Popular Film Industry

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

More proficient in producing films that parroted official values than at bringing mass audiences into the theater, the Soviet film industry shifted its agenda as it underwent organizational changes in the early 1930s. The industry was now coordinated by a new organization, Soiuzkino, responsible for the financing and production for films; and its new chairman, Boris Shumiatskii, took a much more aggressive role in shaping the aesthetics of Soviet film. His goal, dictated by the government, was to make the film industry self-financing. Tired of aesthetically ambitious films that confused the average Soviet viewer, Shumiatskii demanded films that were “accessible,” enjoyable and entertaining. Although political fidelity was still a must, it soon became clear that politics would yield to fun as the primary mission. Shumiatskii dethroned the avant-garde kings of the cinema, foremost among them Sergei Eisenstein. Complicated layers of bureaucracy controlled the creation of film scenarios, and commissioned the films based on them. While Eisenstein and others found themselves stymied by the bureaucracy, other directors who could satisfy popular tastes found that the new system encouraged their work. 1934 was the year of the first smash hits with the Soviet audience. Two in particular are noteworthy: Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows, directed by Grigorii Aleksandrov, and the Vasiliev Brothers’ Chapaev.

Once Eisenstein’s assistant director, who had traveled to Hollywood with the master in 1930-1932, Aleksandrov saw how the movie musical, using the new medium of the talking movie, could win a mass audience. He set to creating the Soviet musical, and selected as his lead man Leonid Utesov, one of the most popular singers of the 1920s and beyond, whose repertoire included the slangy songs of his native Odessa, and a strong admixture of jazz. In the movie, Utesov plays a simple shepherd from the Crimean village of Abrau, whose singing talent is discovered by vacationing Muscovites. He is whisked away to the capital, and soon finds himself leading a jazz band whose antics do not impede their quick route to the top of the music business. Anybody, it seemed, could be a star in Soviet Russia.

Although the political message of the movie was muted by the wonderful music, the other great hit of 1934 found its hero in one the Revolution’s great stories. Chapaev was real-life hero, a simple soldier who rose to command in the Civil War. His life and death were glorified in a 1923 novel by Dmitrii Furmanov, who had served as commissar in his division. The film, based on the novel, told the story of how Chapaev, brave and charismatic but politically untutored, came to understand the Bolshevik cause he instinctively supported. Under the respectable guidance of his commissar, he taught his undisciplined troops the values of order, subordination, and the primacy of the cause over the individual. But it was the rough-cut personality of Chapaev, full of grand gestures and petty foibles, that was the main draw of the movie.

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