Ivan Mosjoukine

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Ivan Mosjoukine
Ivan Mosjoukine.png
Born Ivan Ilyich Mozzhukhin
(1889-09-26)26 September 1889
Penza, Russian Empire
Died 18 January 1939(1939-01-18) (aged 49)
Paris, France
Other names Jwan Mosjukin
Ivan Mozzukhine
Iwan Mosjoukine
Occupation Actor
Years active 1911-1936

Ivan Ilyich Mozzhukhin (Russian: Иван Ильич Мозжухин; IPA: [ɪˈvan ɪlʲˈjit͡ɕ mɐˈʑːʉxʲɪn]; 26 September [O.S. 8 October] 1889—18 January 1939), usually billed using the French transliteration Ivan Mosjoukine, was a Russian silent film actor.

Career in Russia[edit]

Mosjoukine as the demon in The Night Before Christmas (1913).

Mosjoukine was born in Penza, Russia and studied law at Moscow State University. In 1910, he left academic life to join a troupe of traveling actors from Kiev, with which he toured for a year, gaining experience and a reputation for dynamic stage presence. Upon returning to Moscow, he launched his screen career with the 1911 adaptation of Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata. He also starred in A House in Kolomna (1913, after Pushkin), Pyotr Chardynin directed drama Do You Remember? opposite the popular Russian ballerina Vera Karalli (1914), Nikolay Stavrogin (1915, after Dostoyevsky's The Devils aka The Possessed), The Queen of Spades (1916, after Pushkin) and other adaptations of Russian classics.

The Kuleshov Effect[edit]

Mosjoukine's most lasting contribution to the theoretical concept of film as image is the legacy of his own face in recurring representation of illusory reactions seen in Lev Kuleshov's psychological montage experiment which demonstrated the Kuleshov Effect. In 1918, the first full year of the Russian Revolution, Kuleshov assembled his revolutionary illustration of the application of the principles of film editing out of footage from one of Mosjoukine's Tsarist-era films which had been left behind when he, along with his entire film production company, departed for the relative safety of Crimea in 1917.

Career in France[edit]

At the end of 1919, Mosjoukine arrived in Paris and quickly established himself as one of the top stars of the French silent cinema, starring in one successful film after another. Handsome, tall, and possessing a powerful screen presence, he won a considerable following as a mysterious and exotic romantic figure.

The first film of his French career was also his final Russian film. L'Angoissante Aventure (The Harrowing Adventure) was a dramatized record of the difficult and dangerous journey of Russian actors, directors and other film artists as they made their way from Crimea into the chaos of Ottoman Turkey in the midst of the post-World War I fall of the Sultanate. The group was headed by the renowned director Yakov Protazanov and included Mosjoukine's frequent leading lady Natalya Lisenko (billed in France as Nathalie Lissenko), whom he married and later divorced. Their ultimate destination was Paris, which became the new capital for most of the exiled former aristocrats and other refugees escaping the civil war and Bolshevik terror gripping Russia. The film was completed and released in Paris in November 1920.

Ivan Mosjoukine as Father Sergius in the 1917 film.

Mosjoukine's film stardom was assured and during the 1920s, his face with the trademark hypnotic stare appeared on covers of film magazines all over Europe. He wrote the screenplays for most of his starring vehicles and directed two of them, L'Enfant du carnaval (Child of the Carnival), released on 29 August 1921 and Le Brasier ardent (The Blazing Inferno), released on 2 November 1923. The leading lady in both films was the then-"Madame Mosjoukine", Nathalie Lissenko. Brasier, in particular, was highly praised for its innovative and inventive concepts, but ultimately proved too surreal and bizarre to become financially successful. Styled like a semi-comic Kafkaesque nightmare, the film has him playing a detective known only as "Z" hired by an older husband to follow his adventurous young wife. However, the plot was only the device which Mosjoukine and his assistant director Aleksandr Volkov (billed in France as Alexandre Volkoff) used to experiment with the audience's perception of reality. Many of the scenes seem to be taking place on sets that are disconcertingly larger than normal and one particularly striking staging has the husband entering the detective agency to find a synchronized line of men, presumably detectives, all wearing tuxedos and gliding about in formation. Mosjoukine received praise for his enthusiastic acting and display of emotion.

Surrender in Hollywood[edit]

When Rudolph Valentino died in August 1926, Hollywood producers began searching for another face or image that might capture some iota of that unique screen presence radiated by "The Great Lover". A few of the French productions which starred Mosjoukine were seen in large U.S. cities, where multitudes of cinemas regularly presented European films, but he was a generally unfamiliar persona to the large majority of American audiences. Universal's Carl Laemmle, who had employed Valentino as a supporting actor in two 1919-1920 films, found out that Mosjoukine was frequently described by the European press as the Russian Valentino. In February 1927, Mosjoukine received a generous offer from Laemmle to come to Hollywood as the star of his own vehicle.

However, as it turned out, Surrender, lensed in the summer of 1927, did not trust Mosjukine to carry the storyline. He was only the film's co-star, with the top billing and the central role going to Mary Philbin, a popular leading lady of the period who, eighteen months earlier, had the showy role of the girl who unmasks Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera. The recent Russian Revolution was a popular film subject of the time, with the 1926 John Barrymore-Camilla Horn teaming in The Tempest and the Emil Jannings vehicle The Last Command, released three months after Surrender, being two examples of the genre. Since Laemmle's new star was a genuine survivor of the Revolution, it seemed only natural that the story would be set in that milieu.

Symptomatic of Mosjoukine's co-star status, he does not even appear in first fifteen minutes of the film, which are occupied with the depiction of life in an Eastern European Jewish settlement on the eve of World War I. Eventually, at the centerpiece of the plot Mary Philbin, as the virginal daughter of the village rabbi, is confronted with the startling choice of willingly "surrendering" her maidenhood to Mosjoukine's aristocratic leader of the Cossack detachment sent to wipe out her village, or refusing and seeing him carry out his assignment. While this type of personality fitted into Valentino's past Son of the Sheik characterization of a dominant, forceful lover who initially takes women against their will, until they melt under the radiance of his sheer animal magnetism, it ran against Mosjoukine's European Casanova image as a fatalistically irresistible paramour to whom women flock and "surrender" without any hint of force or threat, but simply because of their inability to resist.

This basic misunderstanding of the dissimilarity between Valentino and Mosjoukine combined with journeyman direction by Edward Sloman and Mary Philbin's unresponsiveness and lack of chemistry with her leading man, consigned the film to a tepid reception by the critics and the public. Although moderately profitable, it was not the money-making hit that Laemmle expected. Mosjoukine received some good notices, but a number of critics doubted his suitability for American audiences. An even more ominous note, however, was sounded at the film's Broadway premiere on 10 October 1927. Another film, playing across the street, had its premiere four days earlier, on 6 October. The Jazz Singer was attracting much bigger audiences than Surrender and, as it was ushering in voice-on-film, would soon sound the death knell for Mosjoukine's career as a silent film star, as his heavy Russian accent eventually dealt a crippling blow to his hopes of continuing in talkies.

Death and later appearance in Romain Gary's novelized autobiography[edit]

Mosjoukine as Giacomo Casanova

Ivan Mosjoukine died of tuberculosis in a Neuilly-sur-Seine clinic. All available sources give his age as 49 and year of birth as 1889. However, his gravestone at the Russian cemetery in the Parisian suburb of Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois is inscribed with the year 1887.

While Mosjoukine left no official progeny,[citation needed] French novelist Romain Gary (original name Roman Kacew) had maintained[citation needed] that his birth in Vilnius on 8 May 1914 was the result of an affair between his mother Nina Owczyńska and the 24-year-old Ivan Mosjoukine who was on the verge of becoming the most popular leading man of Czarist cinema. At the time, Nina was a young, minor Polish-Jewish provincial actress, recently married to one Arieh Kacew. In 1960, Gary wrote a novelized autobiographical account of his mother's struggles and triumphs, La promesse de l'aube (Promise at Dawn), which became the basis for an English-language play and a French-American film. The play, Samuel A. Taylor's First Love, opened on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre on Christmas Day 1961 and closed on 13 January 1962, after 24 performances. In 1970, returning to its original title, it was adapted for the screen and directed by Jules Dassin as a vehicle for his wife Melina Mercouri (then aged 49), who played Nina. Dassin, who was 59 years old at the time, chose to play Mosjoukine himself in the single scene that the character appears in the film.

Selected filmography[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]