The film musical peaked during sound’s first decade: in Germany, G. W. Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera and Erik Charell’s The Congress Dances (both 1931); in France, René Clair’s Under Paris Roofs (1930) and Le million (1931); in the U.S., King Vidor’s Hallelujah! (1929), Archie Mayo’s Go Into Your Dance (1935), and the best of the Astaire-Rogers films; and, in the U.S.S.R., Grigori Aleksandrov’s Jolly Fellows (1934), Circus (1936) and Volga-Volga (1938), all of them starring Aleksandrov’s wife, Lyubov Orlova.
Who is this jolly fellow Aleksandrov? He was Sergei M. Eisenstein’s assistant on Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1927) and The General Line (1929)—masterpieces, to be sure, but hardly the sort of stuff from which one might glean an interest in musical-comedy. But when in the early 1930s he accompanied cinema’s greatest genius to America for a project at Paramount, Aleksandrov was much taken by what he saw on-screen: the studio’s musicals by Ernst Lubitsch and Russian emigré Rouben Mamoulian and, soon after, the ones at Warners choreographed by Busby Berkeley. And, of course, he needed to work in the genre that held out hope of making a film star of the singing-dancing Orlova. This indeed was the outcome, and the Aleksandrovs kept making musicals together in the 1940s and ’50s.
On his trip to the U.S. something, though, distressed and disturbed Aleksandrov: white American hatred of American blacks. This experience made its way into the most melodramatic of Aleksandrov’s ’30s films with his wife: Circus.
The film opens in the American south. Marion Dixon (Orlova), a white celebrity who has just given birth to a black child, races with her bundled infant, catching a train in the nick of time, townsfolk at her heels. (We may infer that the baby’s father has been lynched; still, I wish the film had settled the matter.) Onboard, Marion meets a German gent who, manipulating her sense of shame, becomes her manager and her lover. Von Kneischitz—the actor playing him, Pavel Massalsky, is a ringer for Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote editorials in the 1800s supporting southern slavery—takes Marion to Moscow, where they perform an explosive act in the circus, with her his human cannonball. Shortly, Marion falls in love with handsome Martinov, a fellow performer; but her jealous tyrant keeps her in tow by threatening to disclose her guilty secret—her black baby. When her heart’s desire gets the better of her, von Kneischitz makes good on his threat, exposing Marion mid-performance, in front of the audience. “So?” responds the circus director (Vladimir Volodin—an ingratiating performance). Nor is Martinov, nor any member of the audience, other than delighted with Marion and the adorable little child now in front of them. The villain’s bubble is burst. Finally, Marion understands that she has done nothing requiring forgiveness; her Soviet experience has purged her American personality and perspective of their racism, liberating her spirit. Both mother and son now have a permanent home in the Soviet Union, while von Kneischitz flees to Germany, where, the film implies, he belongs.
Circus isn’t as fresh, as vibrant, as Jolly Fellows or Volga-Volga; but its final scenes overwhelm. When the German fails to rouse them with his racial bile, and he lunges at Marion’s son with murderous intent, the seated crowd, protectively, keeps handing the child upward and over, with one audience member after another singing to the child—in Russian; in languages of the various Soviet republics—strains from the same lullaby that, in the film’s most tender scene, Marion sang to him earlier. (The film needs a tad more of the boy, to erase the impression that it’s trotting him out to score emotional and political points. He might also have been given a name—although perhaps he was given one that the subtitles fail to disclose.) The sum is the presentation of a national myth (and one sufficiently crossing reality to make the Soviet Union a place Paul Robeson could call home). In the grand finale, outdoors and in unexpected sunlight, the child’s mother and stepfather march side-by-side with “the people”; the child himself is in the arms of the person next to them. Like all Soviet children the responsibility of the nation, amidst such radiant celebration he embodies the nation’s future and hope. In the States, he was disposable—as would be the case in Nazi Germany; here, though, he is indispensable. Every soul in the people’s parade contributes to a single triumphant voice. Thus ends irresistibly and melodiously Aleksandrov’s film—the favorite film, I might add, of my paternal grandmother, an unreconstructed Stalinist until her death, by which time there no longer was a Soviet Union.
Throughout, Circus is a formidable entertainment, richly scored by Isaac Dunnayevski, dazzlingly displayed by a boundlessly placed and angled set of cameras, gorgeously lensed (in black and white) by Vladimir Nilsen, and punctuated by imaginative special effects that alternately haunt and delight. An array of glittering sets adds to the production’s élan.
I confess: I did not laugh once; but the film’s abundant humor consistently cheered me. I never felt that jokes were failing.
And Orlova? With sexy good looks and the dramatic manner of early Joan Crawford, she is an earnest actress, a spirited hoofer, a marvelous singer, and an awesome acrobat—although a double, one suspects, assisted Orlova in this last arena of accomplishment.
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