Today is Russian Christmas. Starting on Christmas Day, I wrote one article during each day of the twelve days of Christmas. In each article, I discussed a Code Christmas classic during my series “The Twelve Days of Christmas with the Code.” Yesterday was the finale, the Epiphany. Today I am doing an encore to the series for Russian Christmas. Since the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates its holidays later than the Western Christian churches, Russians celebrate Christmas, New Year’s, and the Epiphany later than Westerners. One of the only movies I know which depicts Russian Christmas is Balalaika, a 1939 Russian musical drama with Nelson Eddy and Ilona Massey. Come along with me as as I describe the story, discuss the music, consider the Christmas scene, and reveal our hypothesis about a secret in the last scene.
The movie begins in a little Russian village before the Russian Revolution. The quiet town falls into chaos as someone announces that the Cossacks are coming back from maneuvers. First some trick riders ride through the street, followed by the Cossack Guard, which is led by Prince Peter Karagin (Nelson Eddy). He leads the men in an exciting song while nimbly riding a horse. The scene fades to a glittering cafe in St. Petersburg, the Balalaika. Peter and the other soldiers sing and dance with the beautiful hostesses at the café. From their private room, they watch the floor show. Before the show starts, two of the musicians converse. A young pianist, Dimitri Marakov (Dalies Frantz), complains to his father, a violinist (Lionel Atwill), about the fact that his sister, Lydia Pavlova Marakov (Ilona Massey), has to sing at the café for a bunch of drunken officers. His father says that he understands, but they have to have money to live. The show begins, and the curtain reveals an alluringly-dressed Lydia. She dances and sings an exotic song, “I’m Tanya.” Peter and the other soldiers, who are drinking champagne and kissing their female friends at intervals, admire the beautiful “Balalaika Nightingale.” After her song has ended, Peter goes into the hall and tells his assistant, Private Nicki Popoff (Charlie Ruggles), to invite Miss Marakov to join the Cossacks in their private dining room. Nicki leaves his two lady friends to go on his mission. When he goes to her dressing room, her maid, Masha (Joyce Compton), comes to the door. Nicki gives the message to Masha in the midst of a flurry of hackneyed compliments; he invites her to meet him across the street in an hour, and she agrees. The owner of the café tells Lydia that he will fire her if she doesn’t go to see the officers. She reluctantly agrees. When she arrives in the private dining room, Prince Karagin is not there; he went to buy flowers for her. All the officers offer her drinks and their love, but she politely resists their wooing. She talks about her father, a Cossack, who died during a Cossack battle, then she sings “At the Balalaika,” much to the soldiers’ delight. Afterwords, she pretends like she recognizes one of the officers, Captain Sibirsky (Walter Woolf King), saying that he made her younger sister die of a broken heart. She excuses herself and leaves crying. As soon as she exits the room, she laughs. During most of this scene, Peter was standing in the shadows unseen, watching the interaction. After Lydia has exited, Peter leaves the room and talks to the manager, who disproves Lydia’s paternal story. He tells the prince that the singer prefers the company of poor students to the higher-class patrons of the café. Having gathered this information, Peter gives a student some money to borrow his clothes. In the student’s garb, Peter goes to a little restaurant where Lydia goes after the show. He pretends to be a vocal student named Peter Teranda, as whom he makes her acquaintance. He pretends that he is ordering champagne and caviar because it’s his birthday, but then he realizes that he forgot to put his money in this new outfit. Lydia pays his bill; he wants to pay her back, but she refuses to tell him where she lives. He is charmed by her. When he visits with his father, General Karagin (C. Lionel Atwill), the old man tells him that he found many revolutionary pamphlets in the possession of one of the soldiers. Next, we see Lydia’s father and some other men in his music school printing these revolutionary pamphlets. The Marakov music academy is the front for a group of rebels which is part of a revolutionary party. Just then, Peter arrives at the door with the money he borrowed. Lydia’s comrades are afraid that Peter is just masquerading as a vocal student, so they ask him in to sing for them. After he sings a phenomenal rendition of “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” they believe his story. He is shocked to see Nicki there; the fumbling private, who is visiting Masha, plays along with Peter’s story. Soon after, Peter calls the head of the Imperial Opera Company, Ivan Danchenoff (Frank Morgan), and tells him that he is bringing over a lady friend of his who should be in the opera. That day, he comes over and demands an audition. The outraged impresario pretends that he doesn’t know the nobleman masquerading as an opera student. Lydia sings a rousing song from Carmen, and Peter joins her part way through as the Toreador. Danchenoff agrees to hire Lydia. She is thrilled by the opportunity. When Lydia and Peter have dinner at an inn soon afterward, they realize that they love each other. Unfortunately, the deception cannot continue forever. It is not long before a drunken Dimitri begins making a revolutionary speech in the town square. By the time his sister and father get there, the crowd is huge. The Cossacks suddenly arrive to chase away the crowd and capture the rebel. Lydia is shocked to see Peter leading the Cossacks; he sees her, too. Dimitri tries to run away, but he gets knocked down and killed by one of the soldiers. When another revolutionary comes over to the Marakovs’ residence to offer his condolences, he says that “the party” wants Lydia to sing at the opera that Tuesday as planned; General and Prince Karagin will be in their usual box, and they will be assassinated. Despite the fact that her father doesn’t want to get her involved, Lydia agrees to the plan. Just then, Peter arrives, and he is left alone with Lydia. She is very cold until Peter says that he is going to resign from the army so he can marry her. When she hears that, she makes him promise that neither he nor his father will come to the opera on the opening night. He agrees, and they kiss happily. At the performance, neither Karagin is in the box. Professor Marakov and his fellow conspirator, Leo Proplinski (Abner Biberman), are in the audience, but they are disappointed that their victims are not in the trap. However, General Karagin enters partway through the show, telling Danchenoff that his son, not he, canceled their box. It is not long, though, before Peter arrives with a telegram for his father. Just as the professor is raising his pistol to shoot them, General Karagin stands up and stops the performance. He announces that Germany has declared war on Holy Russia. Everyone begins singing the Russian national anthem. Proplinski encourages Marakov to shoot them now, but his comrade says that Russia will now need the Karagins more than it needs them. Proplinski goes berserk, snatches the gun, and begins shooting wildly at the box; he hits the general. Marakov tries to stop him as the audience members run for their lives. Peter goes to Lydia’s dressing room and tells her that his father will be alright. She is relieved that Peter wasn’t hurt. He says that he has to go to war, but he will marry her afterword. While they are talking, some men come in and reveal that one of the assassins is Lydia’s father. Peter is dumbfounded. He says that Lydia’s family must have made her join them, but she tells him that she agrees with their beliefs; she only tried to save his life because she loves him. She is placed under arrest and taken away. A few years later, it is Christmas night. The war has been going on for three years, and the Russians soldiers are depressed and freezing in the snowy battle area. Nicki, who is now a sergeant, decorates a little Christmas tree and gets out a bottle of vodka which he saved for the occasion. All the officers except Peter happily reminisce about the old days at the Balalaika. He is miserable because of Lydia. He got her released from prison, but now she is wandering around the country, singing at one café after another. When Peter comes in, the officers remember the men who fell during the last year and drink a toast to victory for Holy Russia. Suddenly, the Austrians start singing “Stille Nacht.” The Russians go outside to listen, and Peter begins singing along. After the song has ended, an airplane flies over and drops hundreds of pamphlets declaring that several Russian cities have been captured by their people. Because of that, headquarters give orders to Peter’s unit to go over enemy lines that night. All the men are very upset to be going over on Christmas night, but they have no choice. As soon as they go over, the enemies open fire on them. The poor Russians continue to cross, but many of them fall immediately. The next thing you see is a smoky Russian café where Lydia is singing “Otche Chornye.” A man bursts in and declares that Russia belongs to its people; the war is over! Lydia looks distressed as the man says that there are no more officers. Suddenly, it is a few years later in Paris. All the former Cossacks and nobles are working to make a living. Nicki and his wife, Masha, own a Russian restaurant called the Balalaika. Peter works there as a singer. As he entertains the patrons and endures demeaning comments from the unfeeling customers, he looks ineffably sad. That night is Russian New Year. The Balalaika is having a big party in which all the former nobles dress in their fine clothes and pretend that they are enjoying their former glory. Every one of the Popoffs’ old friends is there except Lydia. As Masha and Nicki get the candles for the mirror wish tradition at midnight, Lydia comes in. She is dripping wet, but she is thrilled to hear Peter’s voice. His father tells her that only she can put happiness back in his heart. At midnight, Peter performs the ceremony at the mirror. As he sings, “Show my love to me tonight,” he sees Lydia’s reflection in the mirror. He is shocked. He turns around, walks over to her, and embraces her. Everyone waltzes as the movie ends.
The acting is excellent in this movie. Everyone creates his character very deeply. The music is an excellent addition to the picture. Nelson Eddy was a magnificent singer, since he was trained for opera. In this movie, he sings some really great songs. The first time you see him, he is riding a horse and singing boldly. The most marvelous musical moment is probably when Peter sings “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” for all the conspirators. He starts a capella, then the musicians join in. He sings one really long note that is just astounding, then he goes into the next phrase without taking a breath! Singing long phrases was one of his best talents. In addition, he had an exceptional Russian accent which he used in this song and in the pronunciation of Russian names and places. When he reprises “At the Balalaika,” he sings with brilliant melancholy. You can just hear the sadness oozing out of his voice. He was a phenomenal singer that MGM was very fortunate to employ.
Russian Christmas is a very sad night for the Holy Russian officers, as Christmas is for any soldiers who are at war. They have a tree and Christmas borscht, but the scene is far from completely cheerful. Peter is particularly dismal. The other men are trying to keep their spirits up, but he is undeniably miserable because of Lydia. When the Austrian soldiers start singing, their voices are distant and beautiful. The soldiers are surprised, since the Austrians celebrated their Christmas two weeks earlier. They realize that the enemies are singing for them. I’m not sure if they are trying to trick them; they probably are. All the Russians go outside to listen. As it gently begins to snow, Peter sings along with the famous German Christmas carol. When the camera closes up on his face, there are tears in his eyes. It is very moving.
In the last scene, Peter is brilliantly sad. The director, Reinhold Schunzel, created an extremely melancholy, nostalgic quality. All the Russians sadly sing about the glory days that are forever gone. When Peter sees Lydia in the mirror, all his troubles should vanish. He should be ineffably happy. One would expect him to smile, turn, and kiss her passionately. He doesn’t do that, however. He just stares in the mirror. In fact, the fake smile he had assumed for the ceremony completely drains off his face. After a few too many seconds, he turns around and walks toward her with a stunned look on his face. He and Lydia get very near each other; she looks like she wants him to kiss her, but he doesn’t. He just looks at her. Finally, they press their cheeks together and turn their faces toward the camera. Why did Peter react so strangely? My sister and I have a theory. When we first watched this movie, Rebekah said something as soon as she saw Lydia in the mirror: “That’s Jeanette MacDonald’s costume from Maytime!” It is undeniable that her costume is identical to the one that Miss MacDonald wore in the opera scene in the 1937 movie she made with Mr. Eddy. Here are pictures of both costumes.
Our theory is that Reinhold Schunzel wanted to get a very dramatic reaction out of Mr. Eddy in this scene, so he put Miss Massey in Jeanette’s costume without telling the leading man. When Nelson saw her wearing that costume, he was genuinely shocked. We believe that he loved Jeanette very much before she chose to marry another man. To see another woman in her costume was very shocking and disturbing to him. Ilona Massey was most definitely not Jeanette, so he just couldn’t kiss her. Maybe that’s why he has a big, fake smile in the final shot of the movie. All this is pure conjecture, but Rebekah firmly believes it, and I agree. If you still aren’t convinced, leave a comment, and Rebekah will give even more detailed reasons.
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