Forgotten Hollywood: Michael Chekhov's American Film Practice Viewed through Prague School Film Aesthetics

Yana Meerzon, University of Toronto

This paper focuses on two Michael Chekhov parts in two forgotten Hollywood narratives: Poliakoff in Specter of the Rose (1946, director Ben Hecht) and Professor Shuman in Rhapsody (1954, director Charles Vidor). Using the Prague School's approach and Jurij Lotman's film semiotics (Lotman, Semiotika kino i problemy kinoèstetiki," Ob iskusstve. St.Petersburg: Iskusstvo, 1998, 288-374), I will demonstrate that Chekhov's film images are film masks both archetypal and individual. Constructed according to Chekhov's individual body language, each of them corresponds to Vladimir Propp's functions in a fairy tale: a dispatcher (otpravitel') and a villain/antagonist (vreditel' ) (Propp, Morfologija volshebnoj skazki. Moscow: Labirint, 1998, 60–62; translation by Laurence Scott in Propp, Morphology of the Folktale. Ed. and introduction by Svatava Pirkova-Jakobson. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1958, 72–74).

Michael Chekhov, a famous Russian actor, the nephew of Anton Chekhov and the artistic director of Moscow Art Theatre II (1922–1928), emigrated from the Soviet Russia in 1928 and spent the rest of his life in the West, acting, directing, and writing his major book To the Actor (1953). He arrived in Hollywood towards the end of his career. In 1945 he was nominated for the Oscar in the "Best Supporting Actor" category, for the role of the professor of psychiatry Brulov in Hitchcock's Spellbound. Apart from that, Chekhov participated in a dozen films, the majority of which are rarely seen today.

This paper analyzes Michael Chekhov's method of creating a film figure, in the light of Prague School film aesthetics. By analogy to the Prague School's notion of the stage figure (Veltrusky, J. "Contribution to the Semiotics of Acting," Sound, Sign and Meaning. Ed. L. Mateika. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1976, 553–605), the term film figure signifies the viewer's image of actor's creativity on the screen, and it is a construction both on the part of an actor and on the part of a spectator. As Jakobson maintains, the aesthetics of film is different from that of theatre, since the language of the former is composed exclusively of signs. If in theatre things function both as things and as signs, on the screen "it is precisely things (visual and auditory), transformed into signs, that are the specific material of cinematic art" (Jakobson, R. "Is the Cinema in Decline?" Semiotics of Art. Eds. L. Matejka and I. Titunik. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977, 145–152). In fact, Chekhov's film figures are both things on the screen and their signs structured within the dichotomy of characters' functions or archetypes and audience's expectations.