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Savant was there in a planning meeting back in 1978 for 1941, when Steven Spielberg announced that his new crazy comedy epic was going to be just like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming, onlyÉ better. Spielberg blended the basic theme of one film with the anarchic chaos of the other, but his picture didn't cohere as well as either of them. From a book by Nathaniel Benchley, the Mirisch Company and young Canadian Jewison concocted this sweet & silly comedy to tease the Cold War headlines of the times. The idea of nuclear Armageddon was finally taking a prominent place on the editorial pages, thanks to shows like Dr. Strangelove. 1
Jewison surprised everyone with what was basically a family sitcom enlarged to accommodate the issue: if the Russians landed today, how would your neighborhood go nuts? The formula has its good and bad sides, and survivalist hard-cases won't like its pacifist message... sometimes the show plays like "Dick Van Dyke Meets the Russkies".
The show starts on a beautiful morning on the beach (not that beach). Just after the tourist season on Massachusetts' tiny Gloucester island, vacationing musical comedy writer Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) and his wife Elspeth (Eva Marie Saint) awaken to find a shore party of Russians on their doorstep: the sailors' submarine has innocently run aground and they need a boat big enough to pull it free. Officer in charge Lieutenant Rozanov (Alan Arkin) tries to keep things under control but panicked islanders jump to conclusions and spread the notion that a full-scale invasion is underway. Police Chief Link Mattocks (Brian Keith) can't keep the lid on, with loose cannons like pompous citizen Fendall Hawkins (Paul Ford) and his own skittish deputy Norman Jones (Jonathan Winters) agitating the already panicked crowd. The overreaction may actually cause a tragedy, as Rozanov's scared crew, especially boyish seaman Alexi Kolchin (John Phillip Law) are carrying real machine guns.
There was a time in the 'sixties when some kinds of liberal optimism went unopposed. The Russians are Coming's immediate tension rises from the realization that America and Russia aren't at war, even though political and economic competition had both populations convinced that they were. The film's timing was perfect. Released just before the big Vietnam callout and several years before the Pueblo incident, Russians envisions a simpler world where a cute-looking (!) Soviet sub snooping off Cape Cod would have a doltish commander, no electronic surveillance equipment, and only one crewman with any knowledge of English. Technically, it's as stacked a deck as 1940's 49th Parallel, Michael Powell's tale of an equally diminutive Nazi sub (even old submarines were rather large ships) whose crew murder and Heil a bloody path across Canada.
But Americans, as ever, were emotionally ready only for a fairy tale version of the Cold War. Well-intentioned but grim nuclear misery pictures like Ladybug Ladybug sank like a trace. The Russians Are Coming X2 enlisted gentle humor and satire to point out just how insulated, isolationist, and paranoid we had become. In the Whittaker vacation cabin, father's masculinity is under attack. Walt's bloodthirsty son Pete (Sheldon Golomb), a product of our Gunsmoke culture, is impatient for the shooting to start. 2 The Whittaker family can sense that the Russian sailors are basically just trying to get the hell out of Gloucester without starting WW3, but they're too conditioned by anti-Soviet hysteria to keep their grip.
The townies behave with remarkable restraint, considering this is a 'wacky' comedy. Those that receive the exaggerated news of invaders falling from the skies pack up and run, or converge on the town with shotguns in hand. A vigilante army operates more like a lynch mob, led by a leader who fetishizes a memorial sword just like the lynch-happy General in The Ox-Bow Incident). The crowd then fans out to engage the enemy. Had this angry mob with shotguns and pitchforks run into any unidentified foreigners, the show could have become a tragedy.
Most of the many characters in are fairly loveable; the only exceptions are the grating Paul Ford, and a running gag with old-time comedian Ben Blue, which just seems tedious now. We root for Jonathan Winters to get a part as good (or better) than the truck driver-fool he played in Kramer's Mad World, but his deputy is given the same note of incompetent enthusiasm throughout. The epic-scaled picture contrasts the guns 'n' pitchforks hysteria in town with two fresh-faced kids babysitting on the beach and falling in love. Andrea Dromm is perfect as the Whittaker's babysitter, and John Phillip Law is remarkably effective as the coltish, innocent Soviet sailor Kolchin, who grins like a dope while scarfing down decadent American chocolate cake and milk. Law handles Kolchin's limited vocabulary as if he had to be taught his part phonetically. Producers rushed to sign the handsome actor, not realizing how just limited of an actor he was.
Although Reiner is a predictable okay guy and Brian Keith does his wincing 'I'm surrounded by idiots' act well, the movie belongs 100% to Alan Arkin, whose Lieutenant Rozanov is one of the most adorable characters ever in a comedy. Rozanov's sane everyman knows darn well that eight Russians off a stranded boat asking for help had better come armed. He has to threaten people but it's obvious every step of the way that he's doing it completely out of fearful necessity. Arkin's improvisatory ability to play verbal games with his 'Russian' comedy impersonation goes way beyond previous American specialists, such as Bill Dana with his thin Jose Jimenez. In truth, Peter Sellers' inconsistent (and demeaning) French and Indian stereotypes are pretty dreadful. Hailed as a possible new Alec Guinness, Arkin was for a few years exploited in whimsical ethnic roles, even replacing Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. He never established a major star persona of his own, preferring to come back every few years with a new knockout feature performance.
Here, Arkin is great fun to watch, whether reacting with sullen frustration to bad news, or excitedly coaching his (not too clownish) gang to chant, "Emergency Emergency. Everyone to get from street."
Screenwriter William Rose's credentials were rock solid, what with having his name on the classic The Ladykillers. He's also credited -- how coincidental! - with the screenplay for Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Russians doesn't achieve Mad's hit & miss anarchy, but we like its consistent characters as well as its simplistic happy ending.
Rose and Jewison play fast and slippery with the sentimental climax. The rush to save an endangered child provides an easy escape from a particularly impossible plot trap. Russians and Yankees are muzzle-to-muzzle in a nervy standoff, and suddenly unite together in a common cause. It works because it's what we didn't know we wanted to see -- a moment of hostility suddenly transformed into the best of all possible pacifist fairy tales. Cornball, yes, but it's also Billy Wilder's 'situation hopeless -- but not serious' that delivers positive vibes into what could have been a limp noodle of an ending. A narrative trick that rarely works, can sometimes be made to shine. Well, at least the audience I saw it with liked it. How many movies do you want to see where little kids get trapped in refrigerators?
Norman Jewison's direction is assured, even if many of the ensemble scenes now seem drawn out or overplayed. Johnny Mandel's score alternatres riffs reminiscent of Bernstein's The Great Escape with dueling Russian/Yankee Doodle motifs too nicely modulated to become obnoxious. The cast gives us plenty of fun faces, including an unbilled pre- Bonnie & Clyde Michael J. Pollard and Phillip Coolidge from The Tingler. One of Arkin's shore party is played by the notorious, ill-fated Milos Milos, of Leslie Stevens' Incubus. Tessie O'Shea is cute as the telephone operator, but the wonderful-ah Doro Merande steals-ah the show-ah, as a woman who gets gagged and hung up on a coat rack. 3
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming is a handsome encoding of this attractive widescreen picture filmed not back East but mostly on the Northern coast of California. Joe Biroc's hazy beaches look great behind Alan Arkin's shore party as it makes its way across the island like a pack of thieves. Never blown up to 70mm, Russians looks more impressive than some so-called epics. A long-ago (2002) DVD looked okay, but the show really blooms in HD.
KL's extras are repeated from the DVD. A making-of docu centers on an interview with director Norman Jewison, who lends the show some needed political context and comments on its reception in Moscow. Jewison looks and speaks a lot like Steven Spielberg, except that he's more convincing when he becomes emotional about the impact of his movie.
For the trailer, Alan Arkin and Carl Reiner do a classy standup comedy riff, in which straight man Reiner interviews Arkin's hilarious Rozanov character. For the record, Arkin says that 23,000 Americans visited Russia in 1964, when almost no Russians visited America. 4
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The Russians' vacation house and garage setup with an enemy submarine parked offshore, were lifted intact for 1941. Both movies stage somewhat similar scenes with people hiding in the garages! A nostalgic desire to return to a crazy WW2 world of propaganda and panic, 1941 had a solid simple script by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale that ran away with itself. In all the up-sizing, expanded subplots and multiplied explosions, its modest satire was lost entirely; with the panicked citizenry of Los Angeles bearing no relation to human beings, let alone the soldiers, zoot-suiters and Dagwood Bumstead- like citizens of the original. If Russians had been released a year later, with 500,000 American boys in Vietnam, its public reception might have been much different. 1941 thought of itself as Animal House with explosions; it premiered in 1979 immediately after the American Embassy was seized in Teheran. In addition to dunning the movie for not being funny, many reviews lambasted Spielberg for having the gall to make light of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Making movies on topical subjects is a risky business.
2. Sheldon Golomb (Collins) played the same rotten kid character as a waspish little Judas a couple of years later in The President's Analyst. Politically, Theodore J. Flicker's flip spy satire now seems as prophetic as Network.
3. Doro Merande's vocal comedy style-um must be heard to be believed. She plays a nudism-loving health food restaurant waitress in The Seven Year Itch, and has a terrific, hilarious scene almost all to herself in Kiss Me, Stupid. There Merande sits on her porch swing, a sour harridan (called Godzilla by her husband) haranguing poor daughter Felicia Farr.
4. For those that prefer a shockingly violent movie about 'cute' villagers resisting invasion, see the marvelous 1943 Ealing Studios drama Went the Day Well? Nazi parachutists take a tiny English hamlet by stealth, and hold it until young boys and old ladies lead the bloody fight to take it back.
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T'was Ever Thus.