USSR, Mosfilm, 1936
B&W, 89 minutes
Russian with English subtitles

Director: Grigorii Aleksandrov

Screenplay: Grigorii Aleksandrov

Cinematography: Vladimir Nil'sen, Boris Petrov

Design: Georgii Grivtsov

Music: Isaak Dunaevskii

Lyrics: Vasilii Lebedev-Kumach

Cast: Liubov' Orlova, Evgeniia Mel'nikova, Vladimir Volodin, Sergei Stoliarov, Pavel Massal'skii, Aleksandr Komissarov, Jim Patterson, Solomon Mikhoels 

Grigorii Aleksandrov's Circus is one of the most successful and enduring works of Soviet cinema.  Upon its release in 1936, it immediately became a favorite with both the political elite and mass audiences.  Its central musical number, known as the "Song of the Motherland," has been called the unofficial anthem of the Soviet Union.  The film benefited from the singing and acting talent of Liubov' Orlova and in turn secured her position as the most beloved actress of her time.  Few filmmakers have so skillfully woven entertainment and ideology together as the director of this film, the aesthetic principles of which can be traced equally well to Busby Berkeley as to Boris Shumiatskii (the odious head of the Soviet State cinema bureaucracy). 

The film is part comedy, part melodrama.  It chronicles the journey of Marion Dixon (the name elicits a deliberate association with Orlova's contemporary, Marlene Dietrich) from the USA to the USSR, from racist persecution to multi-ethnic tolerance, from bondage and fear to freedom and true love.  Emblematic for her origins is the circus entrepreneur von Kneishits, portrayed as a diabolical representative of Nazi racist ideology who treats her as little more than chattel.  Her potential savior is the aviator and circus performer Martynov, a figure whose utter perfection gives Sergei Stoliarov little opportunity for any real character development.  Marion's terrible secret is her mulatto son, the reason for her flight from the American South.  Fear forces her to continue hiding the child as von Kneishits blackmails her with the threat to expose her "racial crime" to public view.

Numerous critics have noted that black and white mark more than just race in the film. Von Kneishits is dressed exclusively in black, occasionally with a Dracula-like cape, while Martynov is always dressed in white.  Marion's appearance undergoes a steady transformation from dark to light, marked most obviously by the disappearance of her black wig in favor of her natural blond hair.  As the film moves to its climax, white turtleneck sweaters begin to appear and, in the final sequence, become the dominant article of clothing.  This inexorable bleaching of the film's surface appearance makes Marion's son into an awkward problem not only for his mother: just as Marion hides the boy from the circus community, Aleksandrov hides him from the audience.  The film is almost half over before we see the black boy for the first time and, until the climax, his appearances are associated with the threat of exposure.  In the final scene he remains the only clearly visible black spot among a sea of undifferentiated faces and white clothing.

The political context for the film is marked by two important events.  The rising threat of European fascism led the Communist International at its Seventh Congress in August 1935 to adopt the policies of the so-called popular front, according to which all progressive political forces were to join together in the struggle against barbarism.  Then, in November 1936, the new Soviet Constitution declared the achievement of socialism and the end of class warfare in the USSR, and it guaranteed the rights of minorities.  Thus, even as Stalin was setting the Great Terror into motion, State policy discouraged the depiction of any serious conflict within Soviet society.  In one of the most artful scenes of Circus, the Hitleresque visage of von Kneishits glowers at Marion and Martynov through a frosty window pane.  The allusion is clear: the Soviet Union is the only remaining haven of light and warmth, surrounded by a threatening outside world of hatred and envy.

This context motivates not only the conflation of the United States with Nazi Germany, but also the assimilation of the complex ethnic and cultural tapestry of the Soviet Union into an undifferentiated mass parade.  Society is no longer divided according to class values—these have been replaced not with ethnic values but by an allegiance to a singular system of humanistic values.  While the lullaby scene is justly remembered as the emotional climax of the film, it is the last time we see such clear distinctions in color, clothing, or culture.  Circus choreography, mass song, and unified clothing work toward the same goal: the assimilation of all distinctions to sameness, of all individuals to the mass, of all color to white.  The black spot of baby Jimmy in the final scene is thus no longer an embarrassment, but rather the necessary trace reminder of an ethnic diversity to which the film declares its allegiance even while imaging a homogenized Soviet mass.

Despite the harmonious structure of its final form, a full account of the film's genesis would be a complex tale.  The "Song of the Motherland" reportedly went through thirty-seven revisions before it received its final version.  More interesting for film historians is the number of renowned but uncredited writers involved with the screenplay.  Il'ia I'lf, Evgenii Petrov, Valentin Kataev, and Isaak Babel' all participated in writing the script, although the first three demanded that their names be removed from the credits after concluding that Aleksandrov had turned their sharp social satire into a musical melodrama.

Gerald McCausland 

Grigorii Aleksandrov

A prolific screenwriter and occasional actor as well as director, Grigorii Vasil'evich Aleksandrov (original last name: Mormonenko) was born in 1903 in Ekaterinburg.  In 1921, he made the acquaintance of Sergei Eisenstein, with whom he would work closely in theater and in cinema throughout the 1920s.  He worked in Eisenstein's shadow as together they made the masterpieces that brought the latter man world-wide renown.  After their return from a trip to the United States in 1932, Aleksandrov began directing the musical comedies that made him famous.  His filmmaking became both more diverse and less remarkable during and after the Second World War, and he began teaching at the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) in the 1950s.  He was the recipient of numerous state prizes (People's Artist, Hero of Socialist Labor, Stalin Prize) and was married to actress Liubov' Orlova, the star of many of his musicals.  He died in 1984. 

Director Filmography

1934 Jolly Fellows / Jazz Comedy
1936 Circus
1938 Volga-Volga
1940 The Shining Path
1943 A Family
1947 Spring
1949 Meeting on the Elba
1952 Glinka
1958 Man to Man
1960 Russian Souvenir
1971 Internationale
1974 The Starling and the Lyre
1979 Que Viva Mexico!
1983 Liubov' Orlova (documentary)