It’s December now, and with the holidays upon us, it’s time to look at a movie that fits within the season! So, for today, we’re looking at the 1939 musical Balalaika starring Nelson Eddy and Ilona Massey!
Coming Up Shorts! with… Arbor Day (1936)
(available on Blu-ray as part of The Little Rascals: The ClassicFlix Restorations, Volume 5 (1935-1936) from ClassicFlix)
(Length: 17 minutes, 39 seconds)
It’s Arbor Day, and the school is putting on a pageant featuring all the kids, which is something that Spanky (George McFarland) wants to avoid. He is caught by the truant officer, along with a pair of midgets from a nearby circus mistaken as kids. This one was, at best, average. My big complaint is how much of the short was taken up by the Arbor Day pageant, with mostly forgettable music (aside from Alfalfa memorably “singing” the poem “Trees”) and dancing. Spanky attempting to play hooky was funny (but not long enough). I was also amused by the antics of the two midgets as they tried to escape their manager, and then later when they tried to perform in the pageant (which they had been dragged to). Plain and simple, this one wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t leave me with a desire to see it again, either.
And Now For The Main Feature…
It’s 1914. The Russian Cossack Guards have just come back from maneuvers, and want to stop at the Cafe Balalaika for wine, music and women. Cafe singer Lydia Pavlovna Marakova (Ilona Massey) quickly catches their eye, and she is ordered to come have a drink with them. Unbeknownst to any of the Cossacks, Lydia and her family are a part of a group of revolutionaries, so, in spite of being blackmailed to go to them by the cafe owner, she finds a way to get out of there in a hurry. She doesn’t meet one of the leaders of the Cossacks, Prince Peter Karagin (Nelson Eddy), but he sees her as she leaves and is impressed. He quickly finds out that she has a thing for students, so he goes undercover as a student named “Peter Illyich Teranda” in order to catch her eye. Due to his singing ability, he is accepted by Lydia’s musician father and brother (although they don’t trust him enough to tell him of their revolutionary activities). When Peter learns of Lydia’s desire to sing in the opera, he gets her an audition with the opera’s director, Ivan Danchenoff (Frank Morgan). Danchenoff is impressed with her ability, and, pressed by Peter, gives her a spot in the opera. Things are starting to look up for them, but Lydia’s brother starts speaking out in a public square. In all that mess, the Cossack guards (including Peter) arrive to break up the gathering (trampling Lydia’s brother in the process). Lydia and Peter see each other in all that mess, and she refuses to see him again. On one of his attempts to see her, he announces that he will be resigning from the Cossacks, which gives her mixed feelings. On the one hand, she’s glad to hear it, but on the other hand, some of her associates had made plans to assassinate Peter and his father, General Karagin (C. Aubrey Smith), at the opening of the opera. Without telling him the real reason why, Lydia convinces Peter to stay away from the opening (and get his father to not come, either). However, Peter’s father does indeed go to the opera, as does Peter, who comes to deliver a message to his father. Before the assassins can do anything, the general announces to everyone in the opera that Germany had declared war on Russia. His announcement leads Lydia’s father to reconsider their plan, but his associate still manages to get a shot off before they are caught (but he only wounds the general). Once the Cossacks learn that Lydia’s father was one of the attempted assassins, she is quickly arrested. Before he goes off to war, Peter manages to get Lydia freed, but she has a hard time of it. In between the war keeping them apart and the brewing revolution, will Peter and Lydia ever get back together, or will they be separated by distance and ideology?
Balalaika was based on a 1936 London stage musical of the same name by Eric Maschwitz, with music by George Posford and Bernard Grun. MGM bought the rights, but it took them nearly two years before production actually started on the film. The studio had hoped to have Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy star in the film together, but the two stars had been demanding solo films. So, Nelson Eddy got Balalaika, with the song “At The Balalaika” being the only one retained from the show, while music director Herbert Stothart adapted other music for the film. With Jeanette MacDonald out of the picture, the role of the leading lady was offered to Miliza Korjus, but she believed it to be a joke (thinking that Jeanette would be teamed with Nelson again) and turned it down. So, the role was given to Ilona Massey (who had worked with Nelson, albeit in a supporting role, in Rosalie two years earlier, and would work with him again for 1947’s Northwest Outpost, his final film).
I first saw this movie just about a decade ago, and I’ve seen it numerous times since (otherwise translated, I like this movie). Nelson Eddy was the reason I first tried the movie, and remains one of the reasons that I like this film as well as I do. As usual, he’s in fine voice and has a few relatively fun tunes in the way of “At the Balalaika” and “Ride, Cossack, Ride.” But the songs that really stick out in my mind (and make the movie memorable) are him singing “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” (“El Ukhnem”), and singing the German version of “Silent Night” (“Stille Nacht”). The latter song is done during a scene that takes place on the battlefield during the Russian Christmas (this is why I like to watch the movie at this time of the year), with it reminding me strongly of the famous Christmas Truce Of 1914 (even though this scene takes place three years later), as the Austrians (who had already celebrated their Christmas) start singing “Silent Night” to celebrate the Russian Christmas, with Nelson Eddy joining in.
Nelson Eddy is hardly the only reason I like this film. Ilona Massey is very good as his leading lady, with a beautiful voice. I think they have fairly good chemistry (admittedly, it’s hard not to compare her against Jeanette MacDonald, whose chemistry with Nelson was on a whole different level, but she’s not terrible, either). Frank Morgan is good here, too (if a little underutilized) as an opera impresario who is at first put upon by members of the Russian nobility in terms of who he has to cast in the opera, and then again at the end of the film (SPOILER) when he works as a doorman in Paris (END SPOILER). Overall, it’s Charlie Ruggles as Peter’s (Nelson Eddy) Cossack servant who manages to create a strong (and humorous) impression throughout the entire film, while winning our affections. This is not a perfect film by any means, with only a handful of memorable musical moments and (as I mentioned) some cast members being underutilized, plus it’s hard to feel much sympathy for either the Russian nobility (at least, not until the last few scenes of the movie) or the revolutionaries. Still, it’s one I like to watch (especially around Christmastime to hear Nelson singing the German version of “Silent Night”), so I would certainly recommend giving it a chance!
This movie is available on DVD from Warner Archive Collection.
Film Length: 1 hour, 42 minutes
My Rating: 9/10
List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections
The Girl Of The Golden West (1938) – Nelson Eddy – The Chocolate Soldier (1941)
Ilona Massey – International Lady (1941)
Bringing Up Baby (1938) – Charles Ruggles – It Happened On Fifth Avenue (1947)
Naughty Marietta (1935) – Frank Morgan – The Shop Around The Corner (1940)
Ninotchka (1939) – George Tobias – Music In My Heart (1940)
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