The Land of Mystery

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UK 1920

Director/producer: Harold Shaw
Production Company: Harold Shaw Productions
Story: Basil Thomson
Script: Bannister Merwin
Cinematographer: Stanley Rodwell

Cast: Edna Flugrath (Masikowa), Norman Tharp (Lenoff), Fred Morgan (Prince Ivan), Christine Rayner, Harold French, M.R. Morand, Lewis Gilbert, John East, Phyllis Bedells (ballet dancer), Laurent Novikoff (ballet dancer)

Distributed by Laurillard & Grossmith
7,220 feet

land_of_mystery

The only known production photograph of The Land of Mystery, taken in Kovno, Lithuania (from Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence)

Welcome to day two of the Bioscope Festival of Lost Films. Today we find ourselves in the heart of London’s Soho district, at the Jardin de Paris, a cinema which once had a somewhat insalubrious reputation, but which now attracts a more discerning clientele, and certainly sees a little less of the police than it once did. Manager Felix Haté has even established a school for budding film projectionists at the cinema, which shows commendable enterprise. Our venue seats 250, and you will find it in Ingestre Place, just off Berwick Street. Our music this evening comes courtesy of I. Khudyakov, widely recognised as one of the finest improvising pianists for the cinema in Russia today. As you will see, he is an apt choice.

Our film for you this evening, The Land of Mystery, is adventurous in theme, and quite an adventure was had in its making. It is undeniable that the issue of the hour in 1920 is Soviet Russia, and what the Bolshevik revolution means not just for that indeed mysterious land but the lands that lie beyond it, indeed all of us. The cinema has a duty to inform as it has a desire to entertain, and it is right and proper that a film producer should have attempted to portray for us what has been happening in Russia.

That producer is known to you all. Harold Shaw is an American, an actor with the Edison company who came over to this country shortly before the Great War as a director for films made by the London Film Company. There he made such prestigious and fondly-remembered works as The House of Temperley (1913) and Trilby (1914), before venturing to make films in South Africa. Now back in this country, he tells us that took on the project at the behest no less a personage than Basil Thomson, head of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Metropolitan Police and Director of Intelligence at the Home Office. Mr Thomson’s work during wartime is naturally secret (we know something of catching spies and working with some peculiar organisation called MI5, but that is all), but his distrust of Bolshevism is a matter of record. Mr Shaw is vague on this point, but it seems that the idea for the production came from Thomson, who sees the cinema (which we know to be such a powerful medium of propaganda) as a new means to counter the Bolshevist threat. Hence Harold Shaw found himself with a handsome budget to produce a film based on a story provided by none other than Basil Thomson himself.

ednaflugrath

The story of the film’s production is remarkable. The film company, which included Edna Flugrath (pictured), Mr Shaw’s actress wife (sister of the cinema performers Viola Dana and Shirley Mason, of such renown), first travelled to Berlin, where they became caught in the middle of the Spartacist uprising of January 1919, with people being by shot by troops in the streets. One of the company ill-advisedly took photographs of some of the dead, which led to an uncomfortable delay in the hands of the authorities. The sights of a war-devasted Germany had a sobering effect on the company, who journeyed on by train accompanied by louse-ridden peasants on to Kovno (you may now know it better as Kaunas) in Lithuania, where the film was to be made.

Kovno itself was in ruins, having borne heavy fighting during the war. There was little food, street lighting was shut down owing to scarcity of fuel, and bodies of those who had starved to death were to be found in the streets. Each day a lorry left the town, laden with bodies for mass burial, and members of cast gargled and bathed in disinfectant to ward off disease. Astonishingly, in the middle of such circumstances, they began to film, first in Kovno and then at Alexandrova Elova, where filming was greatly limited owing to the sixteen hours of night. It is hard to believe that they spent some three months working under such conditions. But the resulting realism has startled all who have seen the film, declaring that nothing else like it has been witnessed on the screen before now. The remainder of the film was produced in rather more comfortable circumstances in London.

The film tells the story of Lenoff (played by Douglas Payne), and if you think that sounds a little like Lenin, well that is no accident. He is the son of middle-class parents, and is in love with a peasant girl, Masikova (Miss Flugrath). However, she comes to the attention of Prince Ivan, who sends her to Petrograd to become a dancer. Thwarted in love, Lenoff acquires a deep hatred of the ruling classes and becomes a Bolshevist. He goes into exile; on his return his fervour turns to madness after his mother is shot by Bolshevists without trial for having allegedly displayed Imperialist sympathies. Masikova joins the Imperial Ballet, but manages to escape to England with Ivan following the Bolshevist uprising.

All of this you may witness for yourselves. The film enjoyed a prestigious premiere at the Winter Garden Theatre in July 1920. In attendance were members of parliament, including the Home Secretary, the French ambassador, and some of the finest among London society. The film has had, it must be said, a mixed reception. The realism of some of the scenes, and the privations undergone by the film company, have elicited deserved praise. But disappointment has been expressed that Lenoff is driven not by political urgings but by romantic passion and wounded vanity. ‘The question of Bolshevism is not touched; neither a capitalist nor an industrial worker appears, the characters being exclusively Romanoffs, ballet girls and peasants’, complains the Kinematograph Weekly. Our sister paper The Bioscope feels that Mr Shaw has been hampered by the fear of appearing propagandist, but it praises individual details. It notes in particular the scene where a mad fanatic jumps onto the high altar, declaring ‘there is no God or I should die this minute’; whereupon a soldier shoots him dead. The staging interior of the Imperial Opera House comes in for much praise, and disappointment has been expressed that we do not see more of the two noted ballet dancers, Phyllis Bedells and Laurent Novikoff, so well known to British audiences.

lenin

The most remarkable fact about this remarkable film is that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin has seen it. The head of the Soviet diplomatic mission in London obtained a copy and sent it to the Kremlin. A screening was arranged at the Metropole cinema, apparently without Lenin or his wife, who accompanied him, being aware of the contents of the film beforehand. It was only when the film was halfway through that it stated to dawn on Lenin that the leading figure might be based on him. He is reported to have laughed heartily at the remainder of the film, thought whether he thought it a foolish romance or possibly satire, one can only speculate. If only one could have been there.

meyerhold2

The film we have to accompany our feature is shorter, but but will undoubtedly be acclaimed by posterity as the greater. To contrast with a British view of Russian life, we have a Russian view of British life, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1915). Some may remember that last year’s festival featured the 1913 American version of Oscar Wilde’s story, with Wallace Reid as the doomed Gray. This year, we are showing the version produced by Vsevolod Meyerhold, a genius of the Russian theatre, whose symbolist, experimental ideas have revolutionised what ideas of what the theatre is there to show and how the artist should prepare for it. You may imagine the huge excitement caused when the great Meyerhold decided that he wanted to turn his talents towards the cinema, and did so with gusto. The result, we are informed (for we have not see the film as yet), are startling beyond measure. Maestro Meyerhold has sought to realise the buried potential of the screen. Compositions are in bold blocks of black and white, characters are silhouettes against a phantasmagorical background. There is innovation likewise in the casting; rejecting most performers as inadequate for his purposes, he has cast a woman, Varvara Yanova, as Dorian, and himself as Sir Henry Wooton. Meyerhold, we understand, has not illustrated but rather he has embodied the inner essence of Dorian Gray’s tragedy, through film.

This three-reeler has been acclaimed by all critics who have seen it, and roundly dismissed by the Russian public. It will be interesting to see how festival attendees judge this work – failed entertainment, or visionary insight into the future of cinema. Or you may simply enjoy the Wildean epigrams in the intertitles, which the festival staff have dutifully translated back into the correct English. Our two films this evening are very different in style and artisitic accomplishment, we suspect, but they each demonstrated the compulsion the best among cinema artists feel to bring telling visions to the screen. These are not idle films.

We hope you are enjoying the festival, and that you will join the other festivalgoers after each screening at one or other of the recommend eating houses: Romano’s, Simpson’s, or tonight’s rendezvous, the Rendezvous itself, in Dean Street, just around the corner from here. For those of serious intent where lost films are concerned, you may be interested to learn that out education officer will be providing notes on the research that went into locating the films once the festival is over, and thought is going into possibly organising a touring version of the festival. Lost films are for everyone, not just those in the metropolis.

Do join us tomorrow, where we will be in the East End to witness an elemental battle such as has never been surpassed on the screen. A charabanc will be laid on for festivalgoers, if you would like to assemble outside the Savoy at 7.00pm sharp, price sixpence.

2 responses

  1. Luke: Excellent program. “Land of Mystery” has a strong strain of realism, having been shot in areas hurt by the war. “Dorian Gray” takes the opposite approach, and perhaps foreshadows German Expressionism. I’ll see you at the Savoy.

    Regards,
    Joe Thompson ;0)

  2. Thanks Joe. Land of Mystery has long been of interest to me. Probably it wasn’t all that great shakes as a movie (though Harold Shaw always does something interesting with his films) but its circumstances make it stand out. There were a great many films (mostly American) with a Russian/Bolshevist theme at this time, but only for this film did they go out to Russia (well, Lithuania, to be exact). Hard to say why, given the problems, unless the British Secret Service had encouraged them to do so. And it was allegedly the most expensive British film made – where did the finance come from? (it had no studio behind it, just Shaw himself).

    You’re right about Dorian Gray. Jay Leyda writes of meeting people who had seen Meyerhold’s film and later The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and saying that the earlier film was the greater and would have changed our ideas of film history had it been seen more widely – and had it survived.

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