February 18, 2015

1943. Film and Theater in Wartime Russia

Foreign and Domestic Productions for Russian Audiences
Source: A scene from Volga, Volga (1938), said to be Joseph Stalin's favorite film

CBS' Moscow Rep Details How U.S. Pix Click in USSR


Moscow, April 21, 1943.
(Following comments on the current tastes of Moscow film-goers, transmitted in advance by cable to CBS' N.Y. headquarters, was to have been broadcast from Moscow as part of the network's 'World News Today' program Sunday matinee (18), but reception trouble intervened).
Moscow theatre-goers like American films. Any kind. There's an old Lawrence Tibbett film whose American title I've forgotten, but in Russian called "Thrilled by You." And suburban theaters for the past two years have been showing Deanna Durbin's 100 Men and a Girl. People get up at six o'clock in the morning and stand in front of box-offices to get a seat to see a Walt Disney reel.

These American films are the closest link people in the United States have with Russian people. I was talking to the old Soviet film commission the other day. He said his department had been buying American films, "but prices [are] so high we can't get [as] many as we want—we need money for the war." Then he said he thought it important that the two nations exchange films to let each see how the other is fighting and living in this was against the common enemy.

One of the best known women in Moscow today is "Lady Hamilton." She's a favorite topic of conversation...subway, street corners; anywhere you find a group of Russians. It took me several days to discover that when Moscow speaks about the the lady friend of Britain's famous Lord Nelson—"Lady Hamilton," it's a film. Last week the British-produced motion picture Lady Hamilton opened in Moscow theaters and immediately set record[s]. It's now playing in one theater and seems set for permanent run. I have known dozens of Russians who have seen the picture three four times—and Russians never go to the theater alone. They go in groups.

It's a mystery to foreigners here why Russians take such an avid interest in last century doings [of] a man and woman they never saw or heard of before. But this, in many ways, is a mysterious country.

For example, no one ever figured out why a not-too-good Hollywood comedy, The Three Musketeers starring the Ritz Bros., has been running steadily somewhere in Moscow for over six months. When a Russian likes something, he really likes it, and he doesn't consider he knows anything about a motion picture or play unless he sees it three or four times. That tradition extends even to film and theater critics. They don't write anything about a production until they see it a half dozen times or more.

17 Pictures Doing Capacity In Moscow; Russians Praise Victory


Moscow, May 1, 1943.
There are 17 films in Moscow cinemas playing to packed houses. It is not uncommon to see a line of people booking seats at 6 a.m.—they are the night shift from war industries seeking seats in jampacked Moscow theatres.

The only way for a Moscow theatre manager to set a new house record is to put a couple of extra seats in. There are no 'house records' in Moscow. Every theatre is full at every performance. There are no first-run traditions in this country. When the Russian people like a film they appreciate it enough to see it three or four times. They are easy to please.

Released this month were two wildly different films, both doing the usual land office business. One is a documentary, 'In the Lands of Middle Asia,' a popular science film about animals in Asiatic Russia. The other, 'The Actress,' is directed by one of the Soviet Union's best directors, Leonid Trauberg, stars Galina Sergeyeva. The story concerns an actress who thinks theatre is unnecessary during wartime and who leaves the stage and becomes a war nurse. A Red Army commander convinces her otherwise, and later she returns to the theatre and joins a theatrical brigade.

Other films listed briefly are:

'Mashenka,' which was performed in 1942, is the story of the Soviet Union's first war nurses—Leningrad girls—at the Finnish front. Stresses the heroism of the Red Army.

'Antosha Rybkin,' produced in 1943, is a comedy demonstrating the trend away from the serious. The story concerns a group of actors giving a performance at the front.

'Fortune Seekers,' produced three or four years ago, is still popular. It stars an honorary artist of the Soviet Union, Maria Blumenthal Tamarina, and the Jewish theatre star, Zuskin.

'Volga, Volga,' made several years ago, concerns the competition of two amateur brigades from collective farms in the Volga region and their adventures in a Moscow amateur show. 'Volga, Volga' is still a popular Russian song.

'Alexander Parkhomenko,' produced in 1942, is about Parkhomenko, a hero of the civil war in Ukraine.

'Last Gypsy Camp,' completed six or seven years ago, depicts the life of the gypsies in the Soviet Union, and the changes under communism.

'A Soldier Comes Back From the Front' is another picture showing the civil war in a Ukrainian village. It currently stars Yanina Aheimo, the current Soviet Shirley Temple.

'Kotovsky,' produced this year, is the story about Kotovsky, the outstanding guerrilla leader in the civil war.

'Fedjka,' made about five years ago, is about the participation of children in the civil war.

'Youth of Maxim,' produced three or four years ago, concerns the struggles of workers under the Czarist regime.

'Chapayev' tells about one of the principal heroes of the civil war. Produced 10 years ago, it is still going strong. It is considered by many the best film ever produced in the Soviet Union.

'Dowerless Girl' is patterned after a Russian classical dramatic play by Ostrovsky, who is as good as Shakespeare for regular Russian theatre goers.

Also being shown, Alexander Korda's 'Lady Hamilton,' is one of the most popular films yet released by the Soviet Union.

Also 'Desert Victory,' which has drawn the same kind of praise from the Russians as they gave their own excellent documentaries, such as 'Stalingrad,' 'One Day of War,' etc.

Russian Dramatic Standards Remain High, Apparently Unhampered by War


(Another in a series about Soviet show business)
Moscow, May 25, 1943.

Dozens of Moscow theatres are keeping Russian dramatic art standards on a level with the best in the world, and there is little evidence that their production and staging are hampered by the war.
The Russian people are generally serious minded and like their drama heavy—and when they like something they go to it for the rest of their lives. Live entertainment in Russia centers around serious drama, the ballet, and the opera. It is classical and cultural—all with a capital 'C.'

Between the acts in these theatres one can hear 14-year-olds criticizing the ballet star for faulty execution of a dance with the knowledge of an expert, while other youngsters delight in catching some actor misquoting Pushkin. Americans in Moscow who had previously never been to anything more cultural than a baseball game are not becoming experts in the ballet and opera, a knowledge which is going to sound funny kicked around local taverns when those Americans return home.

There are three general schools of Russian drama which divide the Moscow theatres. They are the classical, the realistic, and the modern, headed respectively by the Maley Theatre, the Moscow Art Theatre, and the Komsomol Theatre. People know by their classification just what kind of show they'll see and are thus able to choose a night's entertainment. Like the cinemas, they have to choose a week ahead in order to secure tickets. The crowds are that great.

Publish Programs

Every 10 days the theatres publish programs which are broadsided in factories, on streets, and in newspapers. The same is true for the ballets and the operas. At present there are two big ballet theatres, with classical productions at the Bolshoi and modern productions at the Stanislavsky.

Last week classical drama fans had an opportunity to see Gorky's 'On the Bottom,' Chekhov's 'Three Sisters,' Maeterlinck's 'Bluebird,' 'Anna Karenina,' 'Cherry Orchard,' 'School for Scandal,' Balzac's 'Eugenia Granda,' 'Twelfth Night,' and others.

Modern plays include 'Front,' by Alexander Koreneichuk, Ukrainian author who is now Vice Commisar of Foreign Affairs. It is Russia's biggest wartime success and tells the story of conflict between an old-time revolutionary general and a young officer, presenting surprisingly sharp criticisms of old-line generals. Koreneichuk's 'In the Steppes of the Ukraine' was also produced last week.

War correspondent Konstantin Simonov early in the war wrote a hit play called 'Russian People,' which is still popular. It is the story of a besieged Soviet garrison ['Russian people' flopped in New York this season when produced by the Theatre Guild.—Ed.]

The Opera

The opera fair is standard: 'Tosca,' 'Rigoletto,' 'La Traviata,' 'Barber of Seville,' Tchaikovsky's 'Queen of Spades,' and the newly produced 'Ivan Susanin' by Glinka, which is a variation of his opera 'Life for a Tsar.'

Russia's famous ballet ranges from the famous 'Swan Lake'—the Bolshoi company takes four hours to present four acts—to the 'Merry Wives of Windsor,' or an original production by the modern Stanislavsky company, built around the adventures of Falstaff. Other ballets include Delibes' 'Coppelia and Ballet,' built for Chopin's music called 'Chopinana." Stanislavsky also presents a ballet called 'Straussiana,' which is one of the best in town.

Operettas include old favorites such as Offenbach's 'La Belle Helene,' Strauss, 'Gypsy Baron,' Friml's 'Rose Marie,' and a Russian modern operetta called 'Girl from Barcelona,' which is a hit. It's about one of the Spanish children educated in the Soviet Union during the Spanish Civil War.

Soviet Set for 'Biggest' Legit Season, 600 Pro Theatres Map Productions


Moscow, June 29, 1943.
The legitimate theatre is getting a wartime shot in the arm throughout Russia, from the front line to remote Siberian villages, as the demand for entertainment advances in direct proportion to the intensity of the fighting.

Mikhail Borisovitch Krapchenko, head of the State Art Committee—a position amounting to Commissar for Drama of the Soviet Union—has said the theatres are now preparing for 'the biggest season ever' next fall. All off Russia's 600 professional theatres are concentrating on new productions as well as revival of the Russian classics. Krapchenko has been head of the Art Committee for four years. He was formerly a university professor of history and literature. The job has all the hazards of American theatrical production. Krapchenko and his committee invariably produce nothing but successes, but even they sometimes fail when the Russian public manages to stay away in droves. However, Krapchenko's batting average is good enough to make him one of the best chiefs the Soviet theatre has ever had. In addition, his job include the display and production of Soviet art and music.

In an exclusive Variety interview, Krapchenko said the wartime Moscow theatre is tending toward serious drama and tragedy. When asked why, when the theatre in the United States and Great Britain was heading in the opposite direction toward light comedy, Krapchenko replied, 'One reason is that during wartime it is easier for Russians to weep than to laugh. Also, in wartime it is easier for our author to effectively compose tragedy than comedy. The world today is essentially sad and full of tragedy—in this respect Soviet theatre reflects the times. And it is doing a good job.'

Comedies Not Successful

Krapchenko said several comedies, plays, and operettas have been tried on Moscow audiences but were not very successful. He explained that the legitimate theatre is generally divided into two sections—the State Theatre, which is a government project, and the National Theatre, governed by art committees of the individual Soviet republics. Both these divisions send art brigades with plays and vaudeville to the front lines. Since then the war there has been a flood of plays by amateurs. These are examined by various reading committees who pass along the best to the authorities, where they are re-read by directors and committee heads. Krapchenko said many amateur plays now showing were mostly in provincial theatres. An outstanding example of a successful play now showing in Kuybyshev is called 'Long Range Aircraft.' It is a story of Soviet bombers written by a flier who was awarded Russia's highest medal, Hero of the Soviet Union. He is now working on another.

The Soviet Union's professional playwrights often receive assignments to write a play dealing with some specific state of war effort, such as partisan farmers, the Red Navy, and such. However, the professionals generally are given a free hand to write anything they want.

Balanced Repertoire

A balanced repertoire is due this fall, to be divided among new productions and classics. For example, the Moscow Art Theatre is now preparing four productions, two modern, including a new story of Russian oil fields called 'Deep Bore,' and a popular one called 'The Russian People.' The latter is the story of a surrounded Russian garrison in a Soviet village (produced the past season in New York by the Theatre Guild). Classical productions include 'Hamlet' and the classic 'The Forest' by Ostrovsky.

Krapchenko said that, since the war, the Soviet Art Committee virtually lost all connection with what is going on in the American theatre. 'We are extremely interested in wartime trends of drama in the US, but it is most difficult to maintain any sort of liaison. I feel we have things going on in the Soviet theatre which are extremely interesting to American producers. I am sure the American theatre is doing things we want to know about. However, with transport as difficult as at present, nothing much can be done about it right now. It is something to remember for after the war.'

He adds that his committee would be glad to exchange plays with American authors—if not for production, then for the exchange of ideas.

Dubbed Russian Version of 'In Old Chicago' a Wow


Moscow, July 6, 1943.
A Russian version of an American film, 'In Old Chicago,' opened this week in Moscow. It is the Soviet Union's first major attempt at adopting Russian soundtrack to a foreign cinema.

After six months working in the Alma Ata studios, this film came out with one of the best technical jobs yet achieved in Russia and is fully comparable to anything of this type yet done in America.

The only bits of American soundtrack remaining are Alice Faye's songs and general overall sound effects of street and crowd noises.

The remarkable thing about the film is the selection of actors whose voices were dubbed in. Miss Faye's throaty waverings were copied by a Russian actress, and a Russian comic even emulates Andy Devine's pebble soprano so effectively that his gags and mannerisms are fully preserved.

Another remarkable achievement is that the Russian script writer seems to have chosen Russian words which more or less match American lip movements. Despite the difference in language, there is no time when the players are not talking.

The job shows extreme care and extensive rehearsal. The audience doesn't know who the Russian actors are taking the American parts until the end of the film when the cast is given. They rate a big salvo.

'In Old Chicago' is packing them in for another reason. Rowdy love scenes and Miss Faye's portrayal of a woman of questionable reputation is a little shocking to the Russian public—the kind of shock that is good for the box office. There is an embarrassed silence, for example, at the corny dancing of the Can-Can, which many Russians are seeing for the first time. However, Alice Faye's buxom curves fit the Russian male's ideal of what women should look like. And there's many a Soviet sigh heaved over the masculine beauty of Tyrone Power.

However, one of the strangest things is the audience reaction to the Chicago fire. Russians who have endured bombings, Red Army men who fought at Stalingrad and Leningrad, and evacuees whose homes have been a battlefield, all leave the theatre remarking with feeling about the horrible burning of Chicago.