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From Russia to Hollywood: The 100-Year Odyssey of Chekhov and Shdanoff

From Russia to Hollywood: The 100-Year Odyssey of Chekhov and Shdanoff(1999)

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To listen to directors from the 1950's Method Acting blew in with the New York trained stars of the 1950's. Moody mumblers were what these old Hollywood hands called James Dean, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Why could they not just be effortless like Gary Cooper? How surprised they would have been to find out that Cooper as well as Anthony Quinn, Jack Palance and many others were then under the influence of two other disciples of the Stanislavsky method, Michael Chekhov and George Shdanoff.

Chekhov, born in 1891, was the nephew of the famed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. He found his own fame as an actor with the Moscow Art Theatre in 1912 where he came under the influence of the acting theoretician Stanislavsky who proclaimed Chekhov the best of his pupils. In 1928, under threat from the Soviet regime, Checkhov fled to Germany where he met another Russian emigre director George Shdanoff. Together they formed The Russian Theatre Company. A tour of The Inspector General in 1935 led Chekhov to New York where he met the young actress Beatrice Straight, later to be the Academy Award winner for her role in Network (1976). Chekhov and Straight formed an acting school at Dartington Hall in Devon, England to teach Chekhov's variation on Stanislavsky's technique. The outbreak of World War II led Chekhov and Shdanoff to move the school to first New York, then Hollywood.

Chekhov did get some work in the movies, most notably as Ingrid Bergman's mentor Dr. Alex Brulov in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945). However, it was behind the scenes that Chekhov and Shdanoff had their greatest impact. Their actor's studio became a mecca to half of Hollywood. Both of Chekhov's Spellbound co-stars, Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman were regulars as well as Gary Cooper, Anthony Quinn, Jack Palance, Lloyd Bridges, Patricia Neal and Marilyn Monroe. Leslie Caron, terrified after being turned from dancer to lead actress in An American In Paris (1951) was given confidence and ability for her role in Lili (1953) with personal training by Chekhov. His acting school extended beyond his death in 1955 and now Chekhov acting centers are located around the world.

To spread knowledge of this important but little-known section of Hollywood history, filmmaker Frederick Keeve has now made a documentary, From Russia To Hollywood: The 100-Year Odyssey of Chekhov and Shdanoff released on DVD by Pathfinder Home Entertainment. Keeve recounts Chekhov and Shdanoff's history but the real delights here are the recollections of many of their more famous students. Leslie Caron explains how Chekhov helped her craft her Academy-Award nominated Lili performance. Robert Stack does the same for his Academy-Award nominated performance in Written On The Wind (1956). Anthony Quinn recalls a class in which Gary Cooper and Akim Tamiroff (Touch Of Evil, Alphaville) engaged in a pantomime poker game. Eastwood biographer Richard Shickel chuckles that Clint Eastwood, a Chekhov student, used this Moscow-based technique to create his performance in Dirty Harry (1971).

The DVD does suffer a bit from occasionally low quality in the film clips used but this is more than balanced by the quality of the interviews and the information that many actors from the classic Hollywood days had to learn their natural screen presence through exercise and study. In addition to the film, the DVD includes a director's commentary track and outtakes from interviews with Leslie Caron and Anthony Quinn.

For more information about From Russia to Hollywood, visit Pathfinder Pictures. To order From Russia to Hollywood, go to TCM Shopping.

by Brian Cady