For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

Vladimir Nabokov's Favorite Movies (or at least some of them)

by Nathan Heigert
Vladimir Nabokov's Favorite Movies (or at least some of them) by Nathan Heigert
“Nabokov loved the comedy of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx brothers, and more than thirty years later could reel off scene after scene in sharp-focus detail. He admired a few serious features like Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Rene Clair, or the best of German Gothic (The Hands of Orlac, Murnau’s The Last Laugh).”—Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years An excerpt from an interview with Alfred Appel, Jr., found in Strong Opinions: “The German cinema of the twenties and early thirties produced several masterpieces. Living in Berlin, were you impressed by any films of the period? Do you… Read more

“Nabokov loved the comedy of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx brothers, and more than thirty years later could reel off scene after scene in sharp-focus detail. He admired a few serious features like Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Rene Clair, or the best of German Gothic (The Hands of Orlac, Murnau’s The Last Laugh).”—Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years

An excerpt from an interview with Alfred Appel, Jr., found in Strong Opinions:

“The German cinema of the twenties and early thirties produced several masterpieces. Living in Berlin, were you impressed by any films of the period? Do you today feel any sense of affinity with directors such as Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg?

The names of Sternberg and Lang never meant anything to me. In Europe I went to the corner cinema about once a fortnight and the only picture I liked, and still like, was and is comedy of the Laurel and Hardy type. I enjoyed tremendously American comedy—Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd^^, Charlie Chaplin. My favorites by Chaplin are The Gold Rush, The Circus, and The Great Dictator—especially the parachute inventor who jumps out of the window and ends in a messy fall which we only see in the expression on the dictator’s face. However today’s Little Man appeal has somewhat spoiled Chaplin’s attraction for me. The Marx Brothers were wonderful. The opera, the crowded cabin [A Night at the Opera], which is pure genius…[Nabokov then lovingly rehearsed the scene in detail, delighting particularly in the arrival of the manicurist.] I must have seen that film three times! Laurel and Hardy are always funny; there are subtle, artistic touches in even their most mediocre films. Laurel is so wonderfully inept, yet so very kind. There is a film in which they are at Oxford [A Chump at Oxford]. In one scene the two of them are sitting on a park bench in a labyrinthine garden and the subsequent happenings conform to the labyrinth. A casual villain puts his hand through the back of the bench and Laurel, who is clasping his hands in an idiotic reverie, mistakes the stranger’s hand for one of his own hands, with all kinds of complications because his own hand is also there. He has to choose. The choice of a hand.

[^^Appel’s note: “In The Defense, Luzhin’s means of suicide is suggested to him by a movie still, lying on a table, showing ‘a white faced man with his lifeless features and big American glasses, hanging by his hands from the ledge of a skyscraper—just about to fall into the abyss’—the most famous scene in Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last.”]

How many years has it been since you saw that movie?

Thirty or forty years. [Nabokov then recalled, again in precise detail, the opening scenes of County Hospital, in which Stan brings a gift of hard-boiled eggs to relieve the misery of hospitalized Ollie and consumes them himself, salting them carefully.] More recently, on French TV I saw a Laurel and Hardy short in which the “dubbers” had the atrocious taste to have the two men speak fluent French with an English accent. But I don’t even remember if the best Laurel and Hardy are talkies or not. On the whole, I think what I love about the silent film is what comes through the mask of the talkies and, vice versa, talkies are mute in my memory.

Did you enjoy only American films?

No. Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc was superb, and I loved the French films of Rene Clair—Sous les Toits de Paris, Le Million, A Nous la Liberte—a new world, a new trend in cinema."

And, lastly, a link to a splendid full-length TV interview with Nabokov.

Read less