In tsarist Russia, the Volga boatmen live hard lives, trudging along the water's edge as they pull heavy cargoes up and down the river. One day, as Prince Dimitri and his fiancée Princess Vera stop to have their fortunes told at a Tartar camp along the river, they encounter a group of boatmen who are taking a short rest. One of the boatmen, the spirited Feodor, provokes a hostile confrontation with the two aristocrats. Later, when the Revolution breaks out, Feodor becomes a leader in the Red Army, and he again encounters Dimitri and Vera, only this time with much higher stakes. Written by
Cecil B. DeMille was a strange chappy, full of contradictions. A notorious anti-trade unionist and later HUAC stooge, and yet certainly up until the early 1930s he held a bizarre love for Soviet Russia. The Volga Boatman is his only picture that reflects that love, and is among his stranger efforts which, as anyone who has seen Madam Satan or Four Frightened People will know, is really saying something.
The Volga Boatman is one of a number of pictures DeMille made with his own independent production company whilst on a period of absence from Paramount. It was around this period that DeMille began to lean towards the epic as his main area of expertise. Of course, his run of biblical extravaganzas began at Paramount with The Ten Commandments in 1923, and there is the massive Joan of Arc in 1916, but it is in this mid-to-late 1920s phase that the epic became, for him, the norm.
This all made good sense for DeMille. When it came to directing the masses, few directors did it better. His crowd shots are a blend of aesthetic stylisation (check out how he uses the musicians in the foreground to form a circle with the ceiling arch in the Jaroslav ballroom scene) and pure realism. DeMille always humanised the crowd by dropping in close-ups of individuals, such as the children shown in the opening scene. His use of space is also on top form here, with framing and distance showing characters' isolation or their position in the group.
But in all those years of directing small-scale dramas DeMille had also honed his ability to film human relationships. Editing patterns were becoming ever more fluid anyway as silent cinema developed, and DeMille had developed a knack of showing characters' views of each other and of situations without resorting to intertitles. The Volga Boatman has few words, but is full of meaningful glances, moody close-ups and subtle gestures. A good example is the scene where the three leads first meet all that really happens title-wise is Victor Varconi repeatedly yelling "Wipe it off!", but the various angles and reaction shots between the characters speak volumes and set up their relationships for the entire picture.
This was DeMille's first collaboration with screenwriter Lenore J. Coffee, and his first without any input from Jeanie MacPherson. If you have seen a lot of DeMille's silents, there is quite a noticeable difference. Gone are MacPherson's rambling moralist narratives and ridiculous albeit poetic personal philosophies. Coffee, while clearly not as mad as MacPherson, seems rather bland by comparison, and his words lack sparkle.
The acting too is not so special. Elinor Fair appears completely unable to emote realistically, and makes a poor lead. William Boyd is at least able to convincingly look mean (and cunning), but very little else. Villainously handsome Victor Varconi turns in the best performance, but I have seen better from him. Meanwhile Julia Faye and Theodore Kosloff provide cheerfully hammy comic relief, although the parts they have been given aren't very funny.
When you look at the DeMille pictures from the early 1920s, while there is sometimes good drama, something appears to be missing as DeMille strives for something grander, trying to shoehorn in "big" scenes. The Volga Boatman works because DeMille at last strikes his happy medium of showing the intense drama against the backdrop of large-scale action. His direction is on fine form here, and he is only let down by his collaborators. Mind you, in his role as exacting and all-powerful producer, DeMille could perhaps be blamed for accepting such a lifeless screenplay and cast. His poor judgement in these areas in many ways defines the style of his later pictures.
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