L’Enfant du carnaval (1921) A Silent Film Review

Ivan Mosjoukine wrote, directed and starred in this dramedy about a wealthy playboy whose life is turned upside-down when he discovers a baby boy on his doorstep. We all know where this is going but getting there is all the fun.

Two Men and a Baby

The Russian Revolution was a dark, dangerous time and a good number of the top stars, directors, writers and other movie personnel decided that they would rather wait the conflict out in the relative safety of Paris. The émigrés soon became beloved celebrities, their patented blend of art and crowd-pleasing won them fame and fortune across Europe. (American audiences remained more or less apathetic.) The biggest émigré star was Ivan Mosjoukine, an actor of impressive range and versatility.

Mosjoukine in "The Burning Crucible"
Mosjoukine in “The Burning Crucible”

The multi-talented Mosjoukine tried his hand at directing and some of you may be familiar with his delightfully insane mystery, The Burning Crucible. L’Enfant du carnaval (The Child of the Carnival) is not nearly as well-known (a documentary about Mosjoukine borrowed the title and the star himself remade the picture in the sound era) and has mainly been available in fragments and at film festival screenings. Thanks to collector Christopher Bird, we are going to be seeing it in English for the first time.

A cause for celebration!
A cause for celebration!

As usual, this was a group effort and I want to take a moment to thank everyone for their kind assistance. Mr. Bird provided the 9.5mm print and did the post-production work (including recreating the title cards), as well as contributing his research; Lynne Wake translated the titles and selected and edited the score; Dino Everett of the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive transferred the film and also provided a second 9.5mm print, which was used to provide footage where needed; Kevin Brownlow provided background material on the film (reviews, stills, etc.); Anthony Bird translated an original French review into English; Lenny Borger answered research questions and provided reconstructed credits.

And a hearty cheer to one and all! Now let’s enjoy the film.

Laurel and Hardy contemplate "Their First Mistake"
Laurel and Hardy contemplate “Their First Mistake”

Here’s a plot device that filmmakers have never tired of using: a decidedly non-parental person is suddenly forced to care for an infant. From Charlie Chaplin’s tramp (The Kid) to Stan and Ollie (Their First Mistake) to Porky Pig (Brother Brat) to a trio of bachelors (Trois hommes et un couffin and its American remake, Three Men and a Baby) to an ambitious businesswoman (Baby Boom), the joke never seems to run out of variations. The appeal is obvious: we get to guffaw at the new parent’s awkwardness and unorthodox problem solving while still finding them likable for trying at all.

Power suits meet Pampers
Power suits meet Pampers

In the case of Enfant, the story is classic take on the device. Marquis Serge de Granier (Mosjoukine) is a party boy who is more often drunk than sober. Philippe (Bartkevitch, last seen being murdered in The House of Mystery) is his long-suffering valet. On the day of a carnival, Philippe meets Yvonne (Nathalie Lissenko), a young widow who is starving so that her baby can eat.

The valet and the mother.
The valet and the mother.

He is touched by her plight and slips some money into her basket. Yvonne sees Philippe enter the gate of a grand manor, mistakes him for the master of the house and makes a decision. Her son will be much better off in the care of a wealthy and generous man, so she leaves him in a basket on the doorstep.

He would remember if he had a baby.
He would remember if he had a baby.

Serge returns home as tight as a tick and discovers the baby. He jokes that the child must be drunk on milk and ended up at the wrong house but underneath his tipsy demeanor, Serge is just as soft as Philippe. He takes the baby inside and Philippe, who does not recognize the baby from earlier in the day, quips that the little “present” has been returned to its rightful owner. Nudge nudge.

A note in the baby’s swaddling reveals that he is named Paul and that his mother is surrendering him because she is too poor. Touched and flattered, Serge decides to embark on fatherhood.

Sassy Philippe.
Sassy Philippe.

Of course, a nurse is required for such an enterprise. Serge advertises and Yvonne answers because this is a movie. Philippe realizes who she is but promises to keep her identity a secret. Yvonne is soon employed as a nurse for her own child. Will Serge ever discover the truth?

And will he survive the ordeal?
And will he survive the ordeal?

Since this is an abbreviated print, it is impossible to say for certain but it does seem that some of the mad flourishes that adorned The Burning Crucible are not present in L’Enfant du carnaval. (Though there is a very nice bit of business with a roulette wheel.) Instead, Mosjoukine focuses on the emotional rollercoaster that the characters are riding.

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Serge is a particularly charming hero for the tale, a sort of Russo-French Bertie Wooster who crawls in at all hours wearing things like garters on his head. He figures he can treat little Paul like a miniature drinking buddy and everything will work out fine.

Serge and Philippe try their hand at childcare.
Serge and Philippe try their hand at childcare.

The scenes in which Serge decides that he needs to hire a nurse are particularly amusing. He tries to foist the day-to-day care of Paul onto Philippe but the wily valet is having none of it. He explains that caring for a baby is beneath the dignity of his station. Serge attempts childcare on his own, braving baths baby powder and sleeplessness but meets his Waterloo when the freshly bathed and powdered Paul… um, well… What can I say? Babies will be babies.

Poor Serge...
Poor Serge…

The small supporting cast is also excellent. Bartkevitch has fun with has fun with his role as the kindly but slightly sarcastic Philippe. As usual, Lissenko provides an emotional anchor for Mosjoukine’s wacky antics and ends up acting as a mother for both the baby and his adoptive father. While Mosjoukine has the flashier role, Lissenko adds some much-needed stability to the picture. The scene between Philippe and Yvonne when she recognizes her own baby is lovely and the two actors play their parts with great restraint, conveying their emotions without resorting to histrionics.

A shared secret.
A shared secret.

Quick side note on Lissenko and Mosjoukine: while everyone agrees they were an item, there is disagreement as to whether or not they were actually married. Some of their friends say they were, others say they weren’t. Since the waters are so muddied and the point is so minor (no one denies they were a couple, it’s all a matter of filing the paperwork), I am going to simply give the whole thing a shrug and move on.

mosjoukine-lissenko

Let’s discuss another bit of background: Was Mosjoukine influenced by Chaplin’s The Kid? Well, the timing fits and Mosjoukine was a fan of Chaplin’s work so I think we can surmise that it was at least a consideration. However, Mosjoukine puts his own spin on the tale and it does not feel derivative, just another chapter in the long history of movie inspiration ping-ponging back and forth around the international film community. (My favorite example of this is The Glass Key to Yojimbo to A Fistful of Dollars and so forth.)

Don't try this at home!
Don’t try this at home!

Speaking of movies and culture, we must discuss editing for home release and the ending of this picture. (Spoilers, obviously.) The cutdown version released on 9.5mm omits the final twist of the film and simply ends with Yvonne and Serge holding an engagement party and giving Paul a full glass of champagne. The theatrical cut had one final trick up its sleeve: The kid’s father is still alive and he shows up to claim his wife and child. Serge is left alone.

No happy ending?
No happy ending?

Oh dear. In the first place, did no one check? I mean, did they just toss the husband on a cart like a Monty Python sketch? (“I’m not dead!” “Yes, you are!”) What the heck? Plus, the whole thing reeks of tragedy for tragedy’s sake. I could see it working better if the man in question disappeared at sea or something else ambiguous but even then, it would seem premature to start marrying again without a body.

We want love!
We want love!

Lest you think this is a case of an American not understanding European downer endings, at least one French critic of the time panned the film’s finale. Here is a snippet from a review found in the July 29, 1921 issue of Cinemagazine, which makes a direct appeal to the film’s producer, Joseph Ermolieff:

But I’ll just allow myself one very little reservation: right up to the end, this ‘dramatic comedy’ is part happy, part sentimental. But, in stretching out the length it tries to be tragic, and only succeeds in being melodramatic, in the worst sense of the word. Now, the public, which could have formed a favorable impression, will inevitably find ridiculous a film which, 100 meters (approximately 5 minutes) earlier, it would have found charming

Ermolieff, don’t hesitate, chop off the ending. You’ll lose some of the length, which is painful, but it the public will thank you for it – and that’s something, you know.

In light of this, dear readers, I am going to go out on a limb and say that whoever cut the 9.5mm version made the correct choice in slicing off the last few minutes. The film is much better without them so if you don’t mind, I prefer to think of this film as ending with a little kid guzzling champagne at his mother’s engagement party.

This is what we came for!
This is what we came for!

I do wonder if Mosjoukine’s decision to tack on a Slavic-tinged tragedy was an overreaction to the film that he made just before Enfant. L’angoissante aventure (A Narrow Escape) was directed by Yakov Protazanov, who would famously ditch Paris for a return ticket to Russia, and starred Mosjoukine as a well-heeled young man whose missteps drive him to poverty. When he attempts to rob his family’s home, he ends up murdering his own father. But then it turns out that it was all a dream.

Early attempts to market Russian films in the United States.
Early attempts to market Russian films in the United States. (click to enlarge)

Making Aventure had been a madcap affair with portions of the picture filmed in Yalta, Istanbul and Paris due to the creative team retreated from Crimea mid-production as Baron Wrangel’s forces fell to the Bolsheviks. The picture was released at a time when the emigres were establishing their brand in France and it is not outside the realm of possibility that they opted for a more crowd-pleasing conclusion in order to hedge their bets.

Downer endings used as a marketing strategy in America. It didn't work.
Downer endings used as a marketing strategy in America. It didn’t work. (click to enlarge)

Ermolieff, the producer of both Enfant and Aventure, was using his personal capital and that of fellow Russian exiles to get the émigré productions off the ground. (He was also clever enough to bring along negatives of the émigrés’ Russian productions. These films were retitled in French and used as a source of funds and a way to introduce Russian stars to the world.)

One of many spelling changes Иван Мозжухин would make in his international career.
One of many spelling changes Иван Мозжухин would make in his international career.

The first pictures of a new production company are always do-or-die affairs. Minimizing risk would be a primary concern, especially considering that returning to Russia was simply not an option for the majority of the cast and crew and they couldn’t live off those old negatives forever. (For comparison, Mary Pickford’s very first film for her fledgling United Artists studio was Pollyanna, as safe a bet as could be for Producer Pickford but a bit of a drag for Actor Pickford to play.)

Yay! Gloom!
Yay! Gloom!

By the time L’Enfant du carnaval was released, the Ermolieff crew clearly felt comfortable enough in their new surroundings to attempt to inject a bit of gloom. Deprived of their patricide in L’angoissante aventure, Mosjoukine and company took away the happy ending of Enfant. Of course, the problem is that it is tragedy for the sake of tragedy and feels artificial rather than organic. (I have no letters, articles or other evidence to back up my theory but I think it is a reasonable enough assumption.)

I'm sorry, we're fresh out of happy endings.
I’m sorry, we’re fresh out of happy endings.

While I would love to see the full version of Enfant, I think that the condensed 9.5mm version stands on its own as a charming romantic comedy in miniature. Mosjoukine charms the socks off the audience, the story is tight and the jokes land beautifully. It’s a deeply satisfying slice of film and makes one wish that Mosjoukine had not given up directing entirely. An ideal pick-me-up, I recommend it without reservation.

Where can I see it?

Mr. Bird has kindly uploaded the 9.5mm abridgement to YouTube, where it can be viewed legally and for free. Does it get any better?

8 Replies to “L’Enfant du carnaval (1921) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Delightful. Thank you for bringing this to your subscribers’ attention. Thanks also for the generosity of those who compiled, edited, polished and made this film available. Kudos and graditude.
    Molly

  2. I agree completely with Ms McDougall. A lovely film, and what a delight to find it free on YouTube. Thanks to all concerned. Great performances by the three lead adult actors, and by the child who played Paul aged 4.

  3. Downright adorable! This is the first movie I’ve seen with your beloved Vanya, and it’s a good introduction. Many thanks to all involved.

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