An adaptation of a novel by Leo Tolstoy, We Live Again is really a romantic drama with a heavy political element and not normally the kind of thing that we’d cover at Comedy To Watch, but due to a script contribution from Preston Sturges I’m reviewing it as we’ve covered everything else he’s been involved with, and it does at least have several deliberately comic moments.
Most of these come in the first half of the film where young maid Katusha (Anna Sten) works for two royal spinsters, and their nephew Dimitri (Frederic March) is rather enamoured with the girl. They flirt and giggle a lot as if this was your standard rom-com, while Dimitri gives a lot of speeches about equality and how unfair he thinks life in Russia is, though amusingly he thinks he can solve the country’s problems by working in the civil service.
Initially he’s sent off to be a soldier however, and we’re briefly given footage of the rather ironic decadence found within the army, but Dimitri returns after two years for one night only to visit his aunts and Katusha. He manages to emotionally blackmail Katusha in to sleeping with him, but caddishly leaves money by her bedside the next morning and leaves without saying goodbye. The next thing we know and several months have passed, Katusha is clearly pregnant, and the aunt’s kick her out because they’re appalled by the idea that Dimitri may have slept with a peasant like Katusha.
Tragically the baby dies and is buried in an unmarked grave as Katusha won’t ruin Dimitri’s reputation by naming him as the father, and then years pass once more and Katusha is in court, accused of murder, and it’s heavily implied that she’s been working as a prostitute. In a “Bloody hell, that’s quite a contrivance” moment Dimitri is taking part in jury duty and is shocked when he sees Katusha, and though he does his best to convince others that she’s not guilty, which is clearly the case, due to an administrative mishap she’s convicted and sentenced to five year’s hard labour in Siberia.
So, um, yeah, we’re not exactly in traditional rom-com territory here, and all of the above is quite bleak and there’s certainly very little that is meant to be amusing, but when Dimitri tries to have Katusha freed he visits various judges and despite his standing in society they refuse to help, and director Rouben Mamoulian has fun pricking the pomposity of these very shitty men in power. There’s also a certain level of irony as a prison attendant turns out to be the author of a socialist book Dimitri used to quote from but now clearly has forgotten about, while Katusha has a grimly dark sense of humour about her situation.
The performances are all over the place and it’s quite odd that certain cast members have a Russian accent but others either speak in English or American, and though Frederic March gives a very strong turn Anna Sten is much weaker, she’s often quite melodramatic and overly emotional to the extent that it feels rather am-dram. A big hit in Russian cinema she was brought over to the US by producer Samuel Goldwyn who presumed she’d meet with acclaim in the States, but alas it wasn’t to be and she never found the success she desired.
Far too often the film relies on heavy handed speeches to impart its message, many of which are delivered by March and are a mix of socialist discourse, anti-monarchist sentiment and commentary on the class system, and as they’re based on Tolstoy’s novel unsurprisingly they’re full of interesting ideas. But their delivery is clumsy, and match that with the uneven performances, with not only Sten but much of the supporting cast rather weak, and a happy ending which feels rather forced, and you have a film with a lot to say and some intriguing notions, but overall it doesn’t work as a cohesive whole.