Hollywood Remembered - Olga Baclanova
To most modern moviegoers the name Olga Baclanova has no meaning. Given that her final film performance was in 1943, over 65 years ago, it is quite understandable. It has literally been a lifetime since she last appeared on the movie screen.
Of those that would recognize her it is from the Tod Browning horror film Freaks (1932) that she would get the most recognition, it is easily her most well known film today. Her performance as the conniving trapeze artist and would-be murderess Cleopatra is not easily forgotten and has helped make Freaks the classic of horror cinema that it is. While not a success at the time of its original release Freaks would eventually become a cult favorite and has since be watched by countless movie lovers and students of cinema around the world. Although it would take decades, Freaks would finally get the recognition it deserved. Like many others my first exposure to this fascinating actress was through the film Freaks. And also like many others, after seeing the film I felt the need to find out more about this lady and her work. What I found was an artist with a varied and rich assortment of acting performances in a career spanning over three decades, two languages, and reaching from one end of the globe to the other. Hers is not the usual Hollywood story...Portrait of Olga Baclanova in costume from her role as Duchess Josiana in The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Olga Baclanova (1896-1974), at times simply credited as Baclanova, was also known to movie fans of the day as the "Russian Tigress". She was born Olga Vladimirovna Baclanova in Moscow, Russia in August of 1896. One of six children born to a wealthy family, both of Olga's parents had a strong interest in the arts and encouraged the artistic proclivity of their young daughter. At the age of ten Olga fell in love with the theater, it would be a love that would last the remainder of her life. As a young girl Olga was educated at the Cherniavsky Institute and then went on to the prestigious Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) where she won only one of three available openings competing against 400 other applicants.Olga Baclanova in a scene from Street of Sin (1928)
By 1914 she had begun appearing in short "one or two-reeler" films and by 1917 MAT studio productions which included the works of Puskin, Chekov and Shakespeare. Throughout the late teens and into the mid twenties she continued her stage and movie work with the MAT, her roles becoming increasingly larger, eventually she would star in several productions. But at the same time of her professional successes there also came personal tragedies. During this same time frame came the upheaval of the Russian revolution and the fall of the Czar. It was during this period that she married for the first time and had a son, her father was murdered and the family fortune was lost. But maybe the worst for the young artist was this new Soviet regime that was becoming increasingly hostile to the art and artist of the "Bourgeoisie". More and more Olga could see the artistic freedom that she loved dying a slow death under this new regime. In 1925 the MAT began a long tour through Europe that would end with a stopover in New York City. In mid 1926 when the MAT left New York for home Olga stayed behind. Not knowing if she might ever see her family or homeland again she made the difficult decision to stay in America and pursue her love of acting. In a short while she was able to find stage work and by 1927 was offered her first American movie role.Baclanova, with co-star Clive Brook, in publicity stills from A Dangerous Woman (1929), her only starring role.
The Man Who Laughs (1928) was one of Olga's first films in the U.S., it is also considered to be one of her finest performances as well. Many movie scholars acknowledge it as one of the most influential films of the silent era. The Man Who Laughs, based on the story by Victor Hugo, is set in 17th Century England and tells the tale of Gwynplaine, born to noble blood. After his father is imprisoned for disloyalty to the King the boy is sold to "Comprachicos", Gypsy surgeons who disfigure young children in order to sell them as freaks to circuses. The surgeon cuts a grotesque smile into the boy's face, so that he forever appears to be laughing. The boy then grows up to become a clown famous throughout England known as "The Laughing Man", a man completely unaware of his birthright. Baclanova wonderfully plays the part of Duchess Josiana, a spoiled and beautiful heiress that has no regard for anything except her own immediate pleasures. It is she that now owns the estate that rightfully belongs to Gwynplaine. The Man Who Laughs would become a very significant picture serving as inspiration for an entire generation of horror films. While The Man Who Laughs is not horror per se, its long-lasting influence on the genre is undeniable.In the same year as The Man Who Laughs (1928) Olga would appear in another highly acclaimed film directed by Josef von Sternberg, The Docks of New York. In this picture she gives what many critics consider to be her finest performance portraying a prostitute and discarded wife of a sailor. Throughout the late 1920's Olga appeared in a steady stream of motion pictures with titles like Street of Sin, Forgotten Faces, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Man I Love. By 1929 Baclanova's star was rising in Hollywood and she was given a leading role of her own in A Dangerous Woman. The movie itself was an inconsequential romantic melodrama set in deepest Africa, more importantly though it was the first time Hollywood could see star potential in Olga. A Dangerous Woman was the first film in which she ever received top billing, it would also be her last. With the advent of a new motion picture technology, sound, there also came an end to Olga's chances of stardom in America...
Olga would begin appearing in American movies at the end of the silent era, but even at that time many "silent" movies already had sound tracks with music and singing contained in the film. A Dangerous Woman would not only be her first starring role but it would also be her first "All Talking" motion picture. Olga's English was good but she had a heavy Russian accent that was not only noticeable to moviegoers in the theaters, but to movie executives behind the scenes as well. It meant for the rest of her career in the "talkies" Olga would find herself relegated to smaller supporting parts as well as more "exotic" roles such as foreign Countesses. Although her film career had flourished during the silent age, with the rise of sound pictures it would now begin to decline.In the late 1920's and into the early 1930's Olga Baclanova's movie career continued on its slow decline but she did have solid supporting parts in films, occasionally garnering the praise of critics and audiences alike in movies like The Great Lover (1931) and Downstairs (1932). Also at this time Baclanova returned to her first love, the stage. In 1931 she would begin acting in theatre productions again and her stage work would increasingly take up more and more of her professional effort. Personally during this same time, Olga divorced her first husband and married a second, gave birth to another son, and finally became an American citizen in September of 1931.
In 1932 came what would be the movie that Olga Baclanova will undoubtedly be most remembered for by modern movie audiences, Freaks. Tod Browning's unusual horror tale was deeply disturbing to viewers of the time. It was a critical and financial failure and most everyone involved hoped that it would be quickly forgotten as they tried to continue on with their respective careers. Freaks was forgotten my most, but over the decades it slowly began developing into a cult favorite. New viewers were delighted to find in Freaks an entirely entertaining and engrossing film. Not deserving of the condemnation that it once received but instead worthy of high praise. Over the decades Freaks would finally attain some of the adoration that it originally deserved but never got.
As the decade of the 1930's progressed Olga found her movie work increasingly uncommon. By decade's end it was nonexistent. By this time she was devoting nearly all of her efforts to the stage. In 1940 she took on the role that she was born to play, that of Madame Daruschka, in the Broadway production of Claudia. She would go on to perform the role hundreds of times on stage and finally in 1943 was able to bring the character to life on the big screen in the film of the same name. Claudia would turn out to be Baclanova's swan song. After that she would continue in stage productions for a few more years and in the late 1940's she retired from acting altogether. After decades of performing on stage and screen this talented and unforgettable actress ended a career that had begun over thirty years earlier and on the other side of the world. Finally the "Russian Tigress" was at rest.