.

To lighten the mood of Soldier and the Lady, longtime TDOY favorites Eric Blore and Ed Brophy are on hand as a pair of inept war correspondents.  In one scene, Brophy is clipping Blore in a game of “odds-and-evens” when the driver of their carriage suggests a new activity: he’ll take their money, and the two men can take a hike.  “I say, but that's most frightfully one sided,” complains Blore in that delightfully plummy manner of his.  Other familiar character faces in Soldier include Paul Guilfoyle, Oscar Apfel, Ward Bond (get this—as a Tartar guard), Bob Kortman, Frank Lackteen, Doris Lloyd, Richard Loo, Francis McDonald, and Dewey Robinson…but they’re all outshone by Fay Bainter, who plays Michael’s mother Martha.  At the beginning of his mission, Strogoff is ordered not to contact Martha (even though he will pass through the town in which she resides) so as not to jeopardize his assignment.  Sadly, the two of them meet at an inn where Michael is arranging for a horse…and tears well up in her eyes at the sight of seeing her son.  He must, of course, deny knowing her; if you don’t find tears in your own orbs during this scene…you are a cyborg, my friend—pure and simple.

The Soldier and the Lady utilized the talents of Anthony Veiller as one of the movie’s three credited scribes (Veiller contributed to many a John Huston film, including Moulin Rouge and The List of Adrian Messenger) and was directed by George Nichols, Jr. (Anne of Green Gables)—who handles the material like a champ, infusing it with all the efficiency of a cliffhanger serial (the action scenes in Soldier are most engaging).  I won’t lie to you; this isn’t normally the kind of movie I gravitate to because I don’t care for epics that take 3-4 hours to tell the story (one of the reasons why I stifle a giggle when those same movies win Oscars for editing).  Soldier and the Lady moves along at a rapid clip for 85 minutes and then it’s done.

I must admit that seeing the familiar RKO tower at the beginning of this movie was a little odd because in my movie-watching experience, it’s usually preceded by that logo from The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™.  The title credits of The Soldier and the Lady read “The Adventures of Michael Strogoff”; the movie went by several titles including Michael Strogoff, The Bandit and the Lady, and National Lampoon’s Michael Strogoff.  (Okay, I’m joking about that last one.)  Not to mince words, this rediscovered gem is a must-see movie, and you can make this so with a purchase from Amazon.com, where you can find previously-reviewed Sprocket Vault titles including Go, Johnny, Go! and When Comedy Was King.  Many thanks to Richard for providing Thrilling Days of Yesteryear with the screener!

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