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Shadows of Russia
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Introduction to Shadows of Russia

Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Russia captured the imagination of the world - and its mysterious, exotic allure continues today. Hollywood has exploited this fascination for decades with movies that portray Russian history and attitudes with varying degrees of authenticity. The collapse of the Tsarist regime was a perfect subject for melodramas portraying the confl ict, tragedy and romantic nostalgia of a bygone era.

Parodies of the severe Soviet lifestyle during the late 1930s and early '40s were followed by pro- Russia propaganda films made in obvious support of our World War II allies. As anti-Communist sentiment arose in the U.S. after WWII, the Cold War inspired a series of cautionary tales of infiltration along with a whole new genre of political thrillers.

This TCM Spotlight, suggested by Lou Lumenick, Chief Film Critic of the New York Post, and Farran Smith Nehme, who blogs as the Self-Styled Siren, considers Hollywood's treatment of Russia with regards to various themes. Twilight of the Tsars is illustrated by two flamboyantly entertaining films: Rasputin and the Empress (1932), starring all three Barrymores - John, Lionel and Ethel - in an account of the turbulent final years of the Romanov regime, and The Scarlet Empress (1934), with Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great, the scandalous 18th-century Empress of Russia.

"Red" Romance is represented by The Red Danube (1949), the fictional account of an Eastern Bloc ballerina (Janet Leigh) who falls for a British officer (Peter Lawford), and Reds (1981), the real-life story of American Communist John Reed (Warren Beatty) and his love affair with fellow journalist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) during the Russian Revolution. The Lighter Side of the Revolution includes Ninotchka (1939) and Comrade X (1940), two MGM comedies about frosty Soviet beauties (Greta Garbo and Hedy Lamarr, respectively) who are thawed by warm-blooded leading men (Melvyn Douglas and Clark Gable).

Our Red Army Pals includes the important TCM premiere of The North Star (1943), a piece of WWII propaganda about a Ukrainian farming collective that defies the Nazi war machine. Along with Mission to Moscow (1943), based on the memoirs of Joseph H. Davies, American Ambassador to the Soviet Union, The North Star was later cited by the House Committee on Un-American Activities as an example of the work of Communist sympathizers in Hollywood.

Spies Among Us features two more TCM premieres, I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. (1951) and My Son John (1952). Both are examples of anti-Communist propaganda made during the Red Scare of the 1950s. The Height of the Cold War offers two of the scariest political thrillers of the 1960s: The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and The Bedford Incident (1965).

by Roger Fristoe

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