Cast & Crew
During a broadcast of an all-Russian music concert, Manhattan Philharmonic Orchestra conductor John Meredith addresses the audience and describes his last tour of Russia: In 1941, shortly after his arrival in Moscow, where he is to begin an extended tour, John meets amateur pianist Nadejka Ivanovna Stepanova. Nadya asks John to visit her village, Tschaikowskoye, during their annual musical festival, which is to be held in a few months. Impressed by Nadya's talent and beauty, John agrees to consider the request, then invites her to dinner. While dining in a traditional Russian restaurant, John accepts Nadya's invitation and suggests that they explore Moscow together. After four days of romantic sightseeing, John, who has dreamed of coming to Russia since he was fourteen, confesses his love to Nadya. The more practical Nadya, however, is unsure of her feelings and describes their relationship as unrealistic and sentimental. John tries to convince Nadya that they can overcome their cultural differences, but she leaves Moscow abruptly and returns to Tschaikowskoye. Determined to win Nadya, John follows her there and, after receiving an affectionate welcome from her father and the rest of the music-loving villagers, proposes to her. Although Nadya admits her love for John, she hesitates to accept his proposal, claiming that she has too many responsibilities to her family and country to become his wife. Finally, however, Nadya relents, and she and John enjoy a lavish, traditional wedding in Tschaikowskoye. Soon after, John resumes his tour, and is a huge success across Russia. When Nadya, who has always worked in the fields of her father's farm as well as at the piano, asks John about her future life in America, he insists that she concentrate on her music. He then suggests that she begin her career by performing with him at his next concert, which is to be broadcast throughout Russia. Though nervous, Nadya plays her Tchaikovsky concerto flawlessly, thrilling her hometown audience. During her performance, however, the Nazis invade Russia, and within moments, the country is plunged into war. Later, in Tschaikowskoye, as Nadya is instructing the local children on the use of Malatov cocktails, her brother-in-law, Boris Bulganov, informs her that the festival has been canceled and the region has been put under martial law. He also tells her that John will not be allowed to enter the region, but when Nadya later calls John, she cannot break the news to him. John soon learns about the situation, after one of his concerts is interrupted by a German bombing raid. John determines to reunite with Nadya, and with help from Hank Higgins, his publicity agent, he secures a pass to a town near Tschaikowskoye. On the way, John's train is bombed, and he and the other survivors seek refuge in the surrounding countryside. Aided by a sympathetic commandant, John reaches Tschaikowskoye, but discovers that it has been destroyed by German bombs. John scours the ruined village in search of Nadya and finally locates her in the fields, where she, Boris and other villagers have gone to set the crops on fire. After they rush into each other's arms, John vows never to leave Nadya again. Moments later, however, Nadya's young nephew Peter, an aspiring conductor, is killed by a German plane, and moved by his loss, John pledges to fight alongside the Russians. Boris convinces John and Nadya that their place is in America, where they can spread the word about Russia's plight. Back in New York, John concludes his remarks and proudly introduces Nadya to America.
John E. Wengraf
Peter Meremblum's California Junior Symphony Orchestra
Moscow Conservatory Orchestra
Remington Olmstead Jr.
Dr. Alexis Kall
General Sam Savitsky
Edward G. Boyle
E. Y. Harburg
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Edwin B. Willis
Song of Russia
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
Song of Russia
This film was the subject of inquiry by the House on House Un-American Activities Committee in October 1947. Testimony as to the distortions of Soviet life presented in the film was provided by Ayn Rand, screen writer and author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Russian born, she left the country in 1926.
The working titles of this film were Russia and Scorched Earth, the latter of which also was the title of Guy Endore, Victor Trivas and Leo Mittler's screen story. Actor Konstantin Shayne's name is misspelled "Konstantine" in the onscreen credits. M-G-M reportedly canvassed radio stations and concert halls to determine which Tchaikovsky (spelled "Tschaikowsky" in the credits) works were the most popular. Excerpts from works by "modern Russian composers," as they are listed in the onscreen credits, are also heard, including "La Grand Paque Russe" by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. A Russian version of the popular song "The Music Goes Round and Round" is performed in part in the film. Although Hollywood Reporter announced that Ralina Zarova, who is listed in the CBCS as a gypsy fortune-teller, was to sing a "number of Soviet melodies" in the picture, she did not perform any songs.
M-G-M publicity material and Hollywood Reporter news items add the following information about the production: Prior to the involvement of credited writers Paul Jarrico and Richard Collins, Ann Louise Strong, David Hertz, Guy Trosper and Michael Blankfort worked on the film's screenplay; their contributions to the completed film, if any, have not been confirmed. Many actresses were considered for the role of "Nadya," including Kathryn Grayson, Hedy Lamarr, Barbara Pearson, Signe Hasso and Donna Reed. In November 1942, Hollywood Reporter reported that Greta Garbo was "a cinch" to star. Walter Pidgeon was first announced as the male lead, and Margaret O'Brien was originally cast as "Stesha." In July 1942, Hollywood Reporter announced that producer Joe Pasternak was negotiating with Arturo Toscanini to conduct Dmitri Shostakovitch's Seventh Symphony in the film.
Although Keenan Wynn was announced as a cast member, he was not seen in the viewed print. Director Gregory Ratoff was reportedly training with Eddie Norton to play a bit role as a fighter and was also to dance a "gezotski" in the film, but his onscreen appearance has not been confirmed. Helen Wey tested for a part in December 1942, Elliott Sullivan tested for the role of "Gen. Philip Golikov" in February 1943, and Jean Rogers tested for a "featured part" in March 1943, but it has not been determined whether any of these actors appeared in the final film. Vladimir Sokoloff replaced Morris Ankrum in the role of "Meschkov" in April 1943. Natalie Nikitin, who plays the mayor's wife in the film, was a well-known Russian soprano. Although a Hollywood Reporter news item announced that the Trianon Trio, former vaudevillians, were to revive their "old act for the camera," their appearance in the completed film has not been confirmed. Michael Chekov and conductor Albert Coates, who appears with the Moscow Conservatory Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, made their screen debuts in the picture. Pianist Ignace Hilsberg recorded music for the film, but it is not known if his performance is heard in the completed film. The following actors were announced as cast members: Margarita de Guirola, Anna Gogol, Harry Hayden, Isabel Randolph, Billy Roy, Gonzales Moniz, Helena Benda, Naomi Scher, Circe Graham and John Bleifer. The participation of these actors in the completed film has not been confirmed, however.
In late March 1943, Marvin Stuart replaced Roland Asher as assistant director when Asher left to join the RAF. Although a snow battle sequence was filmed in the Sierra Mountains in late March 1943, no winter-time scenes were included in the final film. Ratoff reportedly designed white military suits for the scene, and ski experts Eric Lundquist and Nils Larsen were hired to portray skiing Polish soldiers. The crop burning scenes were filmed next to the Rancho Park golf course near Cheviot Hills in Los Angeles. Carmel, CA, was scouted as a possible location in December 1942, but it is not known if any scenes were actually shot there. On June 29, 1943, Ratoff collapsed on the set and Laslo Benedek took over direction for the remainder of principal photography. It is not known who directed the September 1943 retakes. George Boemler was initially listed as the film's editor in Hollywood Reporter news items and production charts, but apparently was replaced by credited editor George Hively.
Hollywood Reporter news items noted that M-G-M rushed to begin production on the film, fearing competition from other studios that were preparing their own "Russian" World War II stories, perhaps in response to the OWI's "United Nations" or "Brothers in Arms" film campaign. According to Hollywood Reporter, the Soviet government, while anxious to support the production of Russian-themed pictures in Hollywood, pressured the studios to strive for authenticity and accuracy in their depiction of Soviet life. The government also threatened to withhold stock footage, backgrounds and research material in the event of any "White or Anti-Soviet Russian" involvement. In October 1942, Ratoff met with the Soviet ambassador in Washington, D.C. to discuss the project. Subsequently, the Russian embassy contributed official Red Army newsreels and Soviet documentaries for use in the film. In late May 1943, in response to complaints from "Washington" that the story was too pro-Stalinist, production shut down for two weeks while the script was overhauled. Writer Boris Ingster was reportedly doing a "polish" job on the film at that time.
Although United Artists released its "Russian" picture, Three Russian Girls, in January 1944, M-G-M touted Song of Russia as the first "A" picture to dramatize the German invasion of Russia. Noting that "this is one of the first criticisms of an American picture ever to come out of Russia," Motion Picture Herald reprinted a November 1944 critique of the picture by Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian. While Khachaturian described the film as "an amazingly daring and praiseworthy piece of work" and applauded Taylor's and Susan Peter's realistic performances, he criticized the "scenes of the tractor ploughing where...both the director and the actress forgot that driving a tractor is hard work." He also questioned some of the music track editing and the absence of modern Russian songs in the score.
Song of Russia was Robert Taylor's last film before entering the Navy. His next screen appearance was in the 1946 M-G-M picture Undercurrent. On May 14, 1947, three years after the film's release, Taylor appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a "friendly witness" and testified that in 1943, an official from the War Production Board came to Los Angeles and, during a meeting with Taylor and M-G-M head Louis B. Mayer, threatened to thwart Taylor's navy commission unless he played in Song of Russia. Although the War Production Board initially denied any involvement in the matter, the above-mentioned official was later identified as Lowell Mellett, the head of the motion picture division of the OWI. Taylor considered the film to be, in his words, "distastefully Communistic" and described it to HUAC as "favoring Russian ideologies, institutions and ways of life over the same things" in America. Mayer, a noted conservative, responded in print to Taylor's testimony by pointing out that the "picture contains no Russian ideology" and that while "it is true, of course, that Russia was our ally in 1943, and that our government was very friendly to the Soviets" that was "not why Song of Russia was made."