Friday, June 06, 2014

The Cossacks (1928)

High-gloss, late-silent from MGM, re-teaming John Gilbert and Renee Adoree following their success together in THE BIG PARADE a few years earlier. The plot, based on the Tolstoy novel and adapted by Frances Marion, is the stuff of stock melodrama, with Gilbert as the sensitive and peaceful son of the Cossacks' brutally tough clan leader (Ernest Torrence), who must prove himself a man in order to win the heart of the girl he loves (Adoree).

It's leisurely-paced and entertaining enough, despite the absurdities of the plotting and some inconsistencies in the characterizations (Gilbert's transformation into a bloodthirsty fighter occurs far too early). Torrence nearly steals the film with his characteristically scenery-chewing performance, and Nils Asther is effective enough as the rather dandified Russian prince who serves as Gilbert's romantic rival. There is also the usual comic relief from Paul Hurst as Torrence's second-in-command, and Dale Fuller as Adoree's mother.

The film is gorgeously shot, with Percy Hilburn's shimmering cinematography a solid example of the artistic camerawork to be found even in routine films such as this one made toward the end of the silent era. The direction, credited to George Hill but actually co-directed by Clarence Brown (who replaced Hill during the shoot), shows moments of real inspiration, using closeups of the lead actors to great effect in the opening scenes. Two sequences in particular stand out for their vibrant editing: a rousing dance sequence between Gilbert and a gypsy girl, and the thrilling climax, culminating in a violent battle between the Cossacks and the Turks.

A minor film overall, but a good example of the high visual artistry that marked even the average studio pictures of the late '20s before the transition to sound.

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