Kijé and Jimson

Heard yesterday on WQXR (classical music in NYC), Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite, always enjoyable and now sort of seasonal, because of its snowy fourth movement. And the suite reminded me of the wonderful Alec Guinness movie (he wrote the screenplay and starred in the film) The Horses’s Mouth, which used the Prokofiev suite as its soundtrack.

I’ll start with the story, the book, and the film. From Wikipedia:

Lieutenant Kijé or Kizhe (Russian: Пору́чик Киже́, translit. Poruchik Kizhe), originally Kizh (Киж), is the fictional protagonist of an anecdote about the reign of Emperor Paul I of Russia; the story was used as the basis of a novella by Yury Tynyanov published in 1928 and filmed in 1934 with music by Sergei Prokofiev. The plot is a satire on bureaucracy.

… The story was made into the film Lieutenant Kijé, directed by Aleksandr Faintsimmer, which is now remembered primarily for its soundtrack, the first instance of Prokofiev’s “new simplicity”.

On the music:

Sergei Prokofiev composed music to the film Lieutenant Kijé in 1933 and compiled a suite from it as his Op. 60. It premiered in Paris in 1937. It exists in two versions, one using a baritone voice and the other using a saxophone. With the help of Prokofiev’s friend Boris Gusman, the music was developed as the score for a ballet by the Bolshoi Ballet company.

There are five movements: Kijé’s Birth; Romance; Kijé’s Wedding; Troika; Kijé’s Burial.

The Troika movement is frequently used in films and documentaries for Christmas scenes and scenes involving snow.

Now to the movie. Very briefly, from Wikipedia:

The Horse’s Mouth is a 1958 film directed by Ronald Neame and filmed in Technicolor. Alec Guinness wrote the screenplay from the 1944 novel The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary, and also played the lead role of Gulley Jimson, a London artist

The original trailer for the film can be viewed here.

A Rotten Tomatoes plot summary by Bruce Eder:

The Horse’s Mouth is an acting and a writing tour de force for Alec Guinness, who authored the screenplay in addition to starring in the film. Gulley Jimson (Alec Guinness) is an aging artist with a reputation as a genius, though he lives an impoverished life. Jimson has reached the point in his life where he no longer feels any need to moderate his irascible persona — he has a taste for alcohol and a tendency toward boisterous spirits where the ladies are concerned — in search of canvasses to paint and commissions that will allow him to live comfortably, and Guinness lives the role to the hilt. Released from jail for some indiscretion, he immediately begins harassing his wealthiest patron, Hickson (Ernest Thesiger), for money. When that fails, he insinuates himself into the home of a would-be patron, Sir William and Lady Beeder (Robert Coote, Veronica Turleigh), and manages to destroy their home and that of their downstairs neighbor with a huge block of stone and some help from a sculptor friend (Michael Gough). Courted by a potential buyer, he is desperate to retrieve one of his early works from his former wife, but even that prospect is closed off to him. Finally, with help from his young admirer, Nosey (Mike Morgan), his friend, Coker (Kay Walsh), and some art students eager to work with the legendary Gulley Jimson, he begins painting his largest canvas of all [The Last Judgement]. The painting is completed and promptly destroyed. Jimson finally takes off in his wreck of a houseboat for the open sea, eyeing the huge hulls of the passing ships as potential canvasses to paint. As he disappears up the river, Coker looks on in panic and Nosey calls after him, declaring his admiration for Jimson and who he is and what his work means — knowing for certain that he can’t be heard.

The title. The title of Cary’s book and the film is an English  idiom (straight) from the horse’s mouth ‘from the highest authority, from an authoritative or dependable source’. The book is told from the point of view of Gulley Jimson himself; he’s the highest authority.

Gary Martin’s Phrase Finder site takes the expression back to the racetrack, where the horse itself is the highest authority on how a race will go. Martin writes:

It is a 20th century phrase. The earliest printed version I can find of it is from the USA and clearly indicates the horseracing context – in the Syracuse Herald, May 1913


One Response to “Kijé and Jimson”

  1. Andy Sleeper Says:

    The Kije character is a fiction within a fiction – a nonexistent person promoted to Lieutenant by a stenographer’s error. Once announced to the Tsar, an elaborate heroic history was invented. When the Tsar insisted on meeting Kije, he “died.” An elaborate funeral follows.

    I enjoy the wry and humorous Prokoviev music. It reminds me of a private joke that no one gets but me.

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