Friday, July 28, 2017

Chess Fever (Mezhrabpom-Rus, 1925)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched The End of St. Petersburg on a compilation disc of Russian silent classics from Kino with two other films, Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) and a comedy short by Pudovkin called Chess Fever (1925). Soviet filmmakers were inspired by American movies, but not always in the ways you’d think; they absolutely revered D. W. Griffith (the great Soviet directors had access to a print of Intolerance and screened it continually to study how Griffith had intercut between four separate plot lines, and it’s obvious from films like The End of St. Petersburg that they’d learned how to dramatize the class struggle largely from Griffith’s still-powerful Biograph short A Corner in Wheat, with its intercuts between the speculators making and enjoying their profits and the ordinary people reduced to penury and starvation by the speculators’ success in monopolizing, or “cornering,” the market in wheat), and in Chess Fever it’s obvious that Pudovkin and his writer, Nikolai Shpikovsky, had been studying America’s silent comedy classics. The basic element of this film was a real-life international championship chess tournament held in Moscow in 1925 — the first person we see, playing himself, is Cuban grandmaster José Raul Capablanca, the actual world champion chess player at the time — and, in the manner of Mack Sennett grabbing footage of a children’s auto race or a lake being drained and building a fiction film around it, Pudovkin and Shpikovsky decided to make a half-hour short about a young man (Vladimir Fogel) who’s so crazy about chess he plays it by himself, switching sides at his chess table so he can play both white and black. 

About his only other interests are his fiancée (Anna Zemtsova) and a large number of kittens who share his house and nestle in his coat sleeves and even his shoes — there’s a screamingly funny scene in which he realizes he’s got so wrapped up in his solo chess game he’s forgotten he was supposed to meet her at the registry office to get married at 10 a.m. It’s now noon, and he frantically gets dressed, only to find cats in his coat sleeves, his pockets and even his shoes — and it gets even funnier when he’s distracted on the way to the registry office by a local chess shop. By the time he gets to his girlfriend’s place it’s already evening and she insists that he’s going to have to decide between her and chess. He tries — he really tries — in a series of scenes that briefly make Chess Fever look like a modern-day film about addiction, but just about everything he has on is in a black-and-white chessboard pattern, and when he tosses out the books of chess games and problems he has on him, every one is picked up by someone on the street who himself is so wrapped up in chess they begin working on the problems and playing al fresco chess games. Eventually both hero and heroine are so frustrated by the collapse of their relationship that they plan to kill themselves, him by drowning (which gives Pudovkin a chance to do more of the shots of a flowing river he also included in The End of St. Petersburg) and her by poison, which led me to joke, “Now it looks like a Russian story” — only, wouldn’t you guess it, the pharmacist she goes to in order to buy her poison is wrapped up in a chess game, and instead of wrapping the poison for her, the pharmacist wraps up the queen piece he’s just captured from his opponent. Frustrated at her inability even to commit suicide without being confronted by something to do with chess, the heroine wanders the streets of Moscow — where she’s cruised and picked up by, who else, world’s chess champion José Raul Capablanca. He takes her to the tournament, where her boyfriend has also gone after he found himself unable to take his own life, and she suddenly decides that she’s a chess fan after all and the two reconcile over a mini-chessboard and homemade pieces. 

The influences of American slapstick are obvious, though instead of Charlie Chaplin (a big favorite of Russian filmmakers because he was not only a committed Leftist but he incorporated his politics in film after film) the real models for Chess Fever are Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Fogel as the hero is given Lloyd-ish glasses to wear (though with wire rims instead of the horn rims of Lloyd’s famous pair) but his rambles around Moscow are very Keatonesque and one could well imagine Buster doing the gag of a whole row of people desperately clinging to each other to keep up with the trolley car they’ve hitched a ride from. Dwight Macdonald, in his 1939 essay on the rise and fall of Soviet filmmaking, said even before Stalin took over and imposed his “Socialist Realist” style on all Russian art he hadn’t found Russian comedy films particularly funny — but Chess Fever is screamingly funny start-to-finish and one could easily imagine Keaton or Lloyd remaking it in the U.S. Viadimir Fogel turns out to be a first-rate slapstick comedian, though Anna Nemtsova is a striking screen presence but one who, like Vera Baranovskaya in The End of St. Petersburg, isn’t obliged to do much in the way of acting. If these two films are any indication, Vsevolod Pudovkin was a great director of men but he wasn’t either able or interested in creating truly multidimensional female characters: it seems all the women in his films get to do is stand stoically by the action and register suffering. But with that caveat these are both excellent movies, well worth watching even now — and the true heirs of films like The End of St. Petersburg today are The Hunger Games and the other near-future dystopias that assume (probably accurately) that the current inequalities of wealth and income will only get worse and that any attempts at revolution will only produce their own, equally arbitrary tyrannies.