The Yellow Ticket (1931) Poster

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A rather entertaining film about corruption and discrimination in Tsarist Russia
GusF27 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Based on the 1914 play of the same name by Michael Morton, this is a rather entertaining film about corruption and discrimination in Tsarist Russia. Taking place from 1913 to 1914, it goes a little over the top in essentially depicting Mother Russia under the Romanovs as the root of all evil, though it was hardly an egalitarian haven of democracy either. The script by Morton, Guy Bolton and Jules Furthman is not always stellar but it was better than I expected when I heard the film's concept and saw a few less than positive reviews. However, it is very well directed by Raoul Walsh, who had a very long and prolific Hollywood career.

The film stars Elissa Landi as a young Jewish woman named Marya Kalish. Her performance is quite good but she is a bit too hysterical at times, which gets a little trying. It comes dangerously close to camp from time to time. Sadly, Landi died in 1948 at the young age of 43. Marya is in many ways the archetypal victim. Like all other Jews, she is restricted to the Pale of Settlement after martial law is declared in Russia. In a serious case of bad timing, she learns later that day that her father, a prisoner of the Okhrana in St. Petersburg, is extremely ill. The anti-Semitic authorities have no sympathy for her plight and refuse to issue her with a passport. Marya soon discovers that she can obtain a yellow ticket that can allow her to travel anywhere in Russia for 50 rubles if she claims to be a prostitute. Although Marya has no interest in practicing prostitution and does not do so, she nevertheless obtains the yellow ticket as she is desperate to see her father. However, when she arrives at the prison, she discovers that her father has been killed by the Okhrana.

Things gets worse when she is sentenced to a 15 day prison sentence after she does not check in with the police, as holders of yellow tickets must do every two weeks. Worse still, after her release from prison, she is almost raped by a creepy orderly played by Boris Karloff, who would soon make his name as Frankenstein's Monster. She is seemingly saved by a young captain named Count Nikolai but he tries to rape her too. He is stopped by his uncle and commanding officer Baron Andrey but he does not do so out of the goodness of his heart either. The film is pre-Code which is why the issue of prostitution formed such a major part of the storyline, though the word itself is never used. The same is true of its several incidents of attempted rape. Its status as a pre-Code film means that there is a brief shot of a naked woman, something which would never have been allowed if the film had been in, say, 1935.

In only his fourth film appearance, the 24-year-old Laurence Olivier was already a great actor. He gives the best performance in the film as Julian Rolfe, an English journalist who is on an extended assignment in Russia. As the authorities have only shown him what they want him to see, his articles do not paint an accurate picture of the country. Julian meets Marya on a train and, after they chat for a few minutes, she agrees to provide him with the sort of information that he cannot get anywhere else. In a surprising move, the film jumps forward several months and we find that Julian and Marya have fallen in love and he wants to marry her. I think that I experienced film whiplash from that very sudden development. It would have probably been better to have one or two other scenes between them before they went from perfect strangers to sweethearts, even if it was obvious that that was where they were going.

The film also stars Lionel Barrymore as the lecherous, amoral, corrupt Baron Andrey. The writing for the character is not a masterclass in subtlety as he openly declares that Russia needs a Herod to slaughter the innocent. Sadly, he would get his wish. This is after he has already ripped up requests to stay executions without even looking at them. After he discovers that it is Marya who is providing Rolfe with the information, he lures her to his house and attempts to rape her but she kills him before he can do so. In a serious case of good timing, Julian and Marya are able to escape to Britain in the confusion following the declaration of the First World War. Barrymore's performance does not contain much in the way of subtlety either as he chews on the scenery rather thoroughly. I much preferred his comparatively restrained performance as Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life", the only other film in which I have seen him. Coincidentally or not, his younger brother John Barrymore played Rolfe in the original Broadway production in 1914. Outside of the "Before he was famous" moment with Karloff, none of the other actors stood out one way or the other.

Overall, this is quite a good film but it would have a great deal better with stronger writing and toned down performances from Landi and Barrymore. If, of a morning, you wake up and say to yourself, "I really want to watch a film about Tsarist Russia starring Laurence Olivier," I would recommend the excellent 1971 film "Nicholas and Alexandra" over this one. More seriously, it is sad in retrospect that things would get far worse for both Jews and Russia in reality than anything depicted in the film.
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whpratt115 May 2003
This was the third film in which Lionel Barrymore and Karloff met. This was a big step for Karloff to be appearing with Barrymore, who was a super star in those days along with Laurence Olivier. This film takes place in Russia, in the year 1913, Mary Kalish(Elissa Landi) is a Jewish girl, and finds out that her father is dying in a St. Petersburg prison. During this period, Jews were not able to travel without passports and she has to get a "yellow ticket", which is given to prostitutes. Having arrived at the prison, she learns her father has already passed away. She meets and falls in love with Julian Rolfe (Laurence Olivier), a British newspaperman. Karloff played the role of an alcholic orderly for Lionel Barrymore who attempts to molest Landi in a park. This film story line resembles the Opera "Tosca". This was a good start for Karloff's great career in films.
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Curious melodrama with a heavy bias against imperialist Russia.
Ale fish5 August 2000
This must have seemed old fashioned even when it was made. The story had to be a holdover from the silent days.

Poor, virtuous peasant Elissa Landi is persecuted by leering aristocrat Lionel Barrymore in pre-revolutionary Russia. Laurence Olivier, in his only his second U.S. movie, is the Western journalist who offers Landi his love and a chance at escape. Boris Karloff plays a drunken orderly.

Whereas Olivier attempts to bring a light touch to his thankless role, neither Landi nor Barrymore seem to know the meaning of the word 'restraint.'. This has an interesting consequence. Whereas Landi is insufferably hysterical, Barrymore provides the best reason to watch; a portrait of sheer, camp villainy that just keeps getting better and better as the film goes on.

Hard to take seriously. Watch it for Barrymore alone.
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When you talk about destruction/don't you think you can count me out/in?
dbdumonteil17 October 2009
Warning: Spoilers
MANY SPOILERS The part of a victim was tailor-made for Elissa Landi;Cecil B.De Mille made no mistake as he cast her as a Christian martyr in his famous "sign of the cross" the following year.

"The yellow ticket" is an improbable melodrama (isn't it a pleonasm as far as the genre is concerned?) in which a Jewish girl has to get a "yellow ticket" ,the mark of shame for it is given to prostitutes ;but she gets in in order to visit her imprisoned father .

Up comes an English journalist,covering "life in Russia under Nicolas the Second's reign" .He asks the young girl some "informations" and of course falls in love with her.

At the beginning of the movie,a picture showing some kind of devil (it isn't even Rasputin) to make us comprehend that czarism is evil.And if the message is not clear enough,the heroine is saved by the bell,or the Russian revolution (let's take advantage of it) ,although the poor Russians are left to their own devices while the happy lovers are flying to the wonderful free world of Albion.
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Laurence Olivier to the rescue of a Jewish Russian in distress
clanciai11 October 2019
Raoul Walksh was never a favourite of mine, I often found his pictures revolting in character and almost inhuman, and this is a particularly disturbing story but the more important for its ruthless realism. It deals with prostitution in tzarist Russia the year before the first world war, it exposes an abyss of social problems and abuse, as the main character Marya Kalish (Elissa Landi) and her family are Jewish and exposed to the tzar's pogroms. Her father ends up in jail and is placed in a dungeon in St. Petersburg, where he gets ill, and the only way for his only daughter to visit him is to acquire a "yellow ticket", a passport for prostitutes, which allows them to go around everywhere, while they have to regularly report to the police. She only avails herself of the ticket to visit her father and never works as a prostitute, although she is troubled enough especially by militaries and Lionel Barrymore as the abominable chief of police. In a critical moment Laurence Olivier as nothing less than a downright Englishman appears as a newspaper man to save her from even worse troubles to come. The finale is tremendous in its chaotic scenes of the outbreak of the war, but it is a good story efficiently told and extremely interesting for its exposure of the conditions of prostitutes in the Russia before the wars, - that only made everything even worse in Russia.
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Pre-code drama has lost some of its sting as its performances and plot twists push the film toward camp
dbborroughs27 October 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Set in 1913 Russia this is a tale that seeks to explain the decay that led to the revolution a couple of years later. This is the story of a young Jewish girl who's father has been tossed into prison by the Cossacks. When word arrives that he is dying about the same time new travel restrictions ( Jews are forbidden from travel)are put into place the girl seeks to find away to go see her father. She quickly finds that the only way for her to travel is if she gets a "yellow card". The card brands her as a prostitute but also gives her a freedom of movement. Traveling to the prison she eventually finds her father who had been executed a short time before. A drift in Russia she encounters a degenerate Baron (played by Lionel Barrymore) and an English reporter (Laurence Olivier) both of whom will play a role in her future.

This is a pre-code film (with some fleeting nudity) that probably has never really played on TV due to its subject matter and the frank way the material is handled (not to mention an attitude that might have been seen to be pro-communist in the dark cold war days). In some ways it's more mature than many movies of the present day. Give the film points for being willing to deal with such adult material. Ultimately though the film is a soap opera with the story of the good girl (despite her label) finding romance and hope with the reporter taking the forefront.

Much of the film hasn't aged well and now much of it borders on camp. Barrymore's portrayal of the evil Baron is so over the top (his dismissals of leniency for some prisoners is clichéd silliness) that any real fear is lost to the unintentional joke. How can we fear for the lives of the leads when he is too much of a buffoon to truly endanger them (though everyone around them is another story). Like wise over the top is the fleeting performance of Boris Karloff as a drunken soldier who staggers about and paws our heroine in a manner more funny(in context) then menacing. The romance is pretty much a foregone conclusion once Olivier shows up and it hits all of the expected notes.

I should say it's not a bad movie. Its actually quite enjoyable, but it's not as enjoyable as it could be because the campiness of the over aged material takes the edge off the drama. Definitely worth a look if you run across it, though not something that you need seek out.

6ish out of 10
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Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff
kevinolzak26 November 2013
1931's "The Yellow Ticket" was adapted from a 1914 play set in 1913 Czarist Russia, with second billed Lionel Barrymore replacing younger brother John in the scenery chewing role of Baron Andreeff, persecuting the young Jewish beauty Marya Kalish (Elissa Landi), whose only means of travel is the Baron's dreaded 'yellow ticket,' branding this virginal schoolteacher a prostitute. 24 year old Laurence Olivier, in only his fourth feature (second in Hollywood), plays British newspaperman Julian Rolfe, who has spent two pleasant months in Russia, but now has his eyes opened to the degradations endured by Marya; his subsequent negative articles incur the wrath of the furious Baron. The luminous Elissa Landi would soon star in her best known vehicle, "The Sign of the Cross," and there are tiny parts for native Russians such as Mischa Auer and Michael Mark. Boris Karloff, just two films away from "Frankenstein," remains typecast as a lecherous drunken orderly, whose unwelcome ministrations get him arrested (his best lecherous drunk came 3 months earlier in "Five Star Final"). This was his third film working with Lionel Barrymore, co-starring in the 1926 silent "The Bells," and in 1929 directed by Lionel in "The Unholy Night."
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