Here for May Day, it’s the “red diva” Lyubov Orlova. Never to be confused with Asia Argento’s “scarlet diva,” Orlova was the preeminent star of Stalin-era Soviet musicals—mostly directed by her husband, former Eisenstein associate Grigori Aleksandrov. Kicking off the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s tribute (May 1 through 4), Jolly Fellows (1934) was the first musical made in the USSR—a vehicle for reigning jazzman Leonid Utyosov and cousin to both Hollywood operettas like Love Me Tonight and anarchic comedies in the Marx Brothers mode.
Jolly Fellows synthesized all manner of Western developments, with scenes staged on deco sets and cut to pre-recorded sound, introducing—along with Orlova—Aleksandrov’s trademark manic cavorting. The follow-up, Circus (1936), starred Orlova as an American singer on the lam with her illegitimate mixed-race child who finds shelter with fraternal Soviet artistes. Featuring composer Isaak Dunayevsky’s affirmative “mass songs,” Circus exposed fascism, denounced racial injustice, and gathered all nationalities together under the Soviet big top. It is the quintessential Stalinist entertainment. The dictator’s personal favorite, however, was Volga–Volga (1938), in which Orlova plays a village postmistress who is also a vigorous exponent of the People’s Song movement and, prevailing over the officious manager of her local musical instrument plant, leads her comrades to the Moscow amateur music festival. There, she victoriously addresses the audience directly: “Laughter conquers evil!”
Made at the height of the Great Terror, Volga–Volga projects a grotesque version of paradise regained. (It is as if alienated labor has been abolished; despite perfunctory jobs, the characters are exclusively devoted to amateur music making.) Even more extreme is The Shining Path (1940), which recapitulates the Stalin era in tracking the transformation of an illiterate shapeless potato sack (Orlova) into a Stakhanovite heroine of labor and, finally, a decorated Supreme Soviet deputy. (In the most ecstatic production number, the mill where Orlova works has to be expanded so that she can operate 150 looms!) Perhaps because no movie ever illustrated more literally the official dogma that “the fairy tale has become reality,” Stalin rejected the original title Cinderella. Still, when the movie opened in New York, the Daily Worker got the point, identifying the party secretary as fairy godmother wielding the magic wand of the Soviet constitution. Nothing more remained, save for Orlova to play a singing nuclear physicist (a double role, actually, opposite Nikolai “Ivan the Terrible” Cherkasov, no less) in her swan song, Spring (1947).
Those seeking a dose of Soviet reality should catch the antipodal show “Marina Goldovskaya: Woman With a Movie Camera” (Anthology Film Archives, May 1 through 3), which features some of the strongest documentaries of the perestroika and post-Soviet period, beginning with Goldovskaya’s stunning history of the first Soviet penal camp, and prototype for the entire gulag, Solovki Power (1988). Also showing are allegorical documentaries on a ruined Czarist palace and luxury apartment building intended for 200, but nationalized to house 15 times as many, and two of Goldovskaya’s film-journals, The Shattered Mirror (1992) and Three Songs About Motherland (2008), a city symphony made in Moscow, Komsomolsk, and Khanty-Mansiysk.