(Soviet Union / Russia 1935)
It might seem strange to see a 1930s Soviet slapstick big band musical ostensibly made just for fun, but that’s what Grigoriy Aleksandrov’s Vesyole Rebyata [Весёлые ребята] [Moscow Laughs] [Jolly Fellows] is. Frankly, it is strange, or at least not anything I expected.
A sort of Depression Era communist Three’s Company, the humor here is crude: sex, mistaken identity, and class are the backbone of this comedy about a bizarre love triangle between a shepherd (Leonid Utyosov), a privileged diplomat’s daughter (Mariya Strelkova), and her housemaid (Lyubov Orlova).
Moscow Laughs is silly as hell, and it works on a certain level, to a certain point. The whole story — Lena (Strelkova), an opportunistic wannabe singer, woos Kostya (Utyosov), a shepherd whom she thinks is a famous Italian jazz conductor when she meets him on a beach — is funny at first. She invites him to her fancy hotel for dinner, calling him “maestro” and flattering him every way she can. Of course, he’s smitten.
Kostya shows up in a borrowed suit. Lena’s servant, Anyuta (Orlova), recognizes him because she’s admired him from afar for awhile — and she knows he’s not bourgeois. Kostya makes the boneheaded error of playing his pan pipe when asked to perform — the same pipe he plays to corral the animals under his charge. Hearing him play, the animals — pigs, sheep, goats, and cows — bust out of their kolkhoz and crash the party, literally. Hilarity ensues.
Unfortunately, Moscow Laughs loses steam once the setup is complete. The story rambles on through a few more episodes separated by cute animated shorts of the moon dancing and some time. Things get wacky. A bit too wacky for my taste.
Technically, Moscow Laughs reads as a transitional work; Aleksandrov clearly executes big ideas but maybe seems to operate from a mindset geared toward silent film. Stalin approved this film, and I can see why: the screenplay, written by Aleksandrov with Nikolay Erdman and Vladimir Mass, criticizes class and capitalism. The hammer and sickle prominently displayed above the stage removes any doubt that this is propaganda — it’s just social and not overtly political. It’s also very cheerful.
With Elena Tyapkina, Fyodor Kurikhin, Arnold, Robert Erdman, Marya Ivanovna, Emmanuil Geller
Production: Grading Dimension Pictures, Moskinokombinat
Distribution: Eduard Weil & Company (Austria), Amkino Corporation (USA), Facets Multimedia Distribution, Grading Dimension Pictures (International)
(Dryden Theatre) C+
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