Ivan Mosjoukine, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Not as well known as other silent film stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton or Rudolph Valentino, the recently rediscovered Russian motion picture actor Ivan Mosjoukine ranks among the greats for his charismatic star turns in several 1920s French silent films. While a superstar in Russia and France, Mosjoukine acted in only one Hollywood feature, which eventually helped push him into obscurity. But, as writer Liam O’Leary stated, “What Nijinksy was to dance in Russia, so Mosjoukine was to film.”
Born in Penza, Russia, Sept. 26, 1889, to wealthy parents, Ivan Ilich Mozhukhin attended private schools before studying law in Moscow. Quickly enthralled by the flamboyant world of the theater, Mosjoukine joined a touring theatrical troupe to learn his new trade. Within a few years, he returned to Moscow and entered the Dramatic Theatre for serious work.
Mosjoukine began film acting in 1911 with the Khanzhonkov Company, starring in dramatic roles that emphasized his physical stage presence and sharp-featured good looks, finding time to occasionally write and produce films as well. Five years later, he studied and made films with Evgeni Bauer, learning to modulate his performing, to expertly apply makeup, and to fully inhabit his roles. Becoming one of Russia’s top romantic leads he frequently co-starred with his lovely, soon-to-be wife, Nathalie Lissenko, in such films as “Behind the Screen,” “Satan Triumphant” and “Father Sergius,” burying himself behind makeup, a Russian Lon Chaney.
During the Russian Revolution, Mosjoukine and many of his film friends grew fearful for their lives, escaping through Turkey to France. Mosjoukine escaped with some of his films, because many of them were destroyed in Russia by the new Communist regime. The director Lev Kuleshow employed images of the actor from them, edited together with shots of a wide variety of things, to suggest feelings to viewing audiences, an idea now called “the Kuleshov Effect.”
Landing in Paris, Mosjoukine joined a Russian émigré artistic community in 1920 that banded together to form Albatros Films, working menial jobs to support themselves while establishing a company in Georges Melies’ old studio. Albatros quickly moved to the forefront of French cinema.
Changing his name to Ivan Mosjoukine, the actor established himself as an artist of the first rank, acting, directing, and writing wonderful films. Mosjoukine earned his first French film credit in 1921 directing “Child of the Carnival,” before starring in the lavish, spectacular 1922 serial “The House of Mystery.” French audiences fell under the spell of his charismatic, mercurial performances and his exotic good looks.
In 1923, Mosjoukine demonstrated his immense skills, writing, co-directing, and starring in “Burning Crucible” (“Le Brasier Ardent”). Mosjoukine reveals impressive range playing multiple roles, in a surrealist tale about a couple suffering marital problems, and the husband hires Detective Z, who tries to reunite the wife with her husband after a series of other-worldly adventures.
Ivan Mosjoukine in “Kean.”
The next year, Mosjoukine gave another virtuoso performance as the great English actor in “Kean,” revealing the romantic heartbreak of the artist. Mosjoukine’s innate intelligence and virile intensity allowed him to play the part on several levels. These artistic films screened in England and other places on the Continent, gaining new admirers for Mosjoukine’s work.
Considered Europe’s greatest screen idol, Mosjoukine continued wowing audiences with his mesmerizing, piercing eyes and commanding presence in “The Late Mathias Pascal” and “Michael Strogoff.” “Mathias Pascal,” another surreal tale, beautifully photographed, which presents the depressing family life of one man, miraculously given a new chance at happiness when he is considered dead, but perhaps fated to repeat his circumstances.
With growing international popularity, Mosjoukine contemplated a difficult choice in 1926, whether to accept Abel Gance’s request to play Napoleon in an epic tale of his life, or to star in the adventure film, “Michael Strogoff,” a tale about his revered homeland. The actor chose “Strogoff,” based on the Jules Verne novel about Czar Alexander II’s Imperial Russia, to honor both his former country and his desire to take on more physical parts.
Mosjoukine’s international acclaim led to American releases for “Kean” and “Michael Strogoff,” which was distributed by Universal. Unfortunately, American critics gave mixed reviews to the films. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times faintly praised “Kean,” and reported, “Ivan Mosjoukine, who played the title role in the film translation of “Michael Strogoff,” impersonates Kean…Mr. Mosjoukine is not an expert in the art of makeup and he is often guilty of acting too much and not so well.. .” The Dec. 6, 1926, New York Times praised “Michael Strogoff,” “It is perhaps the merriest melodrama that has ever decorated a screen. The hero of this adventure overwhelms the most gallant impersonations that have come out of Hollywood…. Ivan Moskine fills the title role, and provided one looks upon the performance as one portrayed in a tongue-in-cheek mood, it is quite competent.”
Mosjoukine followed up this success by traveling to Berlin to work with Alexandre Volkoff on “Casanova,” a rollicking, tongue-in-cheek tale of the playful romantic seducer, shot on location in dreamy Venice. Mosjoukine gives a witty, knowing performance of the great lover, winking at the audience with his sardonically raised eyebrow and lethal laser-like stare. After completing the film, the actor searched for new challenges.
Besides releasing “Strogoff,” Universal signed Mosjoukine to a five-year contract, bringing him to America at the end of 1926. In October 1926, Motion Picture News reported that Universal chief Carl Laemmle decided that his name “…is a bit too long and complicated for the tongues, ears, and memories of the American public…and for that reason the Russian actor will be known inn this country as Ivan Moskine.”
Motion Picture News revealed in December that Mosjoukine made a request concerning this new name. He decreed that it be pronounced to rhyme with wine, “the reason being that another prominent Russian actor named Ivan Moskvin is a close friend of his, and he wishes no conflict between the names in case Moskvin should later come to America.”
The actor also discussed his enthusiasm at being in the United States, and amazement at New York theaters and their audiences. “He particularly noted that American screen audiences seem keener and more appreciative of subtle portrayals and shades of meaning, in action, in plot, and in sub-title, than Continental audiences.”
Moskine traveled cross-country to Hollywood, where he was scheduled to shoot “Moscow” as his first film. Universal shelved the project, moving him into “Lea Lyon” with actress Lya de Putti. De Putti quickly dropped out, replaced by Mary Philbin, with the film now named “Surrender.” The movie told the story of a small Jewish village in Eastern Europe, attacked by both Russian and Austrian forces, in which the beautiful daughter of the rabbi must sacrifice herself to the Cossack prince to save her town.
Carl Laemmle praised him in a statement printed in the Feb. 5, 1927, Universal Weekly. “Ivan Moskine, a Russian actor, whose ability lies in his exceptional versatility and his skills in adapting himself to rapidly changing situations, as well as in his characteristically Russian technical equipment in the expression of his art… .”
After “Surrender,” Mosjoukine was scheduled for “The Crimson Hour” and then “He Knew Women” with de Putti, but nothing came of the projects, probably because Mosjoukine spoke no English. In May, Film Daily announced that Mosjoukine would keep his real name instead of changing it, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall. The Hollywood Vagabond reported on Sept. 22, 1927, that Mosjoukine left America “with a bowed head and broken heart, very disappointed.”
“Surrender” received middling reviews, with one stating, “Ivan Moskine is sincere, enough to overcome a curious handicap of looking, at intervals, like the pie-tossing gentleman called Larry Semon.” Variety called it not very real.
When MGM released a cut-down “Casanova” in 1928, both the film and Mosjoukine received fine reviews. Mordaunt Hall’s review stated, “Ivan Mosjoukine is in his element in the role of “Casanova.” He gives to the part of the philanderer a sense of humor and remarkable conceit concerning his physical appearance and his dexterity with the sword.”
By December 1927, Mosjoukine landed in Berlin, but his career as a major star was over. Like many American stars, the introduction of sound destroyed his career. Even when speaking French, he still possessed a notable Russian accent.
His film, “The President,” released in 1929, stank. “Acting is terrible, direction bad even for a Continental studio and the entertainment value nil.” “The White Devil” was dubbed. By December 1931, Variety reported that he was trying midget golf.
Mosjoukine received one last hurrah when “1000 and One Nights,” directed by his old friend Volkoff, was released in 1932. Variety notes, “Mosjoukine plays with dignity that makes him every inch the prince, but the earnestness he gives to his role makes it seem out of tempo with the other story-book characters who support him…Another Arabian Nights type of production with fantastic adventures, colorful costumes, harem scenes, dancing fetes, and plenty of fighting on horseback and on foot. Reminiscent of the early days of silent, crowded-action films, offering no new technique and no especial interest except as a spectacle for the eye and a vehicle for Mosjoukine to look handsome in Valentinoesque raiment.”
While he remade “Casanova” and other pictures, virtually no new roles came his way. Mosjoukine sank further and further into poverty, drinking away his sadness. He became a dance partner in cabarets to support himself, and saw his health rapidly decline. He died Jan. 18, 1939, at the age of 49, after friends brought him to a sanitarium hoping he could regain his health.
Mosjoukine’s name disappeared from the scene, only to be reborn with the publication of Romain Gary’s autobiographical novel, “Promise at Dawn,” in which he claims that the actor fathered him during an affair with his mother, a middling actress in Russia. Filmmaker Jules Dassin adapted the book for the screen in 1970, with his wife, Melina Mercouri, portraying the mother, and with Dassin playing the part of Mosjoukine himself.
Once again, Mosjoukine’s name disappeared, until the Cinémathèque Français restored many of the Albatros films in the middle to late 1980s, and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, or Pordenone Silent Film Festival, presented a Mosjoukine career retrospective in 2003.
TCM has recently aired a few of his films, and Flicker Alley’s recently released DVD box set of Albatros films contains many of Mosjoukine’s outstanding screen performances. Watch a few, and see why many people consider him the French Valentino.