Friday, 20 August 2010

Volga-Volga (1938)

I don't suppose you realised that Josef Stalin had a favourite film. After all, who knows what Churchill's or Roosevelt's movie preferences were, although one is told that Hitler liked the ultimately treacherous Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich. Just don't say to me 'Who's Josef Stalin?'

Despite the bloody purges that Stalin masterminded in Russia during the 1930s, where any dissension from the party line risked either summary execution or banishment to Siberia at best, the Dictator stated 'life has become better, comrades, life has become more fun' and he commissioned director Grigori Aleksandov to make this film. Stalin was indeed so enamoured of the end product that he apparently knew the dialogue by heart and presented copies of the film to foreign leaders and dignitaries. The director, who began his cinema career as an assistant to Eisenstein, visited Hollywood with him in 1932 and returned home full of enthusiasm for Walt Disney, Busby Berkeley, and musicals in general.

This one starts off at a provincial musical instrument factory where the romantically smooching lead couple each wish to take their amateur ensembles to a cultural music Olympics in Moscow. He wants to compete with his highbrow classical band, and pooh-pooh's her ambitions for her folk musicians. His river boat leaves without her for the journey up the Volga, but she commandeers a rundown vessel for her musicians, singers, and dancers, and the race is on. I must confess I was a little dubious about the whole scenario when the film began as it seemed too diffuse and amateurish. However as soon as her players started performing Russian folk classics familiar to me from recordings of the Red Army Choir, I was hooked, falling for their joyous enthusiasm and amusing antics. The heroine Strelka, played by the director's wife Lyubov Orlova, with her coloratura voice, became something of a Soviet megastar after this performance and the film was deeply loved by all -- not only because Stalin insisted it should be loved. On the river journey she decides to write a song especially for the competition and her colleagues scribble bits of the score on dozens of scraps of headed factory notepaper; however when her ship founders, these notes are swept overboard. Imagine her amazement when on arrival in Moscow she finds that everyone else is performing "her" song as their own, having retrieved the music from the raging waters.

One can take this remnant of an era on its own strengths and the quirky music, dancing, singing, and close-ups of looming bearded faces (a la "Ivan the Terrible") are infectious fun. Underneath the surface joy, however, there are numerous indications of the occasionally false comaraderie of the day and hints of rebellion against a repressive regime. After Stalin's death in 1953 when his legacy fell from favour, the movie was censored and slashed to remove all references to him, but it was a real treat to have seen the film in its original whole. So now you know what Stalin's favourite film was and a little bit more about the tyrant who commissioned it. It's just about the only thing I can thank him for!
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