‘The Cossacks’ on TCM

John Gilbert had risen to the top ranks of Hollywood stars by 1928. Under contract to MGM, the most glamorous studio in the world, he was a favorite of director King Vidor, who directed him in five pictures including the acclaimed The Big Parade (1925) and the swashbuckling costume adventure Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), and screen superstar Greta Garbo, who starred opposite him in Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Love (1927). He was poised to take the mantle of screen heartthrob after the death of Rudolph Valentino, and MGM, which didn’t always see eye to eye with the often outspoken and critical star, poured on the production value for The Cossacks, his follow-up to Love and his most expensive film to date.

Based on a novel by Leo Tolstoy and set in a romantic fantasy of the barbarous central Russia, The Cossacks stars Gilbert as Lukashka, the educated, pacifist son of a bloodthirsty Cossack chieftain (Ernest Torrence). “The woman man,” he’s called by the village men. “The man who will not fight.” After enduring ridicule and abuse, he finally turns and transforms into the fiercest warrior in a village of fighters who live to make war with the Turks. MGM built a massive Cossack village set in Laurel Canyon and bragged in press releases that they had brought 112 real-life Cossacks from Russia (they lived in the village during production). Money was lavished on costumes and location shooting (very little was shot in the studio) and a spectacular special effect involving an epic landslide across a mountain path. “[W]hile it has its artificial vein,” wrote New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall, the production “is sometimes quite impressive because of the earnest attention to the atmospheric detail.”

Plays on TCM on Tuesday, July 17

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The Merry Widow (1925)

The Merry Widow (Warner Archive)

Erich von Stroheim was the auteur of unapologetic decadence in the silent era and he fills this old world fantasy, an adaptation of a popular operetta, with fairy-tale European kingdoms, arrogant royals and aristocrats and lives of uninhibited attitudes of entitlement that allow—nay, encourage—the most wanton behavior in its princes. That includes the devil-may-care Prince Danilo Petrovich (John Gilbert), “the world champion of indoor sports,” in words of his cousin the Crown Prince (Roy D’Arcy), a nasty, weaselly Prussian twit with a perpetual grin held in place so long it has settled into a rictus grimace of sadistic delight.

These competitive cousins vie for the affections, or at least the physical pleasures, of gorgeous American showgirl Sally O’Hara (Mae Murray) who arrives in their kingdom with The Manhattan Follies, a travelling show apparently doing the provincial circuit of Old Heidelberg and points beyond. Murray, a silent movie superstar long forgotten to an era represented by only a few icons to even most film buffs, is a spicy dash of American spunk in this world of high manner and base impulses, a mix of urban worldliness, romantic innocence and American practicality, with a snap of sass reminiscent of Ginger Rogers. When she notices the ravenous attentions of the wolfish European officers whooping it up as she adjusts her stocking (if this film is anything to go by,  the tease of ankles and calves are the most arousing zone of female anatomy for this crowd), her response is wonderful: a flash of embarrassment quickly replaced by exasperation and resignation to the nature of man-boys the world over.

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