Obscure Films: “The Portrait” (1915)

There’s something about old portraits that inspires the gothic side of our imaginations, especially if the portraits are sufficiently somber or darkened with age. Looking into the steady eyes of a subject long dead has inspired many a horror writer–and more than one filmmaker, too.

One example of that inspiration is the little-watched drama The Portrait (1915), which I stumbled across recently. While it’s sadly only a fragment of a lost film, it contains some pretty neat imagery and is capable of leading us down some of those delightful research rabbit holes.

The Portrait closeup wpainting

The surviving slivers of The Portrait amount to about 8 minutes of a 3- to 4- reel film. And by some happy coincidence those slivers don’t do a bad job of standing on their own. I wonder if someone trimmed the feature down to try and make a horror short of sorts, or if they just wanted to save the creepiest footage.

The plot seems straightforward enough. It begins with a young man browsing a secondhand shop crammed with old pieces of art. He’s somehow drawn to a portrait of an old man that would look at home in a Halloween attraction, and purchases it. Naturally, once the portrait’s glowering in his claustrophobic apartment the young man starts growing uneasy around it. He even has several nightmares where it comes to life and climbs out of its frame. Once the creepiness is fully established, The Portrait ends abruptly–which is tantalizing–but all in all I’m glad it somehow made it through all these decades.

The Portrait looking back

I was surprised and happy to see that this film was directed by Ladislas Starevich, the acclaimed animator behind The Insects’ Christmas (1911), The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) and other weirdly charming stop-motion animation. (Which both amazes me and sometimes creeps me out, but that’s a topic for another post.) Starevich’s unique body of work also included documentaries and several live action dramas, such our subject The Portrait. 

Some of Starevich’s work draws on folk tales and mythology, and he seems to have been particularly inspired by the Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol. Gogol, who leaned toward the surreal and satirical with just a little dash of Poe, wrote what was perhaps the first great Russian novel, Dead Souls. His main body of work was published in the 1830s and 1840s, and one of his many short stories was The Portrait, which came out in 1835.

Portrait of Nikolay Gogol

Reading his story helps us piece together what the complete Starevich feature might’ve been like. The young man in the story is actually a penniless artist, who buys the strange portrait with his last coins. He finds himself haunted by the eerie picture and dreams that its subject climbs out of the frame holding a sack of money (as is depicted in the film). Not long afterwards, the landlord stops by to demand rent. The painting gets accidentally damaged, and reveals that a bag of gold was hidden in its frame. The young artist pays the rent and happily makes lavish plans for his future career. He decides to stay true to his own artistic style, and not cave to fickle fashions. But will he stay strong, and will everything really be smooth sailing? (That, by the way, is only part of Part I.)

The Portrait carrying pic

This was not the only Gogol story adapted by Starevich–in 1913 he also made the infamous The Night Before Christmas (infamous to me, that is). It was based on Gogol’s short story Christmas Eve, which in turn was based on Ukrainian folk tales about devils and witches. Starevich’s film version gives me the willies and may have caused me to long for the sweet relief of Krampus legends, but that’s me.

Image result for the night before christmas 1913

So now that you have a bit of background on The Portrait, here it is in decent quality–kudos to the uploader who paired it with some Rachmaninoff! (Usually when folks add a “score” to a silent film on YouTube the results are nothing short of ghastly, but in this case it works.) If you like Poe-style stories, Russian literature, silent horror films, or some combination of all the above, you just might find it interesting. Enjoy:

11 thoughts on “Obscure Films: “The Portrait” (1915)

  1. Thank you for this one! But even more, thank you for the story written above. I have here in my home Gogols “Lost souls”, and maybe I have a collection of short stories where “The Portrait” might be included – somewhere. Unfortunely I’m the kind of person who buy more books than I read, and parts of my “library” is a mess. Time to start a search for the short story mentioned above – and time to start reading again.

    My first thoughts, when I met this article, circulated around “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde, but I soon realised that that was a false track. There is so very much I have to explore here in your impressing silent movie building. And thank you for a nice welcoming in another place on this site.

    You know, I once was a part time cinema projectionist, before the complete digitization. Then I gave it up, for several reasons. Digital movie theaters most young people are able to handle with success, and I guess (whithout beeing sure) that you don’t need to posess the traditional certificate for being a projectionist.

    I miss the the sound and the smell of the machines, the projectors. According to me – almost a living thing that you had to keep an eye on – and moreover listen to. A misstake loading it, and a very wrong mechanically sound might spoil a very expensive copy. And if you’re not carefull you don’t see it until it is too late. Because of that the certificates. But not even the certificates are a life insurance for the poor celluloid.

    Finally. I try to be an honest man. If we turn the whole thing around. I really don’t know if I would be able to do a good job with the new machines. Generations have always changed places, and changed tecniques. That’s the way life is. Enough now.

    I just wish I could have seen more from that half lost movie above.

    • I also assumed it would be a Dorian Gray adaptation, but apparently not! I’ve been diving into some Russian novels myself lately (Dostoevsky fits the cold weather months very well, somehow) and should give Gogol a try, too.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences as a projectionist! That’s such a vitally important part of early film history, and it’s a subject I really need to learn more about. It’s always seemed like such painstaking, skilled work–no wonder inexperienced projectionists caused fires back in the early days.

      • I didn’t have the intention to write another comment here. But your words above made me do it. Russian litterature is often very good, and I have a couple of “brickstones” by Dostojevskij (swedish translitteration) lying around here in my flat, waiting for me to stop looking at them, and instead read them. But there is a mess with all the names for an confused individual. Most persons have tree names. Their first name, their family name, and their nickname – well not unusual – but when you are not used to the names, and they are mixed all the time during the journey, there is no easy task to always separate the characteres if you are a slow reader – like me – and the book contains 500 pages.

        Well. Projectionist. I’m in between two generations. The old times with a carbon arc lamp in the projector and highly flammable film material was an era passed by when I took my first steps. There is an interesting old swedish newsreel from when the fire departement in Stockholm are burning a “mountain” of old
        discarded film material in an open field. Their vehicles are parked close by. So time for the lightning. It is exlosive, and the firefighters have to evacuate. I’m really sorry that I can’t find the film, but as soon I do I will share it with you.

        Lastly. The cinema theatre I mostly worked in is one of Swedens oldest, Fyrisbiografen, and when you go back in history there are at least two times fire started in the machine room. I associate to your words above. That was in the era of silent mowies. At one of the occassions, according to Uppsala Nya Tidning, the local newspaper, the cinema was so smootly evacuated that the pianoplayer in front of the cinema screen didn’t notice what happened. He just played on. Sounds unreal. But I will also send this article if I find it.


        • Thanks for the article, Erik! I’d be interested in seeing that film, if you ever run across it (no pressure!).

          Ah yes, all those confusing Russian names–those were hard for me to get used to, too. Especially since they switch from formal names to nicknames without any warning–definitely keeps you on your toes!

  2. Quite an absorbing fragment—thanks for featuring it. The “ending” does leave the viewer hanging in an interesting way. And the Rachmaninov prelude does indeed work quite well.

    Starevich’s work is always interesting. When you say it sometimes creeps you out, how so? (I think I probably agree, but am interested your thoughts. 🙂

    • Well, a lot of old stop motion animation has a certain creep factor–the odd looking puppets, the jerky movements–and some of Starevich’s work definitely creeps me out. The insect films are probably the ones I like the most. I can appreciate Starevich as an artist now, but boy I’m glad I didn’t see films like his THE TALE OF THE FOX as a kid!

  3. Just when I was going to give up my search, I suddenly found it! I thought. The newsreel added below must be the wrong one, if I’m not really severe senil. In my memory the one I mentioned above definitly is a bit more modern, but the films – out in the field – old. There were firefighting trucks involved, and sound. I will try again later. But here below it’s at least silent history for you, and hereby you have an address to a very big Swedish archive. I think you can handle some simpel Swedish. But don’t trust Google translate too much. I’ll give examples another day if you like, and the texts in the films below also include old swedish plural verbal forms. Not easy for a machine. Finally, before I turn to film. Theese simple pieces of information might help you.

    Many people from other countries complain about parts of our alfabeth. “You have thoose strange letters with dots or rings above.” Usually they never get an explanation, because most sweedes don’t know the story behind. The tree letters Åå, Ää, Öö are simly diftongs Ao, Ae and Oe.

    1. Some explanations. There are more films in this “reel”, but the first one, with the films in a box is arranged by an exlosives expert to show how fiery they were in those days, and dangerous to have in archives. Probably becase of that the box. My guess. But I think more than one was surprised of the result. A civil interior from Stockholm 1929.
    2. “Heimdall” in the second film is about an agrounded boat/ship, that is going to be trailed to harbour for repair.
    3. Järnvägsmuseet (The Raiload Museum) opened an intresting exhibition (utställning) with old Swedish locomotives, And I can assure you that theese machines were already old by then! Keatons “The General feels modern.
    4. Finally. Fashion Show in the fall. Do you need a new outfit – get inspired. The word “höstkriget” I don’t know what it means in this context. Google present me “fall war” or “autumn war” – same meaning as in Swedish – but I am still unable to understand. Perhaps different creators competed with their winter collections? I have no idea – other than I have to teach myself to be shorter in here on your site.


    Maybe this next would be a bit of Swedish heritage for you – since you seem to like the spooky:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Phantom_Carriage (Just a wikipedia article, but informative. Spoiler warning. Based on a strong novel by Selma Lagerlöf.

      • Just realised that you kan see the “Phantom Carriage”, full mowie, on the Wikipedia link – I just did. If you use just the small screen in the article there are italian subtitles popping up above the english, but if you go to full screen – not 100% quality, but I got used – you’ll find the english subtitles all right, and the italian below.

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