It may appear paradoxical that the musical genre flourished during the 1930s, an era that saw the darkest Stalinist ideological control, with the Zhadnovist doctrine of socialist realism, as well as with the orchestrated purging of scores of freethinking intellectuals. The making of musical comedies was encouraged by a decree which Boris Shumiatski, administrative head of Soviet cinema at the time, had issued in 1935 recommending that filmmakers focus on making popular “movies for the millions”. (The tradition of state socialist musicals is discussed in Dana Ranga's documentary East Side Story ). In the context of this drive toward fostering Soviet popular culture, Aleksandrov's musicals can be classified as a prime example of escapist cinema; even though they featured class-conscious plots and storylines, the ultimate goal in each was to allow Orlova to shed her proletarian rags and triumph in all her dazzling glamour on a brightly lit stage.
The first film in which Orlova starred was The Jolly Fellows where she was relegated a secondary albeit important role. The lead is played by vaudeville actor, Leonid Utyosov, appearing as a Crimean shepherd who is mistaken for a famous musician. The Jolly Fellows is a comedy of errors, commencing at a Black Sea spa frequented by leisure-class Muscovites enchanted by a carefree rustic ambiance. The peasant Kostya (Utyosov) in a sheepskin hat plays his panpipe, sings and dances joyously amidst friendly animals and cheerful villagers. A series of mix-ups takes Kostya to the capital where, again by mistake, he ends up on stage of the state musical theatre and delivers a brilliant performance in the new stage show. Here, Orlova is the clumsy Anyuta, Kostya's side-kick who, once in Moscow , is miraculously transformed and triumphantly marches on stage, singing the memorable Dunayevsky melody, the upbeat Jolly Fellows, in front of raving audiences.
But it was only in Aleksandrov's next film, Circus, that Orlova came to occupy the spotlight, with her full glamour revealed. Here she plays Marion Dixon, a blonde American entertainer-bombshell who becomes a victim of US racism after giving birth to a black baby and is forced to flee into exile. In a prologue, Marion is shown being chased and barely escaping a crowd of angry American white men who want to lynch her and her newly born. The core action of the film takes place only a few years later, in the Soviet Union of the mid-1930s. Marion Dixon is seen arriving in Moscow as a member of a travelling circus company run by a German manager, von Kneischitz. While in Moscow , she falls in love with a Soviet man and starts thinking of leaving the circus and settling in the USSR . Von Kneischitz, however, is not thrilled by the idea of losing the main attraction of his show, so he threatens to disclose the existence of Marion 's black child, which will supposedly immediately put off the new lover. After a confrontation between the German and the Russian all is happily resolved. Marion 's 'dirty secret' is revealed, and rather then shunned, her black son is embraced by the friendly members of the Soviet audience who even begin singing a lullaby for him.
Circus featured impressive choreography and some of the most popular Soviet songs of all times, including the patriotic hymn “Shiroka strana moja rodnaja”/”My wide home country” which was an unofficial Soviet anthem for decades. More importantly, however, the film disseminated several important ideological messages: it proclaimed the superiority of communism over capitalism (by exposing the materialist priorities of the Americans and the circus manager); it emphasised the antagonism between communism and fascism (by juxtaposing good Soviets and the bad German von Kneischitz); it indicated that the Soviet Union had overcome racism (confirmed by the unreserved acceptance of Marion's black boy); and it represented the USSR as a dream shelter for all victims of social injustice worldwide.
The Man of Music in this Russian biopic is composer Mikhail Glinka. As portrayed by Boris Smirnov , Glinka was not only the favorite tunesmith of the Russian military, but also a tireless crusader against the excesses of the corrupt Romanov regime. The composer's best-known operas-- Ivan Susanin , Rusian and Ludmila--are tributes to the indomitable spirit of the Russian peasant. For those uninterested in the propaganda elements of Man of Music, the film offers elaborately staged highlights from Glinka's most famous compositions. In its own way, the film can be regarded as the Soviet equivalent to Hollywood's Yankee Doodle Dandy . Directed by Grigori Alexandrov, Man of Music (aka Glinka ) features Alexandrov's wife Lyubov Orlova as Glinka's chief inspiration, his sister Ludmilla. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
The curious thingóthe only surprising thing, in factóabout the new musical biography at the Stanley, "Mussorgsky," is that the Russians waited so long to film it. This man's turbulent, jagged-edged compositions were the most undilutedly native, considered by many to be the greatest, that ever came from his proud homeland. Furthermore, he lived at a time when the political pot was just beginning to boil. And his opera masterpiece, "Boris Godunoff," which no film biography possibly could ignore, is a clear indication that there'll be some changes made and, naturally, right up the alley of the alert Soviet moviemakers.
The picture is painstaking, methodical proof that the man wrote great music and did very little else. Even though it has been lavishly mounted in Magicolor, offers a satisfying earful of Mussorgsky and a sturdy restrained performance by Alexander Borisov in the title role, the result, nearly two hours long, isn't particularly stimulating film fare.
The scenario by Anna Abramova and Grigori Roshal, who also directed, is an honest but insular account of the hero's membership in "The Big Five," the compositional quintet including Rimsky-Korsakoff, Borodin, Balakirev and Cui, and their efforts to promote "Boris" against critical and imperial opposition. But the average spectator is likely to squirm through all the haranguing of the devout esthetes over the whys and wherefores of music, even in such meticulously authentic settings as conservatories, country estates and, of course, the opera house. The pace is slow, the dialogue is conventional and, as far as the acting goes, never have so many beards made so much noise.
The musical portionsóand there are plentyóare excellently handled. Whoever is responsible for the three "Boris" sequences, brilliantly alive in sound, color and staging, deserves some sort of prize from the Kremlin. It's just too bad they didn't tie all the beards together, sit "The Big Five" in a corner and give us a lot more.
MUSSORGSKY, screen play by Grigori Roshal and Anna Abramova; directed by Mr. Roshal; produced and presented by Artkino.
Mussorgsky . . . . . Alexander Borisov
Stassov . . . . . Nikolai Cherkasov
Rimsky-Korsakoff . . . . . A. Popov
Borodin . . . . . Y. Leonidov
Cui . . . . . V. Friendlich
Balakirev . . . . . V. Balashov
Julia Platonova . . . . . Lubov Orlova
1941 «The Artamonovs’ Business», director Grigori Roshal, the part of Paola Menotti, an Italian ballet dancer.
1941 «Military Film Collection» N 4, director Grigori Alexandrov, the part of a presenter.
1941 «One Family», director Grigori Alexandrov, the part of Olga, a daughter of a host family.
1947 «Springtime», director Grigori Alexandrov, the part of a female scientist Irina Nkitina and the part of an actress of a Musical Theatre Bera Shatrova.
1949 «Meeting on the Elbe », director Grigori Alexandrov, the part of Janet Sherwood, an American spy.
1950 «Mussorgsky», director Grigori Roshal, the part of Yulia Platonova, an opera singer.
1952 «The Composer Glinka», director Grigori Alexandrov, the part of Glinka’s sister Lyudmila Ivanovna.
Heavily influenced by Hollywood musicals, the Soviet tunefest Spring (Vesna, 1947) won several awards for its director, the prolific Grigory Alexandrov. Not surprisingly, the leading role went directly to Alexandrov's wife, popular film personality Lyubov Orlova. Actually, Orlova essays the leading roles, since the story is a mistaken-identity affair involving a female scientist named Irina and her lookalike, a Bolshoi dancer named Vera. When a Russian film studio announces plans to film Irina's life story, Vera is chosen to play the role, leading to a wacky comedy of errors. Though unimpressed by Spring, American reviewers were at least grateful that the film wasn't a podium for Communist ideology. – Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide