CHILD OF THE BIG CITY
(Yevgeni Bauer, 1914, Russia, BW)
CHILD OF THE BIG CITY 1914
Ditya bolshogo goroda (original title)
5 March 1914 (Russia)
Director: Yevgeni Bauer
Screenplay: Yevgeni Bauer
Music composed by: Neil Brand
Producer: Aleksandr Khanzhonkov
Cast: Emma Bauer, Michael Salarow, Leonid Jost
Seamstress Mary dreams of a better life in luxury instead of her badly paid job in a sweatshop. Her dreams come true, when she draws the attention of Victor, a burgeoise, who invites her for dinner and makes her a lady. But, about a year later, she has become tired of him, and thanks to her his money is almost gone. When he asks for settling down outside the big city, where his money should be enough for a modest living, she breaks with him picks up a new lover. Victor is trying to shoot her, than himself, but finally gives up. A year later, he is living in a shabby, cold room under the roof, still trying to meet her again, a thing she definitely refuses, and showing him her feelings towards him, by ordering that he should get three Rubels when he leaves the stairs to her house. This has predictable results.
A gender-reversed twist on what seems a typical morality play plot of the period -- rich man elevates common girl. Usually the exploited common girl -- who sacrifices her virtue for wealth -- ends up ruined. In this take from Yevgeni Bauer, the elevated woman is able to further climb in society after her initial lover meets financial ruin. Of course, one is left questioning whether she hasn't also met some form of ruin herself. A much more subtle and sophisticated tale than most. When paired with Bauer's interesting visual style, "Child of the Big City" avoids feeling fussy and musty, a fitting ambience for this more modern fairy tale.
Evgeni Bauer was more daring than most of his contemporaries, and could see that cinema had the potential to be a new way of telling stories, not dependent on older models like the theater, and he avoided theatrical conventions in bringing his visions to the screen. He also had a taste for unusual content, for stories that one wouldn’t be likely to see in American movies of the time. I’m tempted to interpret this movie as a combination of the “Lost Girl” narrative typical of American movies with the “Vamp” that would become a hit with Theda Bara the next year. But, really, it is neither of these, although common elements can be found. Marya (or Mary, the English Intertitles vary) is a poor seamstress who works in a sweatshop but dreams of romance. One day, while window-shopping, she gets picked up by two young gentlemen who take her back to a fancy apartment for dinner and drinks.
She, unaccustomed to the alcohol, rapidly gets drunk and accepts a proposition to become the “companion” of Victor, the younger and less grabby of the men. At this point, the story takes a turn as we are told she is “ruining” her new companion (presumably by spending a great deal of money on clothes, nightclubs, and a nice apartment). He begs her to join him in a more modest lifestyle, but she has gained a taste for riches and looks elsewhere for someone who can provide her the life to which she is now accustomed. Oddly, she chooses the butler for this purpose, but maybe butlers made more in Russia in those days. Victor continues to obsess over her as he sinks into poverty and hangs around the door to her apartment. Eventually, he sends up a note begging to speak to her again, and she dismisses him with three rubles. He dies on the spot, and she runs off with her society friends to Maxim’s.
Although this movie wasn’t quite as daring as some of Bauer’s other work, I found it satisfactorily innovative. There are a number of nicely-framed shots, including overheads and a shot up an elaborate stairwell. I liked a shot where we see Marya window-shopping from inside the store, then the reversal where the two men proposition her from outside, to the stern glare of the shopkeeper looking out at them. I also was impressed when a scene opened on an elaborate (closed) door to a nightclub, allowing us to just glance through a small glass window as a car pulls up outside, then moments later the door opens to reveal the arrival of the dinner party. In the existing print, the tracking shot into the nightclub dancer is cut into awkward jump-cuts, which may be an experiment that didn’t quite work (for me) or it could be a mistake in the restoration. There’s another good tracking shot backward as Marya leads her followers out into the night, but it cuts a bit too quickly to be fully effective. Once again, we also get a good sense of lighting, with practicals that seem to provide actual light on the set, and a great proto-noir shot of Victor in silhouette in front of an over-exposed window. On the whole, Bauer’s cameraman Boris Zavelev avoids “square” set-ups and uses diagonal angles, but where he does shoot straight-on, it’s used to emphasize the lack of choice a character (usually Victor) has in his next move.
It’s Russia in 1914 and you know what’s coming you just don’t know when… then, as the two main characters enjoy a drink in a busy night club it happens: there’s movement behind a curtain at the far wall revealing a stage, a dancer emerges and as your eyes get drawn to her undulating arms, the camera literally follows your gaze, moving past the couple – who reveal their diverging emotions at the same time – and heading towards the dance. It’s an expert dolly shot perfected by Yevgeni Bauer and used to give his films an extra depth few contemporaries in World Cinema could rival. He created beautiful sets and moved his actors around them with the same expert precision as his cameras to weave richly-morbid morality tales that may or may not have reflected the turmoil enveloping his country: you know his characters will face life-changing moments and that a happy ending is far from assured. Yevgeni Franzevich Bauer was a Russian film director of silent films, a theatre artist and a screenwriter. His work had a great influence on the aesthetics of Russian cinematography at the beginning of the 20th century. Bauer made more than seventy films between 1913 and 1917 of which 26 survived. He already used the relatively long sequence shots and displacements that would come to be associated with camera virtuosos.
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