Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Song of Russia (1944)

SONG OF RUSSIA is a fascinating film. It's a wild mixture of pro-Stalinist Russia World War II propaganda, classical music, and romance.

Robert Taylor plays John Meredith, a famed American conductor on a goodwill tour of Russia. He instantly -- and very understandably -- falls in love with Nadya (Susan Peters), a beautiful young pianist. They marry, but are soon separated by war.

I watched this film suspended somewhere between horrified disbelief and immense enjoyment. On the one hand I was appalled by the make-believe Soviet Russia portrayed in the film...yet, on the other hand, it was so interesting to try to understand this film in the context of the need to build support for our Soviet allies as we fought WWII. MGM's SONG OF RUSSIA was one of several pro-Russian films which served this purpose, along with titles such as Fox's THE NORTH STAR (1943) and MISSION TO MOSCOW (1943) from Warner Bros.

SONG OF RUSSIA portrays a Soviet Russia where attractively dressed peasants happily toil in the fields and sing as they go home at night. It's a Russia where a young girl can ride a tractor in the fields all day and yet be a world-class classical pianist. And it's a Russia where such a girl can spend an evening with an American in a swank Moscow nightclub. And of course, all the peasants speak English! The only signs of reality to intrude on this Soviet fairy tale are the ominous posters of Lenin and Stalin in the background when Meredith arrives at the Moscow airport. It's all kind of mind-bending. (And speaking of mind-bending, the sight of sweet young Susan Peters teaching children how to make Molotov cocktails is one I won't soon forget.)

And yet...when it came to the music and romance, I was a goner from the moment Peters' Nadya gets the conductor's attention by sitting down and playing Tschaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. The orchestra members, who have just finished rehearsing, pick up their instruments and play along...it's a wonderful moment. The film was produced by Joseph Pasternak, who produced many of Deanna Durbin's fine movies, and the "Pasternak touch" is evident throughout when it comes to the presentation of the music.

The romance portrayed by two of MGM's brightest stars is achingly lovely. In some ways this film might be considered a real "guilty pleasure," given its false depiction of the murderous Stalin regime, but I think it's important not to lose sight, decades later, of the context in which it was made. In its own way, the film's ersatz depiction of our ally, for the sake of the war effort, is an important slice of history.

And if one completely dismisses the real world from the picture and accepts it as a sort of fantasy, the movie is a highly enjoyable romantic saga, which Leonard Maltin aptly describes as "hokey yet effective."

This film is interesting on so many levels, whether for its romance, music, propaganda, or looking at the intersection of the film and real life. For instance, Robert Taylor -- who was extremely reluctant to appear in a film showing Communist Russia in a positive light -- might seem an unlikely choice to play a conductor, but in reality he was an accomplished young musician before arriving in Hollywood. Among other things, he played cello in a symphony and a string quartet while he was a college student in Nebraska. He arrived in California when he followed a favorite music professor to Pomona College; Taylor was so highly regarded that his previous college, Doane, attempted to keep him in Nebraska by offering him a job as a music instructor while he was still a student. (You can read more about Taylor's background in Linda Alexander's biography and a forthcoming biography by Charles Tranberg.) All that said, I didn't always feel Taylor's conducting was completely in sync with the music.

Taylor's character chain smokes, and Peters' Nadya encourages him to cut back. That's pretty interesting, in and of itself, for a film from 1944. As I noted the other day, I've been particularly aware recently of the issue of smoking in the classic film era. Off the screen, Taylor was a heavy smoker, and he died of lung cancer at the relatively young age of 57.

The emerging young star Susan Peters, who had been Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actress for RANDOM HARVEST (1942), shared Taylor's above-the-title billing, although Taylor's name was about three times the size of Peters'. She's absolutely luminous as the young Russian pianist, and her miming of the piano concerto struck me as quite credible. Peters was an immensely appealing actress. Her paralyzing accident on New Year's Day, 1945, which contributed to her early death in 1952, is one of filmdom's great tragedies.

The supporting cast includes John Hodiak, who also appeared with Taylor in THE BRIBE (1949) and AMBUSH (1950). Robert Benchley has a nice low-key role as Taylor's manager. Felix Bressart, Daryl Hickman, Vladimir Sokoloff, and Jacqueline White (THE NARROW MARGIN) are also in the cast.

The film was directed by Russian-born Gregory Ratoff. Laslo Benedek also worked on the movie when Ratoff was incapacitated by illness. The movie runs 107 minutes and was shot in black and white.

SONG OF RUSSIA can be seen on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer is here.

April 2016 Update: SONG OF RUSSIA is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

My May 2016 review of the DVD may be found here.


Blogger panavia999 said...

The out of sync conducting was probably due to post production dubbing, not how well Robert Taylor could pretend to conduct. I'll bet Taylor cringed at that too. That movie version of Soviet Russia is called "Hollywood on the Volga". (Same with the North Star, Scarlet Empress, etc etc.) I know a few people from Ireland and they really laugh at "Hollywood Irish" as in "The Quiet Man".

11:05 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Panavia999,

Yes, I actually wondered if it was more of a technical issue with the syncing of the soundtrack with the action, but didn't say that in my post, so I'm glad you mentioned it.

I like the name "Hollywood on the Volga"! LOL.

Best wishes,

11:10 AM  
Blogger Carrie said...

Good writeup! I watched half of it last night and couldn't quite get into it.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Carrie! Thanks very much. I'd be interested to know you thoughts if you decide to finish it up --

Best wishes,

6:00 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Check out Moira Finnie's comments on the movie at the TCM Boards, here and here.


7:44 PM  

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