"I, a citizen of the Union of the Soviet Socialists and Republics entering the ranks of the Red Army Workers and Peasants, take this oath: I swear to my last breath to be faithful to my Comrades, my Soviet land, my Government of Workers and Peasants. If I violate this solemn oath, may I be struck by the hand of the Soviet law, and by the hatred and contempt of all the Workers! "
The Little Rascovites. Sony Pictures' Choice Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has dug up a real curio here (which is exactly what they should be doing): The Boy from Stalingrad, the obscure 1943 programmer from Columbia Pictures, scripted by Ferdinand Reyher, directed by Sidney Salkow, and starring Bobby Samarzich, Conrad Binyon, Mary Lou Harrington, Scotty Beckett, Steven Muller, Donald Mayo, and John Wengraf. One of a handful of pro-Soviet WWII propaganda movies Hollywood churned out when 'ol "Uncle Joe" Stalin was kissin' cousins to our own Uncle Sam, The Boy from Stalingrad seems designed solely for two purposes, one minor and one major: to scare the bejeezus out of all those spoiled, fat, bourgeoisie capitalist fink American kids riding out WWII in relatively comfort and safety; and, to satisfy and further embolden all those Commie rat bastards and fellow travelers who had already infiltrated the U.S. government, and who were pushing for these movies to be made in the first place. It's grotesquely ludicrous...and therefore by bad movie standards, highly enjoyable. No extras for this solid black and white fullscreen transfer.
The peaceful, pristine, bountiful, wheat-strewn steppes of Mother Russia...just before the Nazi jackals are poised to strike. Young children, including maternal Nadya (Mary Lou Harrington) and commanding Kolya (Bobby Samarzich), are hurriedly harvesting grain before the murderous Huns arrive--except for lazy, decadent "artist" Grisha (Conrad Binyon), that is, who plays his guitar in a wheat stack as he doses ("You'll work!" humorless Kolya thunders
Even though several sources list a May 20th, 1943 release date for The Boy from Stalingrad, I could find no 1943 print reviews for the movie--perhaps explainable by the practice back then of big-city critics often skipping such low-budget programmers like The Boy from Stalingrad--and only one contemporary one, from J. Hoberman (attention cost-conscious Hoberman employers: I'll deliver more than two paragraphs of facile fluff--a review that will give your outraged liberal readers something to really chew on--for 1/20th of his salary). It's not in Maltin, not in Halliwell, not in Scheuer. Of course you can find newer reviews, though, for The Boy from Stalingrad's more infamous Soviet ass-kissing Hollywood entries, like Mission to Moscow, Song of Russia, or Days of Glory. However, unless you want either faint-hearted misdirection (Maltin's review of the dangerously wrong-headed fabrication, Mission to Moscow incredulously reads, "Well done, giving interesting insights to American concepts of USSR at the time,") or the same old hackneyed cliches about "witch-hunts" (Turner Classic Movies's website's review for Counter-Attack has this whopper about the murderous, despotic U.S.S.R., "Anything putting the Soviet Union in a less than negative light was deemed suspicious by the anti-Communist forces at work in American politics in the late 40s and early 50s, especially if it came from people with backgrounds that included left-wing, social activist work,"), you'll be hard-pressed to find reviewers who take these scurrilous propaganda screeds head-on (the day TCM's website features, god-forbid, a conservative critic with an actual point of view who can offer more than this for Days of Glory--"If for no other reason, Days of Glory (1944) is significant as the motion picture debut of Gregory Peck,"--is the day I'll book by skiing holiday in Hell).
But let's face it: after over sixty years, when Democrats and Republicans and even Tea Partiers incorrectly (and unfairly) invoke the humorously-dreaded "m-word"--"McCarthyism"--one discovers once again that a serious discussion about Communist infiltration of the U.S. government from the 1930s to the 1950s--a byproduct of which led directly to pro-Soviet propaganda movies like The Boy from Stalingrad cropping up--is going to go nowhere with most readers who have been "educated" to think no such thing really happened in America (hey, that was me, too...until I had my mind blown by M. Stanton Evans' Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America's Enemies). So...when The Boy from Stalingrad ends with a title card containing a quote from Army Service Forces General Brehon B. Somervell ("I can sum up Russia in one word. It stands for heroism, for supreme self-sacrifice, for devotion, for the most gallant qualities a man can possess. The word is Stalingrad,")--the officer who once said, "I wouldn't know a Red if I saw one, and wouldn't do anything about it if I did." And that quote is naively taken by Hoberman in his review as a sign of red, white and blue approval since the U.S. Office of War Information okayed it, when it's been documented that the OWI was lousy with Commie agents and sympathizers...well, you can see you're going to have an uphill climb attacking these movies and the real reason they were made.
So, forget the motivations and machinations you the reader probably don't buy, anyway, and just look at The Boy from Stalingrad itself. Minus the politics, and only focusing on at its war movie credentials, The Boy from Stalingrad is strictly from hunger. Thinly populated due to the restricted budget (little action until the end, no bodies in the bombed-out village, and just a handful of kids and Nazis), the pint-sized Bolshies spend a lot of time speechifying, and too little screen time fighting their oppressors, until director Sidney Salkow (everything from crap like Sitting Bull to the eerily-effective horror outing, The Last Man on Earth) designs a suitably impressive, gory ending that sees most of the kids getting picked off one by one--with the final, nihilistic result (sans the obligatory patriotic, "never say die" ending) less about the reality of war and more about giving nervous American parents reassurance as to how lucky their little ones are in the safe, isolated U.S. of A. ("You don't like meatless Tuesdays, Jimmy? In Russia you'd have to blow yourself up with a hand grenade!"). Ferdinand Reyher's slow script further fumbles when its dialogue attempts to approximate a Russian stolidness that's laughable coming from the less-than-impressive junior thespians (wait till you hear Samarzich try, "Alright! My family is gone...but Russia isn't!"). When Reyher (working from a story by Robert Arden and Robert Lee Johnson) isn't trying to make us love the little Reds with either flat-footed humor (their wise-guy treatment of the bumbling Nazis) or wretched sentimentality (the abhorrent scene where little Mayo is made to cry over losing his school sketch book), he's trying to convince us these little Stalinist scamps are as American as Dick and Jane (one even sings The Star-Spangled Banner). But we never buy it, with Samarzich's stern, bossy, humorless Kolya an unpleasant Stalin stand-in (Leo Gorcey would have waited 10 seconds and then rapped him one in the mush), and Beckett--the one performer we should easily identify with here, owing to our sentimental attachment to his Our Gang shorts--coming off like a future little NKVD creep, the "commissar" suspiciously, compulsively taking down names in a rat-out book.
The Boy from Stalingrad's real offense, of course, isn't against its genre conventions and expectations--it's against the truth. Would it do any good to list here all the atrocities Stalin and his Soviet Communist regime committed against a vast number of Russians (and Poles, and Czechs, and Estonians, and Finns, and Jews, and so on) prior to 1943, while The Boy from Stalingrad studiously whistles and looks the other way? Even the least politically-minded viewer sitting down in 1943 to watch this clap-trap couldn't have erased the memory of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact that had shocked even the clueless liberals and commies in America), nor Russia's subsequent invasions of Poland, the Baltic, and Finland, nor its "Great Purge" where millions of inhabitants disappeared to become "non-people"...prior to its ham-handed propaganda "rehabilitation" as a friendly Allied partner against the Axis powers. Putting blatant lies about an openly homicidal, psychotically tyrannical regime into the mouths of little children is perverse enough; when Britisher Tommy recounts his engineer father's rapturous vision of a pristine, proletarian Russia where super-dams are "built by the Russian people, by flesh and heart, and will and hope, " the viewer wonders hopelessly if the first draft had read, "built by the oppressed, starved Russian peasants, by clubs and the gun, by torture and the gulag," (the final grotesque irony comes when the children sing a song about the river and dam, Now We Are Free). However, when Reyher has the children spout Commie doctrine verbatim--and remember these kid characters were specifically designed, at the not-so-subtle "request" of a compromised U.S. government, to sell Soviet Russia to the American public like a jingle selling soap--the effect is unintentionally chilling. It's difficult to say which proclamation is the most offensive here; there are quite a few from which to choose (the recitation of the Red Army oath-as-school lesson, quoted at the top of this review, is a good start, or perhaps the short-but-sweet summation of the
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.