Doodad Kind of Town

Dancin’ behind the Iron Curtain: "East Side Story"
May 9, 2008, 2:01 am
Filed under: Musicals

If you haven’t done so already, now’s the time to shuffle over to the “Invitation to the Dance” blogathon over at Ferdy on Films, which continues through Sunday. It’s been a great week of thoughtful articles and fabulous dance film clips.

And, in the spirit of the festivities, I’m rerunning the following post which originally appeared here last year. I only wish I had been able to find some clips on You Tube to accompany this story, but there were none to be had. So just try to imagine…

If you’re a lover of musicals with a taste for the offbeat, you might enjoy “East Side Story,” a 1997 documentary about the musical films of the Soviet Communist era. Yes, you read that right. Turns out Joseph Stalin was a fan of the movie musical genre (who knew?)and happily supported an industry which cranked out song-and-dance spectaculars about the joys of working on the farms or in the factories of the glorious Socialist state.

Like, for example,”Tractor Drivers,” in which men on tractors and women with pitchforks sing happily about “harvesting wheat to make the bread/to feed our heroes and athletes.” (Presumably there were a whole lot of perfectly ordinary comrades partaking of that same bread, but why sing about them, right?)

In another film, a fresh-faced platinum blonde in peasant garb sings to her pigs as she leads them to the trough: “All I ask is that you eat and get fat!” Hog sloppin’ never looked like this much fun before, and the young songstress is actually quite charming. I was dying to see more of that number.

In fact, that’s the biggest letdown of “East Side Story.” You always want to see more than it shows you. It teases you with clips that are outrageous, astonishing or just plain silly, but they’re usually too abbreviated to really give you a sense of what’s going on. Just when you’re really getting interested, there’s a cutaway to one of many “talking heads,” former actors and directors from Socialist film studios of the era. Their commentary is unvaryingly humorless and glum; no one who worked in that era has a snarky or sarcastic perspective on it. Rather, it’s all presented at face value. After awhile, you find yourself wanting either a good, smart-assed remark (’cause you’re certainly thinking up a few of your own).

Much like their Hollywood counterparts, the musicals of the Stalin era presented fantasy worlds into which its characters (and audiences) could escape. That’s what the solemn, scholarly narrator tells us anyway. Unfortunately, her comments play over a dream sequence in which a sort of Guardian Angel/Comrade wakens a young woman and whisks her off to a gleaming, golden city. Here she is taken to a huge factory (the machines so loud she has to cover her ears) where she is given… a broom! Yes, that’s right; this character’s Utopian vision is to sweep a factory floor! It’s hard to believe that even the staunchest party apparatchik thought they could pass this off as heaven on earth. Those of us in the West whose personal musical-comedy Utopias contain Fred Astaire in white tie and tails and a swanky Manhattan penthouse or two can be forgiven for dreaming a little bigger, I think.

When Stalin died, so did the Soviet Union’s musical film industry, but other Communist countries started producing their own takes on the Western musical form, usually subverted to glorify party ideals. As in the Stalinist films, there is frequently a lovely young woman in coveralls pirouetting and jeteing joyously over and around factory machinery.

Two particularly intriguing films, to which “East Side Story” devotes an extensive chunk of its running time, are “My Wife Wants to Sing” and “Midnight Revue.” The first is a comedy about a housewife who dreams of a singing career, to the dismay of her ultra-traditional husband. She sings around the house while perfectly coiffed and dressed to the nines -which I suspect was not the usual mode of attire for East German housewives. But such glamour was entirely the point; films like this were made to compete with the big-budget American musicals that were luring Germans into West Berlin theatres. (Another briefly featured and delicious scene features a whole kick line of East German “Rockettes” in fishnets.) The latter film, “Midnight Revue,” is a comedy in which a group of writers is kidnapped by the party and forced to write a musical. Like “My Wife Wants to Sing,” it is filmed in color and looks and feels very much like the Hollywood musicals of the same era (the 1950s). These are two movies I really would like to see in their entirety.

“East Side Story” winds down with a look at the Soviet Union’s attempt to cash in on the “youth musical” market of the 1960s with a swingin’ Socialist tunefest called “The Hot Summer.” It opens with groups of young men and young women singing about how hot – how really, really hot! – it is today. (“If I see some cool water, I’ll jump right in,” the boys tell us.) It’s at this moment, that you most long for a good shot of snark from the narrator; these “hot” youngsters might be considerably cooler if they peeled off their long-sleeved jackets and turtleneck sweaters and headed for some shade trees instead of dancing around on sun-baked city pavement. I guess it comes down to this: whether a musical is borne of Socialist ideals or Western decadence, logic is the least of its concerns.


4 Comments so far
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Great writeup on a doc I’ve never even heard of, although it sounds like it was equal parts fascinating and frustrating. I just saw THE SINGING REVOLUTION, a doc about Estonia’s fight for independence under Soviet rule. That had the same problem: even though these people had lived through events both exciting and horrifying, hardly any of them showed much emotion. A few of the interviewees got a bit ‘voclempt,’ but the majority of them were stale and dull.Is that a European thing? Are they all pragmatic and straight faced over there? Or is it American to want larger than life interviewees?

Comment by Evan Derrick

Sounds like a fascinating flick, Pat … now we need a post examining how musicals support the American project. Let’s see, now … “The Music Man,” singing the praises of small-town xenophobia, and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a foot-stompin’, flag-wavin’ paean to American superiority.Instead of “subverting” the Western musical form, Stalin “re-pointed” it to serve the interests of his state instead of ours.Great post, and a fitting addition to Marilyn’s blogathon.

Comment by Rick Olson

Evan – Interesting question. I’m not sure whether it’s true of all Europeans or just those in the fomer Communist bloc countries. I did consider that maybe the interviewees in “East Side Story” had to be guarded and cautious for so many years that it just became second nature. One thing’s for sure – the tone of their commentary is at odds with the hap-hap-happy tone of the film clips.Rick – Good point on “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and who knows how many other Hollywood musicals. But I’ll respectfully disagree with you about “The Music Man.” Small-town xenophobia? C’mon now, Harold Hill wasn’t exactly a kind-hearted refugee from some distant shore. He was a huckster and a con man who came to River City with no objective but to separate the townspeople as from their money. They initially fall under his spell, and only start the tar-and-feathering talk when his scam is exposed. I’ll agree with you that “Music Man” touches (very lightly) on some darker sides of human (not specifically American) nature, butit’s more to do with our “mob mentality” and way we get caught up in and dazzled by charismatic personalities who flatter our vanity than it is to do with small-town distrust of outsiders.

Comment by Pat

Sorry if this is random and off-topic, but…Reading this made me think of that short *West Bank Story* than won the Oscar a few years ago. I’ve always been curious about it, but don’t think it’s ever been made available on any DVD comps.

Comment by Fox

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