DURING his 60 years as a screen actor Nikolai Kryuchkov appeared in some 200 films working with many leading Russian directors. He was loved by his public, and remained popular to the last: a talented raconteur and a frequent guest on Russian television, and the subject of two biographies, published in 1951 and 1982.
Kryuchkov was born in Moscow in 1911 into a working-class family. At the age of 17, he walked into the experimantal studio of TRAM (Theatre of Young Workers) and started studying acting under Ilya Sudakov, the celebrated director of the Moscow Art Theatre, and his two assistants, the actors and directors Nikolai Khmelev and Igor Savchenko. In 1933 Kryuchkov was discovered by the eminent director Boris Barnet, who gave him his first small comedy part of a shoemaker in Okraina. Okraina was the first talking film to be made in the Soviet Union and became a golden classic of early Soviet cinema. It made Kryuchkov's name, and in 1936 Barnet gave him a part in the comedy U Samogo Sinego Morya ('Right by the Blue Sea'). Both these films were shown in London in 1980, during the season of Barnet films at the National Film Theatre.
By the mid-Thirties the Soviet cinema was in the tight grip of Communist censors. Stalin would demand to see a copy of every film made by directors of importance for approval and demanded that more comedies be made about happy Soviet people and cheerful farmers on collective farms. Big names in the Russian cinema of the golden age of the Twenties became engaged in making propaganda films. Grigory Kozintsev, with Ilya Trauberg, made Vozvrashchenie Maksima ('Maxim's Return', 1937) and Vyborgskaya Storona ('Vyborg's Parade', 1939). Sergei Yutkevich made his first film about Lenin, Chelovek s Ruzhiem ('The Man with a Rifle', 1938). Kryuchkov's comic talent featured in all three of these films. Kryuchkov became a national celebrity when he appeared in Traktoristy ('Tractor Drivers', 1939), a comedy about life on a state farm, made by Ivan Pyriev. Stalin personally presented a Stalin Prize for this film. During the sombre days of the war Pyriev managed to finish another comedy, Svinarka i Pastukh ('Swineherd and Shepherd') in which Kryuchkov appeared with the comedy actress Marina Ladynina.
This film was a terrific commercial success and later came to be considered a classic. Film historians reported that Stalin often watched his own copy of it and entertained members of his family and his associates with it. Stalin gave this film a Stalin Prize in 1942. Both Kryuchkov and Ladynina were Stalin's guests at various public and private gatherings. In 1950 Kryuchkov appeared in Tri Vstrechi ('Three Encounters') made by three leading directors - Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Yutkevich, and Ivan Ptushko, later the king of Soviet puppet cinema. Ptushko then invited Kryuchkov to take part in his beautiful fairy-tale film Sadko (1953).
In the post-Stalin era Kryuchkov appeared in films based on historical and classical books such as The Hussar's Ballad (1962), by the comedy director Eldar Ryazanov, The Marriage of Balzaminov (1965), based on a comedy by the 19th-century Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, and Unkie's Dream (1967) after Dostoevsky.
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