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We leave for Moscow in 1936 together with the heroes of one of the kindest Soviet comedies and find out why Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov were upset when they saw it.

The film “Circus” has become one of the most beloved films by Grigory Alexandrov. The songs written for him by Isaak Dunaevsky and Vasily Lebedev-Kumach became classics, many phrases – winged (you can still hear them in conversations). It is unlikely that it will ever become outdated, because it is based on a simple story about how good people saved a good person from the captivity of prejudices and false ideas about themselves.

Mary goes to the USSR

1936 year. American actress Marion Dixon (Lyubov Orlova) arrives in Moscow with her circus act “Flight to the Moon from a Cannon”. Together with her came the manager Franz von Kneischitz (Pavel Massalsky) and the little son, the latter secretly: the matter is in the color of the baby’s skin – his dad was African American. In the United States, where racial segregation existed at the legislative level in those years, the presence of a colored child from a white mother was nonsense. Arriving in the USSR, Marion continues to hide her little Jimmy, not knowing that there are no prejudices in Soviet society and this detail of her biography can in no way affect her career. Von Kneischitz takes advantage of her fear – he has long been in love with her and believes that Marion, bound by a secret, will not get away from him. In addition, her performances – before the acrobatic number she still dances and sings the song “Mary Goes to Heaven” – bring good fees, and the insidious manager loves money terribly.

Meanwhile, Ludwig Osipovich, director of the circus in which Marion performs in Moscow, is terribly worried: why such a wonderful number was invented in the USA, and not in the USSR? His subordinates are ordered to catch up and overtake America – and a series of comic situations begins. For the role of “Soviet Marion” they choose the daughter of the director of the circus, a stout beauty Raechka, who loves to eat delicious food more than anything else. Shurik Skameikin, who is in love with Raichka and therefore absent-mindedly, has been entrusted with developing a mechanism that will be able to launch the artist onto the moon hanging on cables more effectively than the American one. And to come up with the whole number entirely – to the director Ivan Petrovich Martynov, who will fall in love with an American guest without memory. Despite these engineering and love difficulties, everything will work out.

And even more: Marion Dixon will get rid of the oppression of von Kneischitz. His attempt to discredit a woman in the eyes of the workers and spectators of the Soviet circus will turn against him – he will be kicked out in disgrace for inertia and chauvinism. “In our country,” the director of the circus to the amazed Marion will say with a smile, “all children are loved. Give birth to your health as much as you want – black, white, red, even blue, even pink with stripes, even gray in the bull’s-eye! You are welcome”. And happy Marion will stay in the USSR to live with her beloved Ivan Petrovich, who really wants to become a stepfather for Jimmy, and make a new act with him – a real flight into the stratosphere.

The real Jimmy

The role of Marion’s son was played by James Lloydovich Patterson – living proof of the words of the director of the circus. His dad was the artist, designer and announcer Lloyd Walton Patterson, who came from the United States to the USSR during the Great Depression and stayed here until the end of his life, and his mother was Soviet theater artist Vera Aralova. The baby got into the film thanks to the friendship of his parents with Grigory Alexandrov and Lyubov Orlova.

Lloyd Patterson arrived in Soviet Russia in 1932 as part of an African American group led by the poet and playwright Langston Hughes. All members of the group did not have the opportunity to work normally in their homeland due to racial prejudices and looked at the USSR as an earthly paradise. Here they were immediately offered a job: to act in the film “Black and White” about racial and class struggle in the state of Alabama, for which the Mezhrabpomfilm studio allocated a large sum. The film was never shot; many of those who arrived quickly became disillusioned with Soviet life and returned back, while others stayed, finding themselves here. Lloyd Patterson was one of the latter: he learned Russian and began working in the theater, and later became the announcer of the All-Union Radio.

With Vera Aralova, they had three sons. The first, James, who played little Jimmy, later became a submarine officer and poet. In the mid-1960s, he entered the A.M. Gorky, since 1967 was a member of the USSR Writers’ Union. In 1994, James emigrated to his father’s homeland, recently he turned 87 years old.

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It all started with Ilf and Petrov

The names of the main domestic satirists of the 1930s, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, cannot be found in the credits of Circus, but it was they who invented the story about the American circus star who found her happiness in the USSR. How did it happen?

Ilf and Petrov, together with their friend and colleague Valentin Kataev, wrote the play Under the Circus Dome in 1934 especially for the Moscow Music Hall. The premiere of a cheerful and kind performance, replete with acrobatic performances, took place on December 23 of the same year. The play “Under the Circus Dome” became a real hit. Among the spectators who applauded him was Grigory Aleksandrov, who at that time himself was bathed in the rays of glory after the recent premiere of “Merry Fellows”. He liked the play very much, and he invited the authors to turn it into a movie script.

Having handed over the text, the writing duo went to the States – their grand tour, which resulted in the book “One-Story America”, lasted from late 1935 to late 1936. “Circus” was released in May 1936. Returning to the USSR and seeing the picture, Ilf and Petrov were upset: in their absence, Aleksandrov heavily edited the script, strengthening the melodramatic line and weakening the satirical one. Whole scenes and even some lines were cut out.

For example, from the story of the trained dog Brunhilde, who can speak three words (“love”, “fir-trees” and “financial inspector”), her subsequent re-education and attempts to change the repertoire to a more ideologically sustained, only a faint trace remained in the film. Von Kneischitz, in the new edition, from a pathological scoundrel who mercilessly beats the intimidated American artist and demands only money from her, has turned into a more complex figure – like Koschey the Immortal, he showered the beauty with expensive jewelry and clothes, but she remains indifferent to him. The name of the main character has also changed – in the script she was Alina. The name Marion Dixon was specially invented – consonant with the name Marlene Dietrich, it was supposed to emphasize the similarity of the two actresses.

As a result, Ilf and Petrov demanded that their names be removed from the credits for the film (without giving up the fees).

Moscow in the film

Having cut out a lot from the original script, Aleksandrov invented a lot himself. For example, a beautiful scene in which Martynov, or Petrovitch, as Marion calls him, teaches a guest the song “My native land is wide.” Spiritual faces are reflected in the polished piano lid – and it becomes obvious to the viewer that Petrovich’s love is mutual. Interesting in this scene is not only this beautiful technique, but also the view of the Kremlin, which opens from the panoramic window behind the backs of the heroes. On the spire of the Spasskaya Tower, instead of a five-pointed star, there is a double-headed eagle. The film was shot in the spring, and in the fall of 1935, the eagles began to be dismantled from the Kremlin towers and replaced with the usual stars.

The scene in the rooftop cafe, in which the insidious von Kneischitz tries to feed Raichka so that she grows fat and rips off the upcoming room, was filmed in an unfinished hotel on Tverskaya (then – Gorky Street). From the table at which the heroes sit, an excellent view of the Bolshoi Theater opens.

In 1935, the Moscow metro opened, and in 1936 the whole country saw it – the film debut of the subway took place in the film “Circus”. One of the comic scenes unfolded at the Okhotny Ryad station – here Shurik Skameikin jumps out of the subway car with Jimmy in his arms. And then the absent-minded designer tries for a long time and in vain to climb up the escalator going down.

The film was created by the innovative cameraman Vladimir Nielsen, who also shot “Merry Children” and “Volga-Volga” by Aleksandrov and “Bezhin Meadow” by Sergei Eisenstein. By the beginning of the filming of “Circus” he had just returned from Hollywood, where he had traveled as part of the Soviet delegation to exchange experience with American colleagues. In Circus, Nielsen and Aleksandrov used many Hollywood tricks, but not everyone was destined to get into the final version of the film. For example, they wanted to complete the picture with a kiss, as was then customary in America, but the kiss was not censored. The “Circus” ends with a parade of athletes – the 1930s in the USSR became the decade of the heyday of sports, in which Marion and Martynov take part.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is a translation. Apologies should the grammar and or sentence structure not be perfect.

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