Musicals from Behind the Iron Curtain

An unexpected top hat and tails dance number performed on piano tops is featured in the 1962 film from East Germany, Midnight Revue.

If you are a dedicated fan of movie musicals, you have probably been tempted to venture beyond the realm of Hollywood’s golden era to explore classic musicals from other countries like France (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), Germany (The 3 Penny Opera, 1931) or England (Evergreen, 1934). You would certainly have no trouble discovering top rated favorites from India which produces between 1,500 to 2,000 Bollywood movies a year, most of which include at least three to five musical numbers. It might be harder though to dig up a famous film musical from countries as diverse as…say, Sweden, Japan or Egypt…but they definitely exist and there are more than you would think. What you probably haven’t seen is a socialist musical from Russia or any of its satellite countries during the Communist regime. There’s a reason for that. Those films weren’t exported outside Iron Curtain countries during that era but you can experience a highly entertaining sampler of the genre in East Side Story, a documentary on Marxist musicals that premiered in U.S. theaters in 1997.

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The First Anti-American Spy Film?

That was how director Ken Russell described his production of Billion Dollar Brain (1967). Whether that claim is true or not, Russell maintained it was the main reason the third entry in the Harry Palmer spy series failed at the box office. To be totally honest, none of the competing rivals in the film – Russia, the U.K., Latvia and the U.S. – are preferable over the other and come across as cynical, opportunistic entities that are only focused on their own agendas and self interests. Seen today, Billion Dollar Brain is easily most entertaining film in the five-movie franchise and deserves a reappraisal.   Continue reading

A Paean for Terra Firma

From an early age I developed a fascination with film but it wasn’t until college when my film interests expanded beyond American cinema to include international films and more specialized genres like underground, silent, documentary and exploitation movies. A Film History 101 course at the University of Georgia, curated by a drama professor, was partly responsible for that due to his eclectic overview which sampled the early work of Sam Fuller (The Steel Helmet, Park Row), Fritz Lang silents (Die Nibelungen: Siegfried & Kriemhild’s Revenge), the roots of Neorealism (La Terra Trema) and Hollywood studio system gems (George Sidney’s Scaramouche, An Affair to Remember). What made one of the strongest impressions, however, were examples of early Soviet cinema like Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. And my favorite of them all was Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (Russian title: Zemlya, 1930), the third film in a trilogy that included Zvenyhora (1928) and Arsenal (1929).  Continue reading