Sunday, May 29, 2016

Tonight's Movie: Song of Russia (1944) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Robert Taylor and Susan Peters star in the WWII musical propaganda film SONG OF RUSSIA (1944), recently released by the Warner Archive.

Taylor plays a world-famous American conductor. While on a goodwill concert tour in the Soviet Union he meets Nadya (Peters), a lovely pianist, and the two fall in love and marry against the backdrop of the German invasion of Russia.

I'm going to state flat-out that I love this movie! I've been waiting for the DVD for a long time, and I'm thrilled it's finally here.

That said, yes, SONG OF RUSSIA is more than a bit of a guilty pleasure, with its crazy pro-Stalinist Soviet propaganda; as the saying goes, war makes strange bedfellows.

At the same time, the mind-bending pro-Soviet slant is part of what makes the movie so wildly entertaining. The depiction of a Soviet Russia with peasants toiling happily in the fields by day and visiting swank nightclubs by night has to be seen to be believed. Only in the movies...!

I mean, the film has one of the sweetest, most demure movie heroines in history -- who's somehow also a superwoman who rides a tractor and teaches children to make Molotov cocktails. And she's also got time to be a world-class concert pianist!

But who cares if it's believable when the actress is Susan Peters; she's absolutely luminous, her eyes glowing, lovingly filmed by Harry Stradling Sr. She was a gift to the cinema, gracing us with her presence for far too short a time. It makes one's heart ache thinking of what was to come for her off camera.

This was Robert Taylor's last film before leaving for service in WWII, and he's the epitome of a Movie Star, dashing and oh-so-romantic. Taylor's real-life background as a classical musician in college -- he was an accomplished cellist before Hollywood beckoned -- lends a note of authenticity to his performance, although at times his conducting seems a bit overwrought and strangely out of sync with the music.

Just as the knowledgeable viewer will feel a certain sadness, knowing that Peters' light would shine too briefly in movies, it's painful to watch Taylor chain-smoking in this film, being aware he would die of lung cancer at 57. Peters' Nadya actually encourages him to cut back on the smoking in this film, which seems a bit unusual for a film of the era.

The movie epitomizes MGM's glamour and skill with musical films; the movie was produced by Joseph Pasternak, who produced many of Deanna Durbin's fine movies. The "Pasternak touch" is evident throughout when it comes to the presentation of the music.

I was a goner from the goose-bumpy 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 ended a rehearsal, pick up their instruments and play's a simply wonderful moment. The beautiful music throughout the film, combined with the Taylor-Peters romance, is more than enough to make this movie a winner for me.

It was especially interesting watching this the same weekend as two other WWII resistance films, TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) and THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER (1942). So far this Memorial Day weekend, without intending to, I've watched films about resistance fighters in Poland, Holland, and Russia! And it must be said that SONG OF RUSSIA builds to an inspiring conclusion, with a passionate victory speech by John Hodiak followed by Tschaikovsky.

It was a treat to see Darryl Hickman in this, just weeks after seeing him on the red carpet at this year's TCM Classic Film Festival.

The fine cast also includes Robert Benchley, Jacqueline White (THE NARROW MARGIN), Joan Lorring, Felix Bressart, Patricia Prest, and Vladimir Sokoloff. Look for Tommy Rall (SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS) as a dancing peasant at the wedding.

The film was directed by Russian-born Gregory Ratoff. Laslo Benedek also worked on the movie when Ratoff fell ill. The movie runs 107 minutes.

It's fascinating to take a look at Bosley Crowther's 1944 review in the New York Times; he calls it "a honey of a topical musical film, full of rare good humor, rich vitality and a proper respect for the Russians' fight in this war...a fine blend of music and image is achieved in the best cinematic style...Joseph Pasternak, producing for Metro, has imparted to this tale a buoyance and gusto quite similar to that of his earlier musical films."

For more on this film, please visit my 2010 review, posted after watching the movie via TCM.

The SONG OF RUSSIA print was newly remastered, yet I felt it doesn't look as good as most Warner Archive prints. There are no skips or major glitches, but there quite a few lines and streaks which are particularly noticeable during some of the quieter scenes with Taylor and Peters. Anyone who loves the movie as I do will want to own this DVD, but should know going in that the picture looks worn in spots.

The DVD includes the trailer.

Update: For a look at a very different MGM film set in the Soviet Union, also available from the Warner Archive, please visit my review of COMRADE X (1940).

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.


Blogger barrylane said...

That there was a reaction to this material should really have been foreseen. A beautifully made, but absolutely manipulative and not at all in our interests. Should be noted that this followed, and by not too long a period, the unraveling of Walter Duranty's place in history as a Pulitzer Prize winning liar in the employ of The New York Times. For those who do not know, Duranty filed detailed stories of how wonderful life was in Stalin's Russia. A fantasy, or a lie, untrue in all cases.

6:25 AM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Well, as Laura said - "Strange bedfellows indeed"! But I don't think in 1943/4 that we knew the mammoth scale of Stalin's putting to death of his own people.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Barrylane and Jerry!

Please watch for my next Warner Archive review, COMRADE X (1940), which should be posted this evening. Same studio, but what a difference a few years (and the U.S. joining a world war) made in MGM's treatment of Soviet Russia. Fascinating stuff.

Best wishes,

10:00 AM  

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