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Hollywood's Russian Roots
By  | Published  08/24/2005 | Features | Rating:
Hollywood's Russian Roots

Who now has not heard of the major Hollywood company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer? Who wouldn't recognize its logo, the roaring lion, that precedes many of our favorite movies?..

It is far from widely known, however, that the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corporation Ė just as the Hollywood itself Ė was started by two immigrants from Czarist Russia, Shmuel Gelbfisch and Lazar Yakovlevich Mayer.

Samuel Goldwyn, whose original name was Shmuel Gelbfisch, was born in Warsaw, which at that time was a part of the Russian Empire. His date of birth is not known for sure; Encyclopedia Britannica states that Gelbfisch was born in June 1879. His parents were named Abram and Anna. Shmuel's father died when his son was still very young, and the orphan was taken to Manchester, England, by his relatives. In 1895, Shmuel decided to leave England for the United States, a country where, as the young man believed, every possible opportunity existed. Shmuel had no connections in the United States - no friends, no relatives.  He hardly spoke English. On American soil, Shmuel took on a new name Samuel Goldwyn. After working for several years at a glove factory, Samuel started his private business of glove-making. When, in 1912, lowered taxes on importing gloves to the United States rendered his enterprise no longer profitable, the 23-year-old immigrant set out to try himself in the field of cinematography. Samuel convinced his father-in-law Jesse Laski, who was already experienced in show-business, to join resources and to use his contacts for attracting movie stars of the day to the two's first project, the film The Squaw Man. Although Samuel initially wanted to shoot the film in Arizona, the production team had to be relocated southward, to California, because of rain. There, in a small village by the name of Hollywood, the new-to-the-job directors rented a barn for $ 75 a month. In spite of all the troubles that seemed to follow the filmmakers - one camera operator left them along with his equipment - The Squaw Man was an absolute hit; it garnered $ 244 thousand. After the motion-picture's success, the movie headquarters of the United States relocated from the East to the West - more precisely to Hollywood.

Samuel Goldwyn's partner in his film business was Louis Mayer [AKA Lazar Y. Mayer], who came to the United State from Minsk with his family as a child. Mayer had been engaged in the show business since 1907. At first, he operated several movie theaters. Later, he started to work exclusively as a distributor. In 1915, Mayer - as it is said - struck it rich when he acquired the sole right to distributing David Griffit's hit production, The Birth of a Nation. Mayer made $ 250 thousand. By 1917, Mayer opened his own cinema studio and started to direct films himself. He worked very closely  with the former wife of Charlie Chaplin, Milder Harris Chaplin. At the time of Mayer's merger with Samuel Goldwyn's corporation in 1924, he was already well-established in America's film industry.

Many more Russians stood at the beginnings of America's moviemaking. In the 1920, when the Russian Empire was replaced by the Soviet state, the United States was shaken by the first wave of Russian immigration. Never before has the U.S. experienced so large an influx of former elite class members. Feeling humiliated by their low social status in the new country, former Russian aristocrats, army officers, and writers resurrected the glorious victories and the tragic losses of their past lives by participating in motion pictures.

When he first came to the United States, Cossack General Vyuacheslav Savitskiy had to earn his living as a waiter in a Russian restaurant. He later organized and headed a Cossack performing group. Savitskiy played the role of a Russian General in the film The Last Command in 1928.

White Army officer Aleksandr Voloshin worked as a taxi driver in Los Angeles. Hoping to end the misery of his lowly life in America, Officer Voloshin in mid 1920ís tried to get into the film industry. He acted in a number of movies, including His Private Life, Case of Lena Smith, The World and the Flesh, Bride Comes Home, Champagne Waltz, Daughter of Shanghai, Spawn of the North, You Canít Take It with You, and Destry Rides Again. Voloshinís career in the movie business, launched as early as 1928, lasted until 1940. Voloshin was one of the most sought-for Russian actors in Hollywood. When he died in 1960, he was buried in the Paramount Studio cemetery, a resting place for many other deceased film celebrities.

General Nikolai Bogomolets, in 1926, played the role of a Russian officer in a movie Into Her Kingdom, which dealt with the life of Countess Tatiana, daughter of Czar Nicholas II.          

Hollywood in the late 1920ís and 1930ís had so many Russians that a workersí union of Russian actors was formed there in 1936.               

The interest of Americaís cinematography towards Russia grew stronger because of the dramatic appeal that contemporary events in Russia had. The U.S. film industry turned out many movies about revolutionary class-conflicts, the backdrop for which was always the charming magnificence of the Russian Empire. The ongoing events of Soviet Russia were also adapted to movie theater screens. Russian literature classics were similarly made into films. The quintessential Hollywood image of Russia combined aristocratic luxury with barbaric savagery. In Fred Nibloís 1930 film Redemption, in addition to other inaccurate depictions of Russia, the city of Samarqand was shown as a gypsy resort. In Cecil DeMilleís movie The Volga Boatman produced in 1926, Russian revolutionaries were portrayed as Tatars, gypsies, and boat-drivers. 

By late 1940ís the Russian theme in American cinematography was no longer in fashion. Relationships between the Untied States and the USSR became cold. Russian actors and directors effectively lost direct influence in Hollywood for several decades. Even with that, almost half of the last names of Hollywood celebrities are Russian in origin.

It would be interesting to note that of todayís movie stars, a large number have Russian family ties. While Harrison Fordís father was from Ireland, his mother was a Russian Jew. [Now wonder that he was able to play the captain of the Soviet nuclear submarine so well.]

Leonardo DiCaprio, as it turns out, is also of Russian descent. To a recent film festival in Los Angeles, DiCaprio brought his grandmother Elisaveta Smirnova.

Stephen Spielbergís two grandfathers are both from Ukraine. Spielbergís mother speaks Russian rather well.

Even Natalie Portman is not that removed from being considered of Russian origin. Although she was born in Jerusalem, her parents moved there from Kishinev. When Natalie was three, her family moved to the United States.         

Milla Jovovichís story is similar. She was born in Kiev. Her mother Galina Loginova was an actress. Her father Bagdanovich Jovovich was a pediatrician from Yugoslavia. Milla spent five years of her life in the Soviet Union until moving to Sacramento in 1980.

A young Hollywood actress, Larisa Oleynik, also has Russian roots. She was born in 1981 in California to Roman Oleynik, a computer programmer who emigrated from Russia. Her role in The Secret World of Alex Mack earned her a junior Emmy award. Oleynik also starred in the The Babysitterís Club and in The Ten Things I Hate about You.  

Even with this great number of Russians and their descendants in Hollywood, during the 1970ís and 1980ís, a rather curious situation developed. Russian roles in films were given to Croats, Poles, and Arabs. In all anti-soviet action films, Russian was spoken with bad mispronunciations. Even to this day, many in the U.S. consider the Egypt-born Omar Sharif to be the best Russian actor. This general trend of several past decades is discomforting especially because many actually-Russian actors, such as M. Barushnikov, O. Vidov, N. Andreichenko, S. Kramarov, and B. Sichkin, lived in Hollywood at that time.

The situation has begun to change only recently. In late 1990ís, Russian actors found new opportunities to work in Hollywood and in Russia at the same time.

Russian actor Levani Uchaneshvilli has been living in the United States, while simultaneously working for both, the Russian and the American movie industry. In the U.S., he played in the Independence Day, in Air Force One, in The Blade, and in The Virus. In Russia, Uchaneshvilli took on roles in The Oligrach and in The Amphibian Man.

Another Russian actor, Boris Krut-onog, who played in about two dozen American and Russian films, was just recently featured in The Italian Job.

Oleg Taktarov similarly starred in a number of movies in the U.S. and Russia, including Letís Make it Quick [Russia], Call Me Jinn [Russia], The Red Serpant, and Rollerball.

Vladimir Mashkov has also been spending some time in the United States the past few years also. He had roles in An American Rhapsody and in The Blue Lagoon.

Aleksandr Baluev, one of the few Russian actors that got to play in major Hollywood productions, starred in The Peacemaker, in The Abyss, and in The Proof of Life. In spite of his accomplishments, Baluev did not want to stay in the U.S. permanently and later moved back to Russia.

Many Russian actors that try out in Hollywood often are faced with the language barrier. It is precisely because of their accent that Russians seldom get major roles in films. Russians are usually assigned secondary functions Ė they play foreigners, mafia members, and strangers. The Real Russians society in Hollywood that was created by Oleg Vidov is now fighting this margi-nalization.

It will be worthwhile mentioning for the end that only recently four Russian films were released to Americaís big screens: Sokurovís Russian Ark, Konchalovskyís House of Fools, Luginís The Oligarch, and Rogozhkinís The Coo-coo Bird. The trend of welcoming Russiaís contribution to film is slowly returning to the United States.        

     

 



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