The Childhood of Maxim Gorky Review
The Childhood of Maxim Gorky was the first entry in what would soon become known as the Gorky Trilogy. Between 1938 and 1941 director Mark Donskoy and his co-writer Ilya Gruzdev dramatised the early life of the famous Russian author taking his own autobiographical works as their inspiration. Childhood, as the title makes perfectly clear, focused on Gorky’s youth, whilst My Apprenticeship (released in 1939) and My Universities took us through to his teens and early twenties. Understandably the writer wasn’t always portrayed by the same actor - Alexei Lyarsky and Nikolai Valbert would share the duties - but the behind-the-scenes talent remained throughout the trilogy creating a uniform look and feel. Indeed, composer Lev Shvarts, director of photography Pyotr Yermolov and production designer Ivan Stepanov all played key roles in bringing Gorky’s formative years to life.
The events of ‘Part One’ concern themselves with the time Gorky spent living in a small village along the River Volga. Orphaned at the age of eight he was brought up by his grandparents as part of their “wild tribe” of children and grandchildren. In Donskoy’s hands they are personified as a collection of mostly eccentrics and an absolute dream for the dramatist. With such a supporting cast The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is able to arrange itself into a series of vignettes. They tell stories, impart wisdom, sing songs, dance, and provide their own mini-narratives - both happy and sad - all of which weigh on the young author in one way or another. As an opening title explains, Donskoy and Gruzdev drew not only Gorky’s My Childhood but also some of his short stories and sketches with which to further flesh out these various minor players.
This combination of episodic approach and a focus on the family unexpectedly brings to mind John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. In fact, The Childhood of Maxim Gorky doesn’t often feel that far removed from a Hollywood production. Gone were the Soviet montage techniques of the silent era; in their place was a more refined, more classical take on the material. Yermolov’s photography, in particular, would have been entirely at home in a high gloss MGM picture. And so too, for that matter, would Stepanov’s wonderful studio sets (although, unlike How Green Was My Valley, Donskoy did opt for plenty of genuine location work too) and the rather sentimental score from Shvarts.
With that said, The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is a touch more bittersweet than its US equivalent would have been. For all its folk tales and song and dance interludes, the film is also surprisingly heavy on the tragedy: beatings, deaths, imprisonment and so on, all as seen through the (often tearful) eyes of young Gorky. Of course, these various incidents contribute to the shaping him into the great - and politically engaged - author he would later become, though pleasingly they are never doled out as a series of contrivances. (Conversely the major Hollywood ‘boyhood biopic’ of the time, Young Tom Edison, was far less sparing when it came to such moments.) Instead Donskoy had chosen to reflect the lyrical humanism of Gorky’s work overall, once again bringing to mind the work of Ford.
Lead actor Lyarsky acquits himself well in the title role, firmly avoiding any sentimentality or cutesiness. Indeed, in many ways he is The Childhood of Maxim Gorky’s straight man when placed amidst the numerous overt and eccentric performances that surround him. Whereas these roles require some wonderful turns from a host of character actors - each of them eager to make the most of their screen time - Gorky himself remains the more objective figure, less prone to emotion or anything that could be deemed over the top. Needless to say, Lyarksy’s young age makes his performance all the more impressive. He returned for My Apprenticeship the following year, but Gorky would prove to be his only role. He was killed in action in 1943 during the Second World War.
The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is the latest addition to Ruscico’s Hyperkino range. Ten titles are currently available in the UK via MovieMail, a number of which have been reviewed on this site (link). Essentially, the Hyperkino format involves two discs: one containing the film and a whole host of subtitle options and another containing the feature in annotated form. These annotations can be accessed through the DVD remote and lead to various contextualising essays, notes, illustrations and film excerpts. In the case of The Childhood of Maxim Gorky this includes clips from Donskoy’s other features, plenty of discussion of the history of the film and an emphasis on performance. As with all of the Hyperkino discs to date it is well worth a full investigation.
As for the presentation, the main feature is in terrific shape. There is a little frame instability at times plus the occasional ill-defined shot, but otherwise the film looks excellent. Clarity and detail are superb, damage is at a minimum and the contrast levels allow for a full appreciation of Yermolov’s photography. The soundtrack is a little rough in places but generally impressive and comes with a choice of optional subtitles. As you would expect the disc retains the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and mono soundtrack. A restoration in the late seventies produced a slightly different opening titles sequence which is included as part of the Hyperkino edition.