The communist musical

The communist musical – musical movies of the Soviet Union

J. Hoberman

Set in a world where lovers sing, tough guys dance, and work is most typically defined as putting on a show, the musical comedy is a taste of paradise. It presents, in Richard Dyer’s formulation, “what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized.”

Show business, as Dyer suggests in his canonical cinema studies essay “Entertainment and Utopia,” is essentially compensatory. The musical in particular offers audiences an “image of ‘something better’ to escape into,” something that “our day-to-day lives don’t provide.” Scarcity is countered by abundance, exhaustion by energy, dreariness by intensity, manipulation by transparency, fragmentation by community. The musical may be the most millennial of movie genres, but it is not necessarily the most American. The officially achieved utopias of the Communist world also required utopia.

The notion of revolutionary song-and-dance is most closely associated with the humorless model-operas of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. (“After a week’s work, people want to go to the theater to relax. Instead, with this thing, you go to the theater and find yourself on the battlefield,” was Deng Xiaoping’s unwise review of the militant ballet The Red Detachment of Women, filmed in 1967.) But East Side Story, a sardonic “That’s Entertainment!” assembled by Dana Ranga and Andrew Horn and currently in U.S. release, shatters the Chinese model by culling production numbers from tunefests set in such now-Ruritanian realms as the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany: “We sing the song of the coal press!” – and that’s just for starters.

The signifier of Prague Spring may be less Closely Watched Trains than the 1965 production Woman on the Rails (unmentioned in all English-language histories) from which East Side Story lifts two scenes: one, a flirtatious phalanx of color-coordinated Skodas arrayed on a Prague street, the other a high-kicking beauty salon number performed by a bevy of bikini’d babes that lacks only a lip-smacking Dino to evoke the utopia of High Sixties consumption.

The man who pioneered the Red musical was Grigori Alexandrov, Sergei Eisenstein’s assistant from Strike through !Que Viva Mexico!. In 1931, Alexandrov accompanied Eisenstein to Hollywood where both were under contract to Paramount. Eisenstein’s projects got nowhere, but on their return to Moscow, Alexandrov accepted an assignment the maestro turned down. The same year Fox released Stand Up and Cheer, a musical in which the American President charged Secretary of Amusement Warner Baxter with tap-dancing the nation out of its Depression, Alexandrov directed Jolly Fellows (34), a vehicle for the reigning Soviet jazzman, Leonid Utyosov.

Synthesizing Western developments that ranged from surrealism to scat singing, cutting scenes to prerecorded sound (a technique then known as mickey-mousing), and staging them on streamlined, modernistic sets, interpolating cartoon gags and anticipating Spike Jones with the movie’s climactic musical brawl, Alexandrov produced a Soviet cousin to Paramount musicals like Love Me Tonight or the anarchic comedies Million Dollar Legs and Duck Soup. (Indeed, the mountain that was the Paramount logo insinuates itself into the theatrical backdrop in the movie’s madcap Bolshoi finale.)

Jolly Fellows premiered to acclaim at the 1934 Venice Film Festival, but was dismissed by the influential Literary Gazette as a “vulgar mistake.” Still, young people adopted the movie and, after a command Kremlin screening, so did the leadership. Pravda dutifully endorsed Jolly Fellows (and rebuked its critics). Alexandrov would later claim to be the only Soviet civilian awarded the Order of the Red Star – Stalin thought him “a brave man to do a humorous picture.” True or not, Jolly Fellows’ success made singer Lyubov Orlova a superstar (and Mrs. Alexandrov), while canonizing composer Isaac Dunayevksky, whose affirmative “mass songs” for the follow-up Circus (36) were widely distributed well in advance of the movie’s release.

Whereas Jolly Fellows was essentially apolitical, Circus opens with a frenzied Kansas mob chasing the aerialist Marion (Orlova) and her mulatto baby out of town. Cut to a Soviet circus, complete with resident Chaplin impersonator and Russian Rockettes. Marion, a visiting artiste whose German manager is a proto-Nazi, falls for a handsome Soviet acrobat. To thwart this romance, the German exposes her “racial crimes.” Surprise! The Russians don’t even understand the problem. Performers of various nationalities, including Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, take turns serenading the child – “Here you will grow up safe” – and the movie ends with Marion marching on May Day alongside her Soviet comrades. (Unlike Jolly Fellows, which had opened in New York in March 1935 under the title Moscow Laughs, Circus was not exported to the U.S.)

Made at the height of the Great Terror, Alexandrov’s 1938 Volga Volga is said to have been Stalin’s favorite movie – according to East Side Story, he screened it over one hundred times. The mode is aggressively populist. Invited to send a delegation to the Moscow amateur music festival, the officious manager of a small-town musical instrument plant opts for a mediocre classical orchestra. A postal worker, played by Orlova as a vigorous exponent of the People’s Song movement, insists that her band also make the trip. Spurred on by the leading lady’s piercing soprano, the comrades engage in all manner of pixillated song-and-dance routines. Such manic cavorting is an Alexandrov specialty – as is the grand finale, which, as in Circus, transposes the performance onto a wider stage. Arrived in the continual festival that is the Moscow of their dreams, the actors directly address their movie audience: “Laughter conquers evil” (not to mention blockhead bureaucrats).

Volga Volga’s vision of paradise regained might almost have been conceived to demonstrate Dyer’s thesis. Despite perfunctory day jobs, the movie’s characters are exclusively devoted to their amateur music-making – alienated labor has been abolished! Yet Alexandrov’s next musical was even more utopian. Stalin objected to calling it Cinderella (making no fewer than twelve suggestions for a better title), but no movie better illustrated the Stalinist catchphrase “the fairy tale has become reality.” Transforming factory work into exalted play, The Shining Path spans the 1930s to track the transformation of an illiterate, shapeless potato-sack (Orlova) into a Stakhanovite Heroine of Labor and then a decorated Supreme Soviet deputy. (This transformation was topped only by Alexandrov’s lone postwar musical, the 1947 Spring, in which Orlova appeared as dancing astrophysicist.)

Employed as a drudge by the silly and self-important proprietress of a provincial rooming-house, Tanya – like her employer – is smitten by a handsome young guest, engineer Alexei Lebedev. The jealous proprietress throws Tanya out, but the girl has a fairy godmother namely the local Party Secretary Maria Pronina (whose only wand, per the Daily Worker, is the Soviet Constitution). Maria enrolls Tanya in an adult education course, then arranges for her to attend the prince’s ball; our Cinderella dreams that Maria guides her to an enchanted castle guarded by giant statues of heroic workers. Tanya is entranced … it is a vast, airy, magnificent textile mill.

No less than Disney’s Cinderella, Tanya sings as she sews. Unlike her American counterpart, however, she is obsessed with productivity. Inspired by an article in Pravda, Tanya goes from operating eight to sixteen looms. To overcome the opposition of the stubborn bureaucrat who manages her factory, she writes to the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, Molotov himself. Ultimately, the mill must be expanded so Tanya can operate one hundred and fifty looms, dancing from one to the next as she sings Dunayevsky’s “March of the Enthusiasts.” Who could resist this enchantment? Twenty years later, as East Side Story shows us, Tanya’s cavorting echoed in East Germany’s New Years Punch (60), in which a limber comrade uses a factory railing as a barre, and Romania’s I Don’t Want to Marry (61), which features a mass-mambo performed on a mirrored stage by a cadre of comely dancers in factory overalls.

Retitled Tanya, The Shining Path opened in New York in March 1942, less than three months after the U.S. had allied itself with the USSR in the war against Nazi Germany. “Russky glorification of the proletariat rates as first class morale hypo in any language,” Variety allowed, while the Daily Worker waxed ecstatic over this “beautiful poem of factory life” featuring a star “whose face is the nearest thing to sunshine we have seen.”

Having received the Order of Lenin in the Kremlin’s operetta palace, Tanya is reunited with her Prince Charming at Moscow’s newly opened All-Union Agricultural Exposition – the original Socialist Realist theme park, a Stalinist deco heaven that also serves as the setting for The Swineherd and the Shepherd (40), directed by Alexandrov’s only peer, Ivan Pyriev.

Schoolfriends from Yekaterina, Alexandrov and Pyriev both acted with Eisenstein at the Proletkult. Alexandrov, however, was a something of a cosmopolitan. (“I was very conscious of the deep impression which his years in America had made on him,” a coworker later wrote. “His sincere admiration for the United States was evident in his clothes, his constant smile, and his descriptions of what he had seen in America.”) Pyriev was more of a nativist – his concern, as film historian Maya Turovskaya says in East Side Story, was with the “great Russian soul.”

In 1938, five years before Oklahoma! opened on Broadway, Pyriev invented the kolkhoz (collective farm) musical. The Rich Bride starred his wife Marina Ladynina, singing a folksy Dunayevsky score. It was followed by the singing title figures of The Tractors (39) and The Swineherd and the Shepherd, both enormously popular – and what’s more, correct. While allowing that some shots in the latter reminded him of “lacquered snuff-box paintings,” Eisenstein nevertheless asked, “What other picture has hymned the indissolubly united friendship between our country’s peoples with such verve, optimism and exuberance?” (What other picture opened with its joyous heroine running through a sound-stage birchwood serenading her hogs?) Indeed, Eisenstein would publish a slyly prudent tribute: “Snobs and aesthetes may splutter that Pyriev’s work is not always refined. But even they find it difficult to deny that it has a quality that rings true… The fact stares us in the face: Ivan Pyriev has won the Stalin Prize four times.”

The Soviet musical sputtered during the postwar period, but not before Pyriev won a fifth Stalin Prize for Cossacks of the Kuban (49). The movie manifests a new theory: Communism has been built, art must be free from conflict. There are no more saboteurs, the kulaks are gone. All characters on the kolkhoz are positive. The narrative is to reflect the competition between good and better – in this case, the Red Partisan kolkhoz and its (friendly) rival, the Testament of Ilyich kolkhoz, chaired by the ever-smiling Galina. (Having played a shock-worker in The Rich Bride, a brigade leader in Tractor Drivers, prize-winning pig breeder in The Swineherd arid the Shepherd, and a kindergarten teacher turned antiaircraft gunner in At Six O’Clock After the War, Ladynina was more than qualified to run a kolkhoz.)

In Cossacks’ fantastic opening scene, a peaceful golden landscape is suddenly animated by Pyriev’s mobile camera and a small army of marching, singing, working peasants operating (legend has it) every harvester in the Soviet Union. The Feast of Plenty is an axiom of the kolkhoz musical. Cossacks’ fair is a riot of colorful goods and produce – exciting music, futuristic radios, newfangled balalaikas, heaps of books, balloons, and toys (everything but sex): “We sought the land of happiness and now it’s something we possess!”

Evil distortion or a cheerful ray of sunshine? When the young Mikhail Gorbachev saw Cossacks of the Kuban in the early Fifties, he reportedly told a companion that “it’s not like that at all.” On the other hand, on New Year’s Eve 1995, Russia’s largest television network broadcast a slick three-hour, $3 million special in which the nation’s leading pop stars recreated scenes from Cossacks and other Stalinist musicals. (“Everyone is sick of American movies and tired of having an inferiority complex,” the youthful TV star and coproducer Leonid Parfyonov told The New York Times.)

During the early Fifties, with the “classic” Soviet musicals in constant revival, the Pyriev model spread throughout eastern Europe. (Perhaps beyond: in MOM’s 1950 Summer Stock, Judy Garland sings an ode to her tractor.) Typical is the 1951 Czechoslovak production Road to Happiness – the title tells all. Jirina Svorcova, a Party militant offscreen as well as on, returns – singing – to her home village. Having studied agriculture, her greatest hope is to be a tractoristka: “You can hear the vibration of the engine from afar,” she trills.

Other movies, like the Polish Adventure to Marienstadt (54) or the Czech Tomorrow There Will Be Dancing Everywhere (52), incorporated documentary footage of performances from the international Communist youth festivals. The latter in particular is an interminable gloss on Volga Volga’s tribute to indigenous culture. The insanely smiling positive heroine leads fellow students in singing new Komsomol anthems and learning old Moravian dances: “In folk art you can recognize the soul of our nation.” In Hungary, where hostility to the forced collectivization of agriculture made peasants more problematic, such folk art encompassed operetta: As perfectly synchronized as the cast of a workplace sitcom, the workers of The State Owned Department Store (52) fall in love, go on communal vacation, sing progressive lullabyes, prevent reactionaries from selling customers shoddy goods, and, in the wild and crazy final scene, foil a CIA and Voice of America plot to devalue their currency.

A more tendentious “operetta of optimism,” Marton Keleti’s Life Is Beautiful If You Sing (50) uses the metaphor of a factory glee club to dramatize the conflicted Hungarian nation. Dissatisfied with the lugubrious repertoire of the defeatist bourgeois Silver Lyre Choir, progressive workers split off to learn a more appropriate repertoire, celebrating, in a climactic montage of mass enthusiasm, the “New World being built in the name of Stalin.” (That the movie’s title song was inspired by a Russian military march famously drove Hungarian students to trash one theater where it was shown.)

Keleti elaborated on this theme with Young at Heart (53), a spectacular vision of total mobilization. (Here, “life is beautiful” because “the shining machines hum.”) A musical drama of student factory-workers, Young at Heart revels in proletariat parades and mass calisthenics, featuring an endless agitprop variety show in which, representing American imperialism, a trio of jitterbugging zoot-suiters — incredible image under the hammer and sickle — are danced off stage by a wholesome folk chorus. And in Penny (53), his epic tribute to the construction of the model city Sztalinvaros, Hungarian “wreckers” introduce similar jazz mishigas — prompting a two-fisted, chair-breaking brawl straight out of John Ford.

After sampling Alexandrov and Pyriev, East Side Story excavates the largely unknown East German musicals produced between 1958 and 1973. Although the precedent for these GDR confections would appear to be the Soviet Carnival Nights, Eldar Shengalaya’s MagiColor remake of Volga Volga, East German genre films — which also included Westerns and even soft-core porn — developed largely because, unlike other bastions of socialism, the GI)R was compelled to compete with a linguistically compatible Western culture industry.

As such, the East German musical seems at least as theorized an entertainment mode as Frank Tashlin’s Artists and Models or The Girl Can’t Help It. The pioneer example, Hans Heinrich’s My Wife Wants to Sing (58), strategically cast the star most associated with German Communist hero Ernst Thalmann in the male lead — opposite a former Miss Bavaria. The last GDR tunefest, No Cheating Darling (73), featured the nation’s two leading pop stars in a teen-oriented extravaganza that, to judge from a cited disco number, seems half hippie hallucination, half Ann-Margret Vegas-thon: “We’ve never been so crazy before!”

Nor would they be again. After all, onscreen utopia implies real-world absence. (“To be effective,” as Dyer puts it, “the utopian sensibility has to take off from the real experiences of the audience.” Yet, “to draw attention to the gap between what is and what could be, is ideologically speaking, playing with fire.”) Intermittently, inventive East Bloc artists manipulated musical conventions to critique existing socialism. Sergei Paradjanov’s The First Lad (58) exaggerated Socialist Realist cliches beyond the point of mannerism. The manicured lawns of a Ukrainian kolkhoz are like God’s golf course, complete with sputniks whizzing overhead. All fertility is regulated, a radio broadcast inspires the flowers to open and sends a young girl hurtling through the fields with an apple for her sweetheart, this further triggering an ecstatic montage of birds, crops, and tractors.

Although not a comedy, Miklos Jancso’s stylized evocation of 1947 student militancy, The Confrontation (69), referenced the populist folk-dance movies of the period as well as the contemporary Chinese revolutionary operas — a taboo subject in Hungary. Five years later, Gyula Gazdag’s Singing on the Treadmill was banned for insolently using a Stalin-era operetta to satirize the paternal state. In 1983, Manuel Octavio Gomez directed Cuba’s first musical, Patakin. Drawing on the island’s cabaret aesthetic as well as Yoruba mythology, it featured a production number by the collective farm’s irrigation ditch — “work’s a treasure, let’s all sing” — that parodied the Hollywood and Soviet models, showing off Cuban technology as well as the companeras’ bare midriffs.

Perhaps no Red musical comedy was more self-reflexive than the East German Midnight Revue (62), a lavish musical about the problems of making a socialist musical. Could this unknown Brechtian extravaganza have been made to counter Silk Stockings? To show how utopia would be organized as well as feel? To judge from the clips included in East Side Story, this widescreen, stereophonic opus was brassy enough to rival MOM’s chief vulgarian George Sydney. Midnight Revue is filled with shiny cars, sequinned showgirls, sets to represent the Socialist Construction with the sticky grandeur of a Barton’s candy tin. There are even songs addressed to the censors:

Its enough to make you tear out

your hair. Its easier to wait ten years for a car. Its simpler to go ice-skating

in the Sahara. Than to make a socialist musical. Comrades, let us dream on.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group