Lyubov Orlova: The First Lady of Soviet Cinema

lyubov13For my day job, I work for Facets Multi-Media in Chicago, which prides itself on bringing foreign, independent, and classic films to the public by selling or renting them on DVD or by exhibiting them in a small theater. Our fabulous programmer Charles Coleman knows more about contemporary foreign cinema than almost anyone, and he has booked some very interesting films into the theater throughout the years. For a change of pace, he has booked a series of Russian films from the 1930s that feature the Soviet Union’s most famous movie star, Lyubov Orlova. Incredibly popular during the 1930s and 1940s, Orlova specialized in musical comedies that were patterned after Hollywood musicals of the day. Though you can easily see the similarities between old Warner Bros. musicals and their Russian counterparts, the latter are definitely in a league of their own.   

Soviet musical comedies. There is something about that phrase that seems just plain odd, probably because the common perception of Soviet cinema is that it consisted entirely of dull, dry dramas idealizing peasant life and the socialist society. Called socialist realism, this type of film has been dubbed the “official” style of Soviet cinema by western film-history books, which often give the mistaken impression that those were the only films produced in Russia during the Stalin years. Since the dismantling of the old Soviet bloc, more and more films have been discovered in studio archives and vaults that have challenged the perspective of the western-based film-history books. 

In the mid-1930s, the administrative head of Soviet cinema, Boris Shumiatski, issued an official decree that encouraged the production of musicals, noting that the film industry should focus on making “movies for the millions.” Not only did the Russian people take to this genre, but Stalin himself developed a taste for the craziest of these musical comedies. Again, there is something about the name Stalin and the term musical comedy that just doesn’t compute, especially when considering these particular musicals. I don’t often use the word “madcap,” but it fits these films perfectly. lyubov1

Apparently, Stalin was completely enamored with Lyubov Orlova, who made a series of extremely popular films with her director-husband, Grigori Alexandrov (or, Aleksandrov), which earned them the nickname the First Couple of Soviet Cinema. Orlova’s star image was that of the proletariat heroine. She excelled at playing spunky blonde peasant girls who could sing and dance. During the course of the story, her character achieves her goals and becomes prettier or happier through talent, hard work, optimism, and staying within the confines of Soviet ideology.  The talented actress looked a bit like Marion Davies and sang in the operetta-style of Jeanette MacDonald. One of the film references I consulted called her “the ideal woman of the 1930s, the femina sovietica, a contemporary Valkyrie  in a white sweater with a severe perm.” Though Orlova is neither svelte nor dainty, I found this description to be unfair and condescending. It reveals the tone of some of the sources I consulted, which looked down on Orlova, Alexandrov, and these films because they were a product of Soviet Russia, as though we were still fighting the Cold War and everything out of the old U.S.S.R. was suspect and tainted.

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ORLOVA DURING HER YOUNGER DAYS

 Orlova’s image as the carefree, eternally optimistic peasant was at odds with her origins. Born in 1902 in a suburb of Moscow, Lyubov (which means “love”) was the daughter of an officer in the Russian Imperial Army and a member of the Russian gentry. Her mother was the descendent of an old aristocratic family. Orlova studied piano and voice at the Moscow Conservatoire, then dance and choreography at the Moscow Theatrical Technical Secondary School. She was tutored at home in acting by a member of Moscow Musical Theatre of Stanislavsky. While studying, she used her skills as a pianist to accompany silent films in some of Moscow’s cinema unions.  By 1926, she was appearing on the stage. Also that year, she married Andrei Berezin, the Deputy Head of the State Commissariat of Agriculture. Though it sounds like Berezin was highly connected, he was actually an opposition politician. Four years later, Berezin was arrested on trumped up charges and imprisoned. While Orlova and Alexandrov were making their musicals, Berezin was in prison and later taken to a gulag. In 1948, he was diagnosed with cancer and released from the gulag so that he could return to his mother’s home where he died. 

For many years, Orlova did not know Berezin’s fate, nor did she know where he was imprisoned. After Berezin’s arrest, Orlova became depressed and began drinking heavily. In the late 1930s, second husband Alexandrov forced her to stop drinking by threatening to keep her out of the movies. She complied, and the two continued to work together.

 Alexandrov had been an assistant to Sergei Eisenstein, the master of montage editing. He worked with Eisenstein on Battleship Potemkin and October and then travelled to America and Mexico with the famous director in 1930 to work on a project that did not turn out the way they planned. They returned to the Soviet Union in 1932. While Alexandrov was in Hollywood, he learned a great deal about American-style filmmaking, studying the conventions of Hollywood musicals. He became very interested in female movie stars, particularly Greta Garbo, Marion Davies, and Ginger Rogers. When he returned home, he met with Stalin and producer Boris Shumiatski and agreed to direct a musical.

 Alexandrov met Orlova when he selected her to appear as a singing maid in his first musical, Jolly Fellows, which is also called Moscow Laughs or Jazz Comedy. They fell in love during the production and married some time later. Jolly Fellows is truly an interesting viewing experience. The slight story involves a shepherd who looks so much like a famous conductor that he is frequently mistaken for him. Both roles are played by a well-known Russian music hall entertainer named Leonid Utyosov. Orlova costars in a secondary role as pig-tailed maid who works for a leisure-class Muscovite at their resort home. Both the maid and the shepherd end up in Moscow, where miraculously he becomes the leader of a peasant orchestra and she becomes his band singer.

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THE LIVELY CONCLUSION OF JOLLY FELLOWS IS WORTH THE PRICE OF ADMISSION

An integrated musical for the most part, Jolly Fellows is packed with production numbers, zany antics, animal high jinks, and even a little animation. The tone is more fantasy than romance as the highly energetic and optimistic characters sing nonstop, smile constantly, and offer no explanation for their actions.  Those who dislike American musicals often posit a lack of realism as their reason. Well, they certainly wouldn’t like Soviet musicals; Singin’ in the Rain seems like a documentary compared to the outrageous Jolly Fellows

 A madcap atmosphere, ridiculously happy characters (they are really, really “jolly” as per the title), and an illogical storyline are part of the charm of this film, but it is also filled with wonderful cinematic moments.  The opening scene consists of what looks like one long tracking shot of the shepherd as he bounces through town with a few followers and some of his animals. The scene lasts about four or five minutes and follows the shepherd from one end of the village to the other. It appears to be one shot, but it is actually several shots cut together in such a way as to mask the edits — much like Hitchcock would do with Rope 14 years later.  It looks surprisingly modern because so many contemporary movies have opened similarly with a tracking shot following a character as he walks through a complicated setting. Even more remarkable is the fact that this shot was accomplished on location in a Russian village, and the camera tracks along a dirt road, through plowed gardens, and up steep hills fairly smoothly. The opening shot immediately introduces movement and energy into the movie, setting the pace for the rest of the film.

 When the shepherd gets to work, he lines up his animals and conducts a roll call in a humorous scene that reminded me of Eisenstein’s use of animal symbolism in his famous montage sequences. In the scene, a shot of the shepherd calling out the name of an animal is followed by a cut to the animal. This shot/counter shot becomes the basis of the humor. For example, the shepherd calls out “Secretary,” and Alexandrov cuts to a shot of a lamb; he calls out “Bureaucrat” and then cuts to a shot of an old goat. When he calls out “Maria Ivanovna,” a shot of a cow stuck in the mud comes next. I had to look that one up. Apparently, Maria Ivanovna was one of the wives of Ivan I, Prince of Moscow who appropriated Russian land when other princes defaulted on their debts. Though I do not know what it was about Maria Ivanovna that would warrant a comparison to a cow, I could tell from the context that it was an insult. The funniest example occurs when the shepherd calls out “English ladies,” and Alexandrov cuts to several pigs in the mud. Though much simpler than Eisenstein’s use of true montage, this scene is dependent on editing in order for the joke to work.

 Much of the humor in the film revolves around the animals, including the first main sequence featuring Orlova. The shepherd is invited to the resort home of a wealthy family because they think he is the famous orchestra conductor. When asked to perform something, he pulls out his flute and begins playing, inadvertently calling his animals to the house. The animals climb through the windows and the French doors, creating chaos. They drink out of the open punch bowls of alcohol and become intoxicated. Pigs climb on the table and pass out on the dinner platter, a bull ends up in bed with an aristocratic woman, cows drink from a fish aquarium, Orlova gamely climbs on the back of a bull and tries to ride it out of the house, and much more.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhhlVxCdqz4]
Later, when the setting changes to Moscow, and musical numbers follow each other in rapid succession, some of the precisely composed shots of multiple piano players or harp players are reminiscent of Busby Berkeley, an obvious influence on Alexandrov. Despite the amazing tracking shots, nicely arranged compositions, and offbeat humor, there are some awkward aspects to the film including some poor editing during the conversations and a few musical numbers that just aren’t appealing to non-Russian audiences.

 Of all Orlova’s musicals, Volga Volga was Stalin’s favorite. In his enthusiasm, he actually sent a copy to Franklin Roosevelt. Less zany than Jolly Fellows, Volga Volga still features the same energy, optimism, and joyfulness. Orlova, the undisputed star of Volga Volga, portrays Stralka, a letter carrier from a small village on the Volga River who also sings and dances in local musical productions. Her beau is a classical tuba player who looks down on the amateur village musicians. This creates many arguments with Stralka, who has the enthusiasm and spunk of a high-school cheerleader. When her beau’s orchestra and Stralka’s amateurs both want to participate in the Olympiad musical competition in Moscow, the two groups race down the Volga to see who will get to the city first to enter the contest. The film features a terrific boat race, some complicated production numbers involving dozens of singers and dancers, and many stunts in which characters fall off a large paddlewheel steamboat. However, it was Orlova’s relentless cheerfulness and buoyancy and the positive depiction of the proletariat that made Stalin want to praise it. Alexandrov managed to combine entertainment with ideology as he shows the happy peasants constantly working to better their life in the picturesque village. Much of the film was shot on location, and the Volga River countryside is beautiful to behold as Orlova and her fellow villagers cavort while they work. lyubov6

Other films starring Orlova sound just as interesting or entertaining. In the 1936 film Circus, she plays an American entertainer who gives birth to a black baby. This incurs the wrath of her neighbors and associates, and a group of white men chase her down in an attempt to lynch her. She moves to the Soviet Union, where she and her son are welcomed with open arms. The Shining Path, from 1940, has been called the epitome of Stalinist glorification. Orlova portrays a weaver in a textile factory who works her way up the ladder of success Soviet style. Her hard work and innovative methods result in a promotion to the Kremlin, where she wins the Order of Lenin. She then trains as an engineer and is finally elected a member of the Supreme Soviet. Lyubov Orlova did make films with other directors, but those with her husband defined her career. In the early 1950s, she ceased making films and turned to the stage. She died in 1975 and is buried in Moscow. 

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ORLVOVA ON A STAMP: ONE OF HER MANY HONORS

Stalin honored his favorite star with many awards over the years, including the title of Honorable Art Worker in 1935, the Stalin Prize for Volga Volga and Circus and the Lenin Order in 1940, and the Stalin Prize and the Honorary title of People’s Artist of the U.S.S.R. in 1950.  The public also adored Orlova, and workers of all strata sent her gifts and awarded her honors. In 1972, a minor planet was named 3108 Lyubov after Orlova by a Soviet astronomer, and an expedition ship was christened MV Lyubov Orlova.  

In doing research on Orlova, I found that many sources, including a documentary about  Soviet musicals called East Side Story, were  condescending or critical of the actress, her husband Alexandrov, and their musicals because of the hefty infusion of Soviet ideology. These films’ popularity during the 1930s coincided with Stalin’s succession of political purges against his enemies, intellectuals, artists, and just about anyone he didn’t approve of. And “purge” is one of those nice historical words meaning a one-way trip to the gulag, where most people were never heard from again. Many writers found the connection between the films and the actual history ironic, or they hinted that Stalin’s love of these films and Orlova’s appearance in them was hypocritical, given what was really going on at the time. But, optimistic, light-hearted fare that hammers home the Soviet viewpoint is exactly the kind of film that makes sense during the historical time frame — just like the Warner Bros. musicals were released during the darkest days of the Depression and subtextually supported FDR’s New Deal philosophy.  Neither type of musical is escapist in the sense that viewers who watch them will get away from whatever hell is going on around them; they are just injected with a dose of ideology to give them a boost in order to endure it. 

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ORLOVA AND ALEXANDROV AFTER HER RETIRMENT FROM MOVIES

One source took Orlova and Alexandrov to task for making the films when so much political torture was going on. The writer speculated that perhaps the couple did not know what was happening, but they should have figured it out. Though the author didn’t say this, I inferred that she believed that Orlova and Alexandrov should have stopped making these silly musicals when they found out the “truth.” How naïve. They were invited into Stalin’s home for parties and knew the members of his inner circle. That they knew exactly what was going on is evidenced by an occasion when Orlova dared to ask Stalin what had happened to her first husband, Andrei Berezin. Stalin coldly told her that Berezin was still alive and that he could arrange a visit if she insisted. As a matter of fact, he added, perhaps she might like to join him. The threat was obvious, and Orlova never brought it up again.  Alexandrov had assembled a team that he used consistently on the musicals that included administrative head Boris Shumiatski as producer and Vladimir Nilsen as cinematographer. By the end of the 1930s, Nilsen and Shumiatski (whose decree had mandated the development of the Soviet musical comedy) had been arrested and executed in one of the purges. That the same fate could befall both Orlova and Alexandrov was obvious to them. Informing Stalin that they did not want to make any more musicals did not cross their minds. 

Yet, none of this history has anything to do with the worthiness of the films. The ideology doesn’t negate the great tracking shot in Jolly Fellows, and Stalin’s political purges don’t make Orlova any less talented as an entertainer in Volga Volga. The history behind the popular culture is important to know, and it adds a level of understanding that helps viewers to get more out of the films, but it doesn’t negate the worthiness of the films. 

If anyone is interested in these oddball but interesting bits of Russian popular culture, you can rent them films through Facets’ rental program, or better yet, if you live in the Chicago area, please come down and see one or more of the films. They run from February 13 – 17. I can’t guarantee that you will like them, but you will certainly be amused and entertained. 

 Facets Multi-Media,  1517 W. Fullerton,  Chicago     (773) 281.4114

Films shown include: The CircusJolly Fellows, Volga Volga, The Shining Path, and Spring.

0 Response Lyubov Orlova: The First Lady of Soviet Cinema
Posted By moirafinnie : February 3, 2009 12:54 pm

Suzi,
I loved this blog, and am dying to know what FDR thought of Volga Volga(1938)!? I recall reading once that movies were projected just for Joe Stalin on those many nights when he couldn’t sleep (guilty conscience, no doubt…yeah, right). After viewing the Paramount movie Artists and Models (1937) on TCM recently, the clip that you included from The Jolly Fellows (1934) didn’t seem all that outlandish. It seemed to have a similarly over-the-top absurdist air of that Jack Benny-Ida Lupino vehicle and of the Marx Brothers (no, not Karl..)

This revelatory and entertaining article reminded me of another figure from roughly the same period, who has also, rightly or wrongly, been judged as a collaborator–this time, Zarah Leander, a Swedish singer who’s incredibly deep voice and darkly statuesque appearance enchanted Nazi Germany where she hit it big–reportedly while keeping movie czar and propaganda head Joseph Goebbels at arm’s length, (no mean trick for any actress at that time and place).

Leander had an opportunity to go to Hollywood, but, as fate would have it, she chose to stay in Germany throughout the war, and eventually retired to Sweden and never quite outlived the damage to her reputation. Her singing of that classic soldier’s song of longing, “Lili Marlene”, was one of her familiar hits to the average German, (though reportedly Marlene Dietrich’s version was very familiar to many despite her ostracization after Dietrich refused to return to work under the Nazis).

You can see a sample of Zarah Leander‘s appeal in one of her wartime musicals, Die Grosse Liebe (1942) below. The very tall figures surrounding the none too petite Leander in this scene were allegedly German soldiers made up as chorus girls! The conductor in this scene is Paul Hörbiger, a familiar figure in German movies before and after the war, (especially well known in the States as the porter in Carol Reed’s classic The Third Man.)
Zarah Leander Singing in Die Grosse Liebe

Posted By moirafinnie : February 3, 2009 12:54 pm

Suzi,
I loved this blog, and am dying to know what FDR thought of Volga Volga(1938)!? I recall reading once that movies were projected just for Joe Stalin on those many nights when he couldn’t sleep (guilty conscience, no doubt…yeah, right). After viewing the Paramount movie Artists and Models (1937) on TCM recently, the clip that you included from The Jolly Fellows (1934) didn’t seem all that outlandish. It seemed to have a similarly over-the-top absurdist air of that Jack Benny-Ida Lupino vehicle and of the Marx Brothers (no, not Karl..)

This revelatory and entertaining article reminded me of another figure from roughly the same period, who has also, rightly or wrongly, been judged as a collaborator–this time, Zarah Leander, a Swedish singer who’s incredibly deep voice and darkly statuesque appearance enchanted Nazi Germany where she hit it big–reportedly while keeping movie czar and propaganda head Joseph Goebbels at arm’s length, (no mean trick for any actress at that time and place).

Leander had an opportunity to go to Hollywood, but, as fate would have it, she chose to stay in Germany throughout the war, and eventually retired to Sweden and never quite outlived the damage to her reputation. Her singing of that classic soldier’s song of longing, “Lili Marlene”, was one of her familiar hits to the average German, (though reportedly Marlene Dietrich’s version was very familiar to many despite her ostracization after Dietrich refused to return to work under the Nazis).

You can see a sample of Zarah Leander‘s appeal in one of her wartime musicals, Die Grosse Liebe (1942) below. The very tall figures surrounding the none too petite Leander in this scene were allegedly German soldiers made up as chorus girls! The conductor in this scene is Paul Hörbiger, a familiar figure in German movies before and after the war, (especially well known in the States as the porter in Carol Reed’s classic The Third Man.)
Zarah Leander Singing in Die Grosse Liebe

Posted By Medusa : February 3, 2009 7:24 pm

Great story and fun clip, SuziD! Obviously amazing tradition of antic entertainment that carried over in so many American comedians with Russian and other European ancestry. One of the singers in the clip reminded me so much of Danny Kaye, whose family came from Russia. Lots of influence there!

Posted By Medusa : February 3, 2009 7:24 pm

Great story and fun clip, SuziD! Obviously amazing tradition of antic entertainment that carried over in so many American comedians with Russian and other European ancestry. One of the singers in the clip reminded me so much of Danny Kaye, whose family came from Russia. Lots of influence there!

Posted By suzidoll : February 4, 2009 11:24 am

Thanks for the support you guys. I appreciate it. I knew this might be a “lonely post,” that is, one that would not attract many comments, but I thought film geeks would really be interested.

Medusa: Excellent point about Danny Kaye. I hadn’t thought of it, but it makes so much sense. Anyone doing a study or bio of him should definitely see these films.

Posted By suzidoll : February 4, 2009 11:24 am

Thanks for the support you guys. I appreciate it. I knew this might be a “lonely post,” that is, one that would not attract many comments, but I thought film geeks would really be interested.

Medusa: Excellent point about Danny Kaye. I hadn’t thought of it, but it makes so much sense. Anyone doing a study or bio of him should definitely see these films.

Posted By Al Lowe : February 4, 2009 1:37 pm

I liked the post. She had a fascinating career and is forgotten today.
It is also interesting that Stalin was her fan.
Someone ought to do a post on famous men and women and their mind boggling choices for favorite actors and movies.
For example, President Eisenhower loved Angels in the Outfield, the 1951 MGM film about the Pittsburgh Pirates. Director Clarence Brown said in an interview that Ike told him “I can see it one hundred times but my friends are getting sick of it.”

Posted By Al Lowe : February 4, 2009 1:37 pm

I liked the post. She had a fascinating career and is forgotten today.
It is also interesting that Stalin was her fan.
Someone ought to do a post on famous men and women and their mind boggling choices for favorite actors and movies.
For example, President Eisenhower loved Angels in the Outfield, the 1951 MGM film about the Pittsburgh Pirates. Director Clarence Brown said in an interview that Ike told him “I can see it one hundred times but my friends are getting sick of it.”

Posted By Sam Nova : February 9, 2009 3:25 pm

RE: Lyubov Orlova. The First Lady of Soviet Cinema; Great story Suzi, you are expanding my knowledge of foreign movies, now to find a movie with Lyubov Orlova; rhymes with Nova.

Thank you Suzi

Sam Nova

Posted By Sam Nova : February 9, 2009 3:25 pm

RE: Lyubov Orlova. The First Lady of Soviet Cinema; Great story Suzi, you are expanding my knowledge of foreign movies, now to find a movie with Lyubov Orlova; rhymes with Nova.

Thank you Suzi

Sam Nova

Posted By Kathy : July 7, 2009 1:33 pm

Suzi:

Am looking for a movie (old) about a young married couple in Stalin’s Russia. In the end the wife hangs herself. CANNOT remember the name. Any idea? Thanks

Posted By Kathy : July 7, 2009 1:33 pm

Suzi:

Am looking for a movie (old) about a young married couple in Stalin’s Russia. In the end the wife hangs herself. CANNOT remember the name. Any idea? Thanks

Posted By Susan Z. Swan : October 13, 2009 10:26 pm

Thanks for a great article with excellent information. We have the Alexandrov-Orlova series running here in Madison WI right now. I missed Jolly Fellows sadly, but last week’s installment was The Circus, which is a remarkable comment on race politics. Hearing some in the crowd snicker was annoying, especially at the end with the patriotic rally. Funny, it looked so much like the political rallies following 9/11, but clear that sort of connection didn’t resonate with some of the audience. One of my areas of research is classical film — and it certainly seems that there are any number of American musicals/films which as busy touting the patriotic life here as Alexandrov/Orlova did there. And as busy ruining the lives of those who did not conform via McCarthism. There is more insight in the comparisons and parallels than may be safe to expose without getting lynched for being un-American.

Posted By Susan Z. Swan : October 13, 2009 10:26 pm

Thanks for a great article with excellent information. We have the Alexandrov-Orlova series running here in Madison WI right now. I missed Jolly Fellows sadly, but last week’s installment was The Circus, which is a remarkable comment on race politics. Hearing some in the crowd snicker was annoying, especially at the end with the patriotic rally. Funny, it looked so much like the political rallies following 9/11, but clear that sort of connection didn’t resonate with some of the audience. One of my areas of research is classical film — and it certainly seems that there are any number of American musicals/films which as busy touting the patriotic life here as Alexandrov/Orlova did there. And as busy ruining the lives of those who did not conform via McCarthism. There is more insight in the comparisons and parallels than may be safe to expose without getting lynched for being un-American.

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