The Last Command (1928) and World Premiere (1941)

Toronto Film Society presented The Last Command (1928) on Monday, July 18, 1983 in a double bill with World Premiere (1941) as part of the Season 36 Summer Series, Programme 5.


Production Company:  Paramount Famous Lasky Corp.  Presented by: Adolph Zukor, Jesse L. Lasky.  Supervisor: J.G. Bachmann.  Associate Producer: B.P. Schulberg.  Director: Josef von Sternberg.  Adaptation/Screenplay: John F. Goodrich.  Titles: Herman J. Mankiewicz.  Story: Lajos Biro, (Josef von Sternberg, uncredited).  Photography: Bert Glennon.  Set Design: Hans Dreier.  Film Editor: William Shea.  Makeup: Fred C. Ryle.  Technical Director: Nicholas Kobylyansky.  Released: January 21, 1928.

Cast:  Emil Jannings (General Delgorucki/Grand Duke Sergius Alexander), Evelyn  Brent (Natascha Dobrowa), William Powell (Leo Andreiev), Nicholas Soussanin (Adjutant), Michael Visaroff (Serge, the Valet), Jack Raymond (Assistant Director), Viacheslav Savitsky (a Private), Fritz Feld (a Revolutionist), Harry Semels (Soldier extra), Alexander Ikonnikov, Nicholas Kobylyansky (Drillmasters).



Production Company: Paramount.  Producer: Sol C. Siegel.  Director: Ted Tetzlaff.  Screenplay: Earl Felton, from an original story by Felton and Gordon Kahn.  Photography: Dan Flapp.  Film Editor: Archie Marshek.  Released: August 20, 1941.

Cast:  John Barrymore (Gregory Martin), Frances Farmer (Kitty Carr), Eugene Pallette (Gregory Martin), Virginia Dale (Lee Morrison), Ricardo Cortez (Mark Saunders), Sig Rumann (Franz von Bushmaster), Don Castle (Joe Bemis), William Wright (Luther Skinkley), Fritz Feld (Muller), Luis Alberni (Signor Scaletti), Cliff Nazarro (Peters), Andrew Tombes (Nixon).

Tonight’s two films celebrate one of Hollywood’s most popular clichés–the precipitous decline from power and greatness to poverty and death.  The first film, the silent masterwork The Last Command, utilized the ‘world’s greatest living actor’, as Emil Jannings was generally acknowledged, in a role that Jannings claimed as his exclusive birthright in the 1920s–the great man reduced to nothing.  The second film, World Premiere, offers us the real example of John Barrymore, an actor credited with being the leading stage performer of the 1920s, and a solid scene stealer in 1930’s cinema, reduced to appearing in mostly quickie films to pay off his heavy accumulated debts during the last years before his death in 1942.

The 1920s were fertile years in films about Hollywood and the motion picture system, some of the most memorable being Ella Cinders (1926), The Extra Girl (1923), Hollywood (1923), Merton of the Movies (1924), Show People (1928), and The Last Command.  Most were romantic comedies and satires; The Last Command stood almost alone in the 1920s a a drama about the motion picture industry.   The official credits list an émigré from Hungary, Lajos Biro, as author  of the film, but Sternberg has written that he himself wrote the entire film, and based it on an idea suggested to him by Ernst Lubitisch, who didn’t think the idea was sufficient to carry a film.

The story is basically a tragedy:  a former general (Jannings) in the imperial Russian army is now, ten years after the revolution, an extra in Hollywood.  An  old adversary from Russia (William Powell), now a noted Hollywood film director, discovers the decrepit general and offers him a role in a new movie, playing essentially a character based on his own life.  As he begins the role, the general’s mind flashes back to the good old days before the Revolution, when he was a powerful force until the tragedies of the Revolution rendered him useless. …

The Last Command was the first film about filmmaking to be honoured with an Oscar–Emil Jannings won the very first Academy Award on May 16, 1929, as Best Actor for his tragic portrayal in this film and in a second, less noteworthy but similarly fated feature, The Way of All Flesh (1927).  The Last Command was also nominated twice more, as Best Picture of the year, losing the first Oscar (although the award was not called that for several years) to Wings, and for best original story.  Reminiscent of Citizen Kane thirteen years later:  Sternberg has written that after The Last Command was completed studio officials refused to release it, citing his harsh depiction of the Russian Revolution (occurring only ten years earlier; Sternberg populated The Last Command‘s extras with an assortment of Russian ex admirals, generals, Cossacks, and other victims of the Bolsheviks–you can see where Sternberg’s revolutionary sentiments lay!) and his critical portrait of Hollywood as untruthful, with the likelihood of alienating the public.

The Last Command is conspicuous today for its uncompromisingly unsentimental glimpse of Hollywood, its bit players, and the exotic world of movie-making in general in 1927.  Even though only about one-third of the film’s 90 minutes running time is concerned with filmmaking, that thirty minutes of insight from one of Hollywood’s true originals and outstanding rebels, Josef von Sternberg, is unforgettable.

Since several of the talents involved in this production are dimly remembered today, we fell a few biographical notes are in order.

Emil Jannings was born on July 23, 1884, in Switzerland.  He entered German films in 1914 as an actor, and began appearing in several films directed by fellow actor Ernst Lubitsch.  Jannings was a major contributor to the great days of German cinema (1919-1928), when German films and their creators were in demand throughout the world.  Lubitsch’s MadameDubarry/Passion (1919), and Anna Boleyn/Deception (1920) brought Jannings initial fame, while Danton (1920), The Loves of Pharaoh (1922), Othello (1923) and Peter the Great (1923), established him as an actor of majestic prestige and character, capable of soaring to theatrical heights in his cinematic portrayals of historical legends.  Thus, when Murnau’s The Last Laugh surfaced in 1924, it totally overwhelmed all the critics, for here was this exalted actor, enacting the part of a lavatory attendant, a man who had fallen, though not from greatness, at least from a dignified position, to the lowest imaginable situation.  From here on Jannings mixed his historical legends with tragedies of noble or good men descended to the lower depths:  Waxworks (1924), Tartuff (1925), Faust (1926), Varieté (1926).  The immense success of all of these, particularly the latter, induced Jannings to travel to America to work in Hollywood, in ‘Emil Jannings vehicles–stories of tragic old men broken by fate.’  The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command certainly conformed; only Lubitsch’s The Patriot (1928) had any merit of his succeeding Hollywood efforts.  Suffering much the similar fate amplified in last week’s double bill of Singin’ In the Rain, and Once In a Lifetime, Jannings’ thick, unintelligible German accent curtailed his Hollywood career once ‘talkies’ became entrenched.  One great triumph awaited Jannings in Germany–The Blue Angel (1930), directed again by Sternberg, who had vowed after The Last Command, “…under no circumstances, were he (Jannings) the last remaining actor on earth, would I ever again court the doubtful pleasure of directing him.”  (For a lively view of the Sternberg/Jannings relationship, viewers should consult Sternberg’s autobiography, Fun In a Chinese Laundry.  And in France in 1932, Jannings appeared in The Merry Monarch (shown in the TFS seminar of 1976 by Bill Everson), a strange, not uninteresting, fantasy about a king with 365 wives.  During the Nazi era in Germany, Jannings apeared in official propaganda features and became largely forgotten throughout the world–a fate similar to his character in The Last Command.  He died in Austria on January 2, 1950.  In his prime, from 1923 to 1928, Jannings was without doubt the king of actors, universally acclaimed as the world’s greatest film actor.  Although The Last Command sees him at the pinnacle of his craft, it also bids farewell to his years of dominance.

Evelyn Brent (1899-1975) first emerged in films in 1914, and became a star in the early 1920s.  She made three straight Josef von Sternberg films: Underworld (1927), The Last Command and The Drag Net  (1928).  She is the efinite precursor to the director’s famous Dietrich series–Brent is similarly lovingly lit and photographed, and made more a symbol than a living woman.  If Sternberg had not discovered the Dietrich style in The Blue Angel, Evelyn Brent would have been a perfectly acceptable substitute as his ethereal, eternal woman.

William Powell (born 1922 and still alive) needs little introduction–his suaveness became a cinema staple of the 1930s.  Yet he entered films in the early 1920s, often portraying a villain.  His first film role was a MOriarty to John Barrymore’s Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes (1922), and he appeared in Beau Geste and The Great Gatsby, both 1926.  His director/revolutionary in The Last Command is a skillfully understated portrait of nastiness.

* * *

World Premiere can be perceived on two levels:  as a wacky comedy on filmmakers and filmmaking, and as an example of the spectacularly irreversible decline of a stage and screen legend.  World Premiere was John Barrymore’s second last film, released nine months before his death, at the age of sixty, on May 29, 1942.

From the mid 1930s onwards, John Barrymore could no longer star in major films, and was compelled to support others or resort to parodying himself in mostly “B” pictures.  The latter group of pictures, Hold That Co-Ed (1938), The Great Man Votes (1939), Midnight (1939), The Great Profile (1940), The Invisible Woman (1941), World Premiere and Playmates (1941) are in retrospect far more fascinating than given credit–not often had a Hollywood figure risen so high to fall so low and still be allowed, or willing, to parody himself and satirize his situation.  The Great Profile and Playmates are almost purely autobiographical, while World Premiere is a relatively sharp satire of movie producers, press agents and actors.  Though no doubt “B” picture, all three are interesting, often entrancing, impressions of the career of a legend gone wrong, much more telling than Chaplin’s vague autobiographical finale A King In New York (1957).  Barrymore’s films at this time had no holds barred–he had absolutely no control over his films and could not prevent, even if he had been aware of the parody, their capitalizing on his name and misfortune to turn a buck.  These films were direct, often bittersweet.

Though World Premiere may have been cheaply filmed, it has a remarkable cast of Hollywood veteran character actors and cast-offs:  Eugene Pallette, Sig Rumann, Fritz Feld, Luis Alberni, and Ricardo Cortez and the recently rediscovered, and equally unfortunate, Frances Farmer.

The story, a burlesque of Hollywood, revolves around the stars and makers of an ‘epic’ “The Earth’s On Fire”, travelling from Hollywood to Washington for the premiere of the picture, an exposé of Axis governments.  Naturally spies, both real and fake, are involved, with producer Barrymore, at the picture’s unveiling, not sure whether the film, which has been substituted by spies, is the one he produced nor not!

World Premiere is briskly paced and engagingly performed, and severely underrated and forgotten today.  The screenplay is bright, with John Barrymore presented with several memorable tongue-in-cheek quips.  Barrymore, even at this terminal point in his career, could throw more double and triple ‘takes’ and entendres with his voice alone than any other actor of his time.  Both THE NEW YORK TIMES and VARIETY gave World Premiere excellent reviews, almost raves, so it is puzzling to understand why the film has been ignored for so long.  Perhaps the fact that John Barrymore had fallen from such a great height:  the dominant Richard III and Hamlet of the 1920’s theatre, and the great lover and profile of 1920’s and early 1930’s cinema–coloured the attitude of recent critics and biographers.  World Premiere should be accepted and enjoyed for its polished satire of moviemaking and witty overview of the madcap Hollywood producer.

Notes by Jaan Salk

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