Friday, June 28, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Last Command' (1928)

The Last Command

Dir: Josef von Sternberg

Scr: Lajos Biro, John F. Goodrich, Herman J. Mankiewicz

Pho: Bert Glennon

Ed: William Shea

Premiere: January 22, 1928

85 min.

“Based on a true story” is usually a lame trick to try and get the audience to buy into an absurd story premise. However, this is absolutely the case with one of the most accomplished of silent films.

The story goes: before the Russian Revolution, director Ernst Lubitsch met in Russia a general named Theodore A. Lodijensky. The general escaped Russia during the Communist takeover, migated to New York, and opened a restaurant, where Lubitsch met him again. Still later, in Hollywood he met the general (now named Thedore Lodi), he was dressed in his old uniform, working as a movie extra for $7.50 a day.

Screenwriter Biro heard the story from Lubitsch, and it set his wheels turning. A success has many fathers: Biro got the original story credit, John S. Goodrich is listed as the scenarist, and Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote the titles. Sternberg himself, an egotist if there ever was one, credits himself with the excellence of the film. Perhaps all these things are true.

In contemporary Hollywood (and a sad, rundown kind of place it is), a pathetic old man (Emil Jannings, in an Oscar-winning performance) ekes out a living as a lowly extra. In the fine studio offices, the studio head, Leo Andreyev (William Powell) OKs a production that will require many Russian Army extras. Amid the crush of the crowd milling into the studio, he is assigned a general’s role, and he is mocked by those around him. As he looks into the makeup mirror . . .

The film goes back to the eve of the Russian Revolution. The old man we saw is, in former times, the Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, the czar’s top military man. In his prime, the energetic and charismatic Sergius snaps out orders and runs the war (Russia was engaged in WWI at the time). Two revolutionary suspects (Powell! and Evelyn Brent) are brought before him. He lashes out at Powell, but keeps Brent near him. Despite her revolutionary fervor, he falls for the dashing general.

When the Revolution breaks out, the general and his lady are on a troop train to the front. Stripped of his rank and his dignity, he is forced to shovel coal for the locomotive. Brent hands him a necklace he gave her, to pawn and make his escape. He leaps from the train, landing in the snow beside the tracks. He and we follow the progress of the train as it chuffs on, only to fall victim to a bridge that collapses, sending everyone into the dark, cold water.

Back to reality. The general, and the rest of the soldiers, are ready for their scene. Producer Powell tells the general to rally the troops. His pride, his love of his country, his essential nobility, pours out of him. It kills him.

Obviously, this is a great role for an actor, and Jannings was a great actor. (Unfortunately, he wound up being a Nazi as well.) His enormous range allows him to play the general in all his modes: confident, then pathetic, then passionate. He and Sternberg got along well, which led to their work together next in The Blue Angel (1930). This was meant to be a vehicle for Jannings, but it wound up making Marlene Dietrich a star.

Sternberg’s beautiful compositions elevate the story at all times, and his pacing is perfect. The story is affecting without being maudlin. Surprisingly, this was another critical favorite that failed at the box office.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Fox Movietone News: Jenkins Orphanage Band.

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