Starring: Feodor Chaliapin; George Robey/Dorville as Sancho Panza ; Donnio; Frank Stanmore/C. Leger as the Priest; Emily Fitzroy/Mady Berry as Sancho’s Wife; Renee Valliers as Dulcinea
Directed by: G.W. Pabst
Studio: VAI DVD 4367
Video: 4:3; Black & White
Audio: PCM Mono
Length: 55:21 (English); 60:25 (French)
Director G.W. Pabst filmed both English and French versions of Cervantes’ classic, substituting French actor Dorville for George Robey as Sancho Panza and Mady Berry for Emily Fitzroy as Sancho’s shrewish wife. The epic novel, or anatomy, is subjected to gross over-simplification: there are merely nine “adventures” or scenes, with one Dargomyzhsky song and three by Jacques Ibert, who retains credit as the film’s composer. But the entire time, we are focused upon only one personage, Russian actor and basso Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938), among the greatest singing actors of his day and the inspiration for much musical repertory, from Massenet to Rachmaninov. Chaliapin’s is a long, lean figure, a tattered coat upon a stick, but his face and expressive voice dominate the narrative.
Convinced by the reading of books that the quest for goodness and beauty supersedes all material concerns, Don Quixote ventures forth with his faithful servant to right wrongs and free the oppressed. Attacking a flock of sheep whom he perceives as villains and infidels, Quixote cries for justice; Sancho sees only mutton. Jousting with a windmill which he mistakes for an evil giant, Quixote’s lance gets stuck in the sails, and he is carried aloft and dumped unceremoniously on the impassive ground. By the end of the journey, a spiteful church official, at the urging of the Duke (Miles Mander), burns Quixote’s books, the source of his madness; and Quixote, his face all kindness and horror, looks tragically upon the bonfire as at the loss of a Promised Land. Even the milkmaid Dulcinea, whom Quixote exalted as a great lady, weeps at the rape of Innocence.
Film buffs will cherish having both versions of this cinematic classic; the French is perhaps the more successful artistically, but hearing Chaliapin declaim and sing in his thickly accented English is a rarity that is entirely unique. The French version appears to be more congenial to Chaliapin, likely the product of his extensive work in Faust and Don Quichotte. Pregnant pauses, controlled swelling and diminishing of a phrase (in music, a messa di voce), and the plasticity of his face, all contribute to the unity of dramatic effect. Chaliapin had worked in a film version of Ivan the Terrible in 1915, but his unhappiness with the result kept him from further efforts in the cinema. Pabst keeps the camera at mid-shot, rarely using close-ups–as had Eisenstein– to monumentalize the epic character in Quixote’s romantic exaltation of simple objects and persons. If the camera dwells at all on a character, it is on Sancho Pancha, the eternal Everyman confounded and yet magnetized by greatness of spirit, a perspective which demands the child in us all.
— Gary Lemco