Azary Messerer: my short but a remarkable career in films as a child star: “15 Year Old Captain”
My fate was predicted in early childhood, and it was not by a gypsy, but by Jules Verne, or rather, by a film based on his novel “15 Year Old Captain”. I played in this film the role of a small American boy Jack Weldon, who went on a voyage with his mother from Australia to America, but fell hostage to the pirates. After many trials and tribulations they were eventually able to reach the United States.
Only some 35 years later it occurred to me that the film’s plot was, in a way, predetermined for me. I applied with my family to emigrate from the Soviet Union but alas, we were refused visas. As I defied the horrible Soviet bureaucrats and KGB snoops, it struck me that they were just like pirates keeping us hostage!
I realized then that hope did exist and that one day my dreams could come true, just like in this film. And three years later, my family and I were able to step upon the shores of America; my son Philip, was then the same age as Jack Weldon. I spoke about my acting in that long-forgotten but fateful film in an interview when Philip received his First Prize at the Independent Film Festival in New York.
In childhood and adolescence, I was constantly bombarded by questions: “Were you the boy in 15 Year Old Captain? One must say that after the World War II there were very few films made in the Soviet Union and those that were made instantly became popular. So I can lay my claim to being a child star in a blockbuster Soviet film!
Alas, all the other actors involved, except for me, died. First-class Russian actors starred in it. In Hollywood, it is rare to have so many stars participate in the same film. Firstly, it is because of the budget constraints, and secondly, because good actors are always in demand. However, in the last year of the war most movie theatres were closed down in Russia and not much was happening at the Moscow Gorky Studio. So the director Vasily Zhuravlev had few projects on his hands. In his film he managed to engage such stars as: Michael Astangov, Osip Abdulov, Alexander Khvylya, Paul Sukhanov, Vsevolod Larionov, Elena Izmailov, Sergey Tsenin. Viktor Kulakov Ivan and Bobrov. With time, they all became multi-award winning actors and acted in many films and on stage.
Strange as it may seem, the director and his assistant were at a loss of finding a suitable boy to play 6-year-old Jack. With time, I learnt that thousands of kids were auditioned but could not pass tests; I even met one of them, years later. Many kids who auditioned were older and more mature than I was; they could recite poems and had acting experience, dreaming of acting in movies one day. I don’t know why they chose me to play Jack; the only test I passed at the auditions was dancing a sailor’s dance “Yablochko” (literally, a small apple). Apparently, rhythmic exercises at the Central Music School where I studied came in handy. I remember I had no particular desire to act in a film and had the director known how much film tape would be ruined because of my constant re-takes, he would have probably hired someone else instead.
How was I discovered by the Gorky film studio?
The director’s assistants picked me out at the New Year kids’ party at the Moscow Pillar hall of Unions (where 8 years later the dead body of Stalin was mounted). It was the first New Year celebration in my life, and I was bursting with joy at the sight of the huge sparkling Christmas tree and the festivities. Everyone knew already that the war was ending, and I was presented with a sweet-smelling mandarin (something I had never tasted until then). Santa’s pretty daughter Snegurochka came up and spoke with me. Probably, our conversation attracted the attention of the young ladies from the film crew, who approached us and started asking me about my parents, and then talked to my grandmother, who accompanied me.
The lady wrote down our telephone number at the Bryusov Lane crowded communal apartment and started calling us. My father died in the war, my mother Raisa Glezer, a pianist-musicologist and a lecturer, was often away on tours, and my grandmother made all the decisions regarding my upbringing. She succumbed to the persuasions, although my mother was against it. Many years later, I found a letter written to her by a friend from the front, in which he gravely argued against working in cinema, saying that could instil vanity in the child and distract him from studies. “It is better to safeguard your son and bring him up as a modest and a disciplined citizen.”
He was probably right, but my grandmother had her own reasons: she figured out that to spend 8 months in Batumi (a seaside subtropical resort on the Black Sea) could benefit her grandson and there would be no shortage of fruit, which was lacking in Moscow. Swimming in the sea could help to build up my immune system. I remember the debate and hot discussions over my contract with the Gorky studio. I still have the contract. In one of the clauses, the studio stipulated their commitment to reimburse Azarik Messerer for his acting work “as one of the protagonists with sugar.” In the hungry post-war days of 1945 such a proposal must have been especially appealing.
Studio shooting began in mid-May, shortly after the Victory Day and my birthday. I turned six later that month. I remember that trips by the trolleybus №9 from the Bolshoi Theatre to the studio lasted more than an hour, and seemed to drag on forever. In the first scene, I was in bed and had to pretend to be asleep under the burning heat of the projectors and a sweaty blanket. It is fortunate that the director rejected the wig that was initially jammed on my head, saying that my own hair curls would suit.
In this scene, the nurse sang me a lullaby. She was a black woman and seemed to me very old, even older than my grandmother. I was afraid of her. I was bewitched by her thick lips, as she sang some Russian song with a heavy accent. Later I learnt that everyone was afraid of her, including the director, who kowtowed to her as to the prima donna. She was a famous Negro singer Coretta Arle-Titz, who used to be a diva in her youth, brilliantly performing the role of Aida by Verdi. I found many references to her in old American newspapers and books devoted to the careers of prominent African Americans who emigrated from the United States.
Arle-Titz studied singing in Italy, graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory before the revolution and married her Russian professor. She was in demand before and after the revolution, sang in several theatres in Russia and Ukraine. During 1930’s in Moscow and Leningrad first jazz ensembles sprang around; she began to sing blues and became famous in the Soviet Union long before Ella Fitzgerald and Marian Anderson. Once she returned to America to see her dying mother but said in an interview with “New York Times” that she preferred to live in Russia, where she had forgotten all about discrimination. Coretta disapproved of my table manners, and tried to teach me how to hold a knife and fork properly.
However, there was another black actor whom I did not fear but actually adored. He knew how to make me laugh at any time, even during a long night of filming when I would literally collapse from exhaustion. His name was Wayland Rudd, an African American actor, although I preferred to call him Hercules, as the character in the film. He went down in history as the first black man who played Othello in an otherwise white troupe, at the famous Hedgegrow Theatre in Philadelphia, directed by the great Jasper Deeter.
Wayland Rudd chose to act only in the productions of the most talented directors, as he said in an interview with “New York Times” in 1934, and therefore, when he immigrated to the Soviet Union two years earlier, he entered the theatre of Meyerhold. Subsequently, he became a director, finished GITIS, and realized his dream to produce Othello in Russian. He had a wife, an American pianist, and two children. The eldest daughter was born on May 9, 1945, and, in honor of the victory over Germans, she was named Victoria, while the youngest son, also Wayland, became a famous pop singer.
Azary Messerer with Wayland Rudd
Most of all I remember the scene in which we played with Wayland together. It was shot on the deck of the ship (it was an old barge that was converted into the brig, her masts were hoisted and sails manipulated by a crew on a lifeboat). During the celebration of our escape from the pirates, I had to throw an apple and shout: “Hercules!” I aimed well but Hercules did not even try to catch it. In the next shot he had to dance, holding the apple on his knife as he approached me. The director made us repeat the scene over and over again, perhaps ten times, until I completely lost any interest in it. In fact, I had already learnt that the film was not “real”, a sort of fraud, built on tricks. So after numerous retakes I was driven to tears and refused to throw the wretched apple. The director who did not have a clue about child’s psychology got very angry and Wayland kindly asked me why I refused. Through my tears I said, “You do not want to catch!” “OK,” he said, “I will try.”
“Where’s my knife?” he shouted. I wiped my tears; they announced the new take, and Hercules put up the knife. He failed to catch the apple again, but I threw it with such vigor that the director was finally satisfied.
I believed that Hercules was the strongest person in the world as he could even hold up on his fully outstretched arm his fellow actor Dick Sand (Seva Larionov). Seva tried to ruin my admiration for Hercules by saying that Ivan Bobrov, who played the role of tribe’s King Moine Lunga was stronger than Hercules. It turned out that Bobrov was a youth boxing champion in Moscow. He combined his acting with a coaching career in one of the Moscow’s sports clubs. He had a typical flattened boxer’s nose, so that the make-up artists had to re-align it. He began to act earlier than his colleagues and played in 1925 a major role in the great Eisenstein’s film “Battleship Potemkin”. When learning of his boxing career, I was filled with great respect for him and begged him to show me some boxing techniques. This was made even more urgent by the fact that in our Batumi hotel there lived two Georgian boys about my age or a little older. They bullied me constantly but after I boasted that I was coached by Moscow’s champion and showed them a couple of boxing lunges, they did not dare to touch me anymore.
I considered Seva Larionov my best and most loyal friend. He had a charming smile, a large mole on his face and a rare, peculiar only to him, tone of voice. So in any movie (and he played later in more than fifty films) I would immediately recognize him by his voice. He was older than me by only 11 years, and was still in high school; this was also his first film. Whenever the director shouted at him, I wanted to stand up for him. I once asked him why he did not counterattack. He informed me, with some sadness that he was not planning to be an actor but preferred to be an aircraft pilot. Later I learnt that, despite the huge success of our film, he still enrolled into the Aviation Institute. However, a few years later he went to drama school. Apparently, acting was his fate. Was this predetermined by his grandfather who was a famous actor of the Imperial Theatre, and by his aunt, the famous Sophia Giatsintova who was before the war the leading actress of the Second Moscow Art Theatre (where she was a partner in many plays with my uncle Azary Azarin)?
Seva shared with me all news and even behind-the-scenes gossip. I was amazed that my stage mother Mrs. Weldon, played by Elena Ismailova, had an affair with actor Yuri Lyubimov (who later became an outstanding director). He arrived in Batumi for the shooting of the film “Robinson Crusoe,” in which he played Friday. Elena was at the time 25 years old, and she was dazzlingly beautiful. No wonder she was subsequently chosen for the role of Natalia Goncharova in the film “Mikhail Glinka”. It seemed to me that Seva was in love with her. I also was not indifferent to her, and later enjoyed watching her in the favourite films of my youth – “Secret Agent” and “White Fang”, which I saw many times.
My best scene with Seva was on the mast where we were raised to by the crane. The operator with the camera was sitting on this crane, and we stood in a barrel attached to the mast and watched through a telescope. I was supposed to be the first to see something in the sea and show it to Dick Sand. He told me: “Shout loudly: a floating object on the right side.” I, in return, had to interrupt him: “What thing? It’s a whale. Mom, I see a whale!” I knew this scene very well but later when I watched the film in cinema, I felt very embarrassed by the high pitch of my voice. By the way, later I could accurately determine whether a film was voiced during or after shooting. If after, the soundtrack usually sounded less natural.
Azary Messerer and Seva Larionov
Seva explained to me who was acting well and who was the best, and from whom he was trying to learn. We had luminaries to look up to such as Michael Astangov and Osip Abdulov. In real life, they were very friendly people. But their faces changed dramatically when they were playing villains, my stage mother hated them and so did I. In the film, we were their slaves, and they were our owners. It was hard because I knew that after an hour they would be friendly and smiling again. I was not surprised to see Abdulov in pirate clothes as I had seen him as a pirate in a film “Treasure Island” before. One-eyed and lame, he looked intimidating. In this film, he also wore a patch over one eye, was lame (from childhood one of his legs was shorter than the other was) and laughed devilishly.
However, the main villain was played by Astangov. When the film came out, he was literally chased by the boys on the streets, who threatened to take revenge on him for his “piracy”. He was forced to hide his face behind a hat when seeing kids. However, after the war he did not get such public reaction as he played the roles of Nazi scoundrels in films like “The Battle of Stalingrad”. Generally, one’s acting talent seems more pronounced when playing negative characters. This rule was clearly proven by Astangov.
Both Astangov and Abdulov were outstanding actors and were highly cultured. Interestingly, they were both born in Poland, both studied at the Faculty of Moscow University, both began their acting career in the studio named after Chaliapin in the early 20’s, considered themselves to be disciples of Leonid Leonidov and Vsevolod Meyerhold, and subsequently worked for many years together in the Mossovet theater. Abdulov was famous for his comedy roles (for example, in “Pickwick Papers” by Dickens) while Astangov shone in tragic roles (he played Hamlet superbly).
I often recall Astangov’s remarks from the movie, with his characteristic ominous tone of voice. For example, he told mockingly my stage mother: “Maybe I’ll order you to cook me a Turkish morning coffee or cook me asparagus in mayonnaise?” Later in America, I tasted asparagus in mayonnaise and felt good at satisfying my childhood’s curiosity. A dog named Dingo kept growling at Astangov. Most likely, the owner, who brought her from Moscow, taught her to hate the pirates, as it was supposed to be in the film. As she growled so angrily, I felt really afraid and it was hard to play a scene with her. I had to ask her to give me a paw, and she held it out reluctantly, obeying her owner, who was standing behind us, showing her the appropriate sign.
Azary with Dingo
Dingo was often mentioned in the letters that I received from my fans after the film was screened in Moscow. I particularly remember a meeting with some students at the “Pioneer Truth” club. The newspaper published a full-page article dedicated to this meeting, which was attended by over a thousand children. Our director Vasily Zhuravlev introduced our film. His other adventure films “The death of the eagle” and “the Border closed” were already the favourites among young people. He said that the film was shot during 14 months, and at that time the operators shot fifteen kilometres of film. He said that he carefully studied the drawings and photos about the life of the natives of equatorial Africa and their rites. Seamstresses sewed special costumes, made beads and used ostrich feathers. Other made-up props were spears, bows and shields. Joiner’s team of specialist seafarers worked on scenery for the scenes on the ship. A Negro village was built in Batumi. “There were days when about three hundred people were involved in filming,” recalled Zhuravlev.
Hundreds of letters with questions from the audience were sent to us. They were distributed among the attending actors. And I got a weighty pack. I was reading slowly and answering even slower (I was then only beginning to write); that year of filming the movie clearly knocked me out of school. However, I have kept these letters in the hope to answering them one day. They are still kept in an envelope marked “Letters to Jack.”
Here is one of them in its literal form:
“Dear little actor, playing the role of Jack. We are the students of Year 6 of the 204 School named after Gorky. We congratulate you on a well-played role and wish you success in your future artistic life! In our class there are also students who are likely to star in the film “Semigorye” to be filmed by Soyuzdetfilm studio. These guys are very impressed by the remarkable film “15 Year old Captain” and also want to become actors. We would like to know how old you are, and we sympathise with all your hard work. ”
Some of the letters were published in the “Pioneer Truth” newspaper on March 29, 1946.
Kirill Martynov from school №114 wrote very emotionally: “We were very engaged by the movie. And we were co-feeling with the young captain, brave Hercules and with little Jack, experiencing all their misadventures. Sometimes we felt like jumping up and hitting the villains and wished to warn Dick Sand of the dangers”.
Fortunately, my mother realized in time that I had to catch up with my peers at school and asked the filmmakers not to call us regarding my participation in any other films. And for a long time, my appearance caused a bothersome interest among both children and adults. Soon, I was pretty tired of the questions whether it was me who acted in the film.
Later, I only once participated in a training film that was shot in Odessa and was in English. They engaged me because I was studying at the Institute of Foreign Languages. Again, I played an American, but at the institute, we were taught to have an English accent, so my American pronunciation certainly sounded implausible.
Recently, new technology gave the film “15 Year Old Captain” a new life. My daughter Alice from Australia sent me a DVD with two of my photographs on the cover. The film can also be viewed on the Internet, where I found a very interesting discussion about the film. I especially liked the two comments left in 2009. Eldar Logov from Kharkiv wrote that it was: “one of the few classic adventure films that were not spoiled by the Stalinist ideology.”
Mark Kirilov wrote that in the film he felt “some supernatural forces,” and that “the skill of the actors and the director surpassed even their Hollywood counterparts.”
I am sure, my colleagues in the film would have smiled at these remarks were they still with us…
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