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Workers of the World, Unite in Song!

East Side Story explores Soviet musicals. Yes, musicals.

Soviet film, whatever its glories, is not particularly remembered for its frothy musicals (or even, for that matter, for its comedies). Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko may have been among the founding fathers of cinema technique, but they weren't exactly a barrel of laughs. The policies of Socialist Realism tended to favor serious drama for the education and uplift of the working class.

Only slightly less shortsighted than Soviet scientific dictates at the time, this lopsided emphasis denied the populace entertainment whenit might have most benefited the Party. Though it would be hard to claim that Hollywood's escapist output during the '30s so mollified a bitter country that it prevented a potential American revolution, there's no doubt that the flood of cheap, diverting fluff had a significant effect on the nation's mood.

Still, every once in a while, filmmakers in the U.S.S.R. and the rest of the Soviet bloc tried to emulate the Hollywood formula. According to Romanian documentarian Dana Ranga in her film East Side Story, there were roughly 40 musicals produced during the 60 years between the coming of sound and the collapse of the Soviet sphere -- primarily in East Germany, the Soviet Union, Romania, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia.

The first Soviet musical had an unlikely genesis and an even less likely fate. Grigori Alexandrov was one of Eisenstein's closest associates: He was assistant director on Potemkin, co-directed October and eventually assembled Eisenstein's unfinished Que Viva Mexico! When the two returned from a trip to Hollywood, where Eisenstein was supposed to direct a version of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy -- the project eventually became one of Josef von Sternberg's weakest features -- Alexandrov decided to make a broad musical comedy of the sort he had seen in America. Before release, The Jolly Fellows was attacked for its decadent style and its lack of ideology.

Comrade Stalin may have a lot to answer for, but, at least in this case, he was on the side of the angels: He overruled the apparatchiks and arranged for the distribution of The Jolly Fellows, which he personally enjoyed. (The Inner Circle, Andrei Konchalovsky's 1992 film about Stalin's personal projectionist, suggests that, in private, the Party boss's taste ranged far beyond Socialist Realism.) It was a unique effort. By the time of Volga -- Volga (1938), Alexandrov was required to mold his musicals to fit the Party priorities; Stalin liked the film so much he presented a copy to Franklin Roosevelt.

If the notion of Socialist Realist musicals begs for Mad magazine treatment, any potential satire has been preempted by the real McCoy. The year after Volga -- Volga, Ivan Pyriev made Tractor Drivers -- with songs that contained such lyrics as, "Our work is our honor / Whether you work at a machine or break through rocks / A beautiful dream calls you forward" -- which he followed with The Swineherd and the Shepherd in '41.

Judging from the clips Ranga has selected, the musical genre seems to have nearly disappeared for 15 or 20 years, broken by East German attempts in the late '50s and '60s. My Wife Wants to Sing (1958), which, surprisingly, defends a woman's right to her own career, was a hit. The Germans eventually made teen musicals, with watered-down rock, most notably Hot Summer ('68), which both stylistically and musically is a pastiche of Beach Blanket Bingo and Britain's swingin'-'60s-a-go-go films.

Ranga intercuts her selections with interview footage of historian Maya Turorskaya, East German film fan Brigitte Ulbrich, and stars Karin Schrsder, Chris Doerk and Frank Schsbel. Turorskaya is particularly valuable, providing a critical context that the ever-present voice-over lacks. The only irritating element is the series of staged shots of three actresses playing stuffy Party bureaucrats; thankfully, they're short enough to be tolerated.

While the excerpts in East Side Story are occasionally stylish, they suggest that the Soviet bloc never found its Vincente Minnelli or Busby Berkeley. Of course, with such sparse production, it's no wonder: Nobody had the time to master the form. Still, it's a rare treat to see even little bits of these hitherto unavailable films, even if you find yourself wishing by the end of East Side Story that some enterprising art-film distributor would book a package of a few of the best of them.

East Side Story.
Directed by Dana Ranga. With Karin Schrsder, Chris Doerk, Brigitte Ulbrich, Helmut Hanke, Hans-Joachim Wallstein and Maya Turorskaya. Not rated. 77 minutes. Plays Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 639-7515.

 
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