Ebertfest 2009: The Last Command (1928)

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2009

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Emil Jannings has the distinction of being the first Best Actor Oscar winner for his performance in the film under consideration here, The Last Command. It’s interesting that the Oscars set a precedent they would follow faithfully up to this day—honoring actors for previous performances. There is no question that Jannings would have garnered a Golden Boy for his moving performance in The Last Laugh had the awards existed in 1924. The Last Command is inferior in every way to that film, and Jannings’ performance as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, cousin of unfortunate Czar Nicholas Romanov, while showing off the Swiss actor’s ability to gain an audience’s sympathy, is kind of a walkthrough in most respects.

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The Last Command has a wraparound story in which the Grand Duke is a down-and-out immigrant working as an extra in Hollywood. The director of a Russian war epic, Lev Andreyev (William Powell), surrounded by assistants, is working his way down a stack of head shots. He’s not happy, even though his assistant director (Jack Raymond) says it contains every Russian in Hollywood.

Andreyev finds one headshot that seems to mesmerize him; he turns it over to read the actor’s particulars: “Claims to be the cousin of the Czar and the commander of the Russian Imperial Army. Little acting experience. Will work for $7.50 a day.” Andreyev tells his assistant to get the man in and fit him with a general’s uniform. When his landlady knocks on his door to tell him there’s a call for him, the Grand Duke opens his door tentatively and shuffles lethargically to the phone in the hall, his head shaking incessantly.

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The cattle call in the morning is a frenzy of extras trying to get their costumes and props. The dazed Russian moves from window to window, gathering up his uniform, saber, boots, and hat. When he goes into the dressing room crowded with other extras, the man next to him tells him to stop shaking. “I can’t help it. I’ve had a great shock in my life.” Another sees a medal the Russian unwraps from among his personal items. “The Czar gave it to me,” he says. The extra snatches it and humiliates the old soldier by making him fetch it off the top of a bayonet. The Grand Duke escapes in memory to Russia and his glory days.

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We’re taken to 1917, just before the Russian Revolution. The Grand Duke, confident and resplendent in his fur-trimmed coat, is inspecting his troops, who are ill-supplied to fight battles on every front. The Czar, however, thinks war is a board game. He makes demands that require the Grand Duke to pull divisions from the already outmanned front lines just so that he can inspect them. “This is the kind of thing that feeds the revolutionists.” Two such suspected revolutionists, Lev Andreyev and Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), have been rousted from their flat and brought in to headquarters. The Grand Duke interrogates them both, striking Andreyev across the face with a riding crop and taking Dabrova as his “guest” when the command must move to different quarters.

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Dabrova behaves like a glamorous ornament, but plots the Grand Duke’s murder. She invites him up for coffee in her room, but secrets a pistol she has stashed among her belongings under a pillow. He sees it, but does nothing to stop her. She asks him about his devotion to Russia, and he says he would give his life for his country. Her resolve wavers. When he gets up to get her a cigarette, she pulls out the gun but, shaking, collapses into tears. She admits she loves him. Naturally, love cannot conquer the Russian Revolution. Revolutionaries capture the Grand Duke’s train and execute his entourage in a mob frenzy. Dabrova sacrifices herself to help ensure the Grand Duke’s escape from Russia. He leaps from the train and watches as a trestle the train passes over collapses into a frozen river below. His head shake starts from that moment. The memory having reached its climax, we return to Hollywood and the reunion of the Grand Duke and Andreyev on set.

The script, written by von Sternberg but credited to someone else, is a very silly affair. The Ebertfest audience laughed out loud at the purple prose of love he injected into it, and also at the intentional and witty jokes. When the Grand Duke’s valet (Michael Visaroff) is caught for a second time trying on the Grand Duke’s great coat and smoking his cigarettes, the general exclaims, “If you catch him doing it again, remove the coat and shoot the contents.” The seriousness of the backstory is undermined by the improbabilities required by Hollywood at the time. For example, although Dabrova is taken straight from interrogation, she seemingly has a huge, chic wardrobe at the ready. Perhaps the Grand Duke bought it or had it from his previous mistress, but where did the gun come from? It’s the usual illogic of the early costume drama in action.

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An escape of Andreyev and the other prisoners was well staged and exciting, as was the taking of the Grand Duke’s train. The mob frenzy was believable, but Jannings’ endless mugging at them started to try my patience. Powell was excellent as a committed revolutionist, as was Brent. The final scene of the film is both melodramatic in a bad way and undercut by a callous joke. The scene could have worked as a reconciliation between the Grand Duke and Andreyev, who must have seen the failure of the revolution (why else would he have left Russia?) with 10 years’ hindsight and felt more sympathy for the general’s urgings not to believe the traitors to Russia. Von Sternberg despised working with Jannings, so I can imagine he may have deliberately ruined the actor’s last impression.

The Alloy Orchestra’s score worked well in the grander moments of the film, but was too pompous-sounding for the many light moments, particularly in the first act. I’ve had this complaint with them before, that their scores are not particularly sensitive to mood changes. The print of the film was spectacular, though it seemed to have been synched at the wrong speed.

As a silent-film buff, I am perhaps harder on this film than the average filmgoer would be. It’s perfectly enjoyable. Just don’t expect too much of it.

  • Greg spoke:
    25th/04/2009 to 11:55 am

    Wow, I have to admit – in all my years of knowing of this film’s existence and the Oscar and seeing that still at the top of this post, I never actually read up on it and… well, I had no idea that was the story. None.
    And that gripe you have about the Alloy Orchestra I’ve had before with modern composer’s work over silent films, whether seen on DVD, TCM or at the AFI. The old scores, like the original organ score played at the AFI’s showing of The Crowd was perfect. It fit all the moods just right and never became something you noticed. With modern composers I have found they often are insensitive to the mood shift because they are writing the music to be listened to, not to accompany imagery.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/04/2009 to 10:05 pm

    Greg – I have liked quite a few of TCM’s young composers, and Concrete, a small industrial rock band from Michigan, did a superb job on Potemkin at the first Ebertfest. I haven’t heard anyone else besides a full orchestra and organists, so I’d say my only complaint is with Alloy. But I take your point in general and take your word for it.

  • Rod spoke:
    26th/04/2009 to 1:47 am

    On the other hand, man, Evelyn Brent is hot.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/04/2009 to 8:00 am

    Without question, Rod.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    26th/04/2009 to 1:48 pm

    OK Marilyn, I must say I am with you here. Although I had seen this film a few years back on a fair-enough bootie, and on the Paramount VHS, I ventured to October’s New York Film Festival, where it played at the Walter Reade Theatre, with live musical accompaniment. Yes, it is a silly affair indeed, and I know of the friction between Von Sternberg and Jannings. (But nonetheless, by any barometer of measurement Jannings did give a great performance) I can’t say anything one way or the other here about the Alloy, but I have always preferred the work of Donald Sosin, and have nothing but praise for the live performance at the Walter Reade.
    Very fine review here!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/04/2009 to 6:29 pm

    Thanks, Sam, even though you disagree a bit about Jannings. He just didn’t knock it out of the park for me. We have a genius silent film accompanist here in Chicago, Dave Drazin. He extemporizes on electric piano as the movie plays, and I’ve NEVER been less than impressed.

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