Category Archives: Memorial Plaques to Film Artists

Sergei Eisenstein plaque and building, Moscow

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This is quite a place on Moscow’s cultural map. First of all, it’s a nice building. It could use a touch-up of paint and plaster, but we can look past those things. We’re not all about appearances. I like the green. I love Moscow’s, and Russia’s, colored buildings – pink, yellow, green, blue. They’re a great antidote for those who suffer long, gray Russian winters. (I’m not one of them – I love the cold and ice and snow every bit as much as I love the rainbow buildings.)
But I digress.
Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) lived here. One of the fathers – if not the father – of modern cinema. For all those poor souls suffering through the withering drought in Russian film that is known as the period running unbroken from the late 1980s to the present, Eisenstein stands as both a rebuke – where are you, new Eisensteins? – and a beacon of hope – yes, it can be done.
Eisenstein lived in Apt. 2 in this building at 23 Chistoprudny Boulevard. It’s right across from the south end of the pond that, for some reason, is named in the plural in Russian – Chistye prudy, or, Clean Ponds.
Another digression, sorry about this. But in the spirit that, with the internet at our fingertips, there is no longer any reason for anyone ever again to claim that they don’t know something, I went to Russian Wikipedia to find out just why this single pond has a name in the plural. And I learned that back in the 17th century there were a series of bogs here known as Foul Swamps! This is where the city dumped its waste from nearby slaughterhouses and meat markets. Wiki doesn’t say it out loud, but the hint is that when folks quit dumping blood and guts into the water here, it came to be known as a place that was clean. And, I’m also assuming, the many swamps, bogs and ponds over time were narrowed into the one we now have.
But back to Eisenstein.
He lived here on Clean Ponds/Chistye prudy from 1920 until 1934. In other words, he regularly pounded the pavement in these environs at that very time that he was doing all of his great early work. That includes his experimental theater pieces done under the influence and tutelage of Vsevolod Meyerhold, as well as his monstrously influential films Strike (1925), The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1927). We see that it was also right here that the great artist’s career suffered its first setbacks. He lived here when he made The General Line (1929), a film that was hindered badly by rapidly changing politics in the Soviet Union. This was also his address when he traveled to Mexico and planned his grandiose, but unfinished ¡Que viva México! (1930). It wasn’t until 1937, three years after leaving the apartment at Clean Ponds, that he made another film (Bezhin Meadow). But it was destroyed, leaving us only with several hundred stills that the great Naum Kleiman and film director Sergei Yutkevich salvaged by collecting into a kind of slide show in the 1960s.

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Eisenstein’s influence on everything cinematic was total. He wasn’t the only film artist pushing the envelope in those early days, but there were few discoveries made that he wasn’t a part of in some way. When my high school and early college girlfriend Laura Greenwood began taking film lessons she had the top of her head sheared off by Eisenstein. “Forget your Fellini!” she used to say. “Eisenstein already did it all!” I have no desire to forget my Fellini, let alone my Kurosawa, Antonioni or Woody Allen. But one gets Laura’s drift. I mean, let’s take it to the level of kitsch and absurd. Remember Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands? Nobody will ever convince me that Edward’s ‘do wasn’t taken hair-for-hair from Eisenstein. If you don’t believe me, check out Depp and check out Eisenstein. I rest my case. Or, if you want to take that further, check out this somewhat later Eisenstein and check out Mel Brooks’ Frankenstein. He’s just Eisenstein without the hair. I’m tellin’ ya – Eisenstein is everywhere.
The building at 23 Chistoprudny Boulevard was built in the year 1900 by architect Sergei Barkov for Nikolai Teleshov, who rented out rooms as a way to generate income. (It was originally a four-story building; the three top floors were added in 1947.) Teleshov was a pretty interesting figure himself. He was a poet and prose writer who was the organizing figure behind the famous “Wednesday” literary salon in Moscow from 1899 to 1916. His guests included Maxim Gorky, Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin, Valery Bryusov,  Alexander Kuprin, Ivan Bunin, Vikenty Veresaev, Fyodor Chaliapin, Leonid Andreev, Boris Pilnyak and many others. Teleshov was the director of the museum of the Moscow Art Theater in the late 1920s and 1930s. I don’t know whether he lived in the building when Eisenstein did (look it up yourself if you gotta have it), although if so, he would not have been the director’s landlord. By 1920 everybody’s landlord in Russia was the Soviet State.

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Sergei Bondarchuk plaque, Moscow

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A recent nighttime stroll down Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main thoroughfare, brought me upon this plaque honoring the Soviet film director Sergei Bondarchuk (1920-1994). There are dozens of reasons to know and love Bondarchuk and his films, but I think most would agree that one particular reason stands out above all others – his film of War and Peace (1967). The mass battle scenes amazed even Hollywood at the time (War and Peace won the 1968 Oscar for best film in a foreign language) and Bondarchuk’s own performance of Pierre Bezukhov, one of Tolstoy’s key protagonists, was iconic. Even when I look at the pictures of Bondarchuk’s sculpted image here, I see a slightly older Pierre more than I see Bondarchuk.
Bondarchuk liked big. The majority of his nine films were of the kind that would attract epithets such as “sweeping,” “grand” and “grandiose.” Beyond War and Peace, his other epic-sized films included Waterloo (1970), They Fought for their Homeland (1975), the two-part Red Bells about the Mexican Revolution (1982-83), Boris Godunov (1986), and Quiet Flows the Don (1994). Waterloo, following the highly successful War and Peace, was produced by the powerful Italian producer Dino De Laurentis and it starred Rod Steiger as Napoleon, Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington, and Orson Welles as Louis XVIII. You will notice that Bondarchuk had a soft spot for war and revolution…. I don’t know whether that specifically was the reason why he was so popular with the Soviet authorities or not. But he was. His list of awards on Russian Wikipedia runs 4 times as long as his list of films, and only a handful of those were from outside Russia. Bondarchuk was one of the most celebrated official artists of the second half of the Soviet period.

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It would appear that the resounding success of War and Peace is what put Bondarchuk into the elite block of apartments at Tverskaya Street 9, just a stone’s throw or two from the Kremlin. The plaque informs us that he moved into the building in 1968 and remained there until his death in 1994. In the Soviet period, of course, apartments were handed out to people by the government. You didn’t get an apartment in the neighborhood of the Kremlin for nothing.
Bondarchuk was the originator of a large dynasty that continues to affect Russian film, art and public discourse today. Among his two sons and two daughters, plus numerous in-laws and grandchildren, there number some six actors and directors, a composer and a television host. Of them all his son Fyodor, from Sergei’s third marriage, is the most successful. He made his name as a music video director and then produced several popular blockbuster-type films in the 2000s.
Careful and knowledgeable readers will notice in the photo that follows immediately that the Bondarchuk apartment house stands on the intersection of Tverskaya Street and Bryusov Lane. Bryusov Lane is also an important address for many important Russian cultural figures, including Vsevolod Meyerhold and numerous actors of the Bolshoi Theater and the Moscow Art Theater. You can actually see the elevator shaft of Meyerhold’s building in the distance in the last photo below. But I get ahead of myself…
Sergei Bondarchuk was born in what was called “the” Ukraine at the time, in the small village of Byelozyorka. Against his father’s wishes, he began taking steps to become an actor in the late 1930s. He studied acting in Rostov-on-Don from 1938 to 1941, breaking off his education to volunteer for the Red Army after Germany attacked the Soviet Union. He debuted as an actor on the stages of Taganrog, the city famed for being Anton Chekhov’s hometown. After the war, Bondarchuk graduated from the cinema institute (1948) and made his debut as an actor that same year, performing in the hugely popular film The Young Guard. Throughout his career he performed in approximately 40 films.

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Vitaly Solomin plaque, Moscow

IMG_6616.jpg2 IMG_6615.jpg2Anybody will tell you that Vitaly Solomin (1941-2002) died too young. He still had his boyish good looks and his youthful energy when he died of a stroke at the age of 60 during the intermission of a performance of a musical production of Krechinsky’s Wedding. The stroke actually occurred during the first act but, typically, Solomin continued to perform until the curtain fell. He even tried to get people not to call a doctor because he still had the second act to play. But he died before the doctor could come or the second act could begin. This happened at the affiliate stage of the Maly Theater which is located in the Zamoskvorechye, or Beyond the Moscow River, region of Moscow. I live in the courtyard of this beautiful building and, in fact, I’m looking out the window at it right now as I write these lines. Vitaly was the younger brother of Yury Solomin, long the artistic director of the Maly Theater, where Vitaly worked his entire career. If this is possible, I would say that Yury is the more famous of the two, but that Vitaly was the most loved of them. Maybe Vitaly was both. He performed in a host of extremely popular films, including his crowning role as Doctor Watson in three wildly popular Russian versions of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. In all he played in 57 films between 1963 and 2002, and was one of the most recognized faces and most respected actors in Russia.

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It so happened that my wife Oksana Mysina played Solomin’s wife in his very last film, a made-for-TV miniseries called All or Nothing, based on a novel by the Polish writer Joanna Chmielewska. Oksana often tells the story of the first time she met Solomin. Whether during a costume or makeup check, she decided to go into his dressing room to introduce herself. She walked in all smiles and cheer, excited that she was to be working with the great “Doctor Watson.” Solomin was busy at his dressing room table, but Oksana made bold to announce herself. “Hello, Vitaly Mefodievich,” I presume she said in her characteristic good-natured voice, “I’ll be playing your wife in this film.” Oksana said Solomin’s reaction was priceless. Slowly, as if he would rather have heard he was now to be led to his execution, he turned his head toward her. When his eyes finally found her, he said not a word. He just stared at her blankly until she felt uneasy enough to leave. So much for the danger of meeting your idols. Don’t get me, or Oksana, wrong. There isn’t a whiff of reproach in this little story. Solomin was a consummate professional and his work was everything. Anything that had to do with anything but his work – was not of the least interest to him. That lovable, impish Doctor Watson was work – he was created through the labor of a great artist, a great actor. Another of Oksana’s little stories that I love is the way Solomin did not trust producers. Russian producers are notorious for not paying on time or for not paying at all. Our family has had plenty of experience with that. Anyway, at the end of each filming day Solomin would wait for the producer to bring him an envelope with his pay for the day. No envelope today, no shoot tomorrow.
At the time of his death Solomin lived in a most interesting building at Nikitsky Boulevard 9, just north of the New Arbat Street at the very beginning of the famous Arbat Street. As we see in the plaque immediately below, the structure was originally built to house a host of arctic explorers.
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Lyubov Orlova plaque, Moscow

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Lyubov Orlova (1902-1975) was the Soviet cinema star.  Her name was synonymous with Soviet film comedies, musicals and whatever else comes in between. She was enigmatic, beautiful, controlled and, in her on-screen persona, kind, accessible, funny and bubbly, the veritable girl next door. She began her film career late, after having spent more than a decade as a chorus girl, a dancer, a singer and a piano player for silent movies in the cinema. She was 32 when she got her big break starring in the wildly popular Jolly Fellows, sometimes called A Jazz Comedy, because it was a comedy featuring the jazz music of Leonid Utyosov and his big band. Orlova’s second official husband was her first serious film director – Grigory Alexandrov, formerly the premier assistant of the great Sergei Eisenstein, but, afterwards, the top Russian director of film comedies. Together they made a string of hits from the ’30s through the 1940s – Jolly Fellows (1934), Circus (1936), Volga, Volga (1938), The Bright Way (1940), and Spring (1947), after which her career tapered off. Orlova made two films in the 1950s and one each in the 1960s and 1970s. For the record, Jolly Fellows was written expressly for Utyosov by screenwriters Nikolai Erdman and Vladimir Mass. It was a radical expansion of a musical theater piece called The Musical Store, which the duo wrote for the musician and actor in 1932. However, when Alexandrov took on the project of making the film, and when he was smitten by his leading lady, Orlova’s part in the film was raised to that of an equal with Utyosov’s. Indeed, they made, and still make, a marvelous pair. Jolly Fellows continues to run with frequency on Russian television in the second decade of the 21st century, as do most of the other Orlova films mentioned above.

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From 1966 until her death in 1975, Orlova lived in a prestigious new building on Tverskaya Ulitsa, just across from Pushkin Square. As can be seen in the photo immediately above, it is the building that has housed Moscow’s flagship MacDonald’s restaurant since the early 1990s. The address is Bolshaya Bronnaya 29. While living in this building, as well as for a decade or so before, Orlova officially was an actress of the Mossoviet Theater, located about a kilometer north of here, just off of Triumphal Square (about which I previously wrote a little). Orlova did not perform often in the theater, but her two shows at the Mossoviet, Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar and John Patrick’s The Curious Savage, in the 1960s and 1970s respectively, were both extremely popular with audiences. Orlova’s aura as a star never waned even as she worked significantly less. I would go so far as to say that it has not waned even now, 40 years after her death.

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