We very nearly didn't go to see this film which would have been a shame. I bought the tickets when I noticed it described in the BFI's advance programme as the first major Soviet musical, complete with "a manic energy and surreal absurdity that wouldn't disgrace the Marx Brothers". However on the afternoon of the performance it was positively bucketing down with rain and the thought of dragging our weary bones through the deluge was unappealing. In the nick of time, the sun broke through and we decided that wimping out was not an option. And a good thing too!
The film was absolutely wonderful -- a ray of sunshine in itself and I am thankful not to have missed it. The above title was given in the programme, but the actual title on the print was "Merry Fellows" and it is apparently also known as "Moscow Laughs". The movie is by the same director, Grigori V. Aleksandrov, and has the same female lead (later the director's wife), Lyubov' Orlova, as Joe Stalin's 'favourite film' which I enthused about last year (http://pppatty.blogspot.com/2010/08/volga-volga-1938.html). If anything, this one was even better. A shepherd, played by Russian jazz musician Leonid Utyosov, (very reminiscent of a Danny Kaye type) is mistaken for a renowned conductor and invited to perform at a swank hotel -- one is amazed that such places even existed in Stalin's l930s. Previously we had seen him musically leading his flock of sheep, goats, cows and pigs and engaging them in a roll-call by their individual names and national affiliations (for some reason 'The English' were a bunch of pigs -- should I be offended?). When he plays his pipe at the posh soiree, his animals hear his call and soon invade the premises with hilarious results. This is the first of a number of comic set pieces, all of them endearing, including his again taking the place of the renowned maestro at a concert and inadvertently 'conducting' a wild rendition of Ravel's Bolero, plus a concert performance by his new ragtag band where the instruments have become waterlogged and his bandmates perform their music a cappella, very like the "Comedian Harmonists" who recently charmed me. Throughout all of the performers were an absolute delight and the 'jazz' music from composer Isaac Dunaevskii was remarkably catchy.
This was the first full-length feature from the director, who as I have written previously started off as an assistant to the great Eisenstein, yet the movie nearly didn't seen the light of day. In those days all developing film projects has to be discussed by political committees and the director's "Jazz Comedy" as it was originally called was considered subversive and too 'American'. The Communist Youth newspaper, on the other hand, welcomed it and supported the director's intention to make 'cinema for the millions'. When accused of not dealing with the 'problematics' of Soviet doctrine, he retorted that he was trying to resolve the problem of laughter. Eventually Uncle Joe Stalin gave the movie his personal green light, saying "It's a very happy film. I feel as though I have been on holiday for a month. It will be useful to show it to all of our workers and collective farmers". And so one of the most popular films in Soviet cinema history finally received its debut. Ironically the man who was in charge of the Soviet cinema industry at the time and the man ultimately responsible for both this film and "Volga-Volga" was executed in the purges of 1938. So much for pleasing Stalin!
Unfortunately neither of these movies appear to be available on tape or disc so you would need to be as lucky as I have been to be able to view them. I would love to be able to see both of them again and can only hope that some enterprising person makes them available for our viewing pleasure some time in the not too distant future. I wonder if they are on Russian DVDs (without subtitles of course) -- I must investigate, since the physical comedy alone would make such a purchase more than worthwhile.