Posted by Moira Finnie on January 6, 2010
“Why, oh, why, isn’t character actor Vladimir Sokoloff around to sit down with Robert Osborne for a chin wag on these two fascinating topics?”
Such is our fate. As latter day observers of both cultural phenomena, we may ponder the origins of The Method as well as the sometimes wondrous (and just plain odd) movies that emerged from American perceptions of Russian history in the 20th century.
For Sokoloff, these topics were part of his life. He had trained at the Moscow Art Theater as a youth, seen the Russian Revolution sweep the world he’d grown up in aside, become a prominent actor in German silents during the Weimar years, moved on to a career in France when the Nazis came to power, and finally landed on his agile feet in America.
As a character actor, he played about thirty five nationalities during his career, only a very few, according to him, who were from his native land of Russia. Not all his appearances were in successful or particularly good films (if you’ve seen Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), directed by Edgar Ulmer when the game and imaginative director was at a low ebb creatively, you know what I mean). Despite this, Sokoloff‘s presence consistently brings a smile of recognition to many of us. We know that budget and script limitations will not prevent him from having his way with a part and holding up a mirror to the human experience. He will weave a silk purse out of any sow’s ear of a role.
Of course, in an era when native people were rarely cast as Asian, Native Americans, Mexican or any other nationality that might have seemed logical due to conventions of the period, Sokoloff‘s busy work life might seem unfair in retrospect, but he was a gifted man, who imbued these shorthand characters with a humane weight that few others could have conjured up for the often sketchily written roles.
My favorite Vladimir Sokoloff role may be that of Anselmo in the film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s story of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943-Sam Wood). Playing a character who acts as a guide for Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper), Anselmo, who is intelligent despite his illiteracy, and is a dedicated man to the Loyalist cause, not because of any ideological belief or for prestige, but because he hopes that it will result in something better for the Spanish people. Anselmo is a brave and efficient fighter, but he has a conscience and refuses to dehumanize the enemy, despite the bitterness of this internecine war and the corrosive effect it has had on his cohorts, particularly Pablo (played by Akim Tamiroff).
Sokoloff‘s noble character is revealed in the clip below as he watches a young man on guard duty at the strategically important bridge that he and “Roberto” are planning on blowing up. Seeing that he resembles a young man who lived in Anselmo’s village, Sokoloff’s character accepts the task he has been given, and the possibility that he will have to kill the boy. Murmuring to himself as much as to the Gary Cooper character, he vows that, if he must kill this youth, he will try to live his subsequent life in such a way that this act might be forgiven. The simplicity and eloquence of expression that Sokoloff gives this character in this scene makes his presence throughout the film more powerful. When the climax approaches, Sokoloff’s older, yet still boyish character is able to act decisively, but his gestures and intensity show an undercurrent of emotional reluctance that was established early in the film, and the viewer is aware of the tug of humane spiritual values on his character in this desperate situation.
Trailer of For Whom the Bell Tolls:
After all this experience, as a seventy-year-old, Sokoloff blurted out to a reporter visiting him on the set of one of his last, and most iconic films, The Magnificent Seven (1960-John Sturges), “The hell with ALL the acting theories, including the Stansilavski method.”
Fifty years before this somewhat startling comment, Vladimir Sokoloff had once been a bright-eyed, eager student of Konstantin Stanislavski too. “I was tortured by him personally”, the actor would chuckle when recalling his former mentor with an affectionate twinkle. Absorbing the naturalism that Stanislavski taught his students, deepening and broadening their ability to ground their characterizations in psychological experience as well as the imagination, Sokoloff used what he could from this style, but he refused to be doctrinaire about The Method. The character actor always maintained throughout his peripatetic journeys that an actor’s true life combined the skills of an acrobat, singer, dancer, pantomimist, comedian, and tragedian more than that of a mere observer of his own nature.
Born in Moscow to a schoolteacher and his wife on Christmas Day in 1889, Vladimir Sokoloff‘s mother died when he was born. As the ward of a wealthy friend of his family, he studied philosophy and literature at the University of Moscow, but had to acknowledge eventually that “acting is the only way I am able to live. I want to be everybody, and I want to be everything.” Growing up, Vladimir was told that he was ugly due to his small stature and oriental features, but his sponsor’s family encouraged him, telling him that he was “not ugly, but that he was funny…you will get everything”, they maintained, “not by the way you look but by what you have inside.”
As a boy, living in his private dreams, Sokoloff recalled that he “started out wanting to be a bear when I grew up. Such an enjoyable prospect lying in warm fur, in a warm den! Then I wanted to be a beggar, roaming the country, extending a hand, and having people give me bread and milk. After that, I wanted to be a clown. I studied gymnastics and juggling, and then I discovered that I did not have the necessary strength and health to become a clown. I invented my own pantomimes, imitating cats and birds, and put on skits for the entertainment of my patron and his family.” Concluding that “One life is not enough” he secretly trained under Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theater for three years, appearing in crowd scenes and in small roles until he was recognized by his patron, who eventually recognized that the youth he had hoped to mold into a college professor would be happier in the far less secure position of a working actor.
After mollifying his family, Sokoloff helped influential director Alexander Taïrov to start the Kamerny Theater Company in Moscow in 1914, founding a group that specialized in presenting plays from all countries side by side with native Russian drama. Specializing in comic roles, the youthful actor used his elfin frame and manner to make his audiences laugh, and he found considerable success in roles found in Shakespeare and Moliere.
After happily embarking on a marriage with Elizabeth Alexandrova, the actress who played Kate to his Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, when the Russian Revolution came in 1917 all the theatres were closed for years. According to the actor, “There was no food. There was no fuel. I went to Molvitino, in the country…and lived there for sixteen months, fishing, picking mushrooms and wild berries, getting healthy.” By the early 1920s, the theatres were reopened, and actors were treated as valuable citizens, as long as they were, according to the actor, “useful as propaganda for the revolution.”
According to the actor, a fateful meeting with Isadora Duncan, the innovative American dancer and a one woman force of nature, changed his life. Her visit to Russia came in the 1921 to set up a school of dance for workers’ children, (which never quite gelled in that tumultuous period despite official Russian enthusiasm for the idea). Sokoloff was deeply moved by the already legendary figure dancing to the music of Scriabin in her palatial home in a Moscow suburb in tribute to those who had recently endured a famine in the Volga region. As he reflected later:
“She had a tremendous influence on me. She was a revelation to me. A great person in life. Not only a dancer but a tragic actress…She was the only person I have ever met who was not a conformist…and her eccentricity was nothing but the immense and tragic solitude in which always and wherever she happened to be she lived…a solitude which was her fate from the first to the very last day of her phenomenal career…all I consider as being really important in my art, I have learned from her.”
He was particularly startled when she asked Sokoloff,”Do you know that you are a tragedian?”, which was “news that all but made [him] faint.” Best known up until then for his roles as cuckolds, buffoons and comical servants, the young actor began to think of his talent in a new way. Later, Duncan pointed out to the actor that he was already employing dancer’s movements into his work, particularly in his ability to express so much with a minimum of gesticulation. As Isadora explained, “A great thing you cannot express with a hundred gestures, but ONE. Just remember how persuasive a little scarce gesture can be.”
Though a melodramatic wartime propaganda film may seem several worlds away from the rarefied atmosphere of an Isadora Duncan recital, in this clip from director Edward Dmytryk‘s still startling film, Back to Bataan (1945), features Vladimir Sokoloff embodying a powerful yet minimalist approach to his role as a Filipino principal of a school who refuses to lower the American flag after the Japanese have conquered the island.
Despite the fact that Sokoloff was compelled to move on from each society where he perched in the course of his lifetime, in researching this piece, I never detected any bitterness or regret on his part. despite some of the hardship he must have endured. Perhaps he adopted the approach of Duncan, who reportedly told him that “Whenever you work, you go into the forest. Act for the trees, the sky the grass at your feet. You will be happy then and happy people are always convincing.”
By 1923, while visiting Austria and Germany with his acting company, a meeting with the theatrical innovator, Max Reinhardt, led to Sokoloff becoming a part of Reinhardt‘s legendary acting troupe for a time. Summing Reinhardt up as “a magician” who “made you feel a role”, Sokoloff once asked the director, who appeared to love actors, why he didn’t act, to which he replied, “I act in all of you.” In one interview, Sokoloff once explained that “working for Rieinhardt” may have been his “toughest job [when] I, a Russian”, he explained, “had to play an Irishman in a German language play.”
In 1927, the group toured America, where Sokoloff appeared as Puck in the impresario’s stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (which Reinhardt later staged to great success in Hollywood in the ’30s, where it was made into a film in the middle of that decade–without Sokoloff). While continuing to work in the theater, Sokoloff also made many silent films in Germany, using the German spelling of his name Wladimir Sokoloff. Some of the most notable movies of this period of his career were his appearances in the socially sharp comedy, Berthold Viertel’s Adventures of a Ten Mark Note (1927), G.W. Pabst’s suspenseful The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), and Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen aka The Ship of Lost Men (1929-Maurice Tourneur), which proved to be the last silent in the career of the talented director Tourneur as well as the emerging star, Marlene Dietrich. Btw, years later, when visiting his former co-star Dietrich on the set of No Highway in the Sky, Sokoloff mischievously made sure that the surrounding reporters knew that Marlene‘s nickname in those pre-von Sternberg days was “Fatty”. I’m sure that the highly disciplined Miss Dietrich really appreciated that.
When Sokoloff had an opportunity to do sound movies, the multi-lingual actor found himself in demand remaking movies in Hollywood early in the ’30s in German for continental audiences for that brief period when European actors sought to make products coming out of America that could be marketed abroad in France, Spanish speaking countries and Germany. Some of these included Kismet (1931-William Dieterle), and two versions of G.W. Pabst‘s interpretation of The Beggar’s Opera made in Europe–one in German, one in French, each featuring Vladimir as Mackie’s jailer. Working with Pabst nine times between 1927 and 1933, the actor even had an opportunity to appear with the legendary basso profundo, Feodor Chaliapin, Sr. in two versions of Don Quixote–one in German and one in English, (you can see the entire 1933 English version here).
While Sokoloff seems to have been reluctant to speak at length about his reasons for leaving Germany in later life, his appearance in the left-leaning liberal anti-war film, Niemandsland aka No Man’s Land/Hell on Earth (1931-Victor Trivas), probably helped to make him realize that it was time–once again–to move on. The Trivas film (which you can see here) tells the story of five men without names, only designations as an Englishman, a German, a Frenchman, a Negro, and a Jew. The men find themselves seeking shelter in a dugout trench together in the midst of a World War One battle. Didactic, but enhanced by Hans Eisler‘s score and making skillful and humorous use of Eisenstein’s ideas of montage to tell the story and to comment on the action, this multi-lingual story is easy to follow but often makes its points repeatedly. What may save the film, and make it worth viewing is the compassionate treatment of the Negro (Louis Douglas, an African-American who had worked in European musical revues for decades) and the Jew (Vladimir Sokoloff). The Negro, with some understanding of most of the languages spoken translates for the others and eases the men’s tensions with his easy (modern observers would say too easy and cliched) charm. Sokoloff‘s Jewish tailor, shell-shocked and unable to speak is hated by all initially, but, as the actor heartbreakingly mimes his anguish, mirroring their own, their disdain for him softens. From a modern point of view, this movie’s anti-war message may be overly familiar today, but that point about the need for all men to understand one another, and the depiction of a Jewish and a Black character as the most fully realized and positive characters in the drama–were completely anathema to the rising Nazi party. Just as their Brownshirts had staged protests in theaters when All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) premiered in Germany, setting mice loose in theaters, pelting the screen with tomatoes and urine, they set to work attempting to suppress this film as well. When the Party came to power in 1933, Joseph Goebbels as propaganda minister ordered all copies of this film rounded up and destroyed. For decades, this movie was believed to be lost. Sokoloff and the director Victor Trivas, who went on to be a screenwriter in America until his return to Germany in the late fifties, died believing that the Nazis had destroyed this work, which was reportedly found in the 1970s.
By the late ’30s, Sokoloff once again came to the attention of American audiences as a particularly vile Dickensian landlord in Jean Renoir’sLes Bas-Fonds aka The Lower Depths (1936) based on Maxim Gorky’s play and featuring Jean Gabin, at his proletarian best along with an aristocratic Louis Jouvet). Anatole Litvak’s Mayerling (1937), touched audiences on two continents with its story of doomed royalty and illicit love, catapulting Litvak, Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux (for a time) to Hollywood success. It also enabled Vladimir to land a plum role as a philosophical Paul Cezanne in The Life of Emile Zola (1937-William Dieterle), one of the better Paul Muni biopics at Warner Brothers. In the same period, the actor also starred as Robespierre in a critically disastrous but intriguing sounding Mercury Theater production of Danton’s Death on stage in New York with Martin Gabel as Danton and Orson Welles as Saint-Just. While audiences and critics could not decide who to root for in this play, which was critical of the right as well as the left, the photos I’ve seen of this production and the descriptions of what sounds like a brilliant staging of “a towering cyclorama cobbled with thousands of tiny skulls, with the mob off-stage howling and shrieking, bellowing bawdy songs, braying the Carmagnole” makes this sound startling if not as coherent as some might hope.
After this, Sokoloff moved to Hollywood, though he would appear in a few plays late in life in New York again. He committed himself to building that Hollywood resume that enables us today to continue to appreciate his work, but he also found time to coach actors, in particular a certain Robert Ryan, who was one of his favorite pupils, and to help found the Beachwood Theater in Los Angeles, a tiny theater seating 73 people that offered the then novel sight in LA of real actors enacting classic and popular plays on a stage. In his private time, the actor lived quietly with his wife, building a puppet theater and carving his own marionettes. Socially, Sokoloff was surrounded with many of his oldest friends from Russia and Germany, (Akim Tamiroff, Mischa Auer, Thomas Mann, Berthold and Salka Viertel, Oscar Homolka, and Michael Chekov, among others) while enjoying some of what has been described as an atmosphere in “Hollywood during the war [that made Los Angeles] a more stimulating and cosmopolitan city than Paris or Munich had ever been. The ferment of composers, writers, scientists, artists, actors, philosophers and phonies did exist and we often attended the lectures, exhibitions, concerts, performances, social gatherings of these people ourselves.”
As he grew older, Sokoloff became a bit more candid about his own take on The Method and those who adhered to his ideas rather slavishly. As the actor recalled in one interview in 1960, “Stanislavki founded the method in rebellion against the stilted acting of the day in Moscow. He wanted us to act true to nature.” Yet, before his death in 1938, the student rendezvoused with his teacher one last time in Paris. Knowing that his former student was contemplating moving to America to gain a permanent foothold there, Stanislavski was reading passages from his book, An Actor Prepares when he stopped and said, “Sokoloff, if you go with Max Reinhardt to America, if you want to help youngsters, forget all this theory. Don’t apply this. Don’t pay any attention to this. Everything is different in America. The education. The psychology. The health. The mentality. Even the food is different there. We needed this book to open up actors in Russia. In America it is different. They don’t need it there. If they try to use it, they will unnecessarily spy on themselves, asking, ‘Do I feel it or not?’ Tell them, in America the actor is free.” Speaking to reporters about three years before his own death, Sokoloff believed that “It is foolish to use the same recipes of 50 years ago. You can’t play the same part as you played it 50 years ago. Audiences are different; countries are different. All life is different.”
Sokoloff felt that most American actors, including Marlon Brando, were not really following Stanislavski’s ideas. “Brando, while a great actor, allows his own personality to dominate the role. Stanislavski always insisted that the actor submerge himself in the role.” The actors on the scene when Sokoloff made these comments whose work, he believed, most closely emulated the principles of his teacher, were Fredric March, Alec Guinness, Julie Harris, Michael Redgrave, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Prior to his death, Sokoloff had asked Stanislavski to name the then greatest English speaking actor. Without hesitation, he named Walter Huston, an opinion enthusiastically shared by Sokoloff (…and many of us), who believed that Huston not only had the ability to show his emotions, but to show keep in mind his character’s intention while creating a portrait of a human being on screen.
“I have learned to work by my five senses alone. It is not difficult to pretend one is eating hot soup. Yet when I appeared Off Broadway not long ago in [Tolstoy's] ‘Power of Darkness’ one critic said: ‘To watch Vladimir Sokoloff eat soup is a revelation.’ I laughed. What is so difficult about it? It is just the touch, the taste, the feel. Acting is as simple as that. The five senses. If you have talent, who needs any other method? If you have talent, there is little need to study any other method.”
In Sokoloff‘s case, learning to rely on the simplest of elements to build on all he’d learned from Stanislavki may have come naturally (after fifty years of practice). If you’d like to keep track of more of this actor’s appearances on TCM, you can see his upcoming films on the schedule here.
Bacon, James, “Method, Shmethod, You Still Gotta Suffer”, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, July 10, 1960.
Horowitz, Joseph, Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts, Harper Perennial, 2009.
Johnson, Erskine, “Senses Guide Acting, Says Dean of Character Actors”, Ocala Star-Banner, April 17, 1960.
Ross, Lillian, Ross, Helen, The Player: A Profile of An Art, Simon and Schuster, 1962.
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