Sunday, March 8, 2015

Russia in Classic Film blogathon: Maria Ouspenskaya


Maria Ouspenskaya
as featured in 1940s Beyond Tomorrow
July 29, 1876 - December 3, 1949

The Russia in Classic Film Blogathon is being hosted by Fritzi of Movies, Silently and sponsored by The House of Mystery on DVD by Flicker Alley.  This fascinating topic runs from March 8 - 10th.

International movie audiences were introduced to Maria Ouspenskaya in her 60th year.  Five feet, one and a half inches of imperious confidence with a broad, homely face wrinkled like the map of All the Russians from whence she came.  Born in the ancient city of Tula on the Upa River, a noted fortress in the middle ages and armaments centre since the time of Peter the Great at the time of the Russo-Turkish War.  Her childhood saw the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, great famine and the rise and fall of Nicholas II.  Pogroms, war with Japan, Revolution and World War 1. 

Madam Ouspenskaya shares the common beginning of trained singer with many of our favourite character actresses such as Kathleen Howard, Esther Dale and Esther Howard.  She combined her musical training at the Warsaw Conservatory with dramatic training in Moscow and became a touring stage actress.  In 1922 the actress defected to America and began her career as an Broadway actress and a renowned acting teacher.

Successive generations of performers believe themselves to be the last word on the art of acting, more "naturalistic" and accomplished than their predecessors.  In this, acting teachers are extremely significant and Madam Ouspenskaya's own teacher was one of the most of influential, Konstantin Stanislavski.  Stanislavski began molding his students to his own brand of self-reflection and discipline to achieve highly artistic and naturalistic results at the beginning of the 20th century.  When his devoted pupil, Maria, relocated to NYC in 1929 she brought his method to an eager generation of students.  Madam Ouspenskaya and actor/director Richard Boleslawski (Les Miserables, Three Godfathers) founded the American Laboratory Theatre.  Among their lauded students we find Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg who would go on to develop their own schools.  By the mid-20th century Stanislavski's method would morph into "the" method which impacts actors and audiences to this day.

Originally succumbing to the lure of Hollywood to secure funds for the school, Madam Ouspenskaya stayed to become a premier player in pictures.  Her sometimes nearly impenetrable accent became an all-purpose tool for whatever foreigner was required for a picture.

Baroness Von Obsersdorf
with Ruth Chatterton in Dodsworth

Her debut picture Dodsworth secured for Madam Ouspenskaya an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Actress category, the first year of its existence.  The award was given to Gale Sondergaard for Anthony Adverse.  The other nominees were Beulah Bondi for The Gorgeous Hussy, Alice Brady for My Man Godfrey and Bonita Granville for These Three.  As Baroness Von Obersdorf played a protective aristocrat who very neatly removes from her charming, yet foolish son's life the desperate social climber Fran Dodsworth.

Grandmother
Love Affair

Madam Ouspenskaya would again be nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the 1939 release Love Affair starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.  As Boyer's french grandmother, she is a charming elderly lady living with her memories of the past and her hopes for the future of her playboy grandson.  She is charming.  The winner of the award was Hattie McDaniel for Gone With the Wind.  The other nominees were Olivia de Havilland for Gone With the Wind, Geraldine Fitzgerald for Wuthering Heights and Edna May Oliver for Drums Along the Mohawk.

Maharani
with C. Montague Shaw in The Rains Came

Switching continents for another 1939 release, Madam Ouspenskaya played the Maharani in The Rains Came, based on a Louis Bromfield novel.  The Maharani is a tough-as-nails, focused character with an almost godlike understanding of people.  She rules with passionate practicality.

Madam Tanya
with Harry Carey and C. Aubrey Smith in Beyond Tomorrow

In the charmingly sentimental 1940 release Beyond Tomorrow, Maria Ouspenskaya was cast as (gasp!) a Russian lady.  Obviously of noble birth and character, she fulfills the role of housekeeper to the three wealthy bachelors at the centre of the story.  Her character is compassionate, probably psychic, and essential to the family-like atmosphere of the living arrangement of the characters.

Maleva
with Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man

"Wolf?  Gypsy woman?  Murder?  What is this?"
- Ralph Bellamy as Col. Paul Montford, The Wolf Man

In 1941 Madame Ouspenskaya played the role with which many of us associate her in a most affectionate way.  Maleva, the old gypsy woman in The Wolf Man is enduring classic movie image, even for those who don't watch horror movies.  Maleva has the wisdom of the ages and the compassion to see through pain.  Larry Talbot knows he is a werewolf because Maleva speaks the truth.  Dr. Lloyd may try to see the problem as psychological and Sir John may try to bully it away, but Maleva speaks the truth.

"The way you walked was thorny though no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end.  Now you will have peace for eternity."
 
Maria Ouspenskaya was a devote follower of astrology and relied upon the famed Astrologer to the Stars, Carroll Righter in basing many of her decisions.  Her adherence to the stars could be frustrating to producers and directors, but it would have to be tolerated if they wanted Ouspenskaya in their picture.

Let's have a look at what astrology has to tell us about Madame Ouspenskaya.  As a Leo she demanded and commanded attention.  Her chart indicated a predominance of Water signs which made her highly emotional and vulnerable.  Yet Fire was also dominant and provided much self-confidence and enthusiasm.  Always she would move forward toward her goals.  A lack of Air influences curtailed her ability to be flexible in her communications.  The admirable strength to persevere through trials, yet the introspection that would often keep people at bay.  A certain nobility of nature that could be construed as pride.  Perhaps a tendency toward over intellectualizing.  Basically kind-hearted, she may have found it difficult keeping people close.  Magnetic, mysterious and powerful Maria Ouspenskaya. 

In 25 motion picture credits this lauded actress gave us living and intriguing characters.  Be they hard-core dancing masters, benevolent and beloved grandmothers, political leaders, political exiles, nobility or outcast, the women created by the art of Stanislavski's most ardent student and disciple will stand the critical test of time.












31 comments:

  1. What an amazing life she had, and how inspiring that she embarked on her second career, in movies, at a time when most people are thinking of retiring. Reading this, I've realised that I've seen Maria Ouspenskaya in several films, but the one which sticks in my mind most is 'Love Affair'. Fantastic contribution to the blogathon! Judy

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    1. Thanks, Judy. The really fine actors always leave you with that one, special performance that you never can shake.

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  2. I didn't know she was a singer but then so many were like Dana Andrews and Maureen O'Hara but not given the opportunities. I liked Maria in Waterloo Bridge, the one with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor.

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    1. Madame Olga was such a tough taskmaster. If I'd ever had any idea of dancing, she would have scared me off!

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  3. Love how she became the 'go to' when a foreign character of a certain age was required. That does mean, though, that I've seen a lot more of her films than I would've assumed. I particularly like her in The Rains Came.

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    1. She certainly proved herself a versatile artist - someone a director or producer would like to have on their team.

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  4. Thanks so much for joining in and bringing the story of Maria Ouspenskaya back to life! A fascinating Hollywood success story.

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    1. Thank you for hosting the amazing Russia blogathon! I am learning so much.

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  5. Hi Caftan Woman. I remember that I first saw Madame Ouspenskaya in The Wolf Man. She reminded me of my Italian great grandmother. I like the way Hollywood was flexible about nationalities. I didn't know that she helped to bring The Method to America. Thank you for sharing this with all of us.

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    1. My daughter dressed up as "Maleva" one Hallowe'en when she was about six. All of the other gypsies were "Esmeralda" from Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame". Only my kid knocked at doors and said "Even a man who is pure of heart..." Now THAT'S Hallowe'en!

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  6. Now did you know all that astrological stuff or did you have to look it up?

    Didn't know she worked with Stanislavsky. I studied Method acting at one point, so I guess I'll raise a glass of vodka in her honor too.

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    1. In my younger years I studied how horoscopes were set up. I understood the basic premise, but added to it with some googling. Astrology is not a major belief system to me, but it is amazing how often you can peg someone as a "typical" Scorpio or whatever and sure enough - that's what they are.

      Na Zdorovie! To your good health!

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  7. Love that photo of her in The Rains Came!

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    1. Madam Ouspenskaya was a smoker offscreen, it must have been a treat for her to have that as one of her onscreen characteristics for once.

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  8. She was awesome in everything, but if her gypsy role was the only one she ever did...well, I'd still love her just for that!

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    1. Old Maleva knew her stuff. I think that would be a great name for a cat.

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  9. Maria Ouspenskaya was a real scene-stealer and I can't get enough of her. In my opinion, she can change the tone of a scene just by her presence.

    I was hoping someone would do a tribute to the fab Ms Ouspenskaya, and you did her justice. She deserves more attention than she receives, these days.

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    1. Thanks so much. She was appreciated in her lifetime and continues to attract attention and fans, for the right reason - her talent.

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  10. I have seen her in many films. She's so natural in her roles I think I didn't notice her as much as I should have. Loved the astrology details, and so typical of Hollywood that her "sometimes nearly impenetrable accent became an all-purpose tool for whatever foreigner was required for a picture."

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    1. I understand that she could be demanding, and a handful, but she also gave so much to any picture she was in that Ouspenskaya was definitely worth the trouble.

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  11. I simply adore Maria Ouspenskaya. I will always remember her in DODSWORTH (one of my all time favorite movies by the way, and the book it's based on is wonderful as well) and in THE WOLF MAN movie. Though of course, Larry 'Wolfman' Talbot didn't couldn't get any peace at all, certainly not for eternity. Not with all those sequels coming up.

    Thanks for this, C.W.

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    1. Last month I finished reading "Dodsworth" for the first time. I felt very close to "Sam" after that wonderful novel.

      "The Wolf Man" is a Hallowe'en tradition in our place. We used to watch it while sorting the kids candy. Now we watch it sorting through the leftovers.

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  12. I've always admired Maria Ouspenskaya, and I learned a great deal about her today. Wow, Stanislavski's pupil? That's awesome!
    I'm glad you rememvered her in Dodsworth, The Rains Came and also cited her in The Waterloo Bridge =D
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Cheers!
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2015/03/eisenstein-e-sua-trilogia-ivan-o.html

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    1. Thanks.

      So much to read. I'm slow, but I'll get to everything eventually. I'm being thoroughly educated through this blogathon.

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  13. Oh, I love this lady - what a great choice. Just the sight of her warms my heart.

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    1. She brought so many different characters to life. The kindest ones make her everyone's grandmother.

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  14. I'll never forget her in "Love Affair". The perfect "grandmother" for Boyer.

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    1. She truly loved that playboy grandson, and he (and we) had no doubts about the depth of her affection.

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  15. What a great choice, she's fantastic and has always been one of my favorites. Great post.

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