KinoKultura: Issue 46 (2014)

Hollywood in Moscow, or Soviet and American Cinema in the Thirties and Forties

By Maya Turovskaya

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Comparison between the body of films of the Stalin era and Hollywood has become commonplace in Russia and can nowadays be taken for granted. On the whole, within the framework of the concept formulated by David Bordwell and his co-authors of The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1988)—or, more precisely, of Hollywood as classic cinema—this seems logical. The “Great Soviet Cinema” of the post-avant-garde period satisfied a number of necessary, if not sufficient, signs of classic film: the leading role of plot (narrativity); realism (whether in the Aristotelian modality of the “probable” or the historical one of the “authentic”); in transparency (or the invisibility of the form of expression), and also in accessibility. It is true that Soviet film did not enjoy either the breadth or common humanity of premise, or the desirability of the way of life, or appealing genres, or the potent repeatability that made Hollywood the cinema of the universal dream, the benchmark of classic cinema and the champion of the box office. Soviet cinema remained Hollywood for itself. But it is now that this has become a truism. We have had to extract this far from obvious and indisputable knowledge by hand. First from under the bushel of Soviet ideology (“we’re ahead of the whole planet”); later from beneath the blockages of anti-Soviet mythologemes about the essential uniqueness of “Soviet” man. By the way this truism has not been subjected to reflection even now if only because Hollywood’s “Golden Era,” synchronous to “Great Soviet Cinema,” has remained a blank spot in our audience’s experience. It was “sensed” by Gosfilmofond employees, narrow specialists and compilers of encyclopedias. Now, when the screen is inundated with the American product (more often than not third-rate), comparison is routinely made by means of imitation. Then it transpires that making a straightforward“classic film” is even more difficult than making an impressive film d’auteur. So much for the truism about 1930s Hollywood.

Orwell apparently observed that a totalitarian regime avoids comparison: it is not for nothing that it is called a “Closed society.” Comparison is itself only a research methodology, not an ideological diversion.

1. Then and Now
The idea of a comparative retrospective of Soviet and Nazi films came to my co-author Iurii Khaniutin and me at a time now forgotten when we were viewing “propaganda” films from Goebbels” archive in Gosfilmofond’s “special collection” [spetskhran] for the film Ordinary Fascism (Obyknovennyi fashizm, Mikhail Romm, Mosfilm, 1965). Let me remind you that the basic [German] production was mainly entertainment (later these would diversify the Soviet screen as “trophy” films). We were surprised to discover how reminiscent of Soviet cinema were films that been categorized as “secret:” such as the patriotic military Request Concert (Wunschkonzert,Eduard von Borsody, Ufa, 1940), the spy film Traitor (Verräter, Karl Ritter, Ufa, 1936) or the youth film Jakko (Fritz Peter Buch, Tobis, 1941). This mirror image, which was apparently also obvious to the censors of the “special collection,” gave us the idea for an obvious comparative retrospective, although in the 1960s this was understandably ein Ding an sich. It was only a quarter of a century later (when neither Khaniutin nor Romm was still alive) that I managed to realize our old project within the framework of the 1989 Moscow Film Festival and with the assistance of FIPRESCI (The International Federation of Film Critics). I put the retrospective together with Kirill Razlogov, a former employee of Gosfilmofond with an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and our screenings on the whole were directed against specific targets (although there were also some unexpected and, for this reason, particularly tasty morsels).

The programs of films with something in common merged quite neatly into a hierarchical quasi-sacral structure. Both ideologies, despite their contradictions and strong antipathy, laid claim to the role of a quasi-religion which managed to replace true religion. This structure was not created so much by us as by the actual logic of the material and it corresponded most to the general description of religion (see Eliade).[2]

The retrospective created a shock, not only on the Soviet side, but also among the European “left’, which was not ready to compare the dictatorships. In a certain sense the subject still remains controversial, with each side fearing the “banalization” of the worst of its evils. It goes without saying that then it was the similarity that was shocking, although the comparison between them was/has been by no means exhausted. Then the German Slavicist Sabine Hänsgen postulated the juxtaposition of the comparative retrospective as one of the possible and fruitful methods of research, of the means for the comparative study of cultures. To imagine, during the short period of perestroika—the time of the film Repentance (Monanieba/Pokaianie, Tengiz Abuladze, Gruziiafilm, 1987), of sotsart,[3] of chernukha [4] and of sprinkling your head with ashes—a comparison between ostracized Soviet cinema and longed-for Hollywood seemed inappropriate. Moreover, there was not much to compare: as already mentioned, Hollywood’s “Golden Era” passed us by, leaving a memory confined to the Film Institute VGIK, the “trophy films” and the Illusion cinema.[5]

2. Here and There.
Finding myself by the will of the fates in America (with the above-mentioned retrospective), I began “watching” Hollywood cinema of the same period. It was inexhaustible. But, however strange it may seem, the common features with the relatively few Soviet films turned out to be greater than I could have imagined a priori. It was not even so much with Aleksandrov’s “Soviet Hollywood” as with the Soviet variety of mass culture that Vladimir Paperny (2007) aptly christened “Culture 2”.

In cinema its emergence was preceded by the real turning point of 1929, one of the manifestations of Stalin’s second revolution. The cinema system of the NEP period, which had been based on a complex balance between Soviet and imported film (parity had been reached only in 1928), on a combination of an innovative avant-garde project and cinema’s pre-Revolutionary tradition, on a mutual complementarity between the private and the state sectors of production and distribution, was radically revised. Ten years after Lenin’s decree cinema was in fact a state monopoly.[6] The studios’ portfolios were purged of “unprincipled” [bezydeinyi. i.e. lacking ideas, or ideological content] films (both those that had scarcely entered production and those that had been completed). The clear trend towards a growth in production (1928 had produced the highest figure—128 films) was curtailed, production fell by half and these limits were never exceeded in the Stalin era. Imports were stopped almost entirely, partly for foreign-exchange considerations. A regime of autarky began in distribution. The revolutionary avant-garde, which had demanded the exorcism of what was “bourgeois” was, on the contrary, also left by the wayside. Even if it was considered art for the masses, it could not fulfill the role of box-office cinema. At the same time in a barely literate country on the threshold of urbanization cinema really was “the most important of the arts.”[7] The transition to “classic” film was also facilitated by a technological revolution: the advent of the sound era. “Talking cinema” [govoriashchee kino] became more narrative, “transparent” and accessible, drawing closer to the American “classic” film type. However, it was to be another decade before Soviet distribution was everywhere converted to sound.

The Sturm und Drang epoch, which had made Eisenstein its flagship and the Soviet avant-garde a phenomenon that left its mark even on Hollywood, was no longer the high road, while its outcomes, when the opportunity arose, were labeled “formalist.”

These local “industrial” consequences of the Stalinist revolution make a comparison between the films of Soviet cinema and Hollywood, on the one hand, easier and, on the other, more problematic. In many respects they became opposites. For instance:

The American system of production and distribution

The Soviet system of production and distribution

Private capitalism

State monopoly

Studio, highly competitive

Studio, but tautological



Orientated towards genres

Orientated towards thematic plans

Orientated towards a system of “stars’

Orientated towards actors

Orientated towards entertainment and box office

Orientated towards ideals and didacticism

Highly technological, industrial

Technically weak and amateurish [kustarnaia]

500-700 films a year

50-70 films a year

This is, it goes without saying, only the tip of the iceberg, but it marks the limits of comparability. The comparison is made particularly difficult, however strange it may seem, by the quantitative factor, the ten-fold greater scale of American production, the varied nature of genres, categories, levels, and so on. Hollywood really was the “dream factory,” with the emphasis on both words. For all the canonicity of genre cinema the level of variation was nevertheless incomparably higher. It seems that there was no stratum, profession, group or corner of society that American cinema of that time did not have a peep at (not to mention fantasy genres).

Presidents, judges, millionaires, profiteers, landed estate owners, generals and soldiers, journalists, lawyers, policemen and private detectives, provincial young ladies, businesswomen, showgirls [gerls], clerks, cowboys, down-and-outs and hoboes, black servants, semi-homeless adolescents, bootleggers, G-men, sheriffs, farmers, seasonal workers, starlets and stars, jazzmen, shop assistants, brokers, engineers, husbands and wives,  pilots, sportsmen, and also good and bad men and women, fathers, mothers, daughters and sons, not to mention others, filled a screen that was divided between companies and delineated into genres. By contrast, orientated towards the “new,” towards uniqueness and “art,” the Soviet screen turned out in this sense to be much more uniform. While Katerina Clark, researching the phenomenon of the socialist realist novel, derived the algorithm of the “great family” and the “spontaneous [stikhiinye]” sons who are disciplined by the father (Clark 2000: 114-135), the film archetype, unraveled by Liliia Mamatova, independently of her, looks even more primitive (Mamatova 1995: 52-78). In the triangle of “simple man,” “Party leader” and “saboteur [vreditel],” the second, like Clark’s father figure, sets the former on the path of hard work and the exposure of the saboteur. By the way the latter might not even exist—he is an optional figure. But then the setting on the path of ideology and heroic labor exploit is itself the “main road” (on which, incidentally, the far from virtual leaders constantly set the not always obedient art workers). Hence, in the final analysis, the list of Soviet-American oppositions might be reduced to the common denominator: poverty—wealth.

Nevertheless one and a half decades after the next Russian Revolution (this time a capitalist one) the phrase “Great Soviet Cinema,” beyond its fashionable meaning, has kept the same terminological significance as the “classic film” in Hollywood. Its ressentiment, as sociologists say, or “restorative nostalgia,” to use Svetlana Boym’s expression (Boym 2001: 41-8), is nevertheless not exhausted. As distinct from the unreadable novels that have been left to the historians, a not inconsiderable part of this legacy has maintained its vitality. Its “honored” and “people’s” [artists], who are nowadays hailed as “stars;” the passion of its musical comedies (which are really “musicals’); its emancipated female gender of every age and status, and the male, more often than not heroic; its impoverished, but spruced up daily life; its humor, dispersed in real language in proverbs but, most importantly, its energy make it the fully-fledged Soviet “mass culture” of the multidimensional 1930s (neither the Soviet thesis of universal enthusiasm nor the post-Soviet of widespread fear describes it anywhere near fully). Losing its world status alongside the innovative impulse of the avant-garde, Soviet cinema nevertheless gained a domestic audience. Without requiring any thought from it, cinema offered instead emotional involvement. In telling its simple stories it promoted them to the rank of mythologemes.

The paradox is that the “Americanism” to which the avant-garde had sworn allegiance led to the creation of the phenomenon that became known as “Russian montage’. Whereas the change of paradigm in favor of “classic” film turned out, to paraphrase Graham Greene, to be Soviet cinema’s “Quiet Americanization.” Even when the “authorities” were fierce, it was not reduced to “propaganda.” Too much was invested in it of the sum of talent and of that “accessibility,” the dearth of which sociologists nowadays attest. The revolutionary explosion—however inadequately—had for a moment opened up vertical mobility. The 1930s still vibrated with the power of this explosive wave. Stalin’s regime, on the one hand, utilized these impulses widely, glorifying them; on the other hand, through using the “great terror” as a warning, it tried to tame them to the status of cogs. But this “taming of the arts” could never be fully achieved.

3. Good Day, America!
Despite all the oppositions between the cinema industry in the USA and the USSR, it is possible to discern amongst them points of contact, although these are approximate and derive from a variety of causes.

It goes without saying that the famous “Hays Code” had its origins both in Hollywood scandals and the activists of the Roman Catholic Church.[8] But, in the pettiness of its oversight and its moralistic pathos, it reminds you vividly of all the Soviet “examples” at once. Let us not forget that it was initiated by the producers” body to replace “bourgeois” film with Soviet director’s cinema. An act of self-defense easily becomes an act of self-prohibition. The phenomenon of post-war McCarthyism was not only simultaneous to the “battle against cosmopolitanism,” but had the same “cold war” in its case history. But much more significant is the barely noticeable circumstance that the reduction in imported foreign films to almost zero by no means reduced relations between Soviet cinema and the West to nothing.

It was at precisely this time that the memorable model emerged under which Western film, having become almost invisible on the screen, became the privilege of the leadership and the industrial elite.

Meanwhile, as Western film became a rarity, Soviet cinema did not completely disappear from world screens with the triumphs of the avant-garde. The first festival screenings in Venice (1932 and 1934) brought success to Soviet programs and release for films such as Road to Life (Putevka v zhizn’, Nikolai Ekk, Mezhrabpomfilm, 1931) and The Happy Guys/Jolly Fellows (Veselye rebiata, Grigorii Aleksandrov, Mosfilm, 1934). In 1935, after Venice, the first Moscow International Film Festival took place and some things from it, like the Austrian Peter (Hermann Kosterlitz [later Henry Coster], Hunnia Filmstúdió/Universal Pictures, Hungary/Austria, 1934, with Franciska Gaál), Disney’s Three Little Pigs (Burt Gillett, Disney/United Artists, 1933) or the color film La Cucaracha (Lloyd Corrigan, RKO, 1934), not to mention Chaplin, trickled down to us, the audience.[9] Basically, however, relations with world cinema went off screen.

The gaunt and pale “industry” periodical Proletarskoe kino (1931-2), Sovetskoe kino (1933-5), and later Iskusstvo kino (since 1936), despite all the infection with ideology, was distinguished not only by its enviable attention to professional matters but by the fact that it never missed an opportunity to take a look (critically, of course) at the West. The Kino newspaper, which survived until 1940,tried to keep up. Dating the autarky of distribution to the beginning of the 1930s, the American scholar John Rimberg noted “the endless visits to the USA” by envoys of the Soviet cinema industry (Babitsky and Rimberg 1955: 259). This may seem paradoxical if you ignore the fact that the rush to modernization during the first Five-Year Plan was conducted in terms of Americanization: “Fordism,” “Taylorism,” not to mention the eternal dream of “catching up and overtaking.”[10] It goes without saying that the idea that the “spontaneous” Stepashka from the once emblematic production at the Theatre of the Revolution of The Poem of the Axe (Poema o topore )[11] produces better stainless steel than American engineers was no more justified than the hope that Shostka would overtake Kodak.[12] And so it was all the more important to stock up on equipment and exchange experiences.

After the legendary breakthrough of The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein, Goskino, 1926) (incidentally Hollywood never failed to take stock of the experience of the avant-garde such as German Expressionism) The Path or The Road to Life, like Jolly Fellows [aka The Happy Guys], even Moscow Laughs, were still destined to be released in the USA. But the surprising thing is not that Soviet films were later shown in specialist cinemas like the Cameo or the 8th Street Playhouse in New York. The surprising thing is that Soviet cinema still had a presence on American screens attracting the “rank-and-file viewer.” Rimberg cites this data: in 1937-8 450 US cinemas showed Soviet films; in November 1938 they were seen by 200,000 people (Babitsky and Rimberg 1955: 252). The Russian State Archive for Literature and Arts RGALI has some documents, now declassified, on the distribution activities of Soiuzintorgkino and the Amkino trust for that same year 1938. The list of partner countries names 27, with the USA in first place with 57 films and 1.6 million viewers. The list is headed by Lenin in October (Lenin v oktiabre, Mikhail Romm, Mosfilm, 1937).

Consequently, when Dukelskii replaced the now arrested Shumiatskii as head of GUK, he wrote a libelous letter to Stalin, Molotov and Ezhov in which he incriminated his predecessor precisely for the economic character of export activity: “The previous leadership of GUK [...] proceeded mainly from the need to fulfill export and foreign-currency plans, so that the promotion of Soviet films on foreign screens was based on purely commercial foundations...” at a time when “the scale of the takings should not have supplanted the political side of the matter” (RGALI 2456/4/48: 9).[13] Thus, film was reduced to the role of simple agitation, whereas the name of Boris Shumiatskii, a highly ambiguous figure in the history of Soviet cinema, is associated with one of the most colorful episodes in Soviet-American relations in the field of the seventh art (see Taylor 1986: 43-64).

First Digression: Cine-City, or Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
The Old Bolshevik, Boris Zakharovich Shumiatskii was posted to cinema as administrator and manager in 1930. He was appointed head of the newly created Soiuzkino, in 1933 the head of GUKF and in 1936 deputy chairman of the Committee for Artistic Affairs. However, as author of the book A Cinema for the Millions (Kinematografiia millionov), he also took upon himself the role of the ideologue of mass cinema. The approaching sharp decline in production did not match this paradigm.

The idea of a Soviet “Cine-City” [Kinogorod], similar to Hollywood, arose on that wave of the Five-Year Plan when the opponent of “montage” cinema and the advocate of “plot” and “actor’s” cinema, Sergei Iutkevich, at the All-Union Creative Conference (1935), was not yet afraid to equate the plot of Chapaev (Vasil’ev Brothers, Lenfilm, 1934) to the classic models of American cinema (Anon. 1935: 93-4). (Incidentally, Chapaev did actually receive a prize from the American National Board of Review.)[14] It is understandable that, having promised to provide the country with 100-150, or even 200 films a year, Shumiatskii turned his gaze towards the “dream factory.”

The possibility of competition between systems at that time of the Great Depression in the West and accelerated industrialization in the USSR did not yet seem absurd. The Hearst press somewhat warily wrote of Soviet cinema as “an octopus armed to the teeth” (See Leyda 1983: 234). Film-makers, even one as commercially orientated as Cecil B. DeMille, set off to visit the country of Potemkin in search of subject matter.[15] For their part, Soviet representatives (remembering to look down on the bourgeoisie “from on high”) travelled abroad to exchange experiences.

The culmination of “production relations” between the two systems was the trip by Shumiatskii’s delegation in the summer of 1935. One part of the delegation returned home straight from Europe, but Ermler (who was then head of Lenfilm) and the cinematographer Vladimir Nilsen accompanied Shumiatskii to the USA. For two months the delegation (or, to be more precise, Nilsen) got to know studio practice. Nilsen thoroughly studied the whole process of the making of a film: the stages, the deadlines, the division of labor, the equipment and the technique. Apart from his lively reports in Komsomolskaia Pravda, he wrote a highly technical book, which, it is true, did not see the light of day, but is preserved in RGALI, in his archive. Since the history of Cine-City has not yet been fully researched, I am interrupting the flow with two documents, which define the limits.

On 4 July 1936 the newspaper Kino published a report:

GUKF has recognized that the most suitable place for the construction of the Cine-City is the region of Baidar, Laspi, Foros, the Fiolent promontory in Crimea...[16] Because of its favorable climate the Laspi Valley far surpasses the regions investigated, not just in Abkhazia but also in Crimea. This factor provides the opportunity to use the valley for location shooting all year round.

Even a year later the next visitors—this time from Hollywood to Moscow—the scriptwriter Robert Riskin and the director Frank Capra[17] (under the nickname Kapriskin they constituted the “driving force” of the Columbia Studio) would try to persuade none other than Nilsen, but also Grigorii Aleksandrov and Liubov” Orlova (making up the film crew for Volga-Volga) not to make the same mistakes as the Americans had done and so move filming to the south because no technology could substitute for the sun. On the contrary, as far as technology was concerned, Capra explained that the latest equipment was too expensive for small studios: “Each of our studios makes between 30 and 70 films a year... How many films has your Mosfilm studio produced this year?” Acting against his conscience, Aleksandrov replied that it was twelve. “With that schedule it would be cheaper to make films using the old primitive methods like they do in Europe,” Capra said, and added, “It seems to me that, especially in a planned state you should have moved cinema south a long time ago.” – “Who’ll go south?” Aleksandrov retorted. “They said the same thing in America in 1924-5 when there was the great move to Hollywood” (RGALI, 2456/1/200).

This conversation took place on 7 May 1937 but on 10 October Nilsen (who had received an honor in February) was arrested. That same newspaper Kino, which had otherwise never mentioned him except as an award holder, now called Nilsen an “insolent rogue,” who had “stirred up excitement around the fallacious idea of the creation of a Cine-City, which in practice would lead to “a huge amount of capital being tied up.” It also complained, of course, about “alien” methods of “assembly-line” film production” (Anon. 1937). The idea of the Cine-City was thus buried even before Shumiatskii was arrested and shot, together with the entire cinema leadership, in the following year 1938.

It is, of course, amusing now, after the end of Soviet power, of the century and even of the millennium—when ill-fated Foros has found itself mostly in another state[18]—to be discussing in an accumulation of subjunctives the probability of a Soviet Hollywood. On the one hand, they did build the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, Magnitogorsk, the Chelyabinsk and Stalingrad tractor factories. On the other, whichever way you look at it, an “assembly line” is not really suited to “art,” to “the soul” and so on. Thirdly, who on earth would agree to leave the capital? But, fourthly, why shouldn’t there be a cinematic Novosibirsk?[19]

Let us conclude this guesswork in the dregs of Soviet history with a curiosity from Shumiatskii’s book. At the height of this cinematic daydreaming at the 1935 Moscow Film Festival (incidentally the oldest after Venice) the “bronze medal” was awarded to Disney’s animated films, including Three Little Pigs. They were even released, leaving us with the memory of the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” For this gift we Soviet children were perhaps indebted to the fact that the ideologically watchful head of GUK saw the pink pigs as a typical instance of the “apolitical.” Meanwhile, at the very same time as the irrepressible pigs were adding the sound track to their jaunty song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” Roosevelt’s New Deal had become his emblem and thus his political hit song. Some things Shumiatskii did work out: “The morality of Disney’s films is rather low. It’s the usual capitalist morality,” he wrote. If two brothers were slovenly “then the third brother, distinguished by the assiduity expected of a capitalist, will build stone palaces” (Shumiatskii 1935: 333-334). This Freudian slip (assiduity—capitalist) demonstrates better than anything the difference between American values and the Russian version of “Americanism”—not assiduity, but enthusiasm, the exploit, a matter of honor, gallantry and heroism. So, in reality the Cine-City, with its uninterrupted shooting and ten-fold output, would not have suited the Soviet screen.[20] Perhaps it was no accident that Capra remarked that American technology overtakes directors—but does this mean that, to make up for it, Soviet backwardness disposes them to heroic deeds?

Second digression: The Big Deal
Paraphrasing Roosevelt’s New Deal, the American scholar Vera Dunham (1990: 4) has defined the post-war Stalin period as the “Big Deal.” This pun relates to the surreptitious return to Soviet life of “middle-class values.” In actual fact (and the present author can remember this) these values were amnestied as early as the 1930s, when the Leader proclaimed that “life had become better” and Ogonëk began advertising fur and antiques. The relaxation was not particularly extensive—coupons for necessities were rescinded and the minute possibility of something extra returned (what Vadim Rogovin [1994] called “Stalinist neo-NEP”). Within this framework Dunham contrasts the values of the intelligentsia and of culture from philistinism and “being cultured.” But what interests us in this unspoken framework of understanding between power and the “new class” (as Milovan Djilas [1957] called it) is what Joseph Brodsky called the “trophies” (Brodskii 2000)—particularly the phenomenon of “trophy films.” For the first time since the 1930 turning-point foreign films poured into distribution—open distribution in cinemas, closed in clubs (also, however, commercial)—German (Nazi), Italian (from the Fascist era) and American (no longer “Allied”).

The short breathing space of the shared anti-Fascist struggle had already allowed an exchange of newsreels and the purchase of a few American entertainment films (Babitsky and Rimberg, 1955: 256). Their audience (and that means box-office) potential was obvious. Operation “Trophy Film” was called upon to “repair” the budget. Cinema legend attributes the idea for this “great bounty” to the major secret agent and later scriptwriter and Goskino official, Mikhail Makliarskii (after all, the renunciation of imports in 1930 was a function not just of ideology but also of economics).[21]  In any event Hollywood, which had been absent from the experience of the Soviet viewer, was in part allowed on to the screen: under different titles, without subtitles, often with a different message. Re-editing, which the avant-garde (and Eisenstein himself) had once carried out, not by chance but from its own revolutionary desire, was now done by administrative command of the Politburo of the Communist Party Central Committee (this was called “making in films the necessary editorial corrections”). Moreover the highest authority did not forget to oblige the minister Bolshakov to safeguard “a pure profit from distribution of at least 750 million rubles for 1948-9.”[22] The upheavals of this scandalous five-year period [piatiletka] of “stolen Hollywood” with all its talk of buying and selling, its illegal screenings, its protests, its distortions of the films and so on, themselves constitute an adventure story “as seen in the cinema.” But, bought or trophy, re-edited, anonymous, shorn of the names and the aura of their “stars” and whatever else, Hollywood films remained what they were—a universal “dream factory,” the best form of “bourgeois propaganda.” Evidence of this has come down to us from viewers with different attitudes—both “for” and “against.” Long before Vera Dunham, a citizen who was more observant than the Politburo sensed in the “trophy” films a trace of the big “deal” (albeit in the interests of the Exchequer) and did not hesitate to send a monumental denunciation to the Central Committee’s Party Control Committee “about propaganda for the American way of life through the Soviet screen” (let us remember that in 1950 the release of Soviet films had been reduced to almost nothing):

The Americans want their films to penetrate into every corner of the globe, bearing their pernicious influence and unfortunately Soviet screens have also been conquered by vile American films. These [...] films are not shown in the main cinemas of the capital, but they are widely shown on provincial screens and in workers” clubs in Moscow and the provinces. Because American films are often made to be outwardly very entertaining, the harm they do is particularly great. By showing these films for commercial reasons, film distributors think that they are choosing inoffensive films. But for a long time now there has been no such thing as inoffensive films. The question is only how carefully masked the voracious imperialist propaganda is.

In any event all these films propagandise the American way of life, the “beautiful” life in capitalist countries (RGASPI, 17/132/429: 51-4; reproduced in Anderson and Maksimenkov 2005: 851-6).

There follow several pages of politically literate analysis of the films. Perhaps this complaint was the work of an Old Bolshevik, outraged since the days of NEP by concessions to the bourgeoisie; perhaps of a film-maker unaccustomed to competition. In any event it is not signed with either name or rank. However strange it may seem, this self-appointed critic, whom it is easy to make fun of now, has proved to be more perspicacious than the sluggishly self-justifying Party officials (they knew that the list of films had been approved “on high”). Confirmation—like an “answer to the anonymous writer”—can be found with such an authoritative witness as Joseph Brodsky. Like all “children of the war” he was an assiduous viewer of adventure films:

The performance started like this. The lights went out and this notice appeared on the screen in white letters on a black background: THIS FILM WAS CAPTURED AS A TROPHY DURING THE GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR. The text flickered on the screen for a moment or two and then the film began. A hand holding a candle lit up part of a scroll of parchment on which in Cyrillic script was written: ROYAL PIRATES, THE ISLE OF SORROWS or ROBIN HOOD...[23] Of course, this was theft, but, sitting in the cinema, we couldn’t have cared less. We were too busy with the subtitles and the path of the action.

Perhaps this was for the best. The absence of characters and cast imbued these films with the anonymity of folklore and a sense of universality. They enthralled and captivated us more powerfully than all the later fruits of Neo-Realism and the “New Wave”. In those years—at the beginning of the 1950s at the end of Stalin’s rule—the absence of titles gave them an undoubted archetypal sense. I maintain that the four Tarzan films alone did more for de-Stalinisation than all Khrushchev’s speeches to the 20th Party Congress and beyond (Brodskii 2000: 15; the box-office success of the Tarzan films is analysed in Knight 2014: 142).

Indeed, who among us can fail to recall the widespread “Tarzanisation” of the country’s younger population? Who didn’t swing on a rope, tied to any convenient bough, didn’t dive into the water, imitating Johnny Weissmuller’s famous cry! “Add to this the view of New York... when Tarzan jumps from Brooklyn Bridge and you’ll understand why almost an entire generation became socially alienated.”[24]

My generation—somewhat older—chose The Fate of a Soldier in America/Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, Warner Bros, 1939, starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart), in no way suspecting that it was merely one molecule in a gangster saga, a symphony of hand-held machine guns and black limousines. But the vital mercurial energy of the unknown little soldier, who survived the war and was not needed at home, the short flourishing of the bootlegger style and the glorious death on the steps—all this was also “about us.” (Many years later Khaniutin and I, making a series for Bulgarian TV on “stars,” unhesitatingly edited the celebrated James Cagney the gangster with Cagney the G-man, shooting one another, and called it The Man with the Gardenia.) America came to life in our imagination, becoming a “country of [real] people” and breaking through the autarky.

The anonymous author of the denunciation was right: even in the primordially unequal conditions of “competition” anonymous Hollywood was victorious. However in this respect the USSR was not alone.

4. An Empire of Their Own
Soviet-American cinema relations, both “sectoral” and “social,” (not to mention Stalin’s well-known love for Hollywood) are a separate subject for research, one that is full of secrets, passions and bureaucratic delights. “Great Soviet Cinema,” living in the autonomous regime of “socialist realism,” may have been separated by the “iron curtain” but it had its eye on Hollywood. But a checklist of individual films bears no direct relation to this. You come across instances of disguised plots but not very often. Direct influences were also selective (Aleksandrov). Our comparison is not based on this. Its basis lies in the semantic motif of the films, a certain pattern pointing to the message. Motifs of this kind are dictated by something more universal than a current ideology or system. Sometimes they belong to the “spirit of the time” (for example, the “industrial era” or the “sixties”). They actualize “consonant” motifs from the storerooms of culture, enriching them in their own fashion.

For this reason we shall base our argument not only and not so much on the formula of the “Great Family” derived by Katerina Clark for the socialist realist novel or of the “simple man and the Party leader” proposed by Liliia Mamatova for cinema, as on the fact of obvious capacity of cinema mythology—both American and Soviet—to “conquer the masses.”

Without broadening the context of the word “mythology,” we refer to the version argued in the pages of Neal Gabler’s book, An Empire of Their Own. How the Jews Invented Hollywood.

This title is taken from Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Last Tycoon but the presumption is already present in his epigraph (“The American Dream is a Jewish invention”). Gabler writes:

This book begins, as Hollywood itself did, with something of a paradox. The paradox is that the American film industry, which Will Hays, president of the original Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America, called the “quintessence” of what we mean by “America,” was founded and for more than thirty years operated by Eastern European Jews, who themselves seemed to be anything but the quintessence of America [...] Above all things, they wanted to be regarded as Americans, not Jews; they wanted to reinvent themselves here as new men (Gabler 1989: 1-2; the epigraph is attributed to Jill Robinson).

It goes without saying, in these days of the worldwide explosion of ethnicities on the threshold of globalization, that the author, in tracing the biographies of Hollywood’s founding fathers, formulates his subject in currently fashionable ethnic terms, omitting unfashionable social factors. This imbues the book with a shade of sensationalism. However, to some extent these paradoxes are elusively familiar to us. The creation of the “new man,” visions of revolution winnowed by children from “good families,” Proletkult, whose founders were whatever you like, but not proletarians...

The poor emigrants from Eastern Europe, who were high-handedly denied the capacity to understand the “values” of the New World, nevertheless turned up on its shores when the new-born attraction of the moving image remained unnoticed by both finance and culture—discovered but unclaimed. They adopted the young orphan, took it from the unfriendly east coast to sunny California and built cinema city:

But in order to understand what may have been the chief appeal of the movies to these Jews, one must understand their hunger for assimilation and the way in which the movies could uniquely satisfy that hunger. If the Jews were proscribed from entering the real corridors of gentility and status in America, the movies offered an ingenious option. Within the studios and on the screen, the Jews could simply create a new country – an empire of their own, so to speak—one where they would not only be admitted, but would govern as well. They would fabricate their empire in the image of America as they would fabricate themselves in the image of prosperous Americans. They would create its values and myths, its traditions and archetypes. It would be an America where fathers were strong, families were stable, people attractive, resilient, resourceful, and decent. This was their America, and its invention may be their most enduring legacy... What is amazing is the extent to which they succeeded in promulgating this fiction throughout the world. By making a “shadow” America, one which idealized every old glorifying bromide about the country, the Hollywood Jews created a powerful cluster of images and ideas—so powerful that, in a sense, they colonized the American imagination. No one could think about this country without thinking about the movies (Gabler 1989: 5-7).

In short, in creating an image of the country on film, they also brought it to life and this is the least bloody form of utopia. Let us place the word “Jew,” which has always been fraught with a surfeit of emotions, in parentheses and find the root of Gabler’s postulates, developed in the biographies of the first and second generations of cinema tycoons. A group of outcasts, talented but deprived of the appropriate mentality and status, was bewitched, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, by the green light, the light of “a future unattainable happiness.” But then, like his Stahr, they had to make do with an ersatz magic wand, celluloid film for the fulfillment of their desires. This was a kind of compensatory mechanism; but it was precisely for this reason that it appealed to everybody and in this form became the “American dream.” It goes without saying that any analogy is conditional and partial, it only connects with its double in places, but it does demonstrate something. In Russia the so-called “creative intelligentsia” (in our case film-makers) seized on the Revolution, bewitched by the promise of a future of unbelievable—and yet universal—happiness. With the rights of, in the best case a “fellow traveler,” a social renegade, but with the same need to commune with that “great emotion called class,” to which, let us remember, they were not admitted (because of origin, individualism, moral character, and so on). Their first compensatory impulse created on the screen a heightened image of Revolution—and Great Soviet Cinema (without parentheses) conquered the world. This bore far less relation to the people and the box office, because they were revolutionaries, amongst other things, of cinema thought (it was not for nothing that Paramount turned down Eisenstein’s project for a film about Sutter as non-commercial).[25]

The “Great Soviet Cinema” of the second wave involved the population, creating for it, as Hollywood had done, its own idealized image—in this respect “socialist realism” was similar to the “dream factory’. The second wave realized that the lighthouse is not the Revolution but the Party; but this does not emancipate them from exile, purges or repentance (as in Il’f and Petrov—“eclectic but rejecting eclecticism”) (Il’f and Petrov 2003: 154-8), arrests and firing squads. It is true that in 1937 they were accepted as part of the “people,” called the “Soviet intelligentsia” in the Stalin Constitution, but even the terms of the “big deal” did not legitimize the intelligentsia completely. In the memorable period of the Zhdanovshchina many once again turned out to be “rootless cosmopolitans” (a euphemism for the very same Jew).[26] Paradoxically across the ocean “McCarthyism” equated the Jew with the Communist.[27] Perhaps, Marina Tsvetaeva had found the “kernel” (in Stanislavsky’s use of the term) when she wrote the “poets are Jews” (Tsvetaeva 1994: 31-50), in so far as creativity is a renegade activity. But also a compensation. However, our subject in this particular instance is not at all “about the poet’s place in a workers” system” but merely a marking out of the territory so as to compare particular Soviet films of the Stalin period with particular American ones...

5. Die Zeitheimat [28]
[...] As a rule the message a film directs towards the audience had a contrary vector in Soviet and American cinema. I shall confine myself to a few examples.

The similarity in motifs and the opposing moralities are particularly obvious in the case of film adaptations of the same original. The screen versions of Stevenson’s evergreen novel Treasure Island will serve as an example—the American Treasure Island (Victor Fleming, MGM, 1934) and the Soviet version Ostrov sokrovishch (Vladimir Vainshtok, Soiuzdetfilm, 1938).[29]

The home version was almost the final fling of Shumiatskii’s bravura management. Paradoxically it came under fire from the critics precisely for its “Sovietization” of an adventure story. The hunt for treasure “for its own sake” clearly could not inspire the GUK management, so the motif of the struggle of the Irish revolutionary army for independence was added to the action of the film, which was set in the 18th century! The treasures were needed to arm it (it has to be said that the appearance of the notorious IRA when I gave my paper provoked nervous laughter among Western audiences). Apart from the ideologization of the plot there was one more extravaganza in the film: hoping to lure the famous Austrian Travestie actress, Franciska Gaál, who was very popular with Soviet audiences, the boy Jim [Hawkins] was changed into the girl Jenny.[30] Things did not work out with the foreign actress but Jenny’s romance with Dr Livesey took the action a long way away from the novel. In the epilogue Jenny, in disguise, is accepted into the insurgent army and the speech made by their leader is barely distinguishable from the song “The Komsomol went off to the Civil War.”[31]

At the critical moment when Shumiatskii (and the whole of cinema’s top brass) were being arrested, even audience success and high box-office takings were not enough to save the film from a campaign of attack and the epithet “harmful’. This was of course a straightforward matter of sticking to the Party line—had not Shumiatskii himself long ago denounced Eisenstein for Bezhin Meadow (Bezhin lug, Eisenstein, Mosfilm, 1935-7)?

The American film was closer to the original, but even it could not manage without “improvisation” that was no less significant. From the outset the film was based on a popular pair, the child star Jackie Cooper (Jim Hawkins) and the celebrated Wallace Beery (Long John Silver). Whereas in the story they turned out, at different times, to be hostages of one another, in the film a friendship developed between them and in the finale Jim secretly let his prisoner go free, while the former leader of the pirates in turn delivered a heartfelt speech about a future expedition, which he would participate in as “Honest John Silver,” set on the true path by the attachment of young Jim.

Thus, where the message in our case was “revolution,” in the transatlantic case it was a “kind heart.” With all the diversity of themes and plot, we can recognize this opposition as integral to the whole body of Soviet and American film of that time.
However here, as there, it was the pirates who served as the film’s tour de force and long afterwards we Soviet children enthusiastically sang the song:

Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—
...Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
...Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum![32]

And our favorite character was that very same bad John Silver in the jovial and accomplished performance by a lame Osip Abdulov.

Thus, these two films already delineate the algorithm of comparison: a shared structural motif with a difference in plot and a contrasting message; furthermore—a short circuit of resemblance, sometimes for the most unexpected reason.

It is interesting that in the New York Times of 17 January 1938 you can find all the Soviet complaints about the Soviet Treasure Island, including the alleged “waste of state resources.”

The Road to Life (Putevka v zhizn’, Nikolai Ekk, Mezhrabpom, 1931) and Boys Town (Norman Taurog, MGM, 1938), despite the distance in time, reveal an even greater structural correspondence than film adaptations of a common original. Both films are devoted to attempts to deal with the problem of difficult adolescents, although it goes without saying that the Russian besprizorshchina, thrown out on to the street during the years of Civil War and collapse, bore little resemblance to the “delinquents” of the American “dead end.”[33] Both films have a documentary basis: this is incidentally one of the “short circuits” typical of the Soviet-American comparison. In the case of Russian subject matter—the history of the Bolshevo commune founded by the Cheka; in the American case the experience of Father Flanagan, whose children’s commune in Nebraska existed for two decades.[34] The plot, as usual, differed, but the “re-forging [perekovka]” of the most difficult among them, the bezprizornik leader Mustafa (played by the Bashkir poet Ivan Kyrla) and the gangster’s son Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney)—is the supporting structural motif of both films.

It is striking that Road to Life, the first “talking film,” which also became a hit at home, was recognized at Venice as one of the best films of the year, gaining world distribution and the appreciation of the American press, was completely torn to shreds at home (by among others the notorious Karl Radek) as a “defeat on the ideological front,” as remote from the requirements of proletarian art, as a bourgeois, sentimental film unworthy even of right-wing “fellow-travelers.”[35] A little more time passed and the Proletkult critics themselves would in turn be routed and shot and, if not, then “re-forged,” but in a considerably more energetic and radical way. The film, however, has deservedly found a place in the treasure house of Soviet cinema...

Seven years later the American film really did show everything that the leftist critics accused Path of: the universal struggle between “good” and “evil,” bourgeois philanthropy, but above all else even a note of Christianity. Spencer Tracy yields nothing to Nikolai Batalov as the Chekist Sergeev in his brilliant portrayal of Father Flanagan.

We must not however forget the significant difference mentioned above in connection with the Soviet-Nazi retrospective. Whereas the ill-intentioned Marsh, who has even been involved in a gangster shoot-out, is saved and “re-educated” thanks to the devotion of young Pew, Mustafa is killed by the bandit Zhigan on the eve of the opening of the railway built by the one-time outlaws from his “gang.” The religious motif of sacrifice on the other hand brings together the similar films of authoritarian regimes: Soviet, German and Italian. Marsh does not need to die: he simply returns to the bosom of the faith.

You can find quite a few instances of this kind of “similarity—opposition,” right up until The Kuban Cossacks (Kubanskie kazaki, Ivan Pyr’ev, Mosfilm, 1949, working title The Fair/ Iarmarka), which matches the American State Fair (Walter Lang, 20th Century Fox, 1945). But I shall settle on a couple of films that everyone is familiar with: The Circus (Tsirk, Grigorii Aleksandrov, Mosfilm, 1936) and Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, MGM, 1939) (for a discussion, see Hilton 2014: 2-23).

Both films were screen adaptations, both became the source of pride of their respective cinemas, both turned out to be enviably popular with their audiences and praised by the press, both were adorned with the names of the principal stars of their “system”—the universal Greta Garbo and the socialist Liubov’ Orlova.

At first sight there is little, or almost nothing in common between the story of an American circus artiste, fleeing from the States because of her black child and carried by fate on tour to the Land of the Soviets—and Nina Yakushova [i.e. Iakushëva], an official emissary sent from the Land of the Soviets to Paris to sell the confiscated valuables of the Grand Duchess. In one case the action of the comedy with a leaning towards melodrama takes place behind the scenes at the circus, in the other in a fashionable Paris hotel across from the Eiffel Tower.

In fact it is an almost mirror-image story of a woman who, finding love unexpectedly, changes not only country of residence but also political system. The stations on this “re-forging” are equivalent if not identical. The first kiss and the last one in Lubitsch are replaced in Aleksandrov by a gag but it signifies the same victory of love. The change in dress code symbolizes the transition to a new system of values: Liubov’ Orlova renounces “bourgeois” attire and changes into the chaste white uniform of Soviet athletes. Greta Garbo secretly buys a consciously “bourgeois” hat and gets used to an evening dress. Both of them become defectors. While one of them accepts the collectivist side (Marion Dixon’s attachment to the mass song “How broad is my native land” (Shiroka strana moia rodnaia) is also an attachment to the collective), the other accepts individual love. In this process both stars had to go beyond their usual limits. While Aleksandrov made Soviet audiences fall in love with the American circus artiste Marion Dixon (whom Orlova remained for audiences), Lubitsch, having forced the infernal Greta Garbo for the only time in her career to laugh, “humanized” the glacial Soviet functionary. “Garbo laughs!” was chosen as the film’s slogan and the diva turned out to be an excellent comic actress.

One of the “strange” coincidences in the films concerns the unforeseen counter “a parte’: anti-American and anti-Soviet films seem to exchange blows of the foil. Whereas The Circus began on US territory and Aleksandrov skillfully reproduced the standard American trope of the chase—Marion Dixon is pursued by an angry crowd, Lubitsch in a very similar fashion copied the parade through Red Square that Ninotchka participates in. A parade like this served as the epilogue to The Circus, but, just as for Ninotchka this is the nadir of her fate, so for Marion it is the zenith.

I rapidly got used to the idea that similar “short circuits” happen without warning in almost any pair of films in the retrospective and was no longer surprised by them. Here are two engineers—a Soviet and an American—bent over models of their installations. In the American film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, Warner Bros,1932) the protagonist has become a successful and creatively significant engineer, after escaping from hard labor and feeling himself a free man; on the other hand in the Soviet film The Prisoners (Zakliuchennye, Evgenii Cherviakov, Mosfilm, 1936) the engineer-saboteur, by contrast, was “re-forged” and inspired to unexpected technical solutions only in the labor camp on the White Sea-Baltic Canal under the leadership (or, more precisely, the escort) of Chekists.

Whereas in the Soviet Mashenka (Iulii Raizman, Mosfilm, 1942) three girls from technical college are put together in a hostel, in the American Kitty Foyle (Sam Wood, RKO, 1942) they themselves chose to share a single room to save money. Mashenka’s admirer gave her shoes as a sign of betrothal, Kitty’s gave her a dress...

The most surprising thing is that in the two films about the “edge of the world” (a common theme for the cinemas of both country-continents), which are entirely different, not to say opposite, in style, the dotted line of motifs almost literally coincided. Aerograd (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Mosfilm/Ukrainfilm, 1935) was a film poem; Spawn of the North (Henry Hathaway, Paramount, 1938) a melodrama, but the expanses of Alaska and the Far East seem to be looking at each other. Both are about a couple of friends; about an intrusion into the harsh frontier world of the “alien;” about a friend’s betrayal and the need to shoot the friend. Even the ornamental presence of the native inhabitants links the two films...

It is strange that in any lecture these unexpected “intersections” have always intrigued listeners more than the obvious and expected antithesis in the message: in Spawn of the North, for instance, the “alien” was a Russian pirate fisherman, in Aerograd a Japanese saboteur.

To answer the question “Why such similarity?” has always been troubling for me, if only because the answer appeared in the form of some global draught above countries and systems, for which I could find no suitable term other than the hackneyed “spirit of the time’. Not long ago, and for an entirely different reason, I came across the right word in the work of the German historian Karl Schlögel.[36] It was a quotation from a translation of [Il’ia] Ehrenburg: Zeitheimat. I went to the effort of finding the original, a German translation of his book The Visa of Time (Viza vremeni, 1928) and there it stood in the right place and with the right meaning of a common time, of “time as homeland.”[37] It goes without saying that I wanted to know how the author had rendered this capacious concept in his native tongue. Alas, by the 1931 Russian edition the whole subordinate clause had been deleted together with the marvelous word Zeitheimat (Erenburg 1931). Perhaps it had not been in Ehrenburg at all. Perhaps it was a gift of German grammar, which allows you to stick words together, creating additional meanings. It is possible that it cannot be translated back into the language of the original, an invention of the translator Hans Ruoff. I am grateful to him for this Zeitheimat, this common “home-time’.

This “home-time” (the 1930s) was still feverish with industrialization—“Taylorism” and “Fordism” (in the USSR in the modality of “catch up and overtake“). The Great Depression still burdened the West with the “grapes of wrath“[38] while the Land of the Soviets prided itself on its enthusiasm. Soviet engineers were still sent to the West to study but their colleagues from the West also went to work in the “country of the future,“ which had not experienced the crisis and the Wall Street Crash. The Bolsheviks were still promising to emancipate the builders of socialism from the shackles of everyday life at the same time as countless coffee-automats and other public catering outlets (the forerunners of fast food) had already realized these promises in the USA. The female sex, close-cropped and emancipated, was replenishing the ranks of workers in both hemispheres: the proletariat of “white-collar workers” in the States; tractor drivers and metro builders in the USSR. While America was still the New World, Russia was the super-new “young” country. While the world’s darling Charlie Chaplin caustically ridiculed the assembly-line civilization of modern times,[39] our local dramatist Nikolai Pogodin was hymning the civilization of the Gulag. Everything was permeated by the “competition between the two systems”—on various continents but within the limits of one and the same “home-time”...

I suspect that it was precisely the Zeitheimat, despite all the political polarities, that saturated the “most important of the arts” with the sum total of its realia, myths, motifs and structures.
I even think that, if not a direct likeness, then a certain parallelism was inscribed in the actual mechanisms for the creation of the “cinema of the universal dream” both here and there.

Translated and annotated by Richard Taylor

Maya Turovskaya


1] Translated from “Gollivud v Moskve, ili sovetskoe i amerikanskoe kino 30-kh i 40-kh godov’, Kinovedcheskie zapiski 97 (2010): 51-63, with the final section from the draft typescript version kindly provided by the author. I should like to thank Professor Birgit Beumers for her assistance in acquiring this, Professor Julian Graffy, Dr Jamie Miller and Sofia Perina-Miller for their help with the knottier problems of translation, and Professor Jeffrey Richards for his guidance in identifying Hollywood film titles. The annotation of this translation incorporates the author’s original Russian notes with additional material intended for the English-speaking reader.

2] Mircea Eliade (1907-1806), Romanian historian, philosopher and writer, co-founder of the Chicago school of religious studies and leading interpreter of religious experience.

3] Sotsart originally emerged in the USSR in the 1970s as a reaction against socialist realism and has been compared to pop art in the USA.

4] Chernukha is the term used to describe film and literature that concentrate on the seamier side of life; in cinema somewhat akin to film noir, only more so.

5] The Illusion was the cinema that showed old, rare and foreign films; it remains until today the venue where Gosfilmofond screens films.

6] Reference to Lenin’s decree nationalising Soviet cinema on 27 August 1919 (Taylor 1979: 49).

7] This quote was attributed to Lenin by Anatolii Lunacharskii in 1925. Taylor and Christie 1988: 56-7.

8] The Hays Code, adopted in 1930 and enforced from 1934, represented a form of self-censorship for Hollywood films for more than three decades.

9] La Cucaracha was twenty-minute musical film designed to demonstrate the new full-colour Technicolor process. For Franciska Gaál, see below.

10] This was one of the key slogans of the period of rapid industrialisation and Fordism and Taylorism represented attempts to apply American industrial practices to the USSR.

11] The Poem of the Axe was a play by Nikolai Pogodin (1900-62), first performed in 1931 at this theatre.

12] A factory producing film stock was established in Shostka, Ukraine in 1931 and eventually became the largest such plant in the USSR.

13] The document cited was addressed to M. Shkiriatov at the Central Committee Party Control Commission, although almost identical expressions were used two weeks later by Dukelskii in his letter to Molotov and Stalin (cf. RGALI 2456/4/49: 5).

14] National Board of Review. The other top foreign films for 1935 were: Le Dernier milliardaire (René Clair, Pathé Nathan, France, 1945), Maria Chapdelaine (Julien Duvivier, SNC, France,1934, starring Jean Gabin and Madeleine Renaud), The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, Gaumont-British, Great Britain, 1934),  La Maternelle (Jean Benoît-Lévy and Marie Epstein, Photosonor, France, 1933, also starring Madeleine Renaud); two films set in Russian contexts: Crime and Punishment (Josef von Sternberg, Columbia, 1935) and La Bataille/The Battle, aka Thunder in the East (Nicolas Farkas and Victor Tourjansky, Bernard Natan/Liano Films, France/Great Britain, 1934, set during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904); and three other Soviet films: Novyi Gulliver/The New Gulliver (Aleksandr Ptushko, Moskovskaia kinofabrika, 1935), Krestiane/Peasants (Fridrikh Ermler, Lenfilm, 1935), and Iunost Maksima/The Youth of Maxim (Grigorii Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, Lenfilm, 1935). The prominence of Soviet films rather underlines the author’s point.

15] DeMille visited both Great Britain and the USSR in 1931, hoping to sign contracts, but was unsuccessful in both countries.

16] These are all in the south-western part of the peninsula between Yalta and Simferopol. The Laspi Valley had been developed as vine-growing area in the 19th century.

17] Capra had worked on a film project for MGM, starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford and entitled Soviet,in 1932, which centred on an American engineer advising on the construction of a dam in the USSR, but the project had been aborted. Capra and Riskin spent three weeks in the USSR in 1937. See McBride 1992: 282-4 and 367-8.

18] The Crimean peninsula was part of Ukraine from 1954 until 2014.

19] Novosibirsk, despite its relative remoteness and inhospitable climate, grew rapidly in the 1930s and the research centres at Akademgorodok, developed nearby in the 1950s, attracted scientists and other scholars from Moscow and elsewhere, so that Novosibirsk is now the third largest city in Russia and the largest in the Asian part of the country.

20] Shumiatskii’s intention was that large-scale assembly-line production methods would mean that a much larger number of films could be made simultaneously.

21] Mikhail Makliarskii (1909-78), retired from NKVD and its successor organisation in 1947 and began writing screenplays, especially for spy thrillers, starting with An Agent’s Exploits (Podvig razvedchika, Boris Barnet, Kiev Studio, 1947). He also held a number of official positions in Soviet cinema organisations.

22] Postanovlenie Politbiuro TsK VKP(b), “O vypuske na ekran zagranichnykh kinofil’mov iz trofeinogo fonda,” RTsKhIDNI, 17/3/1072: 31-2. This document also contains a list of the relevant films. Reprinted in Artizov and Naumov 2002: 639-49.

23] The Russian titles have been tentatively identified as Sea Hawk (Korolevskie piraty, Michael Curtiz, Warner Bros, 1940), The Hurricane (Ostrov stradanii, John Ford, Samuel Goldwyn Productions, 1937, starring Dorothy Lamour) and Robin Hood (Robin Gud, Michael Curtiz, Warner Bros, 1938). Both Curtiz films starred Errol Flynn.

24] The film concerned was Tarzan’s New York Adventure (Richard Thorpe, MGM, 1942); Brodskii 2000: 15.

25] The film was made later in the decade by another director for another studio: Sutter’s Gold (James Cruze, Universal, 1936).

26] The “Zhdanovshchina” was a cultural doctrine developed in 1946 by Andrei Zhdanov (1896-1948), secretary to the Party Central Committee, dividing the world into two hostile camps: “imperialistic” led by the USA and “democratic” led by the USSR. The doctrine held sway until Stalin’s death in 1953.

27] McCarthyism was the name given to the anti-Communist campaign in the USA after World War II led by Senator “Joe” McCarthy (1908-57). The effects on Hollywood were specifically connected to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had been set up in 1938.

28] This section was almost entirely omitted from the version published in Kinovedcheskie zapiski.

29] The cast of the Soviet version included Osip Abdulov (Silver), Klavdiia Pugacheva (Jenny), Nikolai Cherkasov (Billy Bones). The American David Bradley (1920-97) directed the English-language version of the Soviet film as his first feature in 1938. His subsequent films included Peer Gynt (1941) and Julius Caesar (1950) and his career concluded with the television movie They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968). The Soviet Treasure Islandis discussed in Hutchings 2004: 97-102.

30] Franciska Gaál (née Szidónia Silberspitz or Fáni Galizenstein, 1904-73) was in fact a Hungarian-Jewish actress, who would, as we have already seen, have been known to Soviet audiences through her appearances in films directed in Austria by Hermann Kosterlitz (later Henry Coster) such as Peter. Das Mädchen von der Tankstelle/Peter. The Girl from the Petrol Station (1934) and Katharina die Letzte/Catherine the Last (1935). Both films were co-produced by Universal Pictures, both were released in the USSR and both involved either cross-dressing or other forms of disguise.

31] The poem on which this song was based was written in 1935 by Mikhail V. Isakovskii (1900-73) after he had seen the film Girlfriends (Podrugi, Lev Arnshtam, Lenfilm, 1935) and published in February 1936. It is also known as Komsomol Farewell (Proshchalnaia komsomolskaia) and by its opening line: “The order’s given: him to the west” [Dan prikaz: emu – na zapad].The music, one of his most popular tunes, was written in 1937 by the composer Dmitrii Pokrass (1899-1978), one of the Pokrass brothers.

32] “Dead Man’s Chest” is the refrain of the fictional sea song written by Stevenson for his novel.

33] The bezprizorniki were the children, adolescents and young adults left homeless because their families had been uprooted and the adults responsible for their welfare had been killed during the Civil War of 1917-21. Bezprizorshchina is the collective noun used in Russian to characterise the whole phenomenon.

34] The Soviet labour commune, which handled up to fifty homeless teenagers aged between 13 and 17, was established by OGPU, previously the Cheka, on Gorkii’s initiative in 1924 at Bolshevo in the Moscow region and lasted until 1956. A member of the secret police in its various forms was commonly known as a “Chekist” Bolshevo provided the inspiration for Road to Life. Father Edward J. Flanagan (1886-1948), Irish-born Catholic priest, founded Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1917 and this was the subject of the eponymous 1938 film.

35] Karl Radek (1885-1939) had a chequered career in the Communist movement, gave the main address to the 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers, but fell victim to the purges and show trials.

36] Karl Schlögel (b. 1948) is a prolific German historian; see Schlögel 1998; 2012.

37] The German translation was Visum der Zeit, Leipzig: Paul List, 1929, p. 70. The Russian original appears to have been first published in 1929 (Berlin: Petropolis) but not translated into English. The word Zeitheimat has been translated as “hometime,” a “common ground” that is the “precondition for all further analysis” and outweighs “hometown” in Ehrenburg’s comparisons between Berlin and Moscow; see Geyer and Fitzpatrick 2009: 412.

38] John Steinbeck’s novel was published in 1939 and filmed almost immediately: The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 20th Century Fox, 1940) with Henry Fonda in the leading role as Tom Joad. The Soviet release title was Doroga bedstvii (The Path of Sorrows, 1948).

39] In Modern Times (Chaplin, United Artists, 1936).


Works Cited

Anderson, K. and L. Maksimenkov (eds). 2005. Kremlevskii kinoteatr 1928-1953. Dokumenty, Moscow: ROSSPEN.
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Maya Turovskaya © 2014

Richard Taylor (translation, annotation) © 2014

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Updated: 16 Oct 14