The Last Command (Silent; 1928)
The story is a romantic tale inspired by an actual Russian general who fled his country after the rebellion of the Communists in 1917. The story starts in 1928 showing William Powell as Lev Andreyev, Hollywood mogul casting a film about the revolution. He picks an actor based on the actor's head shot; the actor is former Grand Duke Sergius Alexander (played by Emil Jannings), formerly the most powerful man in Russia, head of the Russian forces fighting against the insurrectionists. The story then goes to flashback, where we see the Grand Duke inspecting his troops, watched secretly by Andreyev and Natalie Dabrova (played by Evelyn Brent) as they plot his overthrow and assassination.
Mr. Jannings won the first Best Actor Oscar for this role. "The Last Command" was directed by the incomparable Josef von Sternberg, who also directed "The Blue Angel" (again with Mr. Jannings), "Morocco," "Shanghai Express," "Blonde Venus," "Crime and Punishment," and more, many with Marlena Dietrich as his leading lady. Mr. Jannings was considered among the best actors of his time, and he shows why in this movie. Evelyn Brent plays a revolutionist conspirator with Mr. Powell in 1917, but the Grand Duke captures them, sends Andreyev to jail and Dabrova to the Duke's bedroom. It turns out that both the Grand Duke and Madam Dabrova want the same thing -- what's best for Russia, and he turns her to his point of view and seduces her. Or he seduces her and turns her to his point of view. In any event, he's a powerful man with a powerful personality, and she soon sees things his way.
This is a tragedy, and the Grand Duke's power turns against him when the revolutionists win, capture him, and send him off to be hanged. Dabrova secures his release, but, as the Grand Duke later puts it, he suffers a shock and ends up in Hollywood as a bit player. The tables get turned when Andreyev turns up as the director of a movie about the revolution, and Andreyev casts the general as the general in the movie. Because it is a tragedy, things go badly for our hero the Grand Duke, but von Sternberg gives us a bitterly happy ending out of it all. The three leading actors all give star turns, but for me the direction by von Sternberg is the star of this film. His long, lingering portraits, particularly of Ms. Brent, showed the emotion and depth of the characters. There are some plot points that don't quite make sense, but overall the movie still holds my interest after all these years.
I noticed that Herman J. Mankiewicz did the titles. There is a rumor that in the vote for best actor for the first Academy Award, the actual winner was Rin Tin Tin. The Academy (correctly, I think) decided that awarding the Oscar to a dog would make the award seem less than serious, and the first award for Best Actor went to runner-up Emil Jannings for his work in "The Last Command" and "The Way of All Flesh." Herman J. Mankiewicz was a well-known writer, well-known for often biting the hands that fed him in Hollywood. Another rumor is that as punishment for one of his many sins he was ordered to write a script for one of the many Rin Tin Tin movies, so he turned in a script where the dog carried a baby into a burning house. The Mankiewicz family has a glorious history in Hollywood, and I recommend reading up on them.
I note that Jack Raymond as the cigar-chomping assistant director to Andreyev is a dead ringer for Josef von Sternberg.
In the movie being made by Andreyev, we see extras being assigned costumes and doing make up to play Russian army troops. The extras were in fact extras assigned costumes and doing make up to play extras playing Russian army troops.
Ms. Brent's costumes as the 1917 revolutionist were contemporary with 1928, a situation which she repeated in "The Mating Call," a movie she made the same year which was also set in 1917. I highly recommend "The Mating Call." Herman J. Mankiewicz has an uncredited role in and did the titles for "The Mating Call." Mr. Mankiewicz repeated this role in Citizen Kane.