Old Soviet Movies:The Circus (1936)

Although The Circus (Tsirk) was made in 1936 it was still shown on TV in the 1970’s and 80’s and the songs took on the life of their own with “My Country is So Vast” (Shiroka Strana Moya Rodnaya) becoming the Soviet equivalent of  “God Bless America”.

The movie is beautifully done propaganda piece for the Soviet Society where there is no place for racism and hatred and everyone wears white. It stars the most popular actress of that time Lyubov Orlova whose looks and voice dominated the best Soviet movies of the 30’s and 40’s.

Below are some clips I cut and lightly subtitled; some of the scenes are actually in understandable English, the others are musical numbers where no translation is needed; some scenes can be understood without words: in 1930’s actors still knew how to display emotions on their faces from their years in the silent movies.

The movie starts with an angry  mob scene, someplace in the racist US of A, where a bunch of screaming people sans torches and pitchforks are chasing Marion Dixon, a mother of an interracial child who happened to be a circus performer.

The billboard-covered walls contrast with the Soviet general lack of advertisement.

On the train Marion meets Franz Von Kneishiz, who will become her manager. The story moves to the Moscow Circus where Marion performs her death-defying stunt – “Flight to the Moon”. The music playing in the beginning of the clip is a de facto anthem of the Soviet Circus. I still remember the circus being this grand and amazing.

During the act the Director of the Circus asks his actor -a military hero – Martynov to recreate and improve this act. His partner is to be the Director’s daughter whose fiance also appears carrying flowers. Martynov throws the bouquet to Ms. Dixon. Love is in the air.

Evil capitalist Von Kneishiz threatens Marion Dixon to tell everyone about her black baby. While she is crying over Martynov’s photos, he comes into the room to pick up his suitcase. The scene ends with the war of stares between him and Von Kneishiz.

Von Kneishiz hints that he would like the contract extended, instead the director shows him the new replacement act.

Stunt fails and Marion runs downstairs concerned for Martynov. Seeing her interest Von Kneishiz tries to make an announcement about her baby.

Von Kneishiz begs Marion to leave, she refuses. She says that Martynov loves her, but Von Kneishiz screams that no one will love her with her black baby. When he leaves, she sings a lullaby to her baby in Russian but with an “american” accent.

Notice the black maid. This movie probably employed the whole black population of Moscow. The baby was played by James Lloydovich Patterson who lived in the USSR, served in the Soviet Navy, but later emigrated back to the USA.

Von Kneishiz tries to leave Moscow with Marion, but she is being helped by her Soviet friends. Instead she partners with Martynov for a now successful “Flight to the Stratosphere”.

Von Kneishiz finally gets a chance to tell everyone about the black baby. To his dismay no one cares. Instead the circus patrons, each one of a different nationality takes turns singing a lullaby in there own language. One of the singers is a world-famous Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels who sings in Yiddish. My Dad always pointed out this scene because this was probably the only Yiddish on film which wasn’t censored. Mikhoels was assassinated on Stalin’s orders after the WWII but in this movie he illustrates the supposed internationalism of the Soviet people.

The Circus director tells Marion that the Soviet people love all children – white, black, green, pink with stripes. Marion starts singing “My Country is So Vast”. The scene moves to the Red Square where the Circus performers lead the demonstration singing, marching and carrying portraits of the Soviet leaders.

This movie was immensely popular throughout the Soviet times. As any propaganda movie it wasn’t very truthful, there was a lot of national hatred, antisemitism and conflicts in the USSR; many of them manifested themselves only after the break-up of the Soviet Union, but it didn’t mean that on a personal level many different nationalities didn’t live happily side-by-side. People of different nationalities shared apartments, served in the military, worked in the camps. In these situation nationality took second seat to the necessities of hard life.

I am not a movie critic (but I once had a beer with a real-life professor of cinematography), so I will not comment on the technical aspects or the influences present in this movie. The characters and the musical numbers from this movie are an important part of the Golden Fund of the Soviet culture and you just had a chance to enjoy a small peek at it.

  • That one fellow looks like Captain Kangaroo.

  • nuke

    Wow, he really DOES look like the Captain. Anyhow, thanks MV for another great post. The similarities and differences between Soviet and American film from the area are fascinating. I wish you had posted this while my brother was taking his propaganda in film class in college. For his final project he had to come up with a film on his own that hadn’t been covered to speak about. I recommended Chaplin’s Great Dictator, and he got an A. I’ll bet THIS film woulda blown the professor away tho.

  • André

    How may I find this movie with English or Portuguese Subtitles? Very nice film!
    Thanks

    • I think there are versions with English subtitles and there are separate subtitle files floating around internet.