This, recently released on DVD, really is a must-see, a terrific piece of cinematic storytelling and a key early Hollywood work from the great Sirk. Dave Kehr gave it a nice write-up in the Times last Sunday, but I was so thoroughly impressed when I sat down to watch it that I began thinking that Dave's praise was curiously faint. I don't think it actually was, mind you, merely describing my own strong response to the movie. As Dave says on his website, the DVD transfer, from VCI, is merely passable—the screen caps here show its softness—but passable is good enough for the film to put itself over, and what the picture has to put over is very special.
One of those things is, I think, what could be George Sanders' very best performance, as Petroff, a respected judge in pre-revolutionary Russia who falls very hard—and he's hardly the only one—for grasping peasant beauty Olga. He's at once the embodiment of civilized ideals and a kind of species of rot—exactly the sort of contradictory character that Anton Chekhov excelled at creating. Of course, Chekhov's The Shooting Party, on which this picture was based, was written and set further back in Russia's history than when this film is set; the adaptation, by Rowland Leigh, is a smart one and the time shift is hardly inapt. In any event, Sanders' Petroff is pitched at perfect levels of both self-regard and self-loathing, but never approaches the arch; it's a thoroughly considered piece of work. As is that of Edward Everett Horton, playing a rather buffoonish Count Volsky, aka "Piggy" (see Gentleman Prefer Blondes, almost ten years later), and reaching emotional depths that his bountiful comic performances never even glanced at. (According to the book Sirk on Sirk, Horton proclaimed the part as the best he ever had, and Sirk the best director he ever worked with.)
The whole cast is so superb that after a few minutes or so no one cares that everybody in the picture, down to Sig Ruman and Hugo Haas, is speaking in a different accent; Sirk locks down the tone so deftly that Hollywood convention becomes its own law here and you just go with it. It seems particularly right that Linda Darnell plays Olga pretty much as a vulgar young American would-be starlet, pouting and saying things like "Huh?" and such. But make no mistake, the film does not disdain her; it rather sees her as a kid who's just trying to get somewhere, and using what she's got to make it happen. She's rather moving in several scenes, especially one when she talks about her fear of lightning and her belief that everyone who dies as a result of "the heavenly electricity" is automatically sent to paradise. I should not forget Anna Lee, as a spurned fianceé, who is nicely understated in her decency and sports a distinct resemblance to Diane Keaton in her final scenes in the film.
Dave Kehr rightly notes that the film, a relatively low-budget production for the time, "does not display the baroque stylistics of the Technicolor melodramas Sirk later made for Universal," and that's true. What it does display is Sirk's storytelling economy and his highly developed sense of emotional nuance. This is not a picture with a lot of camera movements, but as Spencer Tracy said in Pat and Mike, what's there is "cherce." Particularly in the scene of the wedding banquet, after Olga willfully marries the overseer of Volsky's estate, in which a couple of deft sweeps over and around the table limn the very pronounced class distinctions of the various guests.
Oh, and did I mention Linda Darnell is in it? I did? Okay. Still.
As they say...what the fuck is up?
Also, the film's punchline is absolutely devastating and quite elegantly phrased. Do not miss this.