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Monday, April 18, 2016

Leo Hearts All-Things Russian

Robert Taylor and Susan Peters Like What They Learn Of Soviet Russia

Metro Plays Wartime Tune with Song Of Russia (1944) --- Part One

Notorious among few who remember it at all, Song Of Russia began as innocuous pat on allied Russia's back, then became tempest in tea kettle that was HUAC investigation after WWII. Being that this goes back seventy years, who's to care? Political junkies of the period maybe, and those hearty enough to sit 110 minutes Song Of Russia requires. We can't know emotion that drove 1944's public, but record shows this one did profit on $3.7 million in worldwide rentals. But did they turn out for Mother Russia or Bob Taylor in embrace of fastest rising Metro ingénue Susan Peters? Again, tough to tell from this distance, but I'll guess it was the music that sold Song, hence the title, expanded from simpler Russia, which at last moment was deemed too immense for non-epic this was. Everyone said then and agree now that Song Of Russia was gingerbread housing, yet it was constructed by for-sure Russians and émigrés of all stripe huddled behind the camera. In fact, about the only Yanks were ones on view, Taylor re-vamping his "What the heck sort of country is this?" from 1940's Escape, thus standing in effectively for ones of us who understood Russia, let alone Soviet Russia, no better than he did.

The Capitalist Oppressor Life For Me!, Says
Cookout and Pool Host Joe Pasternak

Joe Pasternak referred to himself as a "make-believest." For this producer, reality was a thing to be shunned, another of the school that felt messages should be sent Western Union, never by movies. He lasted thirty years within that fence, doing musicals mostly for Metro, and virtually all at a gain. Pasternak was from Hungary, came the steerage and dish-wash route, and ended up pulling $4K a week from the Lion. His fantasies came lavish, but within reason. Not for him was pretension of a Vincente Minnelli whose costs could and did overrun. Not when a Richard Thorpe or Norman Taurog could deliver as well, or faster, anyway. Song Of Russia was for Pasternak a symphonic musical, lightly seasoned with boogie-woogie (turns out Soviets like our swing and slang). Leftist writers, later to be fried by Congress, nibbled at edges, but Pasternak and higher-up creatives cared less about politics than Tchaikovsky, him the 19th century equivalent of Harry James so far as Pasternak and MGM sales saw it.

Never Make An Audience Think! might have been spoke by anyone on Metro payroll, though it was Pasternak credited with the phrase, which he lived up to by scrubbing product clean of any but feel-good element. For his Song, German troops threaten Russia, but they stay at a distance, talked about, but largely unseen. The challenge is for Robert Taylor to get his fresh bride the hell off scorched Soviet earth before real trouble starts. If 1944 audiences wanted truth of Russia's invasion, let them get it from newsreels. The movie was made in the first place to accommodate US gov't interests. All studios had been asked to kick in for the Soviets, however distasteful this was for many of them. MGM's might have been the only Russian salute to make money (Mission To Moscow from Warner Bros. went into red --- did I say "red"? --- for handshaking the Bear). Louis Mayer would later defend Song Of Russia before HUAC by saying it was a fairy tale that could be set anyplace in Europe with a same romance & music outcome. Inquisitors had to see it his way, for who could locate Commie propaganda in cream cheese that was Song Of Russia?

To direct came Gregory Ratoff, a mad Russian himself, and, as Orson Welles once pointed out, court jester to Zanuck. Ratoff had done mangled English as comic support since beginning of screen talk, had shown he could guide action with dispatch and economy. Greg had his swimming pool, so bother the peasants back in old country getting more remote by the day. Most of émigrés wanted disagreeable pasts behind them. To rock boats and screw with politics was risk against citizenship they all eventually wanted. Consider what Garden Of Eden Hollywood (and especially MGM) represented after privation these people had known in Europe. Could homegrown Americans, most (or at least more) born of relative comfort, have created such visions of paradise? Ratoff and Pasternak present a lap of luxury that Russia could never have been, let alone during a present war --- night clubs, concert halls, village fairs a backlot street down from what Pasternak earlier staged for equally escapist Seven Sweethearts, from which Culver-imagined Europe gave us Kathryn Grayson.

As earlier put, politics don't run deep in Song Of Russia. Invader Germans come off more like Bogeymen crashing Victor Herbert's Toyland than threat real Nazis were. Joe Stalin is actor-portrayed (Michael Visaroff) and speaks on radio of democratic principles he will uphold, while further narration references "freedom" all Soviets crave. Newcomer John Hodiak is a character named "Boris Bulganov," which might interest Bullwinkle fans yet unborn in 1944 (did Jay Ward take note?). In a scene most noted by modern viewers, school-teaching Susan Peters instructs moppets on how best to make Molotov cocktails, while Daryl Hickman delights to find he'll qualify for combat service for having just turned twelve. It's all nutty beyond words, or offense. By the late forties and greater sensitivity toward things pro-Russia, MGM had but to take and keep Song Of Russia out of circulation, a thing they'd do anyway for its being way out of date and had served purpose.  1956 and TV release of "Pre-48 Greats" saw no cause to withhold Song Of Russia, a potato cooled considerable since gavels sounded in Washington.

Part Two of Song Of Russia goes up Thursday.


Blogger Unknown said...

Just watched Song of Russia for the first time last night from my vast cache of TCM features stored on a cable set-top box. Easily the best of the 3 Hollywood pro-Soviet films of WWII. Thank you Greenbrier for considering this movie on its own terms, taking into account the life experiences and motivations of those who made it. Really good first half, some touching scenes, Leo production values and flattering lighting, Susan Peters all cleared for stardom … doesn’t everyone passing through this mortal coil deserve the MGM treatment, just once? Robert Taylor may have hated most every moment on the set , but a walk-through take of his Waterloo Bridge-like character is sufficient. Yes, it would have a better film if it ended on a downbeat note, and Russia is depicted as another magic fairytale Euro Ruritania, except larger and peopled with classical music enthusiasts, with big honking steam locomotives suitable for the Pennsylvania Railroad and with massive hydroboats welcome to honeymooners, and plenty of food for the peasants even served on family china; but… there must be some allowances, what with the war and all. In comparison, North Star is a polemical train wreck, where the sad demise of a doomed village is supposed to inspire confidence in the war effort, and Mission to Moscow is exhibit #1 in ‘How Did They Ever Get This Made?’ Leo talent show their stuff on this one, regardless of suspected message malfunction.

11:34 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Recalling a postwar cartoon by Willie & Joe creator Bill Mauldin: An ordinary guy is walking down a street. Men whisper about him suspiciously; a woman shields her child. The caption:
"An ex-dogface who owns a Russian battle decoration."

5:00 AM  

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