Click on photos to enlarge.
I must explain the odd, even misleading, title to today’s post. This home at 614 North Arden Drive in Beverly Hills was not Sergei Eisenstein’s home. It is, however, one of the physical locations closely connected to his Hollywood sojourn in 1930. (He traveled from New York to the West Coast in the second half of 1930 and left for Mexico in December of that same year). The house belonged to the novelist Upton Sinclair, who may or may not have said to Eisenstein at one point, ‘mi casa es su casa.’ In any case, the two at this time were just beginning their short-lived collaboration on the ill-fated Que Viva, Mexico! project – Sinclair producing, with Eisenstein directing and overseeing the writing of the script (attributed to Grigory Alexandrov). To round out the Russian team, all of whom were in L.A. together, the cinematography was the work of the great Eduard Tisse.
According to Lionel Rolfe’s Literary L.A., during the Great Depression Sinclair “was able to lease a genuine Beverly Hills mansion at 614 North Arden Drive; it was cheap, he pointed out, because there was no market then for big houses. Sinclair was doing very well financially – so much so that his old friend Charlie Chaplin got him both financially and creatively involved with the great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein spent several months and a pile of Sinclair’s money working on his Que Viva, Mexico! – later Thunder Over Mexico, which remained uncompleted.”
It was a confusing time. Sinclair was a leftist writer who dabbled in politics (running unsuccessfully for the office of governor of California in 1934). Eisenstein was an artist doing his best to stay out of the way of politics, but not doing a sufficiently good job of that.
Joseph Stalin’s name runs in and out of the thread of the story. Ronald Bergan’s book Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict, tells us that Sinclair wrote to Stalin on Oct. 26, 1931:
“You may have heard that I have taken the job of financing a moving picture which the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein is making in Mexico. It is going to be an extraordinary work, and I think will be a revelation of the moving-picture art… Some day you will see the picture which Eisenstein is making, and realise that Soviet technique has advanced another step and been crowned with fresh laurels.”
It’s easy for us to laugh now. Appealing to Stalin on the assumption that he will value artistic achievement! But Sinclair was just following what, at that time, was becoming a tradition – artists appealing to Stalin’s aesthetic taste and/or pride in Russian/Soviet artistic accomplishments. Pasternak did it. Gorky did it. Stanislavsky did it. Only the lazy, it would seem, didn’t do it. Not that it did any good. And it surely didn’t do Sinclair or Eisenstein any good. Just one month later, on Nov. 21, 1931, Sinclair received a cable from Stalin. As quoted in Bergan’s book, it read:
“EISENSTEIN LOOSE [sic] HIS COMRADES CONFIDENCE IN SOVIET UNION STOP HE IS THOUGHT TO BE DESERTER WHO BROKE OFF WITH HIS OWN COUNTRY STOP AM AFRAID THE PEOPLE HERE WOULD HAVE NO INTEREST IN HIM STOP AM VERY SORRY BUT ALL ASSERT IT IS THE FACT STOP MY REGARDS STOP STALIN.”
Eisenstein wasn’t the only one under scrutiny, however. Sinclair ran into some serious bad publicity precisely for acquiring this Beverly Hills home which was the site of much of the planning for Que Viva, Mexico! He positioned himself as the champion of the poor and downtrodden – leading the EPIC (End Poverty in California) movement – yet was snapping up choice real estate while the economy was tanking. The L.A. Times, by way of owner Harry Chandler and star attack-dog columnist Henry Carr, went after Sinclair publicly for making big profits on real estate in Long Beach and for acquiring the Beverly Hills mansion from a financially strapped owner. As reported by Kevin Starr, in Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, Sinclair and his wife Mary “picked up the forclosed Beverly Hills property for a song… and with no down payment demanded by the distressed owners.”
So there we have it – the leftist writer/producer/politician is making a killing off of real estate deals, and the Communist film director is squandering both the capitalist’s money and his Communist leader’s confidence. All of that happening in the short time that the two men were brought together, in part, by the structure you see pictured here today.
In fact, this building, to a certain extent, was witness to the failure of both men’s big projects at the time. In order to continue running for governor in 1934, Sinclair was forced politically to unload the Beverly Hills home, but it was too late. His candidacy failed. Meanwhile, Eisenstein had been compelled to return to Moscow, leaving New York by ship on April 19, 1932, and arriving in the Soviet capital in May 1932, because Stalin was already beginning to move against the director by targeting his family. (The secret police had made several visits to Eisenstein’s mother, and had confiscated the family jewels.)
To make the whole story messier, a cache of beautiful drawings by Eisenstein, many erotic and homosexual in nature, had been confiscated by U.S. customs agents when Eisenstein was on the way out of the country. Again, according to Bergan’s book, Sinclair learned of this and acquired some copies. And then this fine man who so often tried to do the right thing, committed a fateful and heinous act. He denounced Eisenstein to the Soviet authorities, writing on March 19, 1032, “It appears that Eisenstein spends all his leisure time in making very elaborate obscene drawings. I have a specimen of his work brought from Mexico. It is identified as Eisenstein’s by his handwriting on it. Believe me, it is not an anatomy study nor a work of art or anything of that sort; it is plain smut. Hunter [Kimbrough, Sinclair’s brother-in-law] tells me that Eisenstein presented a series of such drawings to the young owner of the hacienda, and they were so bad that this educated young Mexican refused to put them up in his den.”
Perhaps angered by the photos, certainly unhappy about dumping a huge amount of money into the now-defunct Que Viva, Mexico! project, Sinclair tried to minimize losses by releasing his own film Thunder Over Mexico (1933) using a small amount of Eisenstein’s footage. This all made the once-friends and collaborators into enemies forever. The house at 614 North Arden Drive stands as a monument to their brief friendship and all the bright hopes they both harbored for future success.