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Song of Russia
Remind Me
,Song of Russia

Song of Russia

In 1943, the U.S. was at war, and Hollywood was doing its bit for the war effort, turning out patriotic films and sending (albeit reluctantly) its top male stars off to fight. MGM's Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart were already in uniform, and the studio's other heartthrob, Robert Taylor, was raring to go. He had volunteered for the Navy, and although at 31 he was too old for combat, Taylor was awaiting his orders. Not so fast, said studio boss Louis B. Mayer. There was still time for Taylor to squeeze in one more movie, and Mayer had one lined up that would also aid in the war effort.

At that time, the U.S. and Russia were allies united against a common foe. So in spite of the fact that Russia was a communist dictatorship under Joseph Stalin, the U.S. government was conducting a propaganda campaign encouraging pro-Soviet friendship. Enter Hollywood, and MGM's contribution to the cause: Song of Russia (1943). An American symphony conductor with a fondness for Tchaikovsky goes on tour in Russia. While there, he meets a peasant girl with a passion for classical music, who soon develops a passion for the conductor. The couple marries, but World War II tears them apart, as the patriotic American returns home, and his bride stays to fight the Nazis alongside her noble countrymen.

Mayer tried to convince Taylor that the role of the conductor was made for him. The actor, a staunch conservative and about as far from a "longhair" musician as a Nebraska-bred Hollywood star could be, was appalled. He wanted no part of a film he considered pro-communist propaganda. Mayer insisted that the government wanted the film made, and brought in a representative of the Office of War Information to help "persuade" Taylor. The implication was that Taylor's naval orders would be held up until he made the film. Grudgingly, Taylor agreed, but predicted there would be repercussions later.

Song of Russia was given a lavish treatment by the studio. Susan Peters played the Russian girl, and an authentic Russian, director-actor Gregory Ratoff, directed. But in spite of Ratoff's cultural heritage and the lush Tchaikovsky music, the Russia depicted in the film was strictly Hollywood-on-the-Volga. Reviews ranged from respectful to derisive. The New York Times called Song of Russia "very close to being the best film on Russia yet made in the popular Hollywood idiom." Newsweek slyly pointed out the film's "neatest trick... leaning over backward in Russia's favor without once swaying from right to left." Most found Taylor woefully miscast, and several noted that his "conducting" was completely out of synch with the music that was being played. Most of the praise went to Taylor's beautiful young co-star Susan Peters, a recent addition to MGM's stable of contract players. A gifted actress, Peters' career would be cut tragically short in 1945, when she suffered a spinal injury in a hunting accident. Paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, she tried to continue her acting career, but it proved impossible. Despondent and reclusive, Peters died in 1952, at the age of 31.

Four years after Song of Russia was released, the war was over, and it was okay to hate communists again In fact, it was de rigueur, as the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee investigated rumors of communist infiltration in all segments of American society, including the entertainment business. Far from objecting to the witch hunt, Taylor went on a witch hunt of his own. He contacted the committee, and suggested that the Roosevelt administration had delayed his induction into the navy so he could make Song of Russia. When he actually testified before the committee several months later, however, Taylor stopped short of saying he had been "forced" to appear in the film. However, he did name several people he believed to be communists: screenwriter Lester Cole, who had written Taylor's latest film, High Wall (1947); actor Howard Da Silva, and actress Karen Morley. (Not named by Taylor, but nevertheless blacklisted, was Song of Russia screenwriter Paul Jarrico.) Taylor said he would refuse to work with any actor suspected of being a communist. Afterwards, Congressman Richard Nixon congratulated Taylor for his bravery in testifying. The New York Post headlined: BOBBY SOXERS AND NATION CHEER ROBERT TAYLOR AS HE URGES BAN ON REDS. Taylor's career survived. The careers of the people he named did not.

Director: Gregory Ratoff
Producer: Joe Pasternak, Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Paul Jarrico, based on a story by Leo Mittler, Victor Trivas, Guy Endore
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Editor: George Hively
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Leonid Vasian
Music: Herbert Stothart, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Principal Cast: Robert Taylor (John Meredith), Susan Peters (Nadya Stepanova), John Hodiak (Boris), Robert Benchley (Hank Higgins), Felix Bressart (Petrov), Michael Chekhov (Stepanov), Darryl Hickman (Peter).

by Margarita Landazuri