Stalin at the Movies


Long focused on the impact of live theater, Stalin did not immediately grasp the full power of film. But the producer Boris Shumyatsky persisted, and goaded the Party to issue a directive to film all major events in the USSR, design handheld cameras to be put into wide production, and have regional officials treat newsreels the way they treated the press. Stalin began to review the newsreels at Kremlin cinema sessions. But it had really been his previewing of the 1934 film Chapayev that transformed him—a person accustomed to working with written texts—from someone who occasionally viewed films for diversion to their executive producer, overseeing everything from the backgrounds of scenes to the dialogue and score.

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin; drawing by David Levine

The dictator played a decisive part in supporting not just subjects of political import but also farce. In that regard, an enormous breakthrough was wrought by a young assistant to the virtuoso Sergei Eisenstein, after the latter’s scandalous failure to finish a film in Mexico. Shumyatsky had suggested that Eisenstein next make a Soviet comedy, but the director showed little interest. His assistant, Grigory Alexandrov, using every Hollywood trick he had learned in their travels to Los Angeles, then cowrote and directed Jolly Fellows, which became a smash hit.

Stalin’s inner circle had divided over the appropriateness of comedy. When Shumyatsky was set to premiere Jolly Fellows in the Kremlin, Kliment Voroshilov, who had seen it, stated, “It’s an interesting, jolly, thoroughly musical film featuring Utyosov and his jazz.” Lazar Kaganovich objected that the musician Leonid Utyosov had no voice; Andrei Zhdanov complained that Utyosov was a master only of criminal underworld songs. “You’ll see,” Voroshilov countered, “he’s a very gifted actor, an extraordinary humorist, and sings delightfully in the film.” He was right. “Brilliantly conceived,” Stalin said to Voroshilov after viewing one scene with a jazz orchestra rehearsal that devolves into a hilarious fight, and another with collective farm livestock run amok.

The film allows you to relax in an interesting, entertaining fashion. We experienced the exact feeling one has after a day off. It’s the first time I have experienced such a feeling from viewing our films, among which have been very good ones.

After watching another film, Stalin returned to discussion of Jolly Fellows, lauding the bold acting of the female lead, Lyubov Orlova, and male lead, Utyosov, as well as the excellent jazz. “He talked about the songs,” Shumyatsky wrote. “Turning to comrade Voroshilov, he pointed out that the march would go to the masses, and began to recall the melody and ask about the words.”

A new genre, the Soviet musical comedy, was born. Shumyatsky’s determination had paid off. He had witnessed a live performance of Utyosov’s band—whose musicians sang, danced, and acted—and had suggested they team up with the director Alexandrov. Utyosov, for his part, had insisted on music by Isaac Dunayevsky, a graduate of the Kharkov Conservatory who…

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