Framed for murder! Sentenced to a penal colony! Some guys can’t catch a break. This smart serial was made in France by Russian expats and the blending of the national styles produces some very fine entertainment. Pull up a bowl of popcorn, maybe some candy and get ready. It’s a long motion picture but I guarantee a rousing good time.
A huge thanks to producer David Shepard for sending an early screener.
A series of unfortunate events.
Serials don’t have the best of artistic reputations and, frankly, this is deserved. While entertaining in the extreme, they often feature corny, clichéd plots, artificial cliffhangers and less-than-polished acting. I love Flash Gordon as much as the next gal (which is a lot) but I am not pretending that Buster Crabbe was robbed at the Oscars. However, some serials were different.
Thanks to the re-release of Louis Feuillade’s anarchic capers (Les Vampires, Fantomas, Judex), European serials in general (and French serials in particular) are praised among film buffs. What makes them so good? For a start, unpredictable plots, strong performances and style to burn.
The House of Mystery was built on this tradition but it surpassed its forbearers in the esteem of contemporary French critics. While Feuillade was sniffed at as trash, even the staunchest anti-serial critics were won over by the intelligence and skill with which this Albatros production was made.
So, please don’t think of this as Dick Tracy or Captain Marvel. This serial can actually be compared to an acclaimed television miniseries. It’s all about the characters and what an intriguing set this serial has! Still, it is genre-savvy and has many of the signatures of French serials: Over-the-top villainy, strong emphasis on the family unit and ridiculously tiny revolvers. It also has chases, escapes, fights and an honest-to-goodness cliffhanger.
I mentioned Albatros. What’s that? Well, when the Russian Revolution went the way of the Bolsheviks, a good portion of the Russian film industry skedaddled for France. The French welcomed them with open arms and they immediately set up shop. Albatros was their most famous studio. Forgotten for a time by all but the most devoted film geeks and historians, the Albatros productions (and émigré films in general) are beginning to find a wider audience.
Russian émigré films promise a certain level of quality and their brand cachet is deserved. They created wildly innovative movies that were both entertaining and intelligent. And popular. These were blockbusters. It’s the combination that Hollywood has always said was impossible and yet the Russian émigrés managed it again and again.
So, when I heard about The House of Mystery, I was primed for a treat. Would it live up to the very high expectations that I had built? This is where we find out!
You had a bad week? He had a bad decade.
For obvious reasons, I am not going to do a blow-by-blow of the serials events. You will enjoy it so much more if you see it for yourself anyway.
The setup for the tale is as follows:
Julien Villandrit (Ivan Mosjoukine) is a peppy young fellow of Fairbanksian vigor. He has fallen in love with the girl next door, the practical Regine (Helene Darly). She returns his affections, her family loves him and the wedding is all set. What Julien does not know is that his best friend and business partner, Henri Corradin (Charles Vanel), is also in love with Regine. No, not in love. Obsessed with her and given to violence when he does not get his way. Regine is afraid of him but naïve Julien doesn’t see the warning signals.
Julien is a great guy but he’s a complete innocent and he really needs someone to take care of him. Regine is more than happy to claim that job, pampering her husband and always making sure that his neckties are straight, etc. Soon, little Christiane (Jane Munier) arrives and the Villandrit family is a happy trio.
Years pass but Corradin’s fixation on Regine does not diminish. At last, he seizes an opportunity to destroy Julien.
A prosperous banker named Marjory (the mononymous Bartkevich) has been a friend of Regine’s family for years. He has always been extremely fond of her and lavishes attention on her, visiting whenever he can. Lately, Julien’s fabric mill has had financial troubles but Marjory always quietly swoops in and pays off the debts. Corradin’s sees Julien’s discomfort and he begins to play Iago.
Why is Marjory so ready to part with large sums? Why is he always at Julien’s house? Why does he insist on seeing Regine alone?
Julien wants to trust Regine but the suspicion is too much for him. First, he bans Marjory from his house but the banker cannot stay away. Corradin arranges for Marjory’s letter—one that asks for a secret meeting with Regine—to be found by Julien. Overwhelmed by jealousy, Julien attacks Marjory and tries to throttle the older man.
Marjory confesses the truth: He is not Regine’s lover, he is her father. To avoid scandal, he has hidden the truth from all but Regine. Julien swears to keep the secret and rushes to get medical care for Marjory. When he returns with some workers, they discover that Marjory has been beaten to death.
Suspicion falls on Julien. Wasn’t he jealous of the man? Didn’t he owe large amounts of money? Wasn’t he the last person to see him alive? Aren’t those his fingermarks on Marjory’s throat?
Of course, the real culprit is Corradin but there is someone else who also knows the truth. Rudeberg (Nicolas Kolin) is a struggling gardener and amateur photographer. He followed Corradin that day and has photographs of him in the act of murdering Marjory.
Julien and Regine have always been kind to Rudeberg but he doesn’t plan to give the photographs to them. Instead, he approaches Corradin. Rudeberg has a step-son, Pascal (Fabien Haziza), and he wants the best for the boy. He will not release the incriminating photographs if Corradin pays for a handsome education. Corradin is enraged but he has no choice. Rudeberg has hidden the negatives cleverly.
And so, Julien is sent off to a penal colony. Corradin is free to work is wicked plans. What he doesn’t count on is Regine’s intelligence and loyalty. She intends to solve the mystery and clear her husband’s name. If this means setting a honey trap for Corradin, she will do it. Divorcing Julien is a small price to pay if she can prove that he is not a murderer and win his release. Meanwhile, Julien has his own plans and they involve stealing a train…
I could go on but that would be telling.
As you can see, The House of Mystery is not one of those action-action-action kind of serials. It’s all based on interpersonal conflict with action used to punctuate rather than overwhelm.
The story is carefully plotted (Ivan Mosjoukine and director Alexandre Volkoff co-adapted the novel by Jules Mary) and begins its methodical buildup almost immediately. Again, I do not wish to give everything away (you’ll thank me later) but let’s take a close look at one of the aspects of the tale.
To appreciate this story, it is essential to realize that Julien Villandrit is not a superhero. He’s an ordinary guy (albeit one with a gift for disguise and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound) who just wants to live a quiet life with his wife and daughter. On the other hand, Charles Vanel’s deliciously evil Corradin is a creature directly from a Victorian melodrama. This is not an insult to Vanel; he plays the part superbly. But it creates an interesting internal conflict within the story.
We have a very melodramatic character clashing with ordinary people who do not necessarily expect such mustache-twirling villainy before breakfast. The Villandrit family has trouble dealing with (and even recognizing) Corradin’s evil because they are operating under the assumption that he is a normal human being and not a transplanted Snidely Whiplash. Again, this is not a negative. Instead, it is almost a meta commentary on the state of fiction.
So, we have a schemer on steroids as the villain. What of our hero? Well, at the start of the story, he’s cheerful, energetic, a little ditzy and he can’t plan ahead to save his life. Literally.
This lack of practicality and forethought is his downfall and the film establishes this from the very first scene. Julien has decided to pop the question to Regine. He is so excited by his idea that he leaps out the window without his jacket or necktie.
The problem is that once Regine accepts him, he must formally ask her parents for her hand. But with no necktie? Impossible! Sensible Regine solves the problem by taking off the necktie from her outfit and lending it to him. There is some very cute business with Julien being embarrassed by the shortness of the tie, tucking it into his shirt and then flicking it out in triumph once he wins parental consent.
Later, during his trial for murder, Julien is awaiting his sentence. His hair is a mess and his tie is twisted. From her seat, Regine patiently uses gestures to walk him through tidying his appearance. Later in the serial, a disguised Julien sees his wife again. After the initial interpersonal issues are settled (yes, I am being intentionally vague), the first thing Regine does is remind Julien that his disguise is out of sorts and then she helps him fix it.
These scenes subtly establish the basic flaws of Julien but they also reveal Regine’s sensible character and illustrate the sweet give and take of their marriage. Julien loves to be spoiled and Regine (as well as Christiane) loves to spoil him. It is often said that characters are boring once they are married. Well, if they are like Julien and Regine, I could watch them all day long.
All these carefully planned character traits pay off in spades during the boffo final episodes. Julien finally accepts Corradin’s terms of combat and adopts his own theatrical mannerisms to bring down his foe.
Basically, as this thing goes on, it gets steadily more addictive. By about episode six, I was willing to commit murder if anyone got between me and the next installment. You have been warned.
Fans of American sound serials may be surprised at the lack of traditional cliffhangers. Early serials did not always follow the pattern of leaving one or more of the heroes in mortal peril. For example, The Perils of Pauline (1914) is structured more like an adventure television series with each episode relatively self-contained while still advancing the overall plot.
The House of Mystery takes a hybrid approach. Rather than leaving the heroes in mortal peril, each episode concludes with emotional loose ends. This is abundantly clear in a later episode that includes traditional serial elements. Without giving too much away, there is a fight in which the participants smash every stick of furniture in the room and concludes with Julien hanging for dear life on a cliff. Will help come before he falls?
A talkie serial would have ended the episode right there. The Albatros crew understood that the action scenes are not nearly as important as the people involved. We in the audience are far more interested in what Julien and his family are going to do to prove his innocence. And so the episode concludes with the aftermath of the adventure on the cliff and does not overplay its hand by milking cheap suspense.
In addition to an intelligent plot, The House of Mystery includes artistic flourishes that delight. The most famous of these is the wedding of Julien and Regine, which is played out entirely in silhouette. Whether this was due to budget concerns or simply an artistic decision, it succeeds spectacularly. The guests frolic, our couple kisses, Corradin lurks and it is all done with the delicate balance of light and shadow that would delight in the silhouette animations of Lotte Reiniger.
Behold! (Click on thumbnails to enlarge.)
Another intriguing moment occurs near the beginning. We are not shown Corradin’s murder of Marjory directly. Rather, we see it reflected in the lens of Rudeberg’s camera.
While later episodes do not show the extravagance of these early scenes, The House of Mystery boasts of gorgeous and imaginative photography throughout. I could describe but I think it’s better to show you these wonderful images.
That’s not to say that all of these risks pay off. I thought that the messianic symbolism was rather overdone in the early episodes. These elements are quickly discarded and almost everything else about the story works extremely well.
Who is this Ivan Mosjoukine fellow and why should I care?
Let’s take a moment to discuss the star and co-adapter of the serial.
If you have been hanging around silent or foreign film long enough, you are sure to hear glowing accounts of Ivan Mosjoukine. A major star in Russia before the Revolution, Mosjoukine fled to France when Yalta fell to the Bolsheviks. It was his French period that cemented his international stardom and made him the toast of Europe.
My path to discovering him took a pretty standard route. I saw clips of his performances in Kean and Casanova in the documentary Cinema Europe but none of his films had been released on home media in the United States. So, I continued on my way with the hope that I would someday see his full-length work.
At last, one his films became available. That was the good news. The bad news? It was his only Hollywood film, 1927’s Surrender. Here’s a little tip for producers: When making a love story, it’s generally best NOT to make the hero a genocidal rapist. We in the audience tend not to find him sympathetic. Just saying. Plus, he was saddled with Mary Philbin as a leading lady. Just not a good idea all around.
Surrender is the kind of movie that makes you want to scrub down your screen with bleach. Mosjoukine’s performance was stiff and weird with no charisma at all; he was clearly uncomfortable with the material (being, you know, a normal human being). I was left scratching my head and wondering if those wonderful clips of his European work had been cherry-picked. What was the big deal about this guy? And so Mosjoukine was tucked away in the back of my mind while I pursued other silent film interests.
A little time passed and I began to embrace the exciting cinema of pre-Revolution Russia. At the same time, the work of the Russo-French Albatros studio was finally being released in the United States. Once again, I was face-to-face with Ivan Mosjoukine.
When Mosjoukine gets described, it is often by people who have only seen one or two of his films. Adjectives like intense, demonic or passionate get thrown around but I don’t feel that these really get at the heart of his appeal as an actor. You see, what hardly anyone tells you when they wax eloquent about Mosjoukine is that the man was funny. Really, really funny. He was a fearless comedian with impeccable timing and a talent for the goofy and surreal.
He could play it broad: In House in Kolomna, he plays a soldier who disguises himself as a maidservant in order to make time with his sheltered girlfriend. He nearly gives himself away when he hikes up his skirt and performs calisthenics. He could play it subtle: In The Peasants’ Lot, he is almost undone with shyness when the village matchmaker sets him up with his fiancée.
These White Russia performances delighted me but the film that really won me over was one of his French productions, The Burning Crucible, a nutty mystery-comedy in which Mr. Mosjoukine… well, he does this:
This is the scene that made me fall in love.
My Mosjoukine fangirl status was cemented by the red-blooded, Jules Verne-penned Siberian adventure, Michael Strogoff. Suddenly, the goofball was back to playing a serious, intense role and doing a smashing job of it. Michael Strogoff has everything: Size, scale, scope, astonishing performances and it even passes the Bechdel Test. (Please, please, please, please, a high-quality release, please, please, please, please.)
Of course, I now had a problem. Mosjoukine films are hard to find and I had burned through my supply. I had to make sure that more of his work was released. How? I would spread the word about this unique and wonderful talent. So, I got writing. You know what? It’s working! I have received lovely notes from readers who have been converted to the Mosjoukine cause. Soon, we shall rule the world! (Insert evil laugh.)
But what made Mosjoukine so popular in his day? Why are his modern fans so obsessed? It’s all a matter of talent and temperament. Specifically, Mosjoukine could boast of range and precision but he was also a generous co-star.
Range is one of the most coveted elements in acting. Humans, as a rule, are never satisfied and actors are all too human. The comedians want to show that they can do drama. The tragedians want to prove they are funny. Light performers want to do heavy, intense performers wish to lighten up. However, many of these attempts to prove range and versatility fail. Their grasp exceeds their reach. Mosjoukine danced between comedy and drama, romance and adventure, art and crowdpleasers. He was never bound by one genre and was equally adept at a wide variety of roles.
Many an actor has stumbled in attempting to jump genres. To be honest, I think that being able to do one thing well in underrated. After all, William S. Hart and Lon Chaney built impressive careers on playing variations of the same character. That being said, it’s always impressive when you can see a chameleon do their stuff.
Precision is not talked about as much but it is far more essential. Some singers may claim a high range but then you hear them “reaching” for the notes or, as Dashiell Hammett put it, the staircase is missing a few steps. The same goes for acting. There are times when you can see the gears at work, the actor building up to the emotion they intend to project, anticipating an emotional trigger before it actually shows up. Mosjoukine does not do this. He instinctively knows the right tone to aim for and he hits it with alarming accuracy.
Any competent actor can convey that they are sad. However, human beings rarely feel one pure emotion. To be really great, an actor must be able to layer these emotions and create a complicated inner life for their characters. This is where Mosjoukine flourished. Where another actor might have sadness with, say, a touch of anger, Mosjoukine could convey sadness, sorrow, anger, humiliation, wistfulness, hope… All without a single line of dialogue.
While the end of Mosjoukine’s career can be attributed to accent/language issues, we must also consider the fact that sound added nothing to his performances. He was able to convey complicated emotions with a mere glance. With talent like that, who needs words?
Generosity? That word doesn’t come up often when talking about performers. We’re used to hearing phrases like upstage, ham or diva. Powerful actors like Lillian Gish and John Barrymore tended to ruthlessly blast their less forceful co-stars right out of the scene.
For all his skill and intensity, Mosjoukine played fair and shared the screen with his fellow actors. This ability to work well in an ensemble is undervalued but is an important key to a balanced film. (She’s known for being difficult but Pola Negri is another performer who could pull off ensemble work.)
In The House of Mystery, the quality of Mosjoukine’s acting really blossoms in the middle of the second episode. By this point, Carradin has manipulated Julien into a jealous frenzy with a planted note. Julien reads the note and believes he has seen evidence of Regine’s infidelity.
We have seen this scene played out dozens of times. The husband reads the incriminating letter, tears it to bits and stomps off. Mosjoukine doesn’t take this route. He is stunned, unable to feel. He carefully folds the note and slowly crumples it in his hand.
Then he spots a framed picture of Regine on the wall. He smashes it to the ground and stomps on it with his feet. After that, he runs to confront his imagined rival. This is a childish action, one that is true to the boyish personality that Mosjoukine has been carefully building since the very beginning. Boyishness is often portrayed as a positive quality but Mosjoukine allows us to see the dark side of immaturity.
A one-man show? Hardly!
I mentioned that Mosjoukine shared the screen well. In The House of Mystery, he was surrounded by an accomplished band of co-stars.
Without a doubt, the supporting performance that impressed me the most was Nicolas Koline as Rudeberg. One of the many Russian expats in the cast, Koline also has the single most difficult role. The misfortunes of the Villandrit family may have been caused by Corradin but our villain would never have succeeded if Rudeberg had been an honest man and turned his incriminating photographs to the authorities. Instead, he chooses to blackmail Corradin and let Julien rot.
We’ve already established that Julien is a likable hero so surely Rudeberg must come off as a terrible person, right? Not really. Koline captures the humanity of Rudeberg. He adores his step-son and knows that he can never give him the good things in life so he means to steal them.
Koline also infuses Rudeberg with impishness. He taunts Corradin with the photographs, leading him on wild goose chases and building up more and more evidence with which to blackmail him. He is the one character who sees through our villain but cannot be bullied or threatened.
Charles Vanel is without a doubt the most famous member of the cast to the mainstream classic movie fan. While he acted in films for an astonishing seven decades, Vanel’s fame outside France rests on roles in three 1950s films, supporting roles in Diabolique and To Catch a Thief and a leading role in The Wages of Fear.
In The House of Mystery, he chews through the scenery shamelessly. You’re never going to catch me complaining about ham when it’s tasty enough and Vanel’s performance is very, very juicy. He’s a villain of the “boo hiss” school and Vanel never lets us forget it. He hurts puppies, breaks walking sticks and tries to kiss women when they are unconscious. The guy is a grade-A creep.
I’d like to share one detail that I found interesting. The First World War figures into the story and most of the characters are drafted. Regine is a nurse, Pascal a cadet and Corradin is assigned to help supply the troops. The film states that all served loyally. I think it likely that in an American serial, Corradin would have been portrayed as a draft dodger or war profiteer. This little detail didn’t matter enormously to the story but I thought added to the overall richness.
I’ve already touched on Helene Darly’s likable turn as Regine. Once Julien is incarcerated, she works tirelessly to find the evidence that will free him. She and Christiane build a kind of shrine to their absent Julien. A portrait is locked away in a private room and only viewed by mother and daughter. In spite of this, Regine is not about moping and sighing. Instead, she tries to use Corradin’s infatuation to trip him up and expose him as the real murderer.
As she grows up, Christiane proves that she is her father’s daughter. She matches him in rambunctiousness and a certain lack of common sense. Three actresses share the role and each one is equally good. Often when multiple performers portray a character growing up, one will outshine the others and will leave the audience vaguely disappointed. This is not the case.
The youngest Christiane is played by little Jane Munier, who is just as cute as can be. The heavier lifting of tween Christiane is handled by Simone Genevois. She establishes Christiane as a precocious girl who is fiercely protective of her father. Finally, Francine Mussey plays Christiane as a teenager, full of energy and given to athletic feats.
It’s a testament to both the actresses and to director Alexandre Volkoff that they manage to keep the character of Christiane consistant but also show her growing maturity. This is a challenge to pull off and the success of the endeavor greatly adds to the serial.
The House of Mystery is an excellent example of how a crowd-pleaser can also have brains and heart. It’s a charming serial, filled to the brim with humor, suspense, love and adventure. It’s light enough to be entertaining but deep enough to be satisfying. Do check it out when you get the chance.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
The House of Mystery was released on DVD by Flicker Alley. As you can see from the screen caps, the print is lovely and the entire serial is accompanied by an excellent, rousing piano score from Neil Brand. I consider it to be one of the most important silent film releases of the year and give it a hearty recommendation.
Disclosure: I was provided with a preview screener of The House of Mystery for the purpose of review. As per usual, all opinions are my own and this film was sent into my greedy little paws with no positive review required.