kitparkerfilms

The Soldier and the Lady

Posted on: February 20, 2017

— Out of Sight Out of Mind

soldier and the lady one sheet.png

Through the years I’ve unearthed and released a number of pictures originally distributed by major studios.

One top-of-the bill picture I’ve held off offering on DVD until now is “The Soldier and the Lady,” produced and released by RKO Radio Pictures in 1937.

It’s a good movie…a staple on the late, late show in the 1950s and early 60s, but only sporadically seen since. Too bad, because it’s a fast paced and thoroughly enjoyable adventure picture from producer Pandro S. Berman, complete with a rousing music score, and a whipping sequence that somehow passed the censors. What’s not to like?

I call movies like this “out–of–sight–out–of-mind” pictures. Translation: People don’t know ‘em, don’t buy ‘em, I make no money on ‘em, but go ahead and release ‘em anyway.

Film historian, Richard M Roberts, and frequent KPF and Sprocket Vault collaborator contributed this:

THE SOLDIER AND THE LADY

Based on the story Michael Strogoff by Jules Verne, this epic action adventure follows a courageous courier of Tsar Alexander II as he struggles to deliver vital information to Russian troops fighting a losing battle against invading Tartar hordes in Siberia. It’s a straight ahead action film, adventurous, swiftly paced and blood-thirstily satisfying. The lady in the title has practically nothing to do with it.

Michael Strogoff: the Tsar’s Courier is a famous novel written by Jules Verne in 1876 that tells the story of its title character who is sent to the far east of Russia to warn the governor of Irkutsk about the trainer Ivan Ogareff, who incites rebellion and plans to destroy Irkutsk. This serial-like adventures of Strogoff and his friends battling a Tartar rebellion has captivated Verne fans for decades despite it being one of the author’s few non-science fiction works.

That said, one of the eternal movie history questions may indeed be just how many versions of Michael Strogoff do we really need? More than ten at casual count, and apparently a number of those were produced or coproduced by one Joseph N. Ermolieff, a White Russian who was one of the major film producers under the Tsar, and a political exile himself who escaped to France when came the revolution and spent the next several decades as an ex-patriot film producer over many continents. He apparently owned the rights to Verne’s novel and every decade or so managed to crank out or be involved in the cranking out of at least one new version of the peace, including a lavish three-hour French silent masterpiece directed by Victor Tourjansky and starring Ivan Mouskoujine. Then in 1935, Ermolieff produced a new French-German co-production directed by Richard Eichberg and starring Anton Wahlbrook that utilizes some footage from the 1926 version. As if this was not enough, what does Ermolieff go and do but take this 1935 version and Wahlbrook to America the following year and sell RKO on yet another remake of Strogoff re-using Wahlbrook (or Walbrook as he Anglicized the spelling) and utilizing as much footage from the Eichberg Version as one could possibly match-up with the new American cast. So RKO releases this new version, retitled The Soldier and the Lady (Fair enough, Eichberg’s Version had been titled the Tsar’s Courier) and, surprise, surprise, it’s a grand and glorious flop.

Now hold on, we didn’t say it was a deserved flop, for as patch-job French – German – American co-productions matching up footage of Anton Wahlbrook and sometimes even Ivan Mouskoujine to Anton Walbrook go, it’s pretty amazingly seamless, and Walbrook in his first English – speaking role is a very dashing Strogoff. The American cast has a lot going for it, number one being Akim Tamiroff in top-villainous mode as Ivan Ogareff, and Elizabeth Allan looking reasonably radiant as Nadia. Perhaps some are a bit put-off by comic relief Eric Blore and Edward Brophy as the reporters covering the rebellion, but this author likes both performers and finds them the occasional breath of fresh air amongst all of Walbrook’s masochistic abuse. Okay, when you get down to Ward bond as a tartar things are getting a bit silly but all in all, this Michael Strogoff moves along at an easy-to-take 85 minutes, give you much of the spectacle of the earlier European version, and gives one and incredible lesson in editing and matching old footage.

And it didn’t stop Mr. Ermolieff from making yet more versions of the darn book, next up with a 1944 Mexican version, Miguel Strogoff, I kid you not, and Curt Jurgens went through the tortuous motions again in 1960. Now of course public domain, Jules Verne’s books all seems to be one of those European co-productions they can always get off the ground though remakes seem to have dropped off since the 70s when both a feature and television version appeared. Seems to this one, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a bit more fun, but Michael Strogoff still beats it in the remake department.

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2 Responses to "The Soldier and the Lady"

In THE RKO STORY (p.104) authors Richard B. Jewell and Vernon Harbin note that “The Soldier And The Lady (GB: Michael Strogoff) was an intriguing anomaly–a cooperative venture between a European producer and RKO’s Hollywood production machinery. Frenchman Joseph Ermolieff came to Pandro S. Berman with French and German versions of Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff already on celluloid. Producer Berman, struck by the epic sweep of the drama and the spectacular battle footage, purchased the English language rights–a deal that also included access to the negative of the French version.”

So what we seem to have here is a hybrid RKO picture. “Deluge,” a long thought lost movie now thankfully restored and available on DVD, was an independent KBS production that was released through RKO distribution channels. Perhaps we deal with something along the same lines here. What movie are we looking at? A fair chunk of Ermolieff’s foreign version with grafted RKO titles and studio sequences or an actual RKO release within the continental United States? Maybe in a sense both. Instead of RKO Radio Pictures Presents “The Soldier And The Lady” what we get is Joseph N. Ermolieff Presents “The Adventures Of Michael Strogoff.” What gives? If there ever was a legitimate RKO issue with the title “The Soldier And The Lady” why does no one make reference to it? (Perhaps the Warner Archive people have a print that they have yet to release.) Instead of that optical wipe, a class act in itself that concludes many if not all of the RKO pictures, we see only a generic “The End.” What gives again? I suppose it really doesn’t matter a great deal but I would like to know if this is a genuine RKO picture in all its facets or something cobbled together from French and German prototypes. Of course most of this film was made in Hollywood but purist that I am I note some of these apparent inconsistencies. In spite of these occasional omissions which have nothing to do with Sprocket Vault’s sterling release I am happy to note that the RKO gang are given due credit in the opening credits: Pandro S. Berman, Van Nest Polglase, Vernon Walker, Walter Plunkett and all the others. The old boys are there and I am delighted to make their acquaintance once again.

One of Verne’s most popular works MICHAEL STROGOFF is set in Russia but of course was written by a Frenchman. RKO exceeds this patterning. We have here a patois of diverse cultural identities. Three of the leads are English (Elizabeth Allan, Margot Grahame and Eric Blore), one is an Austrian (Anton Walbrook), another a Russian (Akim Tamiroff), one a California girl (Fay Bainter) and then there is the inimitable Edward Brophy whose Brooklynese was always part of his persona. Jewell and Harbin referred to the comic interplay between Brophy and Blore as “pretty witless” yet I found it often quite amusing, especially the scene at the battlefield where Brophy is trying to find paper and pencil while Eric Blore rattles off the action as he is standing by the window. And Blore’s throw away bon mot to Edward Brophy early in the picture is priceless, as only Blore (or the incomparable Charles Butterworth) could pull off. This comic repartee does not mar the action in any way, due perhaps to the chemistry between these two venerable performers. And I must mention the classic music cues of Max Steiner which by this time must have become an integral part of the RKO music library. During the river crossing we hear Steiner’s brontosaurus sequence from KING KONG, and also part of the KONG score during the siege in the final reel. During Strogoff’s escape on horseback from the inn it is the chase music through the swamp lifted from THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, another Steiner masterpiece. For this reviewer this is high cinematic art and I became emotionally involved due to the fact that RKO chose to spot these action scenes with rugged and powerful passages from the one and only Max Steiner.

Alexander Borodin’s opera PRINCE IGOR was left incomplete at the composer’s death in 1887 yet I am pretty certain that the famous
“Polovtsian Dances” from which it is taken were not even composed as early as 1870 when “Michael Strogoff” is supposed to take place. Yet this is of course a minor detail. Borodin’s music is used at a key point toward the end of the picture and quite effectively at that. If the great William Shakespeare was guilty of anachronisms why not the corporate management of RKO as well?

There are not much in the way of extras which should not bother you. The film is rare enough as it is and we should be grateful that Kit Parker has found a bright nitrate original from which to fashion this release. At least it looks like nitrate to me and it may look like the same to you. The only official extra is a program note by Richard M. Roberts which is effective but only to a point. He cites, as many another no doubt has, Jules Verne’s MICHAEL STROGOFF as a story, but it is really much more than that. It is a detailed novel of 341 pages containing two large parts and 32 chapters. I have read the book and my edition is a 1905 Charles Scribner’s Sons. We often infer I think a “short story” when a reviewer uses the word “story.” And since many of these early anglicized Verne texts were willfully bastardized and notoriously abridged we can well imagine the original French novel as being perhaps somewhat longer. We must also be careful with across the board generalizations. Roberts writes, and this is a direct quote: “The lady in the title has practically nothing to do with it.” Whatever is he talking about? If it weren’t for our two leading ladies the arc of the story would have gone off in an entirely different direction; so Elizabeth Allan and Margot Grahame (who looks ravishing by the way) have EVERYTHING to do with it. And the comment about owning the rights to Verne’s novel mystifies me. If anyone owned the rights to anything it was Pandro Berman who owned some of the rights to Ermolieff’s French original.

Anyone who is even remotely interested in the celluloid reincarnations of the works of Jules Verne should consult the bible pertaining to this subject: HOLLYWOOD PRESENTS JULES VERNE by Brian Taves. Whatever needs to be addressed on this topic is to be found on pages 40-43. In a recent email he shared with me that “From the review on Amazon, Roberts confused the makers of the 1926 “Strogoff” with the Ermolieff: producer of the French, German, US and Mexican versions of 1936-43. They were all white Russians but Ermolieff took his own path, and of course had some success in America, that eluded Tourjansky, Mosjoukine, et al. The 1926 and 1936-43 [versions] had no overlap.” Thanks also to Brian who supplied the following website. It is all pretty much in French but the visuals are quite arresting and will certainly appeal to all those who are taking the time to read this review:

http://www.verniana.org/volumes/07/HTML/Ermolieff. html

Brian goes into some detail on the various productions of “Michael Strogoff” and particularly offers some acute observations on “The Soldier And The Lady.” It is not a perfect movie I should say and has its drawbacks but the acting is for the most part convincing, the action sequences are exciting, the music thrilling and the production values in general are lively and distinctively cinematic. I suppose as in the case with almost all films it could be better but it could also have been far worse. “The Soldier And The Lady” has strong entertainment value and I for one am delighted with its availability and the care with which Sprocket Vault has presented it to us. As David O. Selznick once remarked: “There are two kinds of class: first class and no class.” Selznick would have been proud.

If you are still with me you have suffered through my longueurs pertaining to both the movie as well as to the Jules Verne novel upon which it is based: a somewhat detailed backstory which I hope was helpful. Let us now briefly address the frontstory in a somewhat less exacting manner. There is no reason that I can think of for you not to purchase this captivating DVD. The film itself is a delight and the packaging is all that can be desired. Kit Parker and his crew at Sprocket Vault have done us a service in making this movie available at a very affordable price. I don’t know but that this RKO version might have been all that he had access to. “The Soldier And The Lady” (to call it by its original title: a rather tame and inaccurate one to be sure. Michael Strogoff was no soldier but a “courier of the Czar”) becomes a welcome addition to my RKO library and I cannot stress enough the visual beauty of the film as it unfolds. Kit Parker has already achieved sainthood for me as his company, Sprocket Vault, has just issued Volume One of the Charley Chase talkie shorts from the early 1930s produced by the Hal Roach Studios. I have been waiting for this for 25 years or more and there are not enough words in the English language for me to thank him. I would strongly urge him, as should you, to look into “The Monkey’s Paw,” a rare RKO production from 1933 that has remained virtually unseen since its original release. If anyone can do this Mr. Parker can. Stand in line everyone, shake his hand and hats off!

Peter C. Walther

24 February 2018

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