“Starewicz is one of those cinemagicians whose name deserves to stand in film history alongside those of Méliès, Emil Cohl and Disney.” Charles Ford’s 1958 claim could scarcely be verified until recent years — as Jayne Pilling noted in her 1983 booklet — due to the unavailability of most of Starewicz’s films to view. During the 80s, his stock rose rapidly as archival co-operation made at least some of the key films visible.
These, however, were mainly from his French period and were vastly different from his very earliest Russian insect fables. What the opening up of Romanov cinema has revealed is the much wider range of his work in the years 1913-17, including a few surviving examples of his all-live-action films.
This collection includes examples of the three main strands of his early work. First, The Dragonfly and the Ant, based on a fable by the classic Russian writer Krylov, reveals the poetic elegance of Starewicz’s debut. The film was shown at court and rewarded by a gift and praise from the Tsar — which also reflected well on Starewicz’s patron, Khanzkonkov.
Adaptations of Gogol were another constant thread running through Starewicz’s work up to 1919, giving full rein to a love of the grotesque and the macabre which is also evident in the animal puppet films. Christmas Eve — which includes one of Mozzhukhin’s oddest character roles, as the devil — was apparently a great success, hailed by a contemporary reviewer as “sparkling with pure Gogolesque humor and ... accompanied by continuous laughter from the public.”
Russia’s entry into the Great War produced a wave of patriotic propaganda from artists in many media. Starewicz’s contribution varied from the knockabout satire of Mars’ Stepson and How the German General Signed a Pact with the Devil (both 1914) to the curious and touching Lily of Belgium. This uses one of his favorite techniques of mixing live-action with stop-frame animation to create an unashamed allegory of the German rape of Belgium.
THE DRAGONFLY AND THE ANT (Strekoza i muravei).Director/Screenplay/Photography/Art Direction: Ladislaw Starewicz. Based on Krylov’s fable. Production Company: Khanzhonkov. Released February 22, 1913.
CHRISTMAS EVE (Noch’pered rozhdestvom).Director/Screenplay/Photography/Art Direction: Ladislaw Starewicz. Based on the story by Nikolai Gogol. Production Company: Khanzhonkov. Released December 26, 1913. Cast: Ivan Mozzhukhin (Devil). Ol’ga Obolenskaia (Oksana). Lidiia Tridenskaia (Solokha). P. Lophukin (Vakula). A. Kheruvimov (Golova). Pavel Knorr (Chub).
THE LILY OF BELGIUM (Liliia Bel’gii; also known as The Suffering and Resurrection of Belgium and An Allegory of Today).Director/Screenplay/Photography/Art Director: Ladislaw Starewicz. Text: Boris Martov. Production Company: Skobelev Committee. Released 1915? Cast: Irina Starewicz.
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