September 07, 2021

Using Laughter to Cope



Using Laughter to Cope
Scene from Ivan Vasilyevich Changes His Profession.

This blog post inaugurates a new series on learning about Russia through its films.

Serious movies demand that we think. Comedic films, on the other hand, often require very little of us. But that does not mean that they do not challenge us. In Russia, comedies have always been especially liked because they often lacked overt moral lessons, had less righteousness, and fewer characters who were meant to be emulated.

These eight outstanding Soviet comedies show ​​some of what has made Russians laugh over the past century. Most are still watched today. And often their “Soviet” label is more a signifier of style and quality than of historical irrelevance.

 

 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks

Lev Kuleshov (1924)

This is a comedy from the era of experimental avant-garde cinema. It was created by Lev Kuleshov, a practitioner and theorist of cinema. In fact, the “Kuleshov effect” is a well-known editing technique. In this particular comedy, not only is the editing excellent, but the plot is spectacular.

Mr. West, the chairman of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), comes to Moscow with luggage, money, and a fear of falling into the hands of the Bolshevik barbarians. He instantly falls into the hands of swindlers who operate off his fears. If it were not for his faithful servant Jeddie and some good Soviet citizens, it is no clear if Mr. West would have been able to return to his homeland. Along with happily escaping danger, Mr. West also manages to see and admire the new, post-revolutionary, Moscow. Mr. West is imbued with such sympathy for the city and its inhabitants that he urgently sends a radiogram to his wife in Ohio: “Dear Madge! I am sending greetings from Soviet Russia. Burn New York magazines and hang a portrait of Lenin in your study. Long live the Bolsheviks! Your John."

Despite the dazzling contents of the radiogram, the film is not an ideological manifesto, however it does remain in history as an example as one of the first Soviet-centric comedies and it later became a great success. The actors who starred in the main roles were played by future directors of renown: Boris Barnet in the role of Jeddie, and Vsevolod Pudovkin as the leader of a gang. In 1933, Boris Barnett went on to release the outstanding film Outskirts, and later in 1947, Barnett turned out the Soviet blockbuster The Secret Agent. Two years after working with Kuleshov, Pudovkin went on to release his very own legendary film, Mother.

 

Poster for Jolly Fellows

 

Jolly Fellows

Grigori Aleksandrov (1934)

This was one of the first musical comedies created by Grigori Alexandrov. The comedic works of Alexandrov are a looking glass, offering viewers a small glimpse into life in the Soviet Union, as they are all humorous, glamorous, and chock full of propaganda promulgating the values and agenda of the Soviet Union.

Jolly Fellows is Aleksandrov’s first comedy, and it can be said that is a bit freer than all of his subsequent films, as it tells a story of love and the journey of a diverse group of singers who are competing for a place on stage. The singers range from those that are talented but poor to those that are tone deaf but rich – a theme not unfamiliar to Alexandrov, and it is a theme that would be included in all of his succeeding comedies. The film also features the work of the famous composer Isaac Dunayevsky and includes the well-known actress Lyubov Orlova in the lead role.

Orlova's partner in the comedy Jolly Fellows is Leonid Utesov, who is a famous Soviet singer, actor, and founder of the country’s first jazz band. Thus, not only is Jolly Fellows a musical comedy, but it also happens to be a jazz comedy.

Interestingly, Jolly Fellows found success not just in the Soviet Union, but also in the US, where the film was released under the name Moscow Laughs. – among those applauding the film was Charlie Chaplin. Worldwide it did very well with audiences and in 1934 the film won awards for its directing and for its music at the Venice Film Festival,

Jolly Fellows and other comedies by Alexandrov have taken a surprisingly long time to “grow old,” despite their naïveté and ideologization regarding life in the Soviet Union, and they continued to remain popular, appearing in regular reruns on central television channels through the early 1980s.

 

 

Walking the Streets of Moscow,

Georgy Daneliya (1964)

Georgy Daneliya invented his own genre of film, known to us as the “lyrical comedy,” and Walking the Streets of Moscow is a perfect example of the genre. The films are lyrical enough to make viewers feel the difference between laughter and hysterics, and between the contrived comedy found in sitcoms and the humor found in moments of everyday life.

Walking the Streets of Moscow is based on a script by Gennady Shpalikov and exudes the essence of the Soviet Thaw period that followed the death of Stalin. It follows one day in the life of several young people: one is looking to get married, another wants to study English, and a third is in a hurry to get to a meeting with a writer. Our lead character is a subway station builder named Nikolai, who is just returning from a night shift, but instead of sleeping he looks for ways to help everyone he meets – showing just how much we can all do in a single day. By the time the film ends, we are left with the feeling that we are in 1960s Russia during springtime and have spent a whole day there from morning to midnight.

After Walking the Streets of Moscow, director Georgy Daneliya shot many outstanding comedies, tragicomedies, and dystopian films. While these projected a stronger feeling of sorrow than Walking the Streets of Moscow, they contain an inexhaustible supply of paradoxical wit, with the ability to see the sad and the funny side to everyday life.

Walking the Streets of Moscow starred eighteen-year-old Nikita Mikhalkov, who later went on to become one of the most famous and influential directors in Russia.

 

 

Ivan Vasiliyevich Changes His Profession

Leonid Gaidai (1973)

This is a comedy based on a play by Mikhail Bulgakov. It is about Ivan Vasiliyevich, a.k.a. Ivan the Terrible, who, thanks to a time machine, finds himself in 1970s Russia. Not only is the tsar transported forward in time, but some Soviet citizens find themselves sent back in time to the sixteenth century.

Needless to say, Tsar Ivan finds himself out of place in the utilitarian flat of a Soviet apartment building, and the misplaced Soviets don’t know how to survive in medieval Russia. After finishing this film, you will absolutely want to watch another Gaidai comedy.

Anyone who familiarizes themselves with Gaidai’s immense career, which spans over 20 films, will find it surprising to learn that he began by shooting a drama called Thrice Resurrected, a film that would not meet with nearly as much success as any of his later films. After this failure, he turned away from more serious genres toward comedy. The success that followed brings to mind the Russian saying: "This happiness could not have been, if misfortune had not helped!”

 

 

The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!

Eldar Ryazanov (1976)

This is a legendary, screwball New Year’s comedy by Eldar Ryazanov, following a group of people who lose control of their lives for 24-hours. In the film, our heroes utterly collapse, totally lost in a completely different city. Even though they are separated from one another, through good fortune they find themselves falling in love with complete strangers. And despite these surprising turn of events none of the characters  "stopped doing big good stupid things," as one of the main characters exclaims in the film. And that is part of what make the film so endearing, and a central New Year’s tradition celebrating the phenomenal serendipity of the events.

Ryazanov is the most beautifully inconsistent of directors. Each of his subsequent films were unpredictable, and completely different from the last. Indeed, his first film, the musical comedy Carnival Night (1956), was such a huge success that one would assume Ryazonaov would continue making musical comedies. Instead, he began making tragic comedies and dramas: The Man from Nowhere, Zigzag of Success, The Garage, Say a Word for the Poor Hussar, Office Romance, and Station for Two. In all of his films, the heroes not only do important things, but their conversations are deeply significant, with the characters very often expressing their inner thoughts, having witty exchanges, and overall, just talking a lot: in their boss's office, in an apartment, on the street, in a Soviet institution, in a garage cooperative, at a New Years’ dinner table.

Ryazanov could tell the story of a lonely bureaucrat, or of a thief who redistributes what he steals, or a provincial actor, or an insurance agent. And he could tell their story as if it were a fairy tale: where goodness and reason do not always triumph over the absurdity and inhumanity of time and society, but they do try. And so it is no coincidence that the director shot one of his last films about the great Danish storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen.

Link to Part 2

 

 

Love and Pigeons / Love and Doves

Vladimir Menshov (1984)

This is a romantic comedy about country life featuring a great number of doves. The doves, symbols of the ideals of love, show the most human aspects of love: how it is simple and often unnoticed until it disappears. The film focuses on the tension in relationships between people, and also the differences between life in the town and the country. Additionally, it contrasts simple truths and snobbish senselessness, all of which Menshov highlights with sparkling humor.

Love is often viewed as a feeling lacking a sense of humor, but not in this story. Even though it can be said that the main character, Nadezhda, offers us a unique portrait of a Russian woman, we see that every character in Love and Doves is the epitome of a "Russian character." So it is not surprising that, in the small Siberian town that is the hometown of the scriptwriter, Vladimir Gurkin, there is a monument to the heroes of this film and one to the love he wrote about.

The director, Vladimir Menshov, shot many other films that are loved for their sophisticated relatability and clear storytelling; including the melodrama Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1981.

 

 

Courier

Karen Shakhnazarov (1986)

A comedic drama following the lives of fathers and their children during the time of Perestroika in the 1980s, this story focuses on Ivan, a witty daydreamer who is 17, who isn’t seeking his purpose in life, but is surrounded by adults who are adamantly trying to find it for him – often with love and audacity, but at other times aggressively so.

The older generation often tries to teach younger generations how to live, but by the end of the film, we begin to realize that it would be better if it were the other way around. Those who came of age in the late 1980s will recognize themselves in this film: young, full of doubts, but also being full of hope. In fact, the film may help those who grew up in the 80s come to terms with and understand their own children, or, as in the film, at least learn how to sing a duet with them. As soon as the film was released, it instantly fell into the category of an oft-revisited cult classic. The film can be compared to the American film The Breakfast Club, as it shares the same sharp veracity and nerve. However, in Courier, the young people are living on the Soviet "continent" filled with watchful anticipation of its eventual disintegration.

Karen Shakhnazarov is known as one of the most outstanding directors in Russia, and is currently head of the largest film studio in all of Russia: Mosfilm.

 

 

Sideburns

Yuri Mamin (1990)

While this comedy was being filmed, the Soviet Union was collapsing; during this period many so called “rescuers of Russia” began to appear. And in this film, Yuri Mamin uses comedy as a way to showcase their arrival.

The story also serves as a parable: in the film, Russian nationalists are shown sporting sideburns and walking sticks, with an ability to walk in formation, in a way that is shockingly hilarious. In one of the many striking scenes, there is a "night of long reeds" which successfully reminds us of one of the darkest days in the history of the Third Reich.

Even though the comedy was filmed more than 30 years ago, it remains relevant even now, as the statement of “saving Russia from…” continues to haunt many who share similar beliefs to the Sideburns. Mamin’s other films are also worth seeing, as his comedies are all a farewell glance to Soviet Russia: casual, absurd, and familiar to many.

Editing by Hannah Halladay

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