Watch Russian Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky Star in His Only Surviving Film, The Lady and the Hooligan (1918)

Tall and dash­ing, with the face of a box­er and glow­er­ing stare of a gang­ster, Russ­ian Futur­ist poet, painter, direc­tor, and actor Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930) came by his intim­i­dat­ing look hon­est­ly. As a teenage activist, he car­ried an unli­censed gun, freed female polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, and “was dis­missed from gram­mar school,” short­ly after join­ing the Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Labor Par­ty in 1908; “He spent much of the next two years in prison,” writes the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets, “due to his polit­i­cal activ­i­ties.” A com­mit­ted Bol­she­vik through­out his career, Mayakovsky cel­e­brat­ed the Rev­o­lu­tion with poems and plays and devot­ed his tal­ents to the Par­ty, becom­ing a rare exam­ple of an avant-garde artist who makes pop­ulist art.

In many ways, Mayakovsky’s career seems rep­re­sen­ta­tive, even exem­plary, of the Futur­ist move­ment. Uncrit­i­cal­ly adopt­ing Com­mu­nist doc­trine and embrac­ing whole­sale inno­va­tion, these artists fell vic­tim to the same forces, as Social­ist Real­ism increas­ing­ly became the offi­cial Sovi­et style and the rigid, bland arbiter of Par­ty taste.

In 1912, Mayakovsky signed a man­i­festo with oth­er Futur­ists “A Slap in the Face of Pub­lic Taste,” propos­ing, among oth­er things, to “throw Pushkin, Dos­to­evsky, Tol­stoy, etc., etc. over­board from the Ship of Moder­ni­ty.” Of oth­er pop­u­lar writ­ers of the time, includ­ing Max­im Gorky and Ivan Bunin, the Futur­ists declared, “From the heights of sky­crap­ers we gaze at their insignif­i­cance!…”

By 1918, Mayakovsky was a star. That year, he made three films, “for each of which he authored the sce­nario,” writes biog­ra­ph­er Edward James Brown, “and played the prin­ci­pal part.” Two of the films have dis­ap­peared, the third, The Young Lady and the Hooli­gan, you can watch above. “A sto­ry of hope­less love,” the film stars Mayakovsky as the tit­u­lar hooli­gan who falls for a new schoolmistress “sent into the slums to teach adult class­es.” The hooli­gan enrolls and changes his ways, but is then killed trag­i­cal­ly in a fight. Spoil­er alert: “Before dying he begs his moth­er to have the teacher come to him. She comes, she kiss­es him on the lips, and he dies.”

The silent film, based on an 1885 Ital­ian play called The Work­ers’ Young Schoolmistress, seems to have lit­tle to do with Sovi­et dog­ma, and yet it received tremen­dous acclaim, and became an instru­ment of pro­pa­gan­da, shown in mass screen­ings in Moscow and Leningrad on May Day of 1919. Film schol­ar Mari­na Burke sug­gests some of the rea­sons for its pop­u­lar­i­ty: “many of the scenes are shot out­doors, and the film is rich in nat­u­ral­is­tic details of cur­rent Sovi­et con­di­tions”— the real­ist depic­tion of work­ers’ lives res­onat­ed wide­ly with real-life work­ers. And yet, Mayakovsky’s film also dis­plays those char­ac­ter­is­tics that make him a dis­tinct­ly un-Sovi­et artist and would some­times put him at odds with the State’s over­bear­ing dog­ma­tism.

Mayakovsky plays the hooli­gan in a “dis­con­cert­ing­ly mod­ern, dis­af­fect­ed-young-man style” that reminds crit­ic Mal­colm Le Grice of “a kind of pre­cur­sor to Rebel With­out a Cause, with Mayakovsky as a slight­ly improb­a­ble James Dean.” The poet was too much an indi­vid­ual to play an ide­al­ized every­man. Each of the pro­tag­o­nists in his three film draw from life—three ver­sions of the artist who wrote crit­i­cal poems like “A Talk with a Tax Col­lec­tor” and satir­i­cal plays that made the State uneasy, even as he extolled its virtues at pub­lic events.

Mayakovsky would also not make strict­ly real­ist art, hav­ing dis­avowed its “filthy stig­mas” the year pre­vi­ous in his Futur­ist Man­i­festo. The nat­u­ral­ist scenes in The Young Lady and the Hooli­gan “are inter­spersed,” writes Burke, “with flights of fan­cy that are almost sur­re­al­ist in tone,” such as the school­teacher men­aced by danc­ing let­ters. Despite its con­ven­tion­al, sen­ti­men­tal plot and struc­ture, Mayakovsky’s only sur­viv­ing film presents us with a com­pli­cat­ed, ambiva­lent work, almost “a par­o­dy of roman­tic fic­tion films,” and—like all of his work—the swag­ger­ing expres­sion of a thor­ough­ly indi­vid­ual artist.

The Young Lady and the Hooli­gan will be added to our col­lec­tion of Silent Films, a sub­set of our meta list 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Russ­ian Futur­ist Vladimir Mayakovsky Read His Strange & Vis­cer­al Poet­ry

Down­load 144 Beau­ti­ful Books of Russ­ian Futur­ism: Mayakovsky, Male­vich, Khleb­nikov & More (1910–30)

Three Essen­tial Dadaist Films: Ground­break­ing Works by Hans Richter, Man Ray & Mar­cel Duchamp

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Toad says:

    Mayakovsky pro­duced a famous, but not famous enough, epi­gram about the rela­tion­ship between art and life that I’ve been quot­ing for years with­out being able to men­tion his name for fear of sound­ing pre­ten­tious: “A nail that hurts me in my shoe is more a night­mare than all of Goethe’s fan­ta­sy.”

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