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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Where O. Henry and Kuleshov Meet: The Great Consoler (1933)

Alexandra Khokhlova in the role of Dulcie
The Great Consoler, 1933
no copyright infringement intended

Великий утешитель (The Great Consoler or The Great Comforter) - the movie made by Lev Kuleshov in 1933 (Konstantin Kuznetsov being the DP) - takes two short stories written by O. Henry along with his prison episode and uses all this material in an extremely free way (say, a phantasy on O. Henry's themes) to build upon a very ellaborated cinematic structure.

About the prison episode: condemned for embezzlement, O. Henry had to stay in jail for three years, between 1898 and 1901. Fortunately it wasn't that hard: he worked in the penitentiary as a night druggist and wrote there fourteen short stories. He got them published while still in prison, using various pseudonyms (so his publishers were not aware he was jailed). One of these pseudonyms he would continue to use as pen name for the rest of his life: O. Henry (his real name was William Sydney Porter - or rather William Sidney Porter).

O. Henry in his thirties
impractical, lacking in desire for money and financial judgment
creative, humorous, a lover of human nature
mild, rather easy-going, idealistic, constant
source: Newcomb, A; Blackford, K.M.H.: Analyzing Character
no copyright infringement intended

As for the two stories, the movie makes them written while in prison, but actually they came some years later: A Retrieved Reformation was published in the April 1903 issue of Cosmopolitan (yes, this women magazine is that old!), and An Unfinished Story belongs to his second collection of short stories, The Four Million, from 1906.

Here are the texts of the two stories:

A Retrieved Reformation is kind of a modern morality, one of those nice stories that are fit for Christmas period: a safecracker is released from prison and what follows is that a few banks around are robbed. Naturally he is the first suspect and a detective is on his traces. Meanwhile the guy falls in love for a rich banker's daughter and decides to become a honest citizen. When everything seems to turn finally well, an accident happens with the banker's granddaughter: she gets trapped inside the bank's new safe and someone has to break the locks. A dramatic dilemma for our ex-robber: if he opens the safe, everybody will realize who he really is (or rather who he was); if not, the little girl will die suffocated inside the thing. Add to all this that the detective is also there, waiting for the outcome. The guy takes the noble choice and breaks the locks, saving the girl. Then he gives himself up to the detective. Fortunately this one also changed himself into a nice person, so nobody gets harmed and everybody's happy. The thing is that the words and sentences are put in such a way that you can read the story in two different keys: a nice tale to emphasize all that's good and noble, or a grotesque farce where each player mocks the public and impersonates just the opposite of who he really is (probably the reading key you choose depends on your mood).

I love more An Unfinished Story (matter of taste): it's as delicate and ineffable as a cup of strawberry mousse, while fantasy (gently devised) and irony (nicely dozed) are mixed without known limits. It's the portrait of Dulcie, a young woman who worked in a department story, selling Hamburg edging, or stuffed peppers, or automobiles, or other little trinkets such as they keep there, and receiving each week six dollars of what she earned: the remainder was credited to her and debited to somebody else's account. Young, romantic, naive, living in a furnished room among other girls like her, exploited by the employer, always in shortage of money, always tracked by gentlemen trying to get her favors ... you got the picture. All this told as a story that's on going, no beginning, no outcome, just Dulcie in that furnished room, lacking money, hungry, romantic, hunted by so-called gentlemen.

This portrait is embedded in another story with apparently no connection: a dream the author has, that brings him to the ultimate times of Last Judgment (such a thing being possible just in dreams, as in our current times, we are told, the flames of Tophet don't frighten anymore and even the preachers have begun to tell us that God is radium, or ether or some scientific compound, and that the worst we wicked ones may expect is a chemical reaction). Well, what we do or do not believe today is one, a dream is different: Gabriel had played his trump; and those who could not follow suit were arraigned for examination... at one side a gathering of professional bondsmen in solemn black and collars that buttoned behind.

With this view of the professional bondsmen the author puts his dream suddenly on hold and passes to the story of Dulcie, to leave it equally sudden and come back to the dream. But now he understands who those professional bondsmen are: those who hired working-girls, and paid 'em five or six dollars a week to live on. Seemingly even setting fire to an orphan asylum or murdering a blind man for his pennies are easier sins! Really, when O. Henry starts fantasizing his irony has no limits.

Though, let me tell you this: for committing a murder, one gets a punishment here on earth, plus it could be some circumstances, while for exploiting the workers one is praised here on earth, there is a whole bunch of idiotic yesmen and sycophants who praise the exploiters and blame the exploited, so at least make the fucking bondsman punished sometime at the end of time.

Now about the movie: it follows two distinct plots in parallel. In one of them we find Dulcie, as nice, romantic, enthusiast, naive and poor as we already know her. The novelty is that in the movie Dulcie is reading (with great delight) the stories of O. Henry. In the parallel plot we find O. Henry himself, staying in prison and writing there his stories, embellishing in them the life, making life look nice, and keeping this way the illusions in his readers. Readers like Dulcie, readers like the inmates from the prison. He is their great consoler, great comforter. That is why he enjoys a privileged regime in jail, while all other inmates are treated like shit (if you excuse my French).

The story of Retrieved Reformation is embedded in the structure of the movie: it starts with the moment when the author begins writing it, it ends with the moment when Dulcie arrives at the end of it. So it is flowing between the two parallel plots of the movie, and it is made as a silent film (all the rest being sound movie - an exquisite cinematic choice: the epoch of sound paying here an accolade for the silent!). The story comes as based on a real case from prison, only exactly opposite: what happens in real life is that one of the inmates is ordered to break a safe where some documents got locked by accident. Apparently he hopes to be freed after that, but instead he is brought back to jail, where he soon dies. The writer had changed the outcome just to cheer up his readers!

A very ambitious cinematic construction: two parallel flows embedding between them a third one, each evolving distinctly while every now and then sending each other subtle signals of synchronization - a real symphonic work, calling in mind maybe some elaborate modern multi-threading computerized systems!

The same as with the story of O. Henry, this movie also can be read in two different keys. Apparently it is an anti-American propaganda film, as it takes place there and shows everything as rotten: jail, corruption, lack of perspective. But in the same time it subtly creates another tableau: it's the Soviet regime, a whole country like a huge prison, where artists get a privileged status for embellishing life in their works and helping this way to keep people's mood in control. There is a hint in the movie that supports this interpretation: at a certain moment one of the inmates exclaims: we are rotten in this prison for sixteen years! The movie was made in 1933: exactly sixteen years since 1917, when the Soviet regime had begun. Naturally, a Soviet movie made in 1933 could not give more hints to make us understand that it actually carried an anti-Soviet message! Maybe another hint in the end, when showing the riot of inmates: for a cine-viewer it calls in mind, derisively this time, some famous uprising sequences from Eisenstein et all.

(Lev Kuleshov)

(O. Henry)

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