by Dan Stumpf


   The highlight of my recent reading has been Way of the Lancer (Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1932) by Richard Boleslavsky and Helen Woodward, an autobiographical novel of Boleslavsky’s experiences (and, I suspect, those of man others that he incorporated and told as his own) for — and against — Russia in the first World War.

   It’s an intriguing account, Boleslavsky was not a Russian but a Pole; his nation had been dominated by Russia since about 1750, and when the Great War got serious, Russia promised Freedom to Poland if her sons would fight for Russia. Austria promised roughly the same thing, so regiments of Poles fought for both sides, against enemies who were often their brothers.

   Boleslavsky describes an interesting vignette off weary, “victorious” Poles escorting even wearier defeated Austrians to POW camps and finding relatives in their midst, tiredly catching up on the news as they slog through the mud to no place in particular.

   Boleslavsky, incidentally, was a Polish soldier, but not a Lancer. He passed the war as a film-make, attached to the Lancers, doing semi-documentary propaganda films. After the War, he gravitated to Hollywood, where he directed some truly remarkable movies, like The Garden of Allah, with Dietrich and Boyer, and the cynical, moving 1936 version of Three Godfathers, and others.

   His Hollywood debut was Rasputin and the Empress (a portrait of the breakdown of Imperial Russia that must have seemed very real to him), the only film to star all three Barrymores. It’s an interesting show, but not a great one. John seems ticked off that he didn’t get to play Rasputin, and sulks through the whole movie with marked disinterest until the scene where he gets to kill Lionel, which is really quite memorable.

   Boleslavsky also directed one of the two Three Stooges movies you should make an effort to see: Fugitive Lovers (MGM, 1933), a dandy little thing about Robert Montgomery as an Escaped Con being pursued with cold precision by C. Henry Gordon, catching a bus with aspiring chorus girl Madge Evans, who is herself being pursued by dumb, possessive, aspiring gangster Nat Pendleton. Also onn board are Ted Healy and his stooges,whose time onscreen is mercifully brief.

   Boleslavsky fills the film with sudden cuts and jarring camera angles that seem avant-garde even today, and make Citizen Kane look antiquated before its time. And he maintains the pace and drama quite nicely throughout, right up to a howling blizzard that had my teeth chattering despite the fact that it was done entirely inside a studio. You should look for this one.

— Reprinted in shortened form from Shropshire Sleuth #71, May 1995.