a monthly film series featuring invited speakers, hosted by the Polish Club in San Francisco

Monday, October 11, 2010

October 17: Modjeska- Woman Triumphant

Polish Movie Nite is happy to announce the San Francisco premiere of Modjeska- Woman Triumphant, presented by Maureen Mroczek Morris. My thoughts and commentary of the film follow below (full disclosure: I helped with some research for the film back in 2005).

Modjeska- Woman Triumphant

57 minutes

3pm Sunday
October 17, 2010

Delancey Street Screening Room
600 Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA 94107

Modjeska- Woman Triumphant is presented by Maureen Mroczek Morris for the benefit of the Polish Club. Suggested donation: $5-10. Please call (415) 244-5252 to reserve your seat.

Helena Modrzejewska

The stylized documentary Modjeska- Woman Triumphant is the culmination of six years of work by director Basia Myszynski, who has referred to the film as the “project of [her] life.” Probably most compelling is the narration by Beth Holmgren, professor at Duke University, who is currently working on a book about Modjeska.

On September 13, 2009, nearly 200 guests filled the courtyard of The Silent Movie Theater, housed in a 1940s art deco building on Fairfax Ave in Hollywood, following the Los Angeles premiere of the film.

Basia Myszynski (left) with Patricia Modjeska Palmer

Basia and Leonard Myszynski

Born in 1840 (arguably, but that's a whole other story), Helena Modrzejewska was a famous Polish actress working in the second half of the 1800s. Although much literature and other materials exist about Modjeska (as she came to be known in the States), most notably about her life and career in Europe (Poland did not exist as a sovereign nation at that time), this is the first film to specifically focus on Modjeska and her life in Southern California, which she so loved.

Modjeska as Adam Kazanowski in The Court of Prince Wladyslaw

In 2009, I attended a lecture by Marek Zebrowski (director of the Polish Music Center at USC), hosted by the Modjeska Art and Culture Club of Los Angeles, during which he spoke about Modjeska's close friendship and intellectual exchange with composer Ignacy Paderewski. Zebrowski, who was also interviewed for Myszynski's film, made the case that Modjeska left Europe for the US for largely political reasons. Interestingly, Woman Triumphant puts forth another thesis, namely that Modjeska also fled greatly for personal reasons. With an illegitimate son in tow (and her own legitimacy also frequently pointed out), she could reinvent herself in a new country without the stigma and gossipy journalism that publicly followed her every performance. No doubt, it was a combination of multiple pressures that pushed her out of the Russian Empire (although she had been born near Krakow under the more lenient Austrian rule, she had advanced quickly to play leads in Warsaw as well as in Russian cities). In a brief email exchange, Myszynski explained to me, "The film focuses on the most personal of reasons because [they] most affected her [and] me as a filmmaker." Focusing on the personal in addition to the political reasons "would highlight the drama best in understanding why we make the choices we make - usually we are most affected by the personal," she writes.

Madame Modjeska in front of her Stanford White-designed house at Arden, which is now a National Historic Landmark

That said, Modjeska was not only running away from problems, but turning to new opportunities. She envisioned the formation of a utopian artist colony in the Wild West, where she and fellow ex-patriots would live off the land and at night could discuss art, literature, and music around a campfire. She would eventually call her property Arden, referring to the work of her beloved Shakespeare. After emigrating in 1876, she settled in 1888 in Orange County, in what is now known as Modjeska Canyon. She stayed at Arden until 1906, when she moved to Newport Beach where she would spend the last years of her life writing her memoirs.

Unfortunately, of her utopian dream only the discussions at Arden were fruitful; the intellectuals she settled with knew nothing of farming, let alone in the rocky and dry climate of Southern California. In short, she proceeded to travel around the country in her customized Pullman railroad car, supporting herself and her son as well as her friends back at the colony. Remarkably, in addition to extensively traveling the American country, she made the sea journey to her homeland five times after settling in the States.

The film includes numerous interesting historical documents such as photographs of the actress in her many roles, and interviews with historians and Modjeska's living progeny. Several interesting claims are also made. Among others, Myszynski puts forward a strong case that Modjeska contributed to changing societal attitudes toward female actors. Whereas actresses at the time were often likened to prostitutes, Modjeska insisted on personal dignity and respect for her craft. She diligently maintained and guarded the image of a lady, perhaps only for her own sake, but as a result she effectively altered the public understanding of women in theater.

Modjeska as Ophelia in Hamlet

Woman Triumphant also chronicles the subject's own personal and professional aspirations through published press reviews and Modjeska's own colorful writings. Apparently, although she was an acclaimed Shakespearean actress in the States early on, her ultimate professional goal was to play Shakespeare in London, which she felt she had achieved with great success toward the end of her career.

Overall, the film provides a lot of information on Modjeska's life, especially in California, and I recommend multiple viewings for the full appreciation of this part of her astonishing biography. Additionally, the little-known early history of today's Orange County is personalized and illuminated.

Modjeska- Woman Triumphant (2009), 57 minutes, English and Polish with English subtitles, produced by OC Influential Productions, LLC, in association with GetBizzy Entertainment, Inc. Created by filmmakers Basia and Leonard Myszynski. More information at www.modjeskawomantriumphantmovie.com

Bay Bridge

P.S. Ralph Modjeski, Helena Modjeska's son, grew up to be a famous American civil engineer and bridge builder. Among others, he designed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, still in use today. Now every time you drive over it, maybe you'll think of Ralph and his pioneering mother...

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