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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Trading Russian Plowshares For Music

Soviet Salute That Was Song Of Russia --- Part Two

To those who'd ask where was cradle of symphonic music in America during 1944, the answer might come as surprise: It was MGM, and the Lion both knew and touted it. In fact, Leo proclaimed Culver "The World's Capital Of Music." Its studio orchestra had 100 players "on call," and put the lot into Song Of Russia under direction of Russia-born Albert Coates, a big-name conductor-composer who went under contract around a same time as also prestigious Jose Iturbi, these to firmly establish Metro as haven for both serious, and popular, sound. Like name writers lured to West Coast paradise, it was money plus the climate that trumped snobbery toward flickers. Especially money ... which was huge when measured against what musicians got back east or elsewhere. MGM would take the ribbon for popularizing classical music during the war and after. Later in 1944 Music For Millions furthered team advantage, classic melodies also informing the Graysons, Jane Powells, and much of what Arthur Freed produced, a policy to sustain for so long as MGM kept musical primacy (look to example of 1954's Rhapsody late in the cycle).

MGM did make gestures toward authenticity, if not follow-through on finished product. Trades boasted of "over 100 Russian extras" used for "earth-scorching scenes," and yes, refugee wells were deep around studio gates, recent arrivals to US happy to work for minimal pay-per-day plus a box lunch. Outreach beyond shores had been a Metro priority since Pearl --- bouquet to England (incidentally the best by-far foreign market for Yank films) with The White Cliffs Of Dover, and even salute to China that was Dragon Seed. Song Of Russia wound up premiering in Nashville, TN. (there had to be a reason for that, but trades don't reveal it) after Broadway's Capital was delayed thanks to hold-over of A Guy Named Joe. A "Russian Night" in Baltimore stationed "six Russian-American boys and girls in the lobby" to pitch war bonds, and munition plants heard speaker-blare through all shifts encouraging workers to see Song Of Russia. Hollywood meanwhile sent past pics to "Soviet Film Trust" theatres, the first In Old Chicago, dubbed in toto but for Alice Faye's singing. If Reds were our allies, why not let them be customers too?

Two elements beyond music primarily sold Song Of Russia: fact it was Robert Taylor's last for the duration, and intro of Susan Peters as full-blown lead lady, a star not of tomorrow, but right now. MGM got Taylor a deferral to play his patriotic Song; immediately after, he'd go into Naval uniform. That last was major thrust of publicity, though sales advised it be handled with "dignity and restraint," cautioning against "too much flag-waving and whooping it up." Lt. Taylor would testify later that he did Song Of Russia under protest, Bob an open enemy of Communism and eager name-namer before HUAC (big reason he gets latter-day shun from many old-pix fans). Taylor made virtual co-star of cigarettes in much of work, him a close second to Bogey/Bogie for nicotine intake. Did this make Bob noxious to femme partners, or were they as dedicated smoke-stacks? (he'd share cigs on screen, and almost always was accepted) Susan Peters was the hot prospect off standout support in Random Harvest, a next biggest thing in newcomers. This was to consolidate her stardom as much as bolster Russia, and who knows to what fame she'd have risen, if not for ...

Prestige Name Albert Coates Teaches Bob To Conduct
Romance in the US was night life and movie stars. In Russia, it was presumed to be tractors and harvest of wheat. Yanks figured that quaint, were all for Soviets having their farm fun, but found the culture otherwise remote. For so little as we understood of the place, leap to cold warring would come easily after the hot one ended. What madness made Susan Peters' character choose summer plowing over rendezvous with Robert Taylor? --- and yet at pivotal narrative point, she does. Audiences believed because weren't all Russians screwy that way? MGM had to disguise realities of the place to make it palatable, which made it easy to distance themselves from Song Of Russia when postwar conditions heated up. For 1944, however, there'd be ties of the film to Russian war relief, refugees from there, and, of course, Tchaikovsky music, much of that fresh recorded by concert names like Horowitz, Rubinstein, and Toscanini.  Pop composer Jerome Kern even kicked in with a hopeful Hit Parader called "Russia Was Her Name."

For safety's sake, MGM subtitled Song Of Russia as "Adventures Of A Yank In Moscow," a bow to Robert Taylor having previous been A Yank at Oxford. Reviews were warm, perhaps to serve patriotic interest. Broadway's Capitol run was augmented by Lionel Hampton, Buck and Bubbles, The Mills Brothers, in which circumstance almost any feature would evaporate off the screen. Subsequent bookings had advantage of support player John Hodiak having hit big in Lifeboat during interim, a bonus to ad-men, but we could wonder if frightful waste of funnyman Robert Benchley was noted at the time. It certainly glares when watching today. Song Of Russia turns up occasional on TCM, its last airing a new transfer, and a DVD is just out from Warner Archive. The film is seldom considered except as a joke, which it is for being so land-locked in vanished era, but little out of Metro captures so accurately where priorities lay during all-out effort to bolster fighting partners and win the peace.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer relates one virtuoso's Russian experience:

Thirty years ago today, the piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz, gave a concert at the Moscow Conservatory, at the age of 92. He had not stepped upon Russian soil in 60 years. The auditorium of the Conservatory was filled to capacity. Standing room tickets were sold out. The halls and corridors were filled. Outside, hundreds of people stood in the rain. They would not hear a single note of the performance, but they wanted to be able to say that they had been there when Horowitz played.

This morning, WRTI-FM in Philadelphia broadcast recordings of two of the pieces from that concert, a Litz sonata and mazurka by Chopin. Both are technically difficult but with different tempos and moods, the Litz contemplative and melancholy, the Chopin vigorous and assertive. Horowitz accomplished them both with ease and great authority, but even more astonishing was the power and passion he brought to his playing. It was as though he was living the music as he played it, and that life was the life of a young man. Obviously, his gift was not dependent on flesh and blood, for this was the mere vessel for it, but rather that it found its source elsewhere.

Afterwards, the commentators of the program considered how subtle and nuanced the playing was, how there was not a single dropped note--Horowtiz was notorious for this, even in his youth, but not here, not on this occasion, one of his very last concerts--and how it gave them hope, that their own lives might be lived as fully, to the very end.

There is little reason to dwell on the personal failings on anyone so blessed. Such a talent is a light brought to world, to allow us to understand that goodness and love and beauty are constantly flowing into this world, from a source which is, indeed, elsewhere.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

There's a piece in today's New York Post about "Song of Russia":

5:32 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes indeed. Fascinating look at the HUAC hearings by Lou Lumenick. By all means, check this out.

5:44 PM  

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