Sunday, May 06, 2018

Vesyolye rebyata / Jolly Fellows (The Nitrate Picture Show)


Vesyolye rebyata / Jolly Fellows. Lyubov Orlova.

Весёлые ребята / Moscow Laughs, Grigoriy Aleksandrov, Soviet Union 1934
Print source: Österreichisches Filmmuseum (Austrian Film Museum), Vienna
Running time: 90 minutes
Viewed at The Nitrate Picture Show (NPS), George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, Rochester, 6 May 2018

NPS: "About the print

This print from 1958 is proof that not all production on nitrate stock stopped in 1951. It is a restoration made by Aleksandrov himself, partially re-dubbed because the original soundtrack had been damaged. It shows scratching that was already in the material in the 1950s and additional scratching from use. No repair was needed in preparation for this projection. Shrinkage: 0.98–1.2%

About the film

“When the Muscovites produce a film which does not mention Dnieprostroy, ignores the class struggle and contains no hint of editorial Marxism, it immediately becomes one of the great events of international cinema. The new Soviet jazz comedy at the Cameo, in its uniquely Russian blend of syncopated music and straightforward slapstick, is no more politically minded than a Laurel and Hardy picture. . . . It is a loud and brawling carnival, unashamed in its imitation of the bourgeois Hollywood technique, and curiously attractive even when it is being as subtle as a side of beef.”
– Andre Sennwald, New York Times, March 25, 1935

“After viewing Moscow Laughs, . . . some film observers are speculating as to what extent S. M. Eisenstein, the Russian director, was indebted to Grigoriy Aleksandrov for the pictorial effects he achieved in his productions. Aleksandrov, who directed Moscow Laughs as his first independent film, was associated with Eisenstein for many years. Together with their cameraman, Edouard Tisse, the three produced films which made cinema history.”
– Los Angeles Times, September 29, 1935

“[The film] attempts to supply an antidote for the depressing spectacle of a starving peasantry, fired by patriotic zeal that usually has been grossly overdrawn, by presenting so exaggerated a picture of unbridled gayety as to defeat the disarming purpose for which it so desperately strives. No cross section of any citizenry . . . could comport itself with the sublime insanity of the principal participants of Moscow Laughs.”
– Nelson B. Bell, Washington Post, June 16, 1935" (NPS)

AA: Grigori Aleksandrov released this first Soviet musical in a special year, 1934, about to be a theme for a retrospective at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna this year, "Second Utopia: 1934, The Golden Age of Soviet Sound Film" curated by by Peter Bagrov.

There was an ominous background to this carefree comedy set in the countryside. The Soviet Union had just experienced the Great Famine of 1932–1933. Millions lost their lives especially in the Holodomor mass starvation of Ukraine, resulting from a policy of brutal state repression. Stalin's Great Terror was about to take place in 1936–1938. In between there was a short period of relative freedom which film artists utilized.

Jolly Fellows was Aleksandrov's first solo fiction film as a director. The star was Lyubov Orlova who would become Aleksandrov's wife and star for the rest of their lives. The composer was the wonderful Isaak Dunayevsky, a brilliant ballet and operetta composer and songwriter, and a pioneer of jazz in Russia. Jolly Fellows was also Dunayevsky's debut film. Besides Orlova also the male lead, Leonid Utyosov had his breakthrough in this film.

The musical cycle created by Aleksandrov, Orlova, and Dunayevsky (Jolly Fellows followed by Circus, Volga-Volga, The Shining Path / Tanya, and Springtime) can be viewed as escapism or as an elixir of life-affirmation during Stalin's years of terror.

The accents are weird to say the least, and Paolo Cherchi Usai commented that the film felt like "Luis Buñuel on drugs". Kostya's (Leonid Utyosov) pan flute attracs the kolkhoz animals to the dinner tables of a sophisticated banquet. The bull entering the salon brings to mind L'Age d'Or and the whole sequence prefigures the beggars' banquet in El ángel exterminador.

There is a lot of animation in the film, starting from the credit sequence, followed by a vision of animated radiowaves. Later we see an animated clock and a recurrent motif of an animated Moon. The optical effects are assured and attractive. The film is full of humoristic detail, comical camera angles and witty moments such as the one where birds on a wire become notes for music. The long tracking shots are inspired and engaging.

The violence in the orchestra rehearsal is exaggerated and brutal, perhaps conveying conscious or unconscious overtones from an age of terror.

Jolly Fellows is not an exercise in good taste, but it has panache. And a dimension of the macabre.

The director himself supervised this 1958 reconstruction from the battered remains of his mega hit film. Considering the premises that we are to understand have been challenging the result was quite successful. But we must remember that this is a re-recording of a high Stalin era film.

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