So Stalin had a sense of humor it seems. Ok, he was responsible for millions
of deaths from famine, purges and wars but he knew a good comedy when he
saw it. This was apparently his favorite film and in fact it is wonderful.
Directed by Grigoriy Aleksandrov, whose 1947 film Spring I saw a few months
ago, knew how to keep Uncle Joe in stitches which by all accounts was a good
thing. No trips to Siberia for this guy. I wrote a bit about him with Spring
(which I also loved) - during the silent era he was one of the politically
experimental directors and worked closely with Eisenstein on October, ¡Que
Viva Mexico! and Old and New (both men are credited with directing all three).
But then he fell in love. With a singer and an actress and started making
films for her. And they were huge hits - Moscow Laughs in 1934 and The Circus
in 1936. This was an even bigger hit - a delightful screwball musical that
had me cracking up at times. Yup, Joe and me. We could have watched this
together. I would have to be sure though to laugh at the right places.
Comrade Byvalov (Igor Ilyinsky) is a clownish government apparatchik who
has slowly been trying to get appointments in towns closer and closer to
Moscow with the capital being his final goal. He has just been appointed
to a small village outside of Moscow. He gets a telegram from Moscow that
raises his hopes - but they are quickly dashed - it is only an invitation
to bring talent to an Artistic Olympiad event. There is no talent in this
town he groans. The letter carrier Arrow (Lyubov Orlova - the director's
wife) tells him there is lots of talent here - he scoffs - here? - sure.
He won't listen so she rides her bicycle ahead of him into town and in two
nanoseconds tells the town they have to perform for him. In one of the most
charming set pieces imaginable that has to be ten minutes long everywhere
Byvalov goes dancers, singers, musicians, acrobats, men on stilts come out
of the shadows to perform - it is hilarious and gets more chaotic as it goes.
Finally, he is convinced - but will only take the classical musicians leaving
Arrow and her friends behind - they are folk tradition. They decide to get
And a race is on between a broken down steamboat that is falling apart and
whatever the other group can come up with. Arrow has written a song titled
Volga but pretends someone else back in the village did. The two groups finally
come together and classical meets folk. And boy meets girl of course. More
issues are ahead of them. At the end the actors as they did in Spring step
out of their roles and talk to the audience - no need to rush out, we hope
you enjoyed the movie and then lift up letters saying The End (in Russian).
The film is constantly funny - both with physical stunts and comic misunderstandings.
And music breaks out throughout. The music was composed by Isaak Dunayevsky
who had written the music for Moscow Laughs and The Circus. It is terrific
- at times classical, at times folk, at times sounding like Gilbert and Sullivan.
The song Volga became a hit. Orlova was a huge star already by this time
and she is like a ball of manic energy dancing, singing, diving off steamboats.
I am kind of surprised Hollywood did not make Aleksandrov an offer he could
not refuse. This film would have been perfect for that period. Likely they
never saw it. And Orlova is a huge talent as well but probably too Russian
built for America. This is silly, corny, broad as the Volga River, full of
gags and slapstick and song. Nothing intellectual going on here or remotely
subtle. Just joyous. This is up on YouTube with subs.