Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Song of Russia (1944)

Robert Taylor and Susan Peters in Song of Russia (1944)
Robert Taylor and Susan Peters in Song of Russia (1944)

1944 was a good year for actress Susan Peters. She was nominated the previous year for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in Random Harvest (1942) and MGM was grooming her for stardom. They were giving her more substantial parts including roles in Assignment in Brittany (1943), Young Ideas (1943) and the pro-Soviet Union propaganda film Song of Russia (1944). Tragedy would strike New Year's Day 1945 when a hunting accident left her paralyzed.

Song of Russia (1944) showcased Susan Peters at her best. Peters had a sort of lingering melancholy and her eyes glistened as though she were always seconds away from crying, whether from joy, pride or sorrow. The leading role of Nadya, opposite star Robert Taylor, was perfectly suited to her because it allowed her to play herself but with a fake Russian accent.

American conductor John Meredith (Robert Taylor) heads to Russia with his manager Hank Higgins (Robert Benchley) for a nationwide tour conducting the music of Tchaikovsky. Nadja, a talented pianist, is desperate to get John's attention. She and all of the musical prodigies that inhabit her small Russian village of Tschaikowskoye want John Meredith to conduct at their humble music festival. Nadja wins him over and they soon fall in love. But their happiness is short-lived as Russia is on the brink of war with the Nazis. Will Nadja and John's love for their home countries get in the way of their love for each other?

"We have serious differences. Socially, culturally. We cannot even discuss them." - Nadja
"We'll discuss them tomorrow. The day after." - John

Song of Russia was a WWII propaganda film to help strengthen the bond between the US and it's ally Russia as they joined forces to defeat the Nazis. This was last film Robert Taylor made before he joined the Navy. Years later during the HUAC hearings, the conservative and anti-Communist Taylor suggested he was blackmailed into making this film. His reluctance to star in it met with pressure from MGM and supposedly he was told if he didn't make the film there would a delay in him getting into the Navy. Taylor named names to the HUAC but didn't go so far as to say outright that he was blackmailed. Not only did MGM deny the claim made by Taylor, they also refused to admit that Song of Russia was a propaganda film.

“It is true, of course, that Russia was our ally in 1943, and that our government was very friendly to the Soviets. But that was not why Song of Russia was made.” – Louis B. Mayer

Despite what Mayer said, no one who watches this film will see it as anything but a pro-Russia movie. It was directed by a Russian, Gregory Ratoff, and although it was filmed on the MGM lot in Culver City travelogue and documentary scenes of actual Russia are woven into the film to make audiences feel like they were there. We go on a tour of Moscow and we see real war footage. Nadja orders John a traditional Russian meal at a fancy restaurant. In order to get as many Russian terms into the scenes as possible, she goes a bit overboard and requests Borscht, beef stroganoff, zakuski, pirog and other Russian dishes. Tchaikovsky's music is the soundtrack of the movie making it a quasi-musical. Robert Taylor's John Meredith is ignorant of Russian culture so as he learns about Nadja's country the audience learns as well.

Susan Peters, Robert Taylor and Russia are the stars of this film but it's important to note some of the smaller performances by other well-known actors. Child actor Darryl Hickman plays Nadya's nephew and the script gives him some substantial scenes. Robert Benchley is under-utilized as Taylor's publicist and manager. Jacqueline White has a small and sorry role as a young resident of Tschaikowskoye. John Hodiak, Joan Loring and Tamara Shayne also appear in the movie.

I was impressed with Susan Peters' performance in this film. She aptly plays the piano (no body double or camera tricks were used) and she even does some traditional Russian dancing. She's a good match for Robert Taylor and holds her own in the picture.

Song of Russia is a WWII curio that has its place in movie history. It's a must-see for history buffs. For all it's pro-Russian sentiment, in the end audiences came away from it with one final message: America is the greatest nation of them all. Once you see the film you'll know what I mean. Whether you agree with this message or not, it was a fundamental principle that drove 1940s Hollywood.

Song of Russia (1944) is available from the Warner Archive on DVD-MOD.
When you use my buy links you help support this site. Thanks!

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection.

TCM article on Song of Russia

Film Producer Denies Song of Russia Red

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