Film and theatre actor and director. Worked in Russia, Poland and the United States. Born February 4, 1889 in Dębowa Góra near Płock; died January 17, 1937 in Los Angeles.
His real name was Ryszard Srzednicki (changed to Ryszard Bolesławski after he arrived to Poland in 1920) and he spent his youth in Odessa, where he attended the local high school. After graduating he studied maritime technology for a year at a higher technical school in Odessa. While a high school student, in 1905-1906, he appeared on stage in the productions of an amateur troupe associated with the "Polish Club" in Odessa. Later, he was a member of a number of Russian touring theatre troupes.
In 1908 he applied to audition for the Moscow Art Theatre. That year, a total of 187 candidates vied for acceptance into the famous theatre led by the theatre reformer Constantine Stanislavsky. Bolesławski was one of only three applicants accepted, though Stanislavsky did not at the time have the highest opinion of the future actor's skills. In 1909 he appeared on stage at the MXAT/MkHAT as one of the three officers in Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters. He made rapid progress in his acting studies, for while in his notes from the entrance exams Stanislavsky described Bolesławski as sentimental and provincial, his next role at the Moscow theatre, that of Byelayev in Ivan Turgenev's A Month in the Country (1909) proved a great success.
"(...) As Byelayev he was impeccably pure. This was a role entirely free of theatricality (...)," wrote a Russian reviewer. "And when the time came to demonstrate strong feelings, he demonstrated unparalleled emotional fullness" (in: M. Kulesza, "Ryszard Bolesławski. Umrzeć w Hollywood" / "Ryszard Bolesławski - To Die in Hollywood," Warsaw, 1989).
While a student, he also offered successful performances as Wróblewski in a production of The Brothers Karamazov based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1910) and as Lovka in Siemion Juszkiewicz's lyrical drama Miserere (1910), and then also as Aslak in Henry Ibsen's Peer Gynt (1912) and Baranowski in Ilya Surguchev's Autumn Violin (1915). At MXAT Bolesławski was perceived as a loyal student of Stanislavsky and as an actor who dutifully followed and implemented his mentor's acting method based on emotional recall. Bolesławski also worked under the other founder of the Moscow stage, Vladimir Niemirowych-Danchenko, acquiring directing skills under his guidance. It was around this time that Bolesławski was also exposed to non-naturalistic theatre. Bolesławski played Laertes in a production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1911) which was put on at the Moscow theatre by another theatre reformer, Edward Gordon Craig. In 1912, Bolesławski performed as a guest with the theatre in Warsaw, appearing as Belayev among other various roles.
In 1912 Stanislavsky founded the First MXAT Studio alongside the Moscow Art Theatre with the theatre's young students in mind. Bolesławski was among those assigned to the new group, within which he intended to try his hand at directing. He made his directing debut there, preparing in 1913 the first public showcase of the Studio, a very well-received staging of Herman Heijerman's Nadzieja / Hope. A year later he staged Vladimir Volkenstein's Wędrowne kaleki / Traveling cripples, a drama referencing an old Russian tradition, dating back to the a 12th century, of the peregrinations of cripples (disabled people) emerging from an ecstatic vein in Orthodox Christianity. This directing project manifested inspirations flowing more from the theatrical concepts of Danchenko and Craig, a love of monumental moments, rawness and heroism rather than of Stanislavsky's realism. Critics also underlined that Bolesławski also proved very capable of guiding his actors. The production acquired a hieratic, dignified, and poetic air. Bolesławski dabbled in directing while simultaneously appearing regularly in the theatre's repertoire productions, among others playing Von Lembke in a production titled Nikolai Stavrogin (1913) based on Dostoyevsky's Biesy / The Devils and Don Carlos in Alexander Pushkin's The Stone Guest (1915). He also offered two very good comedic performances, playing Alcydas in Moliere's The Forced Marriage ["Le marriage forcé"] [aka "The Compulsory Marriage"] (1913) and Fabricio in Carlo Goldoni's Mirandolino (1914). During this period he also taught at the Studio and at an acting school run by MXAT actor Alexander Adashev. He also debuted as a film actor in 1914, playing, among others, a young man in Taniec wampira / The Vampire's Dance (1914) and the titled role in Bohaterski czyn kozaka Kuźmy Kriuczkowa / The Heroic Deed of Cossack Kuźma Kruchkov (1914). He was also entrusted with directing his first films, creating Ty jeszcze nie umiesz kochać / You Don't Know How to Love Yet (1915, from 1917 screened under the title Ziemia Polenowych / The Polenovs' Land) and Trzy spotkania / Three Meetings (1915).
In 1915, following the outbreak of World War I, Bolesławski enlisted in the army. He was initially a recruit, probably serving in the Border Guard 6th Cavalry Division, after which he underwent accelerated officer training at the very well-reputed cavalry school in Tver. In 1916 he enlisted with the 1st Polish Ulan Division commanded by Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki. From there he received orders to attend a telegraphy course. In 1917 he returned to Moscow and to his work at the Studio. At the MXAT he played Tobias in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1917), while at the Studio at that time he prepared a staging of Juliusz Słowacki's Balladyna. The production never premiered, however, due to a misunderstanding with Stanislavsky, who considered the production unfinished. Balladyna did not premiere in Moscow until 1920, by which time Bolesławski had left Moscow. Before the director left Russia, however, he managed to direct a number of other productions, including Sam Bell's Rwanyj płaszcz / Torn Coat at the Great Dramatic Theatre in Saint Petersburg (1919), to make two films, and to appear in several other moving pictures. Following the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution, almost all of the movie industry in Russia acquired a propaganda bent, and Bolesławski's credits also included an agit-prop film from 1918 titled Chleb / Bread.
"Bolesławski was not a proponent of the revolution. Especially that which after 1917 began to reorganize cultural life in Russia. But he was also not its opponent," wrote Marek Kulesza. "He knew the Russian nation and understood the reasons why millions of its people placed their votes against Tsarist tyranny. However, he could not accept its vilence and terror" (M. Kulesza, "Ryszard Bolesławski. Umrzeć w Hollywood" / "Ryszard Bolesławski - To Die in Hollywood," Warsaw, 1989).
Shortly, the actor and director abandoned Russia and made it to Poland.
He arrived in Poland in 1920 and became a member of the theatre community here, having met several Polish theatre artists during his Moscow days - among them, Juliusz Osterwa, Stanislawa Wysocka and Aleksander Zelwerowicz. His first directing project was Henning Berger's Powódź / The Flood (in which he appeared as an actor in 1917 at the MXAT), staged at the Grand Theatre in Poznań (1920). However, the director did not remain in Poznań, and in 1920 he landed in Warsaw as a member of the troupe of the Polish Theatre managed by Arnold Szyfman. His first production here was a very well-received premiere of Moliere's Mieszczanin szlachcicem / Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, with scenery designed by Wincenty Drabik (1920). Together with Leon Schiller he co-wrote a musical pantomime titled Mandragora to the music of Karol Szymanowski, which concluded this production. The production was noticed for its directing ingenuity in terms of staging solutions, a harmonious blend of all its elements, ensemble acting and a noble realism, which balanced at the edge of the grotesque. This works came to be considered as an example of modern directing and a brilliant adaptation of the work of the French comedy writer. Bolesławski's next premiere, Edmond Rostand's Romantyczni / The Romantics (1920), proved highly unsuccessful. Claudius (Little Theatre, 1920) by the contemporary American author Booth Tarkington proved a skillfully staged comedy. His next project was of a different nature. Bolesławski treated Karol Hubert Rostworowski's Miłosierdzie / Mercy (1920) as a theatrical screenplay, creating an autonomous stage spectacle with exquisitely directed crowd scenes and a clear, distinct symbolic message. The artist's final projects in the Polish theatre were the highly successful, box office success comedy Kiki by André Picard (Little Theatre, 1921) and Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas (1921). At around this time, a conflict developed between Bolesławski and Arnold Szyfman. Most probably the director wanted to direct a Shakespeare play, to which the director of the Warsaw stage would not agree and shortly thereafter terminated his engagement. Soon after Bolesławski left Poland, and many critics and theatre artists, including Leon Schiller, mourned the fact that Bolesławski was not properly "used" in Polish theatre, and that he was one of the representatives of an innovative approach to the art of directing. The artist left Warsaw probably midway through 1921. However, before he left Poland, during the Polish-Bolshevik War he served as a volunteer officer in one of the engineering battalions of the Volunteer Army. Later, he began working as a film propagandist, making three patriotic propaganda films - Nawrócenie Pawła i Gawła / The Conversion of Pawel and Gawel (1920), Bohaterstwo polskiego skauta / The Heroism of a Polish Scout (1920) and Cud nad Wisłą / The Miracle on the Vistula (1921). During this time he also developed a relationship with the Skamander literary group, taking part in the arts evenings they organized. He offered his final public performance in Poland in 1921, during an authors' evening devoted to Julian Tuwim and Kazimierz Wierzyński.
During the 1920s, Bolesławski's life was marked by constant peregrination. Throughout this time the director worked occasionally in theatre and film in Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Copenhagen and Paris. However, he did not settle down in any of these cities. In 1921 he became involved in the work of the MXAT, forming a part of the Kachalovsky Group formed in emigration founded by Vasily Kochalov, directing Shakespeare's Hamlet with this group (1921) in a production that was performed in Prague.
He landed in New York in 1922. It was here that one year later Stanislavski arrived for a series of guest performances with his MXAT troupe. Bolesławski joined in their work, playing, among other things, Satin in Maxim Gorky's The Lowe Depths and gaining some very good reviews from the American press. He did not return to Russia with the troupe. As an actor of the Moscow theatre and additionally a director at the Studio and a person familiar with the Stanislavski method so highly esteemed in the United States, he founded his own, private acting school. Taking lessons from Bolesławski began to be very popular and the actor became ever more immersed in American theatre life, even more so because he was considered a close collaborator of Stanislavski. Shortly he joined the ensemble of The Neighbourhood Playhouse and began for its members to lecture on the principles of acting for its new adepts. He also directed two premieres for the troupe, his American directing debut, The Player Queen by William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw's Widzenie Blanco Posneta / Blanco Posnet's Vision (1923). That same year he also directed his first Broadway premiere - Melchior Langyel's Sancho Pansa, but the production did not prove successful. Bolesławski also offered a series of lectures at the Princess Theatre and published articles in theatre periodicals. In 1923 he was among the co-founders of the American Laboratory Theatre (ALT), with which he remained associated for the next six years. This institution was designed to be an acting school which would simultaneously staged productions. Bolesławski directed almost all the productions put on here, and also taught basic subjects like acting technique. Among the productions he directed here were Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1925) and perhaps the most famous, best-received by audiences and critics - Clemence Dane's Granita / Granite (1927). The school became very successful and gained fame, being that it was the first institution in the United States where one could gain practical knowledge of the Stanislavsky Method. Bolesławski's students included Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, the future founders of the Group Theatre, as well as the future professor, theatre and literature scholar Francis Fergusson. Bolesławski focused on studio work at the school but also directed several commercial productions on Broadway, including productions of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1925), and in some of them staged group scenes, as for instance, in Król włóczęgów / King of the Hobos (1927). During this time he also renewed his professional friendship with Edward Gordon Craig. The two corresponded extensively in 1927-1929.
In 1929 Bolesławski left the ALT and New York and moved to Hollywood, where he first found work with the Pathé Film Studio. He directed the crowd scenes in Edward Griffith's Paris Bound (1929) before debuting as an independent director in 1930, though by this time he was on contract with Columbia Pictures. His first film was a light, fairytale-like adventure titled The Last of the Lone Wolf. In 1932 he was hired by Metro Goldwyn Meyer, the best studio at the time, for which he produced a number of screenplays. It was at MGM that he completed the screenplay for Rasputin and also subsequently did some directing work to complete the project. He then directed a few more rather undistinguished films, the most prominent among them being perhaps Beauty for Sale (1933). Fugitive Lovers (1934), which he directed with great sensitivity to the nature of the film and highly skillfully besides, proved something of a breakthrough in his career. He followed this with a number of other good films, including the medical drama Men in White starring Clark Gable (1934) and The Painted Veil based on a novel by William Somerset Maugham and starring Greta Garbo (1934). Bolesławski also registered a box office and artistic success with Clive of India, based on the biography of Robert Clive, one of the creators of British colonialism in India, which Bolesławski directed in 1935 for 20th Century Studios. In this spectacular film Bolesławski did a wonderful job of directing the actors, and especially the actor in the title role, Ronald Colman, demonstrated great sensitivity in filming the love scenes and great panache in shooting the battle scenes. When the director was then offered the opportunity to make Les Miserables based on Victor Hugo's novel of the same title, he wrote:
"Sometimes a director waits all his life for a screenplay (...) When I received a copy of the script for 'Les Miserables,' I knew immediately this was 'my' screenplay. I knew that this text could turn out to be the basis for a great drama or for a mere piece of theatre" ("Photoplay Studies," 1935, no. 1 in: M. Kulesza, "Ryszard Bolesławski. Umrzeć w Hollywood" / "Ryszard Bolesławski - To Die in Hollywood," Warsaw, 1989).
Bolesławski produced a great drama, in which he strongly emphasized the Romantic spirit of the novel and very suggestively portrayed the historical background. He directed his next films for Metro Goldwyn Meyer, producing a melodrama titled O'Shaughnessy's Boy (1935) and a typical, box office oriented B-movie titled Three Godfathers (1936). In 1936 the director received another chance to direct a great screen epic; this time it was to be romantic drama in full color starring Marlene Dietrich. Set in the Algerian desert, The Garden of Allah was a film that Bolesławski made for Selznick International. The film's story proved melodramatic, but it gained esteem above all for its use of a technical novelty - excellent use of color. Bolesławski had already ably employed irony in Clive of India, and now was to receive a chance to direct his first comedy. In Theodora Goes Wild (1936, Columbia), a film about a young woman from a good home who publishes a controversial romance, Bolesławski offered an excellent and highly satirical picture of provincial, puritanical America. Politics was another domain which he treated with irony in this film. Theodora proved both a box office and artistic success. Bolesławski was a very skilled and capable stage director. In some of his films he also demonstrated himself to be an excellent filmmaker. He excelled at directing his actors, including those who played secondary roles, and was unparalleled in directing crowd and battle scenes. He paid attention to detail and was honest in his approach to every film, making every effort to have the themes and meanings of the story play out consistently and clearly. In 1937 he began shooting another film, namely, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937, MGM). He died suddenly of a heart attack while working on the film, just a few days before it he was to complete shooting.
While in the United States, Bolesławski published both press articles and a number of books. The latter included a popular acting textbook titled Acting - The First Six Lessons (1933) as well as two volumes of fictionalized memoirs recounting battles fought by Polish uhlans in Russia during World War I - The Way of the Lancer and Lance Down (1932). These memoirs were subsequently also published in Poland under the title Szlakiem ułanów / The Trail of the Uhlans (1939).
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, December 2006.