1st Academy Awards 1929
Nominated for 1 award, which it won.
Won Art Direction (William C. Menzies).
Watched October 17, 2012.
The sun is setting on silent films, but is also setting on John Barrymore’s illustrious acting career. In a performance that is reportedly more mellow and controlled than his norm, which is something that flies well in today’s audiences, he once again plays in a romantic film. He is a sergeant in the Russian army and is studying to become an officer, something that has not happened in years. To a society that had World War I fresh in its memory, a film about Russia and the fall of its aristocrats was common, although in Tempest, it is easier to feel sympathy toward the Czar.
Sergeant Ivan Markov, although he is socially a peasant, has somehow gained the favor of the General (George Fawcett) and is therefore granted a review. Despite the Captain (Ullrich Haupt) being very anti-Markov, Markov is impressively promoted to Lieutenant and, in an incredible display of affection, the General gives Markov his old epaulettes. In a recurring role, a greasy, wide-eyed peddler (Boris de Fast) discourages Markov constantly throughout the film, telling him that Russia will soon belong to the people and that the aristocrats will never truly accept him.
Here we introduce Princess Tamara (Camilla Horn), daughter of the General, and an extremely proud woman. Our first glance of her is during Markov’s review, when she asks her father if a man could be more perfect. This implies that she is a fun-loving, kind woman, but this opinion is quickly corrected. Prior to Markov’s official promotions, his fellow Sergeant Bulba (Louis Wolheim) steals the clothing of two bathing women from another soldier and upon intending to “return” them, Markov reprimands him and takes the clothes back himself. Inevitably, it is Tamara bathing and her fury is very evident. Markov, however, is a little dense and suddenly thinking himself in love, he kisses the princess. This leads to his persistent (and incredibly creepy) chasing of the princess, even at her birthday party. After being rejected, Markov drinks too much, and in search of the wash room, finds himself in Tamara’s bedroom, where he falls asleep on her bed next to the flowers he intends to give her. When the princess finds him, she rings for help, and the General arrests him in a fury.
Markov is stripped of rank and sentenced to five years hard labor, which is quickly increased to solitary confinement. The princess suddenly feels remorse and affection. When the aristocracy finally falls, the peddler is revealed as a heartless leader. He breaks Markov from prison with Bulba at his right, gives him a fur coat, and lets him sit at his left while dolling out death sentences to anyone who supported the Czar, literally ripping children from the arms of their mothers and throwing them in front of a firing squad.
Many movie critics often talk about the suspension of reality, which I generally find very annoying because unless it is a documentary, it is always just a representation of an idea and therefore is not reality. However, when it comes to Tempest, I will wholeheartedly say that in order to enjoy this film or think it remotely romantic, you will probably have to accept that it would never happen in real life. Markov was very creepy in his initial affections and I don’t blame the princess for not encouraging him whatsoever–too much positive reinforcement and you create a stalker. She doesn’t show him any kindness until the end of the film and therefore it is a wonder Markov can think his affections are love.
The artistic qualities of the film are hard to see, due to damaged film, and the end of the film is very fragmented because it is so severely irreparable. There are a lot of scratches, bubbles, and dirt that cloud up the picture, but if you can look beyond it to the elaborate sets, you might be able to see why Tempest won the award for Art Direction. William Menzies was in competition with such films as Sunrise, therefore his achievements must have been well appreciated at the time to conquer such a running mate.
All things considered, I would not recommend Tempest. I found it intriguing how I rooted for the Czar and the aristocrats so much, but it is possible because none of their characters were creepy, but instead genuine and believable. Beyond that and the sets, there is little to recommend the film.
Sources: The Silent Movie Blog, Classic Film Union, IMDB, Classic Film Guide, Slant Magazine, Sean Axmaker