Updated: Sep 21, 2021
‘Battleship Potemkin’ premiered at the historic Bolshoi Theatre auditorium in Moscow on December 21, 1925. The audience consisted of the who’s who of the Soviet Communist Party and Moscow glitterati. A nervous Sergei Eisenstein, prowled the huge, deserted corridors of the Theatre trying to judge the reaction of the audience since the fate of his cinematic experiments and career as a filmmaker depended on a positive reaction of this powerful audience. Suddenly he realized in his hurry to finish the film, he and his team had spliced the film with their spit and not with film cement! In panic he raced down the deserted corridors, ‘to bury myself in the cellar, in the earth, in oblivion… But then… unbelievable… a miracle! The spittle holds! The film races through to the very end!... and applause like crackle of rifle shots” were heard from the stunned spectators in appreciation of the film.
The success of ‘Battleship Potemkin’ made Eisenstein a Soviet hero. The newly formed Soviet state made him and his film cultural ambassadors, eager to cash in on its fame and reputation. In 1928, he along with his collaborator Grigori Alexandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse embarked on a European tour to showcase Soviet art and culture and also to learn about the new techniques of making films which were being discovered and put into practice in countries like Germany, England and France. The tour gifted Eisenstein and his friends to enjoy the landscapes and the cultures of West European countries and also to hobnob and network with artists, writers and filmmakers. Visiting the UFA Studios in Berlin he gave a long lecture on filmmaking and his theories of montage. He met up and exchanged ideas with artists like George Grosz and the dramatist Luigi Pirandello. In London, he met George Bernard Shaw and together they proposed a film based on Shaw’s play ‘Man and Superman’ which never saw the light of the day. In Paris, Eisenstein met and discussed politics, arts and cinema with Albert Einstein, Jean Cocteau, James Joyce and others. In Switzerland, he gave extensive lectures on cinema and also supervised the production of a film on abortion – ‘Frauennot’ (Frauenglück). His star in zenith, Eisenstein returned to Moscow in early 1930 and it was no wonder when Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford came on a visit, he was chosen as their accompanist and guide. Fairbanks and Pickford told him they would try and open up opportunities for him to work in Hollywood – a proposal which he found very exciting indeed. Eisenstein was also looking for newer opportunities to make films as the two films he made after ‘Battleship Potemkin’ – ‘October’ (1927)and ‘The General Line/The Old and the New’ (1927) - did not get full approval of Stalin and the party bigwigs.
The endorsement of Fairbanks Sr. and Pickford helped Eisenstein to get a contract from Jesse L. Lasky, the boss of Paramount Pictures. He would get $500 per week and another $400 would be shared among Alexandrov and Tisse who accompanied him to America. Contracts done, the trio set sail for America aboard the German luxury liner Europa, which definitely did not serve rotten meat!
Arriving in USA, Eisenstein became the darling of the highbrow and the progressive set of New York and the East Coast. He undertook a whirlwind lecture tour of Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia universities and expounded his theories of montage and his own work which he termed as ‘Intellectual Cinema’. He also visited a Paramount sales convention in Atlantic City to meet the people who would be producing and selling his films. All the while, he was being stewarded by Paramount executives like Lasky, B.P. Schulberg and Sam Katz who were trying to make him familiar with the American mores and ways of doing movie business. In his diary he noted these instructions in a manner which harks back to his way of describing montage in his screenplays:
· “A lot depends on personal impression.”
· “But don’t be too serious… “
· “Point out to your shock of hair.”
· “But at the same time don’t frighten them off by being too trivial.”
· “Though in general, Americans like speeches to have jokes.”
· “That’s in your contract.”
· “You’ve got to keep up both your prestige and ours.”
· “Your Hollywood project is ‘a noble project’! (Eisenstein made a tongue in cheek note for himself on this piece of advice – “some Americans used the same phrase to describe the Soviet Revolution!” )
Eisenstein, Alexandrov and Tisse, finally reached Hollywood in May 1930. The trio settled in a rented luxurious villa in the Hollywood Hills. He was surely the toast of the town. He became pals with Walt Disney and became a huge admirer of Disney’s animation techniques and his designing style. Eisenstein admired Disney till his death. Disney, he believed, "achieves absolute perfection in what he does." The official Communist party line (echoed by many intellectuals in the West and later by Latin American leftists for whom Mickey Mouse was the symbol of American imperialism) condemned Disney for providing the undiscerning masses with cultural comfort food that distracted them from the oppressions of capitalism. But Eisenstein rejoiced in Disney's ability to give pleasure and laughter to his audiences, which he believed helped them cope with the negative effects of the Great Depression. Eisenstein praised the artistic and cinematic qualities of Disney's animation techniques. He insisted that it enabled a more versatile, daring cinema, one in which transformations of shape and style could occur. So the Russian lauded Bambi as offering "a shift towards ecstasy" which represented "the greatness of Disney as the purest example of the application of the method of art in its very purest form." Eisenstein wrote, "Walt Disney's work is the most omni-appealing I've ever met.... The very idea ... of an animated cartoon is practically a direct manifestation of the method of animism. In this way, what Disney does is connected with one of the deepest features of the human psyche." The contrasts of light and dark, and movement across the screen, and below, the use of vertical forms in the frame which are one of the key features of Disney’s animated film Bambi (1942)can be seen in Ivan the Terrible - Part II (1958). The depth of his admiration for Disney is demonstrated by the fact that among the treasured items Eisenstein kept in his small apartment in Russia where he died is a framed series of sketches given to him by Walt Disney.
Sergei Eisenstein, Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse
Disney’s gift for his friend Sergei
Framed sketches by Disney in Eisenstein’s last home
Eisenstein also met the much-watched Greta Garbo at work and was very surprised to see that she used “no academic technique” but sheer inspiration only! He also had a good time with Marlene Dietrich and her director Joseph von Sternberg. He also became friends with Charlie Chaplin who with his professed ‘socialist beliefs’ synched with him intellectually pretty well. They often played tennis together and Chaplin who was already taking enormous amounts of time to make his films expressed his incredulity that Eisenstein finished Battleship Potemkin in just three months and that too with only two weeks to finish the editing and post-production. Chaplin told him he had revisited Battleship Potemkin recently and “in five years it hasn’t aged a bit!”
Eisenstein with Marlene Dietrich and Joseph von Sternberg
Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin
Hobnobbing with the high and mighty of Hollywood was all fine, but in terms of work Eisenstein was unable to make any significant progress. First he proposed a bio-pic of the flamboyant and controversial arms dealer Basil Zaharoff and an adaptation of Bernard Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ both being rejected summarily by Paramount. Eisenstein then proposed an original story about a dystopian city made entirely of glass where everyone could have a look into anyone’s private life. B.P. Schulberg, head of production of Paramount shot down the idea instantly because the sets would alone cost around $1 million and moreover, they could not be used to make other movies. Paramount executives then proposed a film based on a novel by Blaise Cendrars Sutter’s Gold which is about a pioneering figure of the California Gold Rush (1848- 55). Eisenstein was excited and began working on the screenplay. But his idea that gold would destroy peoples’ morals and ethics horrified the studio executives who thought the idea was too Marxist! The project was shelved.
Paramount then offered a film based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy because according to Eisenstein they thought it, in Eisenstein’s own words, could be made into “a simple boy meets girl” story “without going into side issues.” Eisenstein had other ideas. He thought, “What interested me here was depicting the society and morals that impelled Clyde (the hero) to do everything he did, and then, in the hullabaloo of the pre-election fever, in the interests of getting the prosecutor re-elected, Clyde is broken.” Cendrars was impressed by the fact that Eisenstein had correctly understood the social criticism inherent in his novel and gave his whole hearted approval. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. suggested Jackie Coogan – the kid in Chaplin’s ‘The Kid’ (1921) – to act in the role of Clyde which was accepted by both the director and the studio.
Eisenstein started working on the screenplay with his assistant Alexandrov. Ivor Montagu helped the duo to write in English. An aristocratic English intellectual, filmmaker, critic and socialist Montagu was the founder of the London Film Society in 1925. In the 1930’s he was a part of the Hollywood jet-set, known for his skills in the tennis courts and also for his excellence in table-tennis. A former British champion, Montagu’s lasting contribution to the game was the foundation of the International Table Tennis Federation – the games global governing body. He became Eisenstein’s lover and was also entrusted by the NKVD – the Soviet secret police – to keep a tab on the activities of the errant Sergei and report back to Moscow! Life it seems was as complicated as a classic film noir story!
The screenplay Eisenstein wrote based on ‘An American Tragedy’ survives till today. It stands out as another marker of his remarkable ability to visualize exactly what he would film finally. In a nutshell, the novel was about a worker Clyde who falls in love with Roberta his co-worker. When Roberta becomes pregnant Clyde falls for the lure of Sondra, a rich girl. What will happen to the Clyde-Roberta relationship is the key conflict of the novel. An excerpt from the screenplay which describes Clyde’s attempt to drown Roberta - shades of F.W. Murnau’s ‘Sunrise’ (1927) - provides a fine example of Eisenstein’s ability for precise visualization and his penchant for dramatic juxtaposition of shots:
· Once more rings out the long-drawn booming cry of the bird (a loon). The overset boat floats on the surface of the water.
· Roberta’s head appears above the surface.
· Clyde comes up. His face shows terrible fright; he makes a movement to help Roberta.
· Roberta, terrified by his face, gives a piercing cry and, splashing frantically, disappears under the water. Clyde is about to dive down after her, but she stops and hesitates.
· And for the third time the long-drawn booming cry of the bird is heard.
· On the mirror like calmness of the water floats a straw hat.
· The wilderness of the forest, the motionless hills. Dark water barely lapping against the shore.
The finished screenplay was read out at Paramount and among those who were impressed by it was a young David O. Selznick who was then taking baby-steps on his way to become a Movie Moghul. But Selznick found it to be commercially unviable and he reported to Schulberg, “When I had finished it, I was so depressed that I wanted to reach out for the bourbon bottle. As an entertainment, I don’t think it has one chance in a hundred.”
Making money out of entertainment being the motto of the capitalists of Hollywood, Eisenstein’s contract with Paramount was running into a dead end. His presence in town was also virulently opposed by Major Frank Pease, president of the Hollywood Technical Director’s Institute. Pease and his rabid anti-Communist cohorts launched a fierce campaign against Eisenstein to declare him a persona non grata. By mutual consent, the contract between him and Paramount was terminated on October 23, 1930.
Eisenstein was unfazed by his rejection by Paramount. His young friend. B.P. Schulberg’s son Budd, who was sixteen at that time reminded him of his desire to make a film based on Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ but he told Budd that he was interested only in making a film based on an American subject while in the USA. But surely his long sessions with the youngster had a considerable influence on the young man. Budd Schulberg went to study at the Dartmouth College and then went on a long trip to the Soviet Union and became a Communist who would write the screenplay of Elia Kazan’s masterpiece ‘On the Waterfront’ (1954) where his political sensibilities are clear. Budd would later comment, “Eisenstein was one of those whose genius cannot accommodate any social system – as ill-fated for Zukor-Lasky capitalism as for Stalin’s communism.”
Undeterred by his fiasco with Paramount Eisenstein developed a project about a film about Mexico, an idea which had dawned upon him during his discussions with Diego Rivera and his wife Freida Kahlo. He wanted his friend Chaplin to be its producer. Chaplin, the hard-nosed businessman he was, realized that this project may not be commercially viable. So he passed it on to his friend, the novelist Upton Sinclair. Sinclair and Eisenstein met and had long discussions. A contract was drawn-up and signed. Sinclair’s wife Craig, was named as the producer. With $25,000 in their pocket as advance, the Russian trio landed up in Mexico on December 5, 1930 to make a film which as the contract stated was to be “what a Mexican film should be, and in full faith of Eisenstein’s artistic integrity… non-political, and worthy of his reputation and genius.” This is the germination point of Que Viva Mexico – but that’s another epic adventure saga!
1. Eisenstein’s notes and experiences of his travels and work in USA were suppressed in the Soviet Union during his lifetime. His writing on Disney were published in a book Eisenstein on Disneyand his autobiography Immoral Memories were published after glasnost and perestroika.
2. The author is indebted to David Thomson’s book The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and a few websites for the excerpts from Immoral Memories quoted in the article.
3. The title of the article is a pun on The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) a comedy by Lev Kuleshov about a typically ignorant and prejudiced American’s discovery of the wonders of post-revolution Soviet Union.
Monish K. Das is a Kolkata based filmmaker and an alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune.