Just singing in the reign

A new documentary explores Stalin's favourite hobby: musical comedies. By Robin Buss
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The Independent Culture
STALIN loved the cinema. He had his own screening room in the Kremlin where he relaxed with close colleagues: the ever-loyal, none-too- bright Kliment Voroshilov, say, or Lavrenti Beria, the KGB chief with the pince-nez and the cruel lips, whose malign influence his daughter Svetlana blamed for many of her father's crimes.

Even in private, at his most relaxed, Iosip Vissarionovich was not a comfortable person to be around. He had a liking for crude practical jokes and making his guests drunk. Visitors to his dacha would be asked to guess the temperature outside, and then have to drink as many glasses of vodka as the number of degrees by which they were wrong.

But his favourite hobby was watching films. His love was of the possessive kind. He took it upon himself to view every film made in the USSR, and to read every script, red-pencilling freely. He did employ a censor, Ivan Boshakov, head of the Central Film Industry Directorate, but when a film- maker asked for Bolshakov's opinion of his work before Stalin had seen it, he would answer: "I don't know what I think of it yet."

Even allowing for Stalin's obsessive need for control, one had to admire the effort that he put into managing this one branch of the arts - while at the same time running the country and organising the death or imprisonment of millions of its citizens. No wonder film production in Thirties Russia was low.

His enthusiasm is all the more impressive when one considers the kind of film he had to watch: on his instructions, socialist realism was the order of the day. Did he enjoy these hard-work propaganda movies? According to Konchalovsky, who talked to his projectionist, Stalin was a fan of Chaplin's City Lights and Modern Times (but not The Great Dictator, which came out at the time of the Nazi- Soviet Pact). He also liked American gangster films, especially those starring James Cagney. Perhaps he identified with the little tough guy (Stalin was under five foot six), or perhaps he saw the films as an indictment of American capitalism?

Stalin's favourite actress, according to Dana Ranga and Andrew Horn's new documentary, East Side Story, was Lyubov Orlova, and his favourite films were the Soviet musicals made by her husband, Grigory Alexandrov. When Stalin met Orlova at Mosfilm Studios, he was surprised by how thin she was. "Doesn't he feed you?" he asked (meaning Alexandrov). "Then we'll shoot him." He was joking, for once. Alexandrov survived, won the Lenin Prize, and made his masterpiece, Volga-Volga (1938). Everyone loved this story of two rival groups of amateur performers from a small provincial factory who set out for Moscow by boat, singing all the way. Stalin is said to have watched it a hundred times, and to have offered a print to General Eisenhower.

Ranga and Horn's film is constructed around the improbable survival of musicals in the Stalin era. Apart from Alexandrov, the Russian specialist was Ivan Pyriev, director of Tractor Drivers (1939), a film about tuneful collective-farm workers. It was praised for its happy outlook and "sharply delineated moral values". After the war, Pyriev ran into trouble with comedies that were attacked for romanticism and an inappropriate treatment of "the struggle between contradictions". So he turned to adaptations. Classic literature proved safer than comedy and Pyriev died an honoured figure in Soviet cinema, in 1968, while filming Brothers Karamazov.

But before the war, Stalin decided that light entertainment was to be encouraged. The tone set, in almost the grimmest period of modern Russian history, was Happiness. So Alexandrov, who should have been all the more suspect because he had visited Hollywood in the company of Sergei Eisenstein (who nursed an unrequited passion for him), was allowed to work freely on his light musicals. Meanwhile Eisenstein, director of some of the greatest propaganda films in the history of world cinema, was crippled by censorship.

Stalin's private screening room was unusual: armchairs with lacy antimacassars, tables holding trays of sweets and glasses for tea, vodka or mineral water; chintz; waitresses in folk costumes: in short, the ambience of Thirties, petty-bourgeois gracious living. In public, Stalin's taste was for the grandiose and the brutal: huge skyscrapers, mass rallies and military parades, statues of himself in simple, expressive poses, and slogans extending a whole block along the street.

Sitting in the Kremlin viewing room, he must have found it hard to draw the line between what he was and what was believed of him, or to distinguish between reality and Socialist Realism. The comedies of Alexandrov and Pyriev, transforming labouring workers into dancers and obliterating the gap between the experience of a grim present and the promise of a bright future, touched on the core of Soviet life during the years of Terror, "enemies of the people", and show trials. It was a wonderland. In the British film, I'm Alright Jack, Peter Sellers caught the essence of it in a single phrase: "All them fields of waving corn ... and ballet in the evening." In these Thirties musicals, the statues of the leader gaze forward at that same vision.

'East Side Story' is now showing at London's ABC Swiss Centre (0870 902 0403)

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