A Russian ballerina sneaks off to Paris and there she find love and (da da DUM) peril. Alice Brady plays a double role as mother and daughter while Montagu Love provides the peril.
On her toes.
During the silent era, you weren’t a real film star unless you made at least one movie set in Russia. What with revolutions and rumblings of same, the country was an ideal setting for tales of intrigue, romance and bullwhips. Oh, and ballet. Lots and lots of ballet. Russian dancers were all over the film industry even before the revolution and filmmakers enjoyed showcasing their leading ladies in tutus.
The leading lady in this case is Alice Brady. You probably know her for her Academy Award-nominated performance as Angelica Bullock in My Man Godfrey but Brady was a longtime veteran of the stage and screen. Some online biographies state that she was “discovered” by film producers in 1914 but as the film producer in question was one William A. Brady (a.k.a. HER DAD!), I think it’s more accurate to say that she joined the family business.
Brady père was one of the bigwigs in the World Film Company and he produced a series of films for his daughter designed to showcase her dramatic abilities and dancing. In other words, Russia, here we come!
(By the way, since this seems as good a place as any to bring it up, the story that Alice Brady’s Oscar for In Old Chicago was stolen has been debunked.)
The film opens with the birth of a child. Grand Duke Alexis (Philip Hahn) and his wife Lola (Alice Brady) are the proud parents of a daughter. But then word comes that the czar has not approved their marriage and that Lola is to be sent to Siberia. Alexis bravely stands up to the monarch and… No, he actually sends his wife to Paris.
As for his daughter, he gives her the improbable, bizarre and very un-Russian name of “Vasta” and sends her to live with Marta Antonovitch (Auguste Burmeister), who owns a ballet school. I have no idea why he did not simply send her off with Lola, you know, her mom. Well, I guess if he had, we would have a very short movie.
In Hollywood (or Fort Lee) films, young Russian women had four options for employment: lusty peasant, aristocrat, tomboy anarchist or ballerina. Sometimes a combination. Fortunately, all of these young ladies turn out to be splendid ballerinas and Vasta is no exception. She’s so good that she is invited to dance in Paris by Pavloff (Montagu Love), a lecherous nogoodnik. Marta tries to stop her but Vasta is determined and off to Paris she goes.
Lola is still around and still played by Alice Brady. This is a problem because Alice Brady was twenty-four at the time. Vasta also looks twenty-four and so does Lola. We couldn’t have added some grey streaks or something? Anyway, nobody seems to notice that the hot new ballerina and the belle of Paris are identical.
Vasta also meets an American artist and falls in love with him but he has so little impact on the plot that I’m just going to ignore him, if it’s all the same to you.
Lola has been dating Pavloff and soon discovers that Vasta is her daughter. Pavloff is as oblivious to this as everyone else and continues to plot to seduce Vasta. He decides to go for the subtle approach: turning off the lights in the theater and kidnapping the star ballerina from the stage mid-dance. Lola immediately suspects that Pavloff is behind the disappearance of Vasta and sets out to rescue her daughter. DA DA DUM!
I have to admit that I found The Dancer’s Peril to be a bit disappointing compared to the other World movies I have reviewed. World was notable for its visual sophistication and bonkers plots. While the plot of this film is a bit goofy, it’s pretty much par for the course as far as Russian ballet pictures are concerned. The direction by Travers Vale is positively stodgy and it should come as no surprise that he retired from directing by the mid-1920s.
Credit where credit is due, the double exposure scenes with mother and daughter standing side by side look good. The dance sequences are reasonably elaborate and give the right flavor to the picture, though they do seem detached from the main body of the tale.
In fact, detachment is a good word to describe the picture overall. There were rumblings in the Russian interior and earlier pictures like The Cossack Whip (1915) reflected this. The Dancer’s Peril, on the other hand, ignores all notion of revolution and parties like it’s 1899, which gives the film a strained and artificial quality. It doesn’t help that the climax centers on the workings of the Russian royal court seeing as how the Russian Revolution kicked off on March 8, 1917 and this picture opened March 12.
(Granted, when the strikes and protests started, few thought they would actually bring down the monarchy but one would think that filmmakers would welcome the added spice.)
In the end, this is a film about an extremely bad husband and father—and dancing. Vasta’s dance partner in the film is played by Alexis Kosloff, a Russian ballet dancer who quite literally wrote the book on the art. I’m no expert on ballet performances but it’s pretty clear to me that he carries Brady’s dance sequences, always there with lifts and flourishes to cover over any deficiencies in her technique. In short, Kosloff does his job.
If the surname sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of Alexis’s brother, Theodore. Theodore Kosloff was a dancer, designer and all-around Russian in Cecil B. DeMille’s company. As a favor to his boss, he agreed to give lessons to his ballet-crazed tween niece. Yep, that’s right, Agnes de Mille, legendary choreographer.
Kosloff also gave Natacha Rambova her Russian name and there’s more to the story but let’s not fall into the Rudolph Valentino rabbit hole because, frankly, scary people live there and we’re here for ballet.
Alice Brady does what she can with the material but she is never particularly convincing as her own mother. Perhaps if she had been cast as Vasta’s secret sister things would have worked out better but she was in her mid-twenties and does not have the necessary emotional oomph to play an older woman.
Montagu Love is on hand with his usual villainy (he was the baddie in The Wind, Don Juan and Son of the Sheik, just to name a few) and he does well enough. Harry Benham plays the love interest and he’s just sort of there. Philip Hahn emotes a lot but that’s about it. In the end, the best part of the movie is Alexis Kosloff.
The Dancer’s Peril is a bit of a disappointment when compared to the high quality output I am accustomed to seeing from World. Alice Brady does what she can but is not supported by the story (or her makeup) and the whole thing feels like small potatoes in the end. Still, fans of ballet will find much to enjoy and should be very interested in Kosloff’s performance.
Where can I see it?
The Dancer’s Peril is available on DVD from Grapevine. As you can see, the image quality is so-so with some rather soft moments.
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