Andrew Garfield, Mahershala Ali, Ruth Negga, and five others received their first-ever acting nominations for 2017. While these actors are new to the Academy Awards, you may recognize them from their earlier work.
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I want to thank collector James King of Dunmore for giving me access to a print of 'The Red Dance'. This film's title refers to the frenzied rioting of the Russian peasants during the October Revolution. However, apparently producer William Fox did not want to risk misleading his audience altogether, so (to keep the title 'honest') we get a brief sequence of Dolores del Rio dancing in a cabaret. In a flashback sequence, we see her same character in childhood: beautiful child actress Muriel McCormac (unbilled) dances briefly but gracefully.
This film, like several other Hollywood productions of the late silent era -- 'Mockery', 'Tempest', 'The Last Command' -- is a soap-opera work of fiction against the background of the Soviet uprising. I was pleased that, for once, the Bolsheviks were NOT depicted sympathetically here. But other historic details are howlingly wrong. We meet a character called 'the Black Monk' who is clearly meant to be Rasputin, yet who is secretly agitating to overthrow the Czar. Sorry, comrade, but the real Rasputin was power-mad, and he insinuated himself into the Czar's household specifically to attain as much personal power as possible. Having got himself that sweet deal, he wasn't about to throw it away.
I'm a tremendous fan of Dolores del Rio, largely because of her almost supernatural beauty but also because of her acting (in sound films). Here, alas, her thespian technique embodies most of the clichés of BAD silent-film acting. When she speaks the word 'knowledge', she points to her forehead as if she were playing Charades! And, in this particular story, del Rio's preternaturally good looks might actually be a disadvantage. She's supposed to be one of Russia's peasants, not one of the aristocracy, yet she looks far too patrician. In some sequences, her mouth is lipsticked into a perfect cupid's bow even while she's meant to be starving. Worse luck, for most of this film, del Rio wears almost exactly the same hairstyle as Princess Leia from 'Star Wars'! More positively, I was impressed that the uncredited actress who plays del Rio's mother actually does resemble her.
Charles Farrell plays a Czarist cavalry officer who's also a grand duke, forced into a morganatic marriage to Princess Vervara (the beautiful ice-blonde Dorothy Revier). Farrell usually played clean-cut American youths. I found him plausible as an Italian in 'Street Angel', but here -- as a White Russian -- he's not remotely credible. Farrell's pretty-boy looks make him seem too delicate for the life of a cavalryman, even one who's a pampered aristocrat.
There's an excellent performance by Ivan Linow as a coarse peasant whose stock rises after the Revolution. Linow gave a few decent performances in early talkies, notably in 'Just Imagine' (as a gay Martian!) and in 'The Unholy Three', but he was hampered by his Latvian accent. Ironically, that accent would have been perfect for his character here in 'The Red Dance', a silent film.
Director Raoul Walsh shows little of his later skill here. Oddly, in several sequences of 'The Red Dance', Walsh seems to be trying for a circular motif: we see actors moving in a circle or a spiral, or action played against some circular object in the background. These recurring circles reminded me of the recurring X's (naughts and crosses?) in Howard Hawks's 'Scarface' ... or the recurring use of red in 'The Sixth Sense' ... but in those two films the recurring motifs had a narrative purpose, whereas Walsh's circles seem to be purely arbitrary. Was he perhaps making a visual pun on the word 'revolution'?
The peasant ghettos are clearly Hollywood sets. I was more impressed with the lavish wedding sequence, in which a Russian Orthodox cross throws a weirdly askew shadow while a Russian Orthodox bishop marries the duke to the princess. (He places the wedding rings on their RIGHT hands: can someone please tell me whether this detail is accurate?)
'The Red Dance' has many excellent points but is hardly a classic. I'll rate it 7 out of 10. Pass the borscht, tovarich.
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