Judge Daryl Loomis could have sworn this was a biopic of his dancer ex-girlfriend.
Based on Anton Chekov's only novel, The Shooting Party, director Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind) has neither the visual style nor the social message in his second American film that he would in his later work, though there are signs of the greatness to come. On its own merits, Summer Storm is a well-drawn and nicely performed melodrama that explores the days of pre-revolutionary Russia and the lengths people will go to satisfy their desires.
Facts of the Case
Volsky (Edward Everett Horton, I Married an Angel), a haggard ex-Count, brings a manuscript to his old friend, Nadena (Anna Lee, Hangmen Also Die), who now runs a newspaper. These pages were written by Fedor Petroff (George Sanders, All About Eve), a former judge and ex-lover, and tell the story of his ruin at the hands of jealousy and lust for the enigmatic Olga (Linda Darnell, Blood and Sand), a peasant girl powerful enough to destroy lives.
While not an essential film in Sirk's filmography, Summer Storm is nonetheless an excellent tale which holds a charm all its own. The film stays relatively faithful to Chekov's original novel—though there were changes forced by the Production Code—and remains a quality melodrama which is more subdued than expected.
The film is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue that take place just after Lenin took power, while the majority of the tale is set a few years before the revolution. Released in 1944, right at the end of America's chilly alliance with the Soviet Union, this film would not have been made a year later, at least not without major structural changes and a dramatically altered story. The revolution is given a positive treatment here, showing us the rightful downfall of a feudal system full of lazy, inbred nobles and miserable peasants. However, Summer Storm is only political in retrospect. Communism is natural here, as though there were no problems with the regime. Sirk isn't making a statement on this, but it's amazing how quickly Hollywood's perception of the Soviets changed.
In the bookends, we see the characters as destitute, brought down to the level of the people who once were their maids and butlers. Their collective downfall, as much as the Soviet redistribution of wealth, comes in the arms of Olga, a role which Darnell plays brilliantly. Olga may be selfish, money-grubbing, and manipulative, but she's never presented as particularly evil. She grew up extremely poor with an abusive father, and now wants the finer things in life. Her desire to be "Princess of Babylon" may be a strange one, but she is no villain. Instead, the villain here is lust: The lust the men have for Olga, the lust they have to retain power, and the lust that Olga has for money. These characters make their decisions based on lust and, no matter how much they regret those choices, they make them again all the same. Only once does Olga appear resolutely evil, but pays dearly for her transgression, even she is allowed redemption. Summer Storm is about how people destroy themselves. While the characters' feelings for one another are entirely genuine, their internal struggles tear their relationships apart.
Though the film often feels cynical, Summer Storm is actually quite funny in spite of its themes. The script that Sirk wrote with Rowland Leigh bounces along at a lively pace. Some of the situations carry a delicious discomfort, especially when Olga is in the same room with all her suitors at once. When the suitors talk about her to each other, they try not to reveal their feelings, though they weigh heavily in the room. These scenes almost border on farce, but Sirk plays it with restraint. The characters are given a gentle touch and real feelings, while Sirk adds poignant and often painfully emotional set pieces to bring us back to Earth. The film is grounded in a sense of inevitability; that life progresses regardless of their choices, with or without redemption.
Darnell is especially good as Olga, but the entire cast does excellent work. Sanders, who often played a weak-willed, comical heavy, adds a good level of dignity to Fedor, a character whose veneer of respectability barely veils his desperation. Horton, a long time character actor, brings a great comic levity to his lecherous, altogether disgusting Count "Piggy." Even Anna Lee, whose role is a shell of the others', makes an excellent showing for herself as the one person who doesn't succumb to her base desires and thus is the only one left with any power in the end.
Unfortunately, the DVD for Summer Storm does not suit the quality of the film. The full frame transfer is dirty and grainy; not the worst I've seen, but not great, either. The contrast is inconsistent and lacking in detail, doing no justice to Archie Stout's beautifully sparse black and white cinematography. The sound fares no better. Though the dialog is clear enough in this mono track, the Russian-themed music—for which Karl Hajos was nominated for an Oscar—is warbly and sometimes difficult to hear. There are two scenes in which the music plays a very important role and, though there is little dialogue to compete with, the sound is still murky. The only extra is a twenty minute interview with author Bernard Dick, who is clearly knowledgeable about the movie and Sirk's career in general. Plus, he has one of the most affected American accents I've ever heard.
Summer Storm is not nearly as rewarding or intense as Douglas Sirk's later work—this is, by no means, Imitation of Life. However, as only his second American film, the director displays a maturity in storytelling beyond his years, creating a very enjoyable picture. The release is rather disappointing, but the film more than makes up for the inadequacies.
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Studio: VCI Home Video
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