Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Russian Orthodox Christmas

And you thought the holidays were over.... The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7. The studio system's treatment of Russia was fairly lousy. In the 1930s, with the Great Depression raging, a lot of academic types thought that the Soviet economic system was going to be the wave of the future, and so filmgoers got an overly romantic look at Russia. Of course, after World War II, Communists were to be feared, so Hollywood gave us a lot of movies with fairly blunt messages about the evils of communism. A lot of these 1950s movies aren't very good; it's as though the studios were only putting these movies out in order to appease the Communist hunters in Washington.

It's not as though the doe-eyed look at Russia in the 1930s is much better. Consider a movie like 1934's We Live Again. It's based on Leo Tolstoy's novel Resurrection. Anna Sten, whom Samuel Goldwyn wanted to make a star, plays the lead, as a servant girl who is the object of the infatuation of one of her masters, a young Army officer played by Fredric March. He knocks her up and leaves her, forcing her to have the baby alone, with ultimately tragic results. First, the baby dies, and then Sten is forced to go to Moscow, where she does whatever she can to survive, even if that results in falling afoul of the law.

And here, the story starts to get silly. Sten gets a jury trial -- and March is one of the members of the jury! Still, that doesn't get her out of any punishment (although the movie makes maddeningly clear that she was just an innocent girl caught in the wrong place at the wrong time); she gets sentenced to five years in Siberian exile. March feels bad for the girl, and vows that he'll do anything he can to set matters right. If you thought the story got silly once you saw March on the jury, wait until you see what happens after the trial. Imagine me holding my head in my hand, and you'll get an idea of the direction this movie takes.

I should probably cut a bit of slack to the moviemakers, though. Part of the problem is that they were dealing with a Tolstoy novel. Tolstoy always had one foot firmly in the camp of Russia's peasants, with his books devoting significant chunks of space to paeans to the simpler life of the peasant -- they were closer to nature, and to God, less sinful, and all that stuff. It makes novels like Anna Karenina tough going. And with a story like Resurrection, where the peasant/noble contrast is an integral part of the story, there's not a lot the screenwriters and director could do.

We Live Again has been released to DVD. If you're interested in Russia, or the movies of Fredric March, you may want to give it a try.

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