Early & Silent Film

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Kaštanka

Posted by keith1942 on September 26, 2013

kashtanka
This was one of the features from the retrospective of Ol’ga Preobraženskaja and Ivan Pravov at the 2013 Il Cinema Ritrovato. This Soviet film was both a children’s melodrama and a canine odyssey. I was impressed, as apparently was Ian Christie, who exclaimed ‘excellent’ as he left after the film.
The film was adapted from a story by Anton Chekhov of the same name. The title is the name of the dog who goes astray in the story and who is its main focus. Chekhov describes the dog thus:” A YOUNG dog, a reddish mongrel, between a dachshund and a “yard-dog,” very like a fox in face,…” In the film Kaštanka is a terrier, of the border variety: slightly confusingly the Russian title cards were translated at this screening consistently as ‘mutt’. Whilst the plot relating to Kaštanka is retained in the film the point of view is changed from the dog to that of his owner Fedjuška, son of the carpenter Luka. Most of the film is taken up with the misadventures of Fedjuška, plotting added to that of the written story. Kaštanka and Fedjuška are parted at a Moscow market. Kaštanka, after various travails, is taken up b the clown Georges, a relatively benign and comfortable existence. Fedjuška, out at night searching for Kaštanka, falls in with petty thieves and is forced to become a street performer. Predictably boy and dog are reunited at the resolution. The penultimate sequence is set in a circus, an important setting in early Russian and Soviet films. The sight of his lost pal leads Fedjuška to excitedly call his name. And the dog is then passed from hand to hand by the audience to his welcoming owner. A sequence that recalls similar shots near the end of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate.
The cast are very good and were praised by critics at the time, as was the cinematography. One of the film’s virtues is in the depiction of ordinary working life. The film opens with a series of scenes introducing the main protagonists. These include ‘at home’ evenings with Luka, Fedjuška and Kaštanka with neighbours. There is a warm realism about these scenes. When the story moves into the travails of [in particular] Fedjuška the visual tones changes dramatically. The sequences in a doss-house where Fedjuška is kept captive have an expressionist feel to them. The Festival Catalogue noted that the ‘atmosphere and aspect recall Gor’kij (his drama The Lower Depths) more than Čechov.’ The street scenes of searches, first by Fedjuška and then Luka, are also extremely effective. The film develops a real melodramatic tension and release in its final reel.
Ol’ga Preobraženskaja worked in the specialised genre of children’s’ films in the early part of the 1920s. Apart from the quality of the direction of technical aspects she also seems to have been good with children and animals. Jura Zimin as Fedjuška had already worked with Preobraženkaja on another children’s film Fed’kina Pravda (1925). Jackie, who plays Kaštanka in the film, was a real hit with the public. Apparently he became a ‘full-fledged film star’ in the Soviet Union, eclipsing his Hollywood rival Rin Tin Tin.
Jan Leyda, in Kino A History of Russian and Soviet Film (Third Edition 1983) suggests that the film was well received. However, the Catalogue makes the point that whilst it was approved for both national and international release in 1927, in the 1930s it fell foul of changed times. It notes “the decision by the central Committee in charge of film censorship to ban the film for minors in 1932 for its lack of pedagogical value (“the underclass” [one expects the Soviet censors would have use the more accurate appellation of lumpen-proletariat] is portrayed as evil, lacking in class consciousness and social awareness.”).” By 1927 Preobraženskaja and Pravov had moved onto mainstream adult features with the very successful Baby Rjazanskie (The Women of Ryazan). In that production changes were required both at the stage of scriptwriting and of post-production.

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