The passionate testimony and delightful behind-the-scenes anecdotes of Hollywood screen vets — including Anthony Quinn, Leslie Caron, Robert Stack and Patricia Neal — form the heart of this valentine to two influential and beloved teachers of the thespian craft. Documaker Frederick Keeve’s focus is the artistic legacy of Michael Chekhov and George Shdanoff — in terms of the affection they still evoke among actors who worked with them and the awards and kudos their famous students have garnered over the past five decades. Though it will have deepest resonance for thesps, “From Russia to Hollywood” is an intriguing intro to the work of these men, and would be a fine fit for pubcaster slots or on vintage-movie-oriented cablers, as well as in theater and cinema curricula.
Keeve quickly, though not always lucidly, covers the essentials of the duo’s professional lives up until their arrival in Hollywood during World War II. Chekhov (nephew of Anton Chekhov) was a national hero when forced to flee Russia in 1928. Considered a genius by Stanislavsky, the star and artistic director of the Moscow Art Theater was marked for death by the Communist regime over his production of “Hamlet,” which government honchos deemed “mystic” (archival stills show an elegant figure of dark intensity, haunted eyes rimmed with kohl).
Chekhov settled in Berlin — until the rise of Nazism — where his friendship and partnership with the young actor Shdanoff began. The two had little use for Stanislavsky’s “emotional memory,” which requires an actor’s identification with his character’s state of mind, and together forged the next progression in the evolution of the Method. They were less concerned with the personal psychology of the performer than with the visage, posture and emotions of the character.
Chekhov, perhaps best known for his Oscar-nommed supporting perf in “Spellbound,” continued to teach as well as act until his death in 1955, after which Shdanoff and his wife, Elsa Schreiber, carried on Chekhov’s work, coaching some of the leading lights of the bigscreen, including Marilyn Monroe, Rex Harrison, Patricia Neal, Clint Eastwood and co-narrator Gregory Peck.
Keeve’s use of archival stills and footage as well as clips of bravura moments from dozens of Hollywood films is ultimately effective, if somewhat scattershot. Two-thirds of the way in, docu kicks into a more structured, energetic and substantial segment in which Stack and Caron, among others, engagingly elucidate some of Chekhov’s key concepts.
The new interviews, intercut throughout, offer lovely insights, both humorous and poignant. Among the highlights are Caron demonstrating the difference between the walks of Lili and Gigi; Quinn revealing Gary Cooper’s reluctant, and successful, use of one of Shdanoff’s exercises — after 50 futile takes of a scene in “Blowing Wild” — and Dorothy Bridges’ emotional description of her return to Chekhov’s class following the death of her second child.
Pic suggests these artist-teachers were ahead of their time, but a stronger sense of context would be helpful: Were they considered outre by the theatrical community, particularly during the heyday of the Method-oriented Actors’ Studio? Caron makes an important distinction between the “unraveling” of the actor, inherent to Lee Strasberg’s technique, and the gentler, ennobling effects of Chekhov and Shdanoff’s style of coaching. It’s a provocative idea, dealt with only glancingly here.
But within its short running time, Keeve’s tribute, though technically basic, is rich in understated emotion, wit and intelligence. Chief weaknesses are pic’s rather amorphous form and late-in-the-proceedings introduction of its most stimulating ideas. And despite docu’s repeated assertion that Chekhov’s teachings are a living legacy, Craig Sheffer is the only rep here of a younger generation of thesps.
These shortcomings aside, “From Russia to Hollywood” is a captivating look at a seldom-explored Hollywood lineage.