Richard Boleslawski — The Way of a Lancer in Pictures (1937) 🇺🇸

Richard Boleslawski with Marlene Dietrich and John Carradine |

December 28, 2021

While the cameras turned through the final stages of shooting “The Garden of Allah,’’ Director Richard Boleslawski reached the conclusion of his first experience with color photography, an experience, he feels, which more than justifies harder work and deeper study than ever before has been demanded of him.

The man who stood behind the firing line in the making of such fine pictures as Les Misérables and “Men in White” is of the type that looks ever forward. Time to him is a swiftly rushing torrent, each speeding moment to be used to the fullest before it races into the sea of the Past.

It explains, in a measure, why he has written such books as Way of a Lancer and Lances Down, and is now writing Escape of a Lancer to complete a trilogy. It explains why his home contains a workshop, from which pass in the artistry of his own hands, unique articles of furniture, pewter and silverware.

As a Polish cavalry officer, as a director of the Moscow Art Theater, as ballet director and choreographer, Boleslawski’s life has been filled with unquenchable thirst for learning and achievement.

One may permit him, with this in mind, his zealous enthusiasm over “The Garden of Allah,” in which Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer are co-starred. Already convinced that color held much of the future of motion pictures. “Boley,” as he is known throughout the industry, went to work under the Selznick International banner first as a student and then as the ace director.

Before the first camera had turned. Boley had equipped himself with every shred of knowledge known about color. In charge of the first Technicolor picture with an all-star cast headed by two of the biggest names in films, he became again the ace director, his creative mind conceiving color shots never before placed on film.

Nature’s riotous paintings on desert location near Yuma, Arizona; the golden halo of Marlene’s hair and the deep blue of her eyes, colorful settings and costumes, all these, in addition to the dramatic story by Robert Hichens, made Boley an artist as well as director.

It was a role into which he stepped naturally. Beauty is his hobby, just as creation is the force behind his quiet energy.

During preparation of a dancing scene from “Allah,” Boley demonstrated his creative skill as a choreographer. He devised and put into rehearsal a dance of nine native girls, personally demonstrating the movements he wanted.

For all his towering build, Boley is gentle-spoken. He likes to get things done quietly as well as quickly. He is paternal toward stars and extras alike, and is always ready to go out of his way to keep his company happy.

Perhaps at no time was his patience more sorely tried than on the blazing desert location. Unbearable heat, hard work and extreme difficulties had rubbed nerves raw. It fell to Boley to act as the soothing influence.

“My job there was the nearest thing to being in charge of a circus I have ever experienced,” he said. “Not only did we have a company larger than the average circus, living in tents, but we also had a menagerie which included 15 camels, 30 horses, goats, sheep, chickens, donkeys and two first cameramen! All of them were working for us. Working against us we had rattlesnakes and scorpions, and worst of all, heat. At the camp the temperature was ordinarily well above 100, and on the dunes where we were working a thermometer went up to 148 in the sun one day.”

There were sudden sandstorms, camera problems and human troubles. Boley explained. Miss Dietrich fainted twice from the terrific heat. The intricate and expensive Technicolor cameras had to be taken completely apart, checked and cleaned each night.

One member of the set crew, tried almost beyond endurance by work beneath the broiling sun, objected on one occasion to a task he had been assigned.

“I’ll be darned if I’ll move this thing around for that Russian so-and-so,” he said.

From behind him came a gentle, reproving voice. “Polish so-and-so. Joe.” Boley corrected, “Polish so-and-so.”

To appreciate this quiet, versatile man, one must know that his philosophy of life is based on Victor Hugo’s remark that to make men smile is greatness in itself.

At the end of a hard day’s work, Boley improvised a scene in which a huge, dusky pair of feet dangled down before the nose of Joseph Schildkraut, who played the part of the Arab guide, Batouch. Schildkraut swung into the spirit of the scene; his expression of distaste was side-splitting to behold. Stars and extras smiled, a weary day was forgotten.

Boley learned show business in all its phases. Born in Warsaw, he received his academic education in Odessa, and in 1906 joined the Moscow Art Theater.

He became a principal director, ballet master and choreographer, interrupting his career to serve as an officer of the Polish Lancers in the Russian Army. With the rise of Bolshevism, he was forced to flee the country.

From 1918 to 1920, Boley served as cameraman in the Bolshevik-Polish outbreak, the war adding to his interests the study of the literature of war and a knowledge of military tactics. These were to form a colorful background for his two books, and the third novel which he hopes soon will be in the hands of his publishers.

Boley has two reasons for preferring the screen to the stage; it places fewer limits on the director’s imagination and it reaches greater audiences, many of which could not otherwise afford good entertainment.

More than six feet in height, a little heavy now for an ex-Lancer, but retaining much of his military bearing, the director possesses a round face with clean cut features. His mien could be called serious, save for an ever-present twinkle in his eyes.

From time to time the twinkle gives way to mischievous humor, which, at the same moment, is never barbed.

While working on “The Garden of Allah,” one of the actors had a long speech which was giving him difficulty. When the scene was shot the first time, he inadvertently changed several words of the original dialogue. At the end of the scene, he seemed pleased with his performance.

“How was that?” he asked with an expectant smile.

“Fine.” said Boleslawski drily. “Now let’s try it the way Mr. Hichens wrote it.”

At another time, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer and Basil Rathbone were in a scene in which camels moved across the background. One of the camels was unruly and spoiled four rehearsals. The fifth time, everybody expected the director to blow’ up. Instead Boleslawski called the man in charge of the camels to the set.

“Is it true,” he asked quietly, “that camels can go eight days without water?”

‘‘Yes, sir,” said the man.

“Well,” said Boleslawski. “you had better start training him to go eight days without salary, unless you can make him keep quiet.”

Before coming to Hollywood, Boleslawski was connected with such important stage productions as Vagabond KingMr. MoneypennyCollaborated, The Three MusketeersThe Miracle and Macbeth.

His best screen productions have been “Les Miserables” and “Men in White.”

The directorial method of Richard Boleslawski is based on his own theory that people who come to pictures deserve two things, entertainment and beauty.

Boley — to get back to his more popular title — considers acting the highest of arts. His book. “Acting: The First Six Lessons,” is the most widely-read textbook in the theatrical profession. Written in dialogue form, it is the most thorough analysis ever written of the natural qualifications and the training necessary to the art of acting.

In this book the director discusses the technique of talking pictures, and, unlike most men trained in the theater, he has the highest regard for the new medium.

Although he has not set down on paper lessons in directing, Boley holds that a motion picture director should be an actor’s mirror.

“The best purpose a director can serve,” he says, “is to give the actor confidence that the director reflects perfectly the reaction of an audience.

“I ask nothing more of an actor than that he consider me a good looking-glass without blemish, crack or distortion. Then he will see my suggestions as perfect reflections of his efforts.

“With such experienced players as Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer, a director discusses situations and then studies the effects of the players’ interpretation. He reports to the player a reaction. If the player has confidence in the report, changes are made to conform with it.”

No line of dialogue, no small part of a set, is too inconsequential to escape Boley’s piercing study. On a recent occasion during the filming of “The Garden of Allah,” he conferred for more than an hour with stars, writers and assistants over only three lines!

Watching him in action, after he has given the command, “turn ’em over,” one gets a picture of intense concentration. Pipe in hand, leaning forward, Boley acts in sympathy with the players. His face works and his hands motion eloquently as the scene progresses.

Boley would like to do two things now that “The Garden of Allah” is completed.

He would like to journey to Warsaw for a visit, but has just about given up hope. His services are much in demand in Hollywood. And he hopes to finish “Escape of a Lancer,” although the printing date has been postponed four times because he has been too busy to spare the time for his literary efforts.

However, in accordance with Victor Hugo’s philosophy, he retains the ready twinkle of his eyes.

“One cannot make others smile,” he says, “unless one is oneself able to smile.”

Above: A desert luncheon enjoyed during the filming of “The Garden of Allah ” on location in the desert near Yuma. Arizona. From left to right: Basil Rathbone.

Charles Boyer, Director Richard Boleslawski, Joseph Schildkraut and Marlene Dietrich.

Left: Richard Boleslawski directs Marlene Dietrich and John Carradine class="Apple-converted-space"> in a scene for “The Garden of Allah.” The set is an interior of the huge tent on the location in Yuma where most of the picture, filmed in Technicolor, was made.

Source: Motion Picture Studio Insider, January 1937