When Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Eisenstein began working on "Alexander Nevsky" in 1938, one of the many things they had in common was a firsthand knowledge of Hollywood, the mecca of capitalist escapist entertainment.
For a variety of ideological, personal and artistic reasons, neither Eisenstein nor Prokofiev completed any projects here--despite numerous attempts. Hollywood's inability to utilize their talents makes a fascinating, if depressing, tale of bad timing and conflicting cultural values.
Already famous for such silent films as "Potemkin" and "Ten Days That Shook the World," Eisenstein arrived in Los Angeles in 1930 with a cameraman and an assistant. Paramount had purchased their services at the astronomical--to him, at least--rate of $900 a week. They moved into a Spanish-style villa complete with swimming pool on Readcrest Drive in Coldwater Canyon.
At that time, Soviet citizens were much freer to travel and even live abroad than they would be just a few years later. But Eisenstein never felt comfortable in Hollywood. Fundamental ideological and artistic disagreements erupted between the director and his employers over every project he proposed, including a promising film about the California Gold Rush.
Not that Eisenstein was the most ingratiating individual. His uncompromising honesty and integrity, his refusal to pander to the public, his distaste for the star system and his often acerbic intellectual personality alienated the movers and shakers of a community concerned with the bottom line and happy endings. His identity as a Jew and Soviet citizen unsettled many people made anxious by the Great Depression. Refusing to play along or hold his tongue, Eisenstein cut a clumsy figure in a milieu obsessed with glamour.
Most Hollywood celebrities bored him: He once called Greta Garbo stupid because she didn't know who Lenin was. One of the few actors he respected was his friend Charlie Chaplin, a great favorite with Soviet audiences. (Chaplin and Prokofiev were also acquainted.) He considered Walt Disney, who had shown him around his studio and introduced him to Mickey Mouse, "the most interesting" American director.
Paramount quickly ran out of patience with their prickly employee. His Marxist adaptation of Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" led the producers to terminate his contract. Suddenly, one of the cinema's greatest directors was out of a job.
After another fiasco with "Que Viva Mexico," Eisenstein was forced to return to the U.S.S.R. empty-handed in 1932. Back home, his Hollywood sojourn only fanned the suspicions of the increasingly xenophobic Soviet bureaucrats.
While Eisenstein was stirring things up in California, Prokofiev, who'd been living in the West since 1918, was dashing all over the globe. Even though he found American promoters depressingly conservative and profit-hungry, his tours often brought him here.
"I'm as ecstatic about California as it is about me," he wrote from the Hotel Clark during one of his stops in Los Angeles.
Russia made Prokofiev even more ecstatic. By the mid-1930s, he was spending at least half his time there. In 1933, he made his debut as a film composer in "Lt. Kije"; in 1936, he resettled his family in Moscow and composed "Peter and the Wolf."
When Prokofiev moved back to Russia, he received assurances that he could continue to travel abroad. Initially, at least, the promise was kept. He toured in Europe and the United States in early 1937, and again--for the last time--in 1938, on the eve of World War II.
Ironically, this last trip brought Prokofiev closer to the Hollywood film community than ever before.
On the way to California, he stopped in Denver, where he was taken to see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." He was enthralled and demanded to see it again the next day.
Just a few weeks later in Los Angeles, Prokofiev met Disney in the flesh. He wrote to his sons: "I have been to the house of Mickey Mouse's papa."
Given their shared talent for fantasy, it's tantalizing to think about what Disney and Prokofiev might have created together. Numerous sources have claimed they did discuss projects; Disney and conductor Leopold Stokowski later considered including "Peter and the Wolf" in the film "Fantasia," completed in 1940.
Nor was Disney the only film magnate to take an interest. Rouben Mamoulian held a banquet for Prokofiev attended by Mary Pickford, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Flattered by the "unexpected interest that Hollywood has expressed towards me" (as he wrote back home), Prokofiev delayed his return to Moscow until the last possible moment.
On the eve of his departure from New York, according to his old friend, Broadway composer Vernon Duke (a.k.a. Vladimir Dukelsky), Prokofiev received an offer from an unspecified Hollywood studio for $10,000 a month.
"Prokofiev waved the Hollywood telegram in his hands," Duke wrote in "Passport to Paris." "Something in his eyes shone, but in a second he tightened his lips and said in a dissatisfied tone: 'The bait is tempting, but I won't swallow it. I'll go back to Moscow and my children.' "
And to "Alexander Nevsky," as it turned out.
Prokofiev's experience in Hollywood may have been less disillusioning--and considerably more limited--than Eisenstein's, but it served to bring the two closer together. If nothing else, their suspicious American connections made them fellow "cosmopolitans," comrades under fire in the paranoid atmosphere of the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s.
Luckily for them both, they found each other and "Alexander Nevsky"--with its slam-bang Russian nationalism--almost immediately after Prokofiev returned from the United States.