20 December 2014

Balalaika: Why Is This Lavish MGM Musical So Obscure?

Carmen -- the blond version
Despite its obvious big budget and wonderful music, this is a lesser-known MGM Nelson Eddy musical. I think this might be because of the unusual political tightrope it walks — during WW2 we wanted the friendship of both Soviet Russia and White Russian emigres. It has a strange undertone of nostalgia, despite the fact that real ethical problems arise and real danger threatens the protagonists.
The story, beginning in 1914, opens simply enough -- Eddy is Peter, an aristocratic officer in the Tsar’s Cossack regiment (who just happens to have a gorgeous, trained operatic voice); he sees and is strongly attracted to Lydia (Ilona Massey) (ditto the voice), who sings in a cafe frequented by the regiment. But he overhears her express her contempt for nobility in general and Cossacks in particular. So he borrows a coat from his servant (Charles Ruggles) and poses as a poor music student in order to meet her, since her father (Lionel Atwill) is a music teacher. Unknown to him, however, is the fact that both her father and brother are involved in a radical underground movement.
Volga Boatman -- with Lionel Atwill and Abner Biberman

Peter pays a visit to Lydia’s father, meeting with unfriendly suspicions from the other students — who are secretly committed revolutionaries. However, he is able to prove that he is indeed a voice student by singing a thrilling version of the Song of the Volga Boatmen. He is informed that Lydia yearns to sing at the Imperial Opera but only those with political influence can even get an audition.
George Tobias, Nelson Eddy, and Ilona Massey

Here this movie begins to show its unusual moral attitude. At first Peter doesn’t believe this is true, but when he finds out it is, he just shrugs and decides to exert his influence with the director of the opera, Frank Morgan, on her behalf. It never crosses his mind to reform the system so that it’s fair for everyone. Here follows another exciting scene as Massey begins singing an aria from Carmen as an audition piece, and Peter is so transfixed that he joins her own stage for a duet. It’s very striking to see the two blond singers taking the roles of the hot-blooded Carmen and the dashing toreador Escamillo. 

She wins a place in the Opera company, and her opening night (in an imaginary opera using the music from Scheherazade) is unfortunately chosen by the revolutionaries for a bomb attack.
The attack is thwarted, and the Cossacks are called up to deal with the revolutionaries; Lydia’s brother is killed in the melee. She finds out who Peter is, but is willing to forgive him — and then World War 1 breaks out.
The film takes an unexpected approach towards the war. Firstly, the scene opens at the front in midwinter; a lull is underway. It is January 1917. Peter and his fellow officers are tired, cold, and dispirited. Suddenly the strains of Stille Nacht are heard from far off, being sung by the German troops. The Russian officers listen in silence. “But their Christmas was two weeks ago,” one of them says (referring to the fact that Russian Christmas is celebrated on January 7). “They’re singing for us,” Peter says, and lifts his own powerful voice to sing with the German chorus.
The next scene is stark and grim, and completely surprising in context. Orders have come to attack. The men are aghast and terrified. Half ashamed, the officers coerce them at gunpoint. The camera follows one group whose officer has forced a weeping soldier and others ahead of him out of the trench and follows closely behind. And then every single one, officers and men, falls to enemy gunfire.
Everyone knew stories like these, the songs back and forth, the Christmas truce, the troops refusing orders; but I have never seen them portrayed in any film of this period. It’s amazing to see in a musical.
Next we see Lydia singing in a shabby cafe. Suddenly a man bursts in and announces that the Revolution has succeeded, and that the war is over. Everyone cheers. “Even the Cossacks are marching home without their officers.” He beams. “There are no more officers!”
Now the scene changes drastically to post-war Paris, and a grand cafe called the Balalaika. We find that Peter’s old servant, Nicky, is the very successful owner; Peter is an entertainer, and his father the wine steward. The former head of the Opera is the doorman, and the waiters, cook, and all of the staff are White Russian nobles who have lost everything and fled the Revolution. Now they are the workers — except for one night, Russian New Year, when they gather at the Balalaika to remember the life that is gone forever and the home they will never see again. Peter sings to entertain them, Ochi Tchornya, At the Balalaika (a beautiful tune which is, with what I feel is deliberate irony, a tango), and a folk song about the Russian tradition of looking for the future in a mirror on New Year’s Eve.
During a quiet, reflective moment, the exiles all sing a wistful song of remembrance of their homeland, The Land of Dreams, and this lovely scene is crowned by Frank Morgan singing one verse, his face displaying a mixture of feelings, pride, sorrow, shame, loss, anger, resignation, regret, his voice cracking in the end with emotion. Frankly, this sixty seconds alone is worth the entire movie — a truly great actor providing a moment of truth. 
Frank Morgan

At this point, the film seems to have said all it needs to say; the end is more sweet than bitter, as Lydia finds her way to the cafe (with no explanation of where she has been). The former nobility are still poor, and will never see their homes again, but they have their memories. So that’s the end.
This film was made in 1939, when it was pretty obvious that another war with Germany was imminent — and that Russia, whether Soviet or White, was going to be a very important ally. So this film essentially says, well, there were mistakes made on both sides, and the past is past. This was taking a chance — a lot of that past was going to take a heap of forgetting — but in the end the Nazis provided a pretty convincing common enemy.
Political weirdness aside, the music is gorgeous and beautifully sung, the settings lavish, and the characters pleasant; it’s well worth seeing — and holiday related, since it ends on New Year’s Eve!