An American Tragedy: The Shotgun Wedding of Moscow and Hollywood: Thomas Doherty Examines a Series of Conflicts between Left-Wing Artists and Movie Moguls at the Time of Sergei Eisentein's Brief Sojourn in Tinseltown in the 1930s

By Doherty, Thomas | History Today, May 2002 | Go to article overview

An American Tragedy: The Shotgun Wedding of Moscow and Hollywood: Thomas Doherty Examines a Series of Conflicts between Left-Wing Artists and Movie Moguls at the Time of Sergei Eisentein's Brief Sojourn in Tinseltown in the 1930s


Doherty, Thomas, History Today


IN 1930, INITIATING ONE of the stranger episodes in the history of Soviet-American relations, the president of Paramount Pictures, Jesse L. Lasky, lured the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) to Hollywood with a $100,000 contract. That single act of capitalist speculation sparked a series of public fracas over the direction of American cinema, and ensnared some of the most prominent novelists and filmmakers of the 1930s, and a half-dozen Hollywood executives. The wrestling match between the artists and the moguls was a preliminary bout in what has since become common: the use of the motion picture medium as an arena for all kinds of ideological skirmishes in American culture.

By the age of thirty-two, Eisenstein was already a legendary director, the embodiment of the new Soviet man as filmmaker, absorbed with the aesthetics of Kino-Pravda, `truth in cinema', an ethos defined by Lenin as `the production of new films, permeated with Communist ideas, reflecting Soviet actuality'. His master-piece, The Battleship Potemkin (1925), was a revolutionary work of art and politics that electrified cinema audiences around the world. But unimpressed, the Hollywood trade press looked at the film from the bottom line: `Something radical must have happened to this film prior to permission for its showing in New York being granted,' opined Variety when Battleship Potemkin was released stateside in 1926:

   Otherwise those who saw the film in its original form must have been 
   over-enthusiastic or off their nut from a showmanship standpoint. As this 
   screen version of a mutiny aboard a Russian cruiser now stands, it may 

In his notes dated 1932, Eisenstein (right, in 1931) commented, `Although not free from ideological defects, An American Tragedy is a first-class work, even though it may not be a class work from our viewpoint.'

   interest a few Russians in this country, but it is utterly devoid of 
   entertainment and box office value. 

But ever eager to exploit European talent, Paramount's executives assumed that the Soviet genre, under proper supervision, would be as malleable to the demands of conventional Hollywood melodrama as the cinematic styles of German Expressionism and Scandinavian austerity had already proved to be. For his part, Eisenstein must have thought that the capitalists were giving him the footage to hang themselves with.

Eisenstein arrived in New York on May 20th, 1930. The antithesis of the stuffy Soviet automaton and the Communist Party hack, gossip columnists doted on the charming young director, noting approvingly that he was avoiding the luxuries of uptown Broadway for the sturdy education of the backstreets. `Instead of nightclubbing and theatre-going along Big Bulb Lane, he is digging under the surface for the low down on American life, from Coney Island upward,' gushed the Film Daily, whose editor judged Eisenstein:

   ... a regular guy. A comparatively young chap, extremely magnetic and 
   likeable, and overflowing with enthusiasm for his first visit to America. 
   He has been here but two months yet speaks English with the clarity of 
   Calvin Coolidge, and is perfectly at home with the use, as well as misuse, 
   of slang and small talk. 

Eisenstein's first assignment for Paramount was confirmed as the long-awaited screen version of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Written in 1925 by America's most politically controversial and financially successful social realist novelist, the work was Dreiser's near-900-page magnum opus. He tells the story of Clyde Griffiths, a young man whose ambition to acquire wealth and status whatever the cost leads him to commit murder. Dreiser portrays Griffiths as a victim of American consumer culture, more pathetic than tragic. Despite flaws (turgid prose, creaky plotting and one-dimensional characters), all the Dreiserian elements are in place: the eye for fashion, the lust for wealth, the link between sex and acquisition, and the manners of the new urban American classes. …

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