Posted by Moira Finnie on September 30, 2009
Maria Ouspenskaya, whose talent came out of that creative seedbed for some of the finest actors and boldest hams, stands out among them, despite being under five feet tall. Many of her colleagues lent their credibility and indelible gifts to Hollywood, but she may be the most readily identifiable of the bunch. While hightailing it away from the Cossacks, the Whites, the Reds, the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks, the anarchists and the fascists who made life a bit too “interesting” in the first half of the 20th century from Siberia to the shores of Ellis Island, several of these actors found a pretty fair living in Hollywood, among them Akim Tamiroff, Olga Baclanova, Vladimir Sokoloff, Leonid Kinskey and Konstantin Shayne. They may never have felt completely at home in what sometimes seemed the Babylonian splendor of “barbaric” American culture in the studio era. Cut off from their cultural roots and often having lost their families and nearly their lives during the revolutionary times they lived in, these actors often proved their strength of character and professional versatility when asked to play characters of almost every class and ethnicity in American movies.
A generation of MAT (Moscow Art Theatre) educated actors eventually arrived on American shores in the years after World War One, several of whom were trained directly by Konstantin Stanislavski , the innovative actor and developer of a naturalistic form of acting rooted in human psychology and personal reflection. By the late ’20s, some who chose to stay in America, had already begun to have an enormous effect on American acting.
The traveling repertory company of Moscow Art Theatre actors had set the lively commercial theater on its ear when their ensemble productions of The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters, The Lower Depths and The Brothers Karamazov began a highly successful run in New York on January 8, 1923. Eventually playing in other large cities as well, the productions were greeted by critics and audiences searching for superlatives to describe the ineffable ]experience of these beautifully crafted dramas. They were described as having “had an incomparable finish and beauty…[with a] limitless life to it. Characters, regardless of importance, had individual ‘business’ to do.” While some of the troupe eventually moved on and others returned to Europe to work, one of the actors who decided to stay in New York was an unforgettable woman who was neither beautiful nor graceful, but who was always riveting when on screen. The title of this series is drawn from a cheerfully hyperbolic claim found in a trailer for the MGM Greta Garbo-Charles Boyer potboiler called Conquest (1938) which she happened to grace with a serio-comic performance as a not so doddering grande dame.
Maria Ouspenskaya (1876-1949): “I watched her eyes.”
Born into a Russian professional family in 1876 , the diminutive Ouspenskaya was trained as an opera singer in Warsaw and, after a long apprenticeship on the Russian stage, she joined the Moscow Art Theatre in 1911. There she became a devotee of director and actor Stanislavski, eventually playing over a hundred roles for MAT, often in grandmotherly roles while still relatively young. She was particularly noted for her work as Marina, the wise and patiently loyal servant in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, whose presence represented perseverance and selfless service.
During the upheavals leading up to the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed, Ouspenskaya later described this period of her life as “a hard, bitter struggle. We lived through revolutions, famines, typhoid plagues. During one period I never saw my bed for twenty-two days, while I nursed friends and family. I saw horses trample civilians to death. Trucks piled high with the corpses of innocent children. Hoodlums attacking women on the streets.” In another interview, the actress described a time when she was nursing her deathly ill sister. When news of the end of the Romanoff dynasty came, she hid this from her sibling, fearing the deleterious effect it may have had on her precarious health. Playacting in real life, she explained, may have been her most challenging role.
Accompanying the other MAT players to New York in the early twenties, Ouspenskaya’s exalted expectations for the technically advanced America of her dreams made her expect to be hailing airplanes like taxicabs. As she wrote in an autobiographical piece, just after “spying the magnificent Statue of Liberty” through a “curtain of snow” from the deck of a boat in New York harbor, Maria eagerly hunted for planes above Manhattan’s streets, though she assumed that the winter weather kept the airplanes from soaring around delivering passengers to their apartments and office towers. Soon realizing her folly, (though she claimed to have nurtured this dream of air transport for about five years after arriving in America), the artist in her yearns to be worthy of such an extraordinary experience as she has imagined, “torturing myself with the thought: what heroic feat could I perform so that I could receive as a reward a machine like that?”
“It’s the same on the stage: I always am dreaming of creating a special image, an image of heroism for all the world to see, but so far I have only created characters of ordinary, even laughable and not at all heroic people.”
Fascinated by her new country and understandably not eager to return to the privations in the Soviet Union, she was among those who chose to stay in America. With exceptional confidence in her own abilities, the actress studied English at Columbia University, where she became known as quite expert in phonetics and dialects. Ouspenskaya made her English speaking debut at the age of 49 on stage in a Provincetown Players production of a Stark Young drama, The Saint in1924 in a small Greenwich Village theater playing a character called “Paris Pigeons”. In a theatrical volume from the period, I have seen a photograph of the actress in this part which is quite striking. Having only known her work later in life from the movies, her rather youthful appearance, in the startling character makeup of a woman who is half-clown, half-seductress, and her flashy costume would indicate that she may be creating a character out of a ruritanian fantasy, making her look like a cross between Lotte Lenya in The Threepenny Opera and Marlene Dietrich in Golden Earrings.
Finding the theatrical community responsive to her work, she soon teamed with fellow MAT veteran director (and former actor) Richard Boleslavski. After a group of wealthy Americans persuaded Boleslavski to try to translate the extraordinary acting techniques of Stanislavski into the American theatrical idiom, the American Laboratory Theatre was established. There in a good cop-bad cop tandem act, the warmth of the supportive Boleslavski nurtured acting students and the disciplined manner of Ouspenskaya gave students a challenging course of study that was supplemented by several other distinguished teachers of dance, movement and voice as well.. Aside from a desire to contribute to theatrical realism, Harold Clurman, a driving force behind the Group Theater (and the director of Deadline at Dawn, a seminal 1946 film noir), believed that Ouspenskaya‘s professional partnership with the Polish born Boleslavski was motivated by the never married actress’ love for him as well as her respect for his abilities as an actor, teacher and director.
Initially attracting about twenty students, including the influential actress and teacher, Stella Adler, the rigorous training was, in contrast to the clichéd image of the Method actors, was said to be “far from being a lab in which an actor examines his feelings”. The three year course emphasized the development of a sense of creative cohesion among the group and “taught the actor to work on his voice, his body and his intellect”…”in the belief that the actor must know how to speak, to move, and to think in addition to being able to transmit emotions.” Ouspenskaya‘s demanding techniques included the reported creation of “animal images” as an improvisational exercise as a way of having students study animals in a zoo or on a farm, and asking them to absorb their physical characteristics, gait, sounds and body rhythms as well as freeing them from their normal, socialized inhibitions.
According to Adler, Ouspenskaya‘s course in The Technique of Acting was justly famous. “Her English was limited, so she couldn’t help you there. When I was playing Ophelia”, Ms. Adler remembered, “I went to her house and acted for her for hours. I knew if I did it for her I couldn’t go off track. I watched her eyes. She knew the truth–in a Russian sense.” Adler‘s view of the actress’ ability as a teacher grew out of her refusal to “bring in any self or personality. She had relinquished all that at the Moscow Art Theatre.” Perhaps not entirely ego-free, Ouspenskaya had a less warm rapport with some of her other students. The actress went on to establish her own school of acting (named after herself) in 1929, hoping to transmit her understanding of the increasingly divergent strains of Stanislavski’s methods to more future actors, but the worldwide economic downturn that began in that year clouded her chances of success in this field.
Others were less enchanted by her ability to communicate acting techniques, finding her aloof and autocratic. Academy Award winner Beatrice Straight felt that “She was not a very good teacher, though she was a wonderful character.” Ouspenskaya‘s often caustic criticism of her students was said to sometimes sting, and reportedly even led some to feel paralyzed in her domineering presence. Still others suggested that the acting teacher’s communication skills may have been further hampered by her habit of drinking discreetly throughout the day, which did little for her command of English. For film and theater scholar Foster Hirsch, who acknowledged that being able to act and being a teacher were separate vocations, Ouspenskaya seemed “an uneven actress”, who was “archly theatrical, ‘Russian’ in a sentimental, what the market wants manner.” These comments may all be true, but in a medium that generally enshrines youth and beauty, movie audiences worldwide continue to respond to her “Buddha-like chameleon qualities”, her tiny size, enormous presence, and startling face, with her sparkling and observant gaze, large, downturned mouth, and somewhat wizened but almost childlike appearance, commanding respect and fascination.
Sentimental? Perhaps this was the impression when she played the slightly scary but sweet grandmother of Charles Boyer in Love Affair (1939-Leo McCarey), the warmhearted, miniature matriarch to a gangly James Stewart in The Mortal Storm (1940-Frank Borzage) or the ancient but still rather flirtatious maharanee to Tyrone Power’s heir apparent in The Rains Came (1939-Clarence Brown). Softhearted was hardly the term that Vivien Leigh and Virginia Field would apply to the tiny terror’s imperious pedagogic style when she played Madame Olga Kirowa, dance mistress of the corps de ballet in Waterloo Bridge (1940-Mervyn LeRoy). Demanding as a field officer on the front lines or a nun putting the fear of God into a passel of restless third graders gathered for a procession, Madame’s backstage grilling of her dancing charges after a less than perfect performance seems to be expected, though her withering glances and pointed remarks about “troop movements” in a scene in which she dictates a rejection note to be sent to Robert Taylor’s ardent captain makes a dance career seem no less daunting than being a Vestal Virgin in ancient Rome. And what of the sarcastic undercurrents implicit in Ouspenskaya‘s assertion that one dancer’s arabesques “were positively epileptic… Really, I was concerned for you.” Of course, this artistically minded stereotype was somewhat softened by her other less astringent dance instructor role of 1940 in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940-Dorothy Arzner). When she played the doyenne of a threadbare dance troupe whose members included an earthy realist, played with cynical joy by a zippy Lucille Ball and a dreamy idealist and slightly prim Maureen O’Hara, the character actress left the impression of a concerned woman struggling to pass on her love of Terpsichore to her students. In that one, Ouspenskaya’s ballet group may be artists, (well, perhaps they are best described as having artistic ambitions), but the realities of the Depression have led them to court the philistine favor of the coarsely amusing Harold Huber with a demonstration of a hula dance. Huber, a theatrical booker looking for sex appeal more than a dying swan, is treated as a potential godsend by a compliant, bizarrely eager to please Ouspenskaya, who very nearly smiles while encouraging her troupe to keep swaying in the scene. As she points out to her dancers, “You do not learn oomph. You are born with it.” Another, less well known, but intriguing character played by Ouspenskaya was calculated to crank up the audience’s tear ducts in a nearly forgotten Christmas bit of fantasy, Beyond Tomorrow (1940-A. Edward Sutherland).
In this story, the actress played a slightly mysterious (the critically minded might say “undeveloped character”), housekeeper for three eccentric wealthy men who just happen to live together, played by gifted scene-stealers, C. Aubrey Smith, Harry Carey, Sr., and Charles Winninger. Madame Ouspenskaya‘s regal manners and quiet air of unspoken history is eventually explained when she is revealed as a White Russian émigré, bringing a touch of old world class and some warm humanity to the fantastic and more treacly moments in the screenplay . In a film that casts a spell despite a viewer’s resistance, her luminous portrayal of the exiled Russian countess conveys a wealth of golden memories behind the cryptic smile, gentle words and her eloquent expressions in this film. To me, this small gem of a role is her most successful touching part. Perhaps Ouspenskaya was able to bring more of her own experiences to this portrayal.
The “cuddly old girl” parts may not have been among her best known nor her most nuanced film appearances, but the commitment to her more complex featured appearances can be appreciated for the formidable impression they left on audiences. Soon, when a script called for a gentle or formidably frosty older European women, Maria O. was on the casting director’s short list. Even when she played an enigmatic, nearly silent figure as she did in the bizarrely fascinating The Shanghai Gesture (1941-Josef von Sternberg), Ouspenskaya came to be a familiar figure in American movies at the height of the studio era.
Her first appearance before the cameras in the studio era, not these subsequent variations on that theme, set the tone for her portrayals of great ladies of a certain age and degree of hauteur. In Dodsworth (1936-William Wyler), her first Hollywood movie (she had appeared in some Russian silents), the actress was listed as Mme. Maria Ouspenskaya in deference to her exalted reputation. The Sinclair Lewis story following the disintegration of a quarter century old marriage between a decent man and his foolish wife after they go to Europe for a vacation, which contains some of the best acting in American movies, offered Ouspenskaya an opportunity to shine in a very small part. Not surprisingly, it earned her the first of her two Academy Award nominations for supporting roles, (the other was for her endearing grandmama in Love Affair).
Dominating the scene from her entrance, Ouspenskaya is superbly imperious in her small role as black shrouded Baroness Von Obersdorf, who is meeting the older fiancee (Ruth Chatterton in a well played if difficult role) of her wimpy, blue-blooded son (George Gaye). Described in the script as “a small, impoverished, but notably distinguished old lady from Vienna”, this role set the template for a series of distinctively cultured wise women she would play for the next thirteen years on screen, ingratiating herself with audiences with her “bold Tartar features”, thick accent, and penetrating gaze, hypnotic whether her character was pitiless, compassionate, or simply understanding. While speaking plainly and without a hint of overt malice, in Dodsworth, Maria’s Baroness dissects the prospect of a marriage to a divorcee who is too old to bear children with surgically precise logic and some retrained if pained regret.
The demolition of the social and biological pretensions of the sadly if monstrously vain Ruth Chatterton character, who had planned to escape her provincial past in some fantasy of romantic conquest as she swept through Europe, is completed by Ouspenskaya without raising her voice much above a whisper. Every delusion is dissected for her visitor, and the anatomy lesson in the art of the kill is devastatingly completed when the Baroness asks the Midwestern arriviste one simple question: “Have you thought how little happiness there can be, for the old wife of a young husband?”
Of Ouspenskaya‘s approximately twenty Hollywood movies, her iconic work in The Wolf Man (1941-George Waggner) is undoubtedly among the most memorable roles of her career. As Maleva, the gypsy woman whose maternal fatalism helps to guide Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) through his descent into lycanthropy, the actress delivers the most outlandish lines with such conviction, she lent the Curt Siodmak script enormous credibility. Encouraging Chaney to accept the supernatural significance of his true destiny after spotting the pentagram on his palm, she intones the rhyme “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright” without a trace of ironic detachment, but just enough supernatural world-weariness and maternal wisdom to bewitch audiences.Having seen both of the Wolf Man movies in which she appeared as this shamanistic like spirit guide through claptrap and the basic fear of the animal in all of us, I was delighted to find that each of these Universal movies holds up very well, particularly because this actress makes the work seem logical and based in some sort of foggy and ultimately touching reality, thanks in no small part to the actors involved, heightened by her and Chaney’s sincerity in their roles as well as the films’ production values. As a gypsy, a vagabond whose whole life is spent roaming the earth, Ouspenskaya‘s impressively exhausted and resigned manner may have reflected a bit of her own experience as both an actor and a refugee from revolution.
The atmosphere of impending doom that pervades the Wolf Man films is owed in large part to her low voiced explanations of the alleged origins of the Wolf Man curse, supplemented by her heavy, minimal gestures and expression. In one scene, as Ouspenskaya crouches over Bela Lugosi‘s furry form, now rapidly returning to human shape, she gives the stilted language of her elegaic remarks a poignancy that few other actors could hope to achieve as she intones, “The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own. But as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Your suffering is over Bela, my son. Now you will find peace.” BTW, though Lugosi was only six years younger than Ouspenskaya, she quite convincingly played his mother. In a sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), Ouspenskaya reprised the character.
While making a living in Hollywood, giving good performances in such movies as King’s Row (1942-Sam Wood), the actress publicly seemed the embodiment of artistic integrity, regarded as a powerful matriarchal figure and “living theatrical legend.” Ouspenskaya‘s desire to teach and her steadier income from the movies allowed her to set up shop as an acting teacher once again. In one of her brochures for her LA branch of the Maria Ouspenskaya School of Acting at her home near the Hollywood Bowl, she boldly mentioned such sybaritic fringe benefits as a Hollywood fixture “in our new studios we have a large private swimming pool, as well as plenty of space out of doors where the students can rehearse and relax in the open air.” Despite the ballyhoo, many students still were intimidated by her battered appearance, old world formality, and mercurial moods, though one of them, a young Eddie Albert, was said to be quite fond of her, calling her “Ooksie” and teasing her about her strange taste in hats and taking a shine to her pet monkey, who roamed about the house. Famed film noir femme fatale Marie Windsor also attended Miss Ouspenskaya’s school in the 7000 block of Sunset Boulevard in 1941 and found the training helped her form a bond with her later co-star John Garfield, who’d been a student of both Boleslawski and Maria in 1929 1nd 1930 when he was training for his career. Other students in both New York and later in California included the playwright Horton Foote, Method scion Lee Strasberg, Franchot Tone and Anne Baxter.
Uninterested in any studio politics or the motion picture emphasis on appearance over substance, Ouspenskaya avoided signing any long term contracts, allowing her to choose to play roles that appealed to her dramatic sense, though her foothold in Hollywood may have been more tenuous than is evident. Letters reveal that she believed that she had achieved a degree of notoriety similar to that of Marie Dressler a decade before but she did have to scramble for work. Though she continued to work in plays as well as in films, taught, and cut quite a jaunty figure on the Hollywood social scene, she found herself too often typecast due to her physicality and her heavy accent. By 1947, she was reduced to appearing in Wyoming (1947), a “B” Western at Republic, appearing in a small, role as a faithful servant in the oater opposite Bill Elliot and Vera Hruba Ralston.
Matters may not have been helped by a series of illnesses, and one serious accident on the set of The Wolf Man that required her to be hospitalized after she and Chaney were hurt when flung from a cart. A lifelong heavy smoker, on November 30, 1949, she may have fallen asleep with a burning cigarette in her small Los Angeles apartment, leading to her suffering burns from a horrific accident that left her hospitalized, followed by a stroke a few days later that killed her on December 3, 1949.
Many of the films mentioned in this article are available on DVD and several of them are scheduled in the upcoming months on TCM. You can see a complete list of upcoming Maria Ouspenskaya films on TCM here.
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