Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cinderella story at the UW Cinematheque starred a favorite drinking buddy of Stalin's


Last Saturday night we saw the Soviet Cinderella story that wrapped up the UW Cinematheque's series, Red Hollywood: The Musicals of Grigori Alexandrov and Lubov Orlova. The film was originally going to be titled Cinderella, but Stalin thought Cinderella had to do with the past, and this Stakhanovite musical epic was about the future. He was close to the director Alexandrov and his wife and leading lady, Orlova, who was said to be a favorite drinking companion. Supposedly Stalin gave the couple a list of titles he liked, and they chose the final title, The Shining Path, from the list.

Orlova, who spent her later years on the Moscow stage, remained popular in Russia long after she died in 1975, and it was easy to see why. She was a dazzling, charming star of popular escapist entertainment that also served a propaganda purpose -- basically Soviet versions of the Hollywood musical entertainment of the Thirties, which heavily influenced their Soviet counterparts.

Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune saw Shining Path in Chicago last winter. He described Orlova as a mix of several famous Western actresses.
What sort of performer was Orlova? Like many of her vehicles, her screen persona drew inspiration from the zip and sass of the female characters in early 1930s Warner Bros. vehicles. The singer-actress' second husband, director and screenwriter Grigori Aleksandrov, was sent to Hollywood by Uncle Joe during the Depression. There he soaked up many of the photographic and choreographic techniques favored by such entertainments as "Footlight Parade" or "42nd Street." Leading lady Orlova developed a popular image that was a little bit Ginger Rogers, a little bit Joan Blondell, though in her affinity for broad comedy and pathos she points the way to Fellini's leading lady Giuletta Masina a generation later.

"The Shining Path" (1940), originally titled "Cinderella" until Stalin suggested a change, works in any number of ways. Once you've seen the fervent-eyed Orlova marching against a rear-projection screen, surrounded by textile factory equipment going at full force, as she sings "Labor is our honor/Our honor and our glory," you understand why the actress was Stalin's preferred drinking buddy as well as a beloved screen icon to millions.

The setting is an idyllic Russian village, where Orlova's illiterate maidservant wins the heart of the local textile factory engineer, transforms herself into an ace weaver and mass-production demon at the factory and finally travels to Moscow to receive the Order of Lenin.
More than three decades after her death, people are still putting up Orlova fan sites on the internet. You might want to check out the Lubov Orlova Virtual Museum, where I found the wonderful picture on the right.The "Virtual Museum" is an inadvertent camp classic put up by a devoted Russian fan, Helena. There's an English Version, but there's also a Russian Version with even more pictures, even if you don't read Russian. Here's Helena in English:
Lyubov Orlova was probably the most glamorous and popular actress of Soviet cinema. In possession of bright eyes and shining teeth, high cheekbones and immaculate skin, she was good looking and emanated exuberant health. She was a proficient singer and dancer, her smile was irresistible and her charisma unsurpassed. Her name, Lyubov, meant "Love," and she remained an object of great admiration throughout her lifetime and beyond.
There's more information about her career in Eastern European film scholar Dina Iordanova's Lyubov Orlova: Stalinism's Shining Star.
Lyubov Orlova was probably the most glamorous and popular actress of Soviet cinema. In possession of bright eyes and shining teeth, high cheekbones and immaculate skin, she was good looking and emanated exuberant health. She was a proficient dancer and singer, her smile was irresistible and her charisma unsurpassed. Her name, Lyubov, meant 'Love,' and she remained an object of great admiration throughout her lifetime and beyond.

Lyubov Orlova was born on 29 January 1902 in Zvenigorod, Russia. Descendant from an old Russian aristocratic family (and thus of a background that had little to do with the proletarian heroines she later played), she boasted a pre-revolutionary childhood photograph alongside count Leo Tolstoy at his estate in Yasnaya Polyana, and at the age of ten she had had the chance to perform in front of famous Russian opera singer Fyodor Chalyapin. After graduating from the Moscow Conservatory in the mid 1920s, she began an active stage career. Until the end of her life she acted on and off in musicals on the stage of Moscow's Nemirovich-Danchenko operetta theatre. Orlova died shortly before her 73rd birthday, on 26 January 1975.

Even though she appeared in several other films, Orlova is almost exclusively remembered for her roles in the famous Soviet musicals directed at the height of Stalinism by her husband, Grigoriy Aleksandrov (1903-1984). In these films, a singing and dancing Orlova typically represents a girl of humble origins who attains high ranking in Soviet society through the right combination of talent, hard work, assertiveness, politically correct ideas, and an unshakable faith in a bright future. The plots traditionally made use of classical Cinderella and 'ugly duckling' storylines that gave Orlova the opportunity to shine at the end, not unlike Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933).
The movie we saw Saturday night was alternately funny, charming, sometimes touching and often completely over-the-top. Orlova's musical production number in the textile factory that Phillips mentions is truly amazing, regardless of its ideological component. It belong in any history of the musical as a popular art form. I only wish we had seen the other films in the series.

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