Cossacks in Exile (1939) 1:30, give or take
directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
starring Maria Sokil, Michael Shvety, Nicholas Karlash
written by Semen Artemowsky
Ah. My first Ukranian musical. And the first of Ulmer's ethnic movies that I've seen. It's really good. The songs weren't subtitled so I was a tad lost most of the time, but the movie was otherwise very funny.
The plot? Er...let's see... the Zaporogian Cossacks are driven from their ancestral homeland by the Russians, who burn the legendary Ukranian fortress Seetch, banishing their commander to a Siberian monastery. The cossacks settle in Turkey and a jelly-bellied, good-time Ukranian named Karas meets the Turkish sultan, but doesn't know it's the sultan, and in an Arabian-Nights-ish twist, the sultan doesn't tell him but continues to speak with Karas as if he were a common Turk who happens to know somebody in the palace who knows the sultan. Coincidentally, Karas had years before adopted the orphan (named Oxana) of a Ukranian soldier who had sacrificed his own life personally defending the sultan in some war that the Cossacks were allied to the Turks. Karas becomes buddies with the incognito sultan and he, the sultan, decrees taht all cossacks are now free to return to their homeland (a pronouncement I think that should be more appropriately announced by the Russians, unless I missed some untranslatable plot point). The sultan also saves the orphan's boyfriend Andrew from being hung as a spy because of false accusations by a spiteful other suitor of Oxana's. I think Oxana and Andrew get married. I think. I couldn't really tell. The end.
All the scenes are interconnected via these transitional songs sung by this very old bard of some sort, which he does in a MCU that either stands alone or is superimposed over some other image. I personally found that kind of silly but I wonder if Ukranian audiences did at the time. For that matter, I wonder, if there are any people of the Ukraine who still watch this. Most probably not, considering how rare this film is reputed to be.
There's a nifty scene that, for about a minute or so, has color; it's the part where the bastardly Russians are throwing torches and burning down the Seetch fortress, which looks like it was shot night-for-night, lit mostly by the flames. The riders are merely black silhouettes, tossing torches, charging around. The only thing that has color in this scene is the fire, which really does look good, flying with the torches and surrounding the burning buildings in a pretty genuine-looking orange/yellow aura. It supposedly was not genuine color, but was actually hand-painted directly onto the print. Oy vey. That must have been a colossal pain in the ass.
It was also supposedly shot entirely in Newton, New Jersey. >Well, it would have been pretty easy to guess that Ulmer wasn't going to be filming on location in the Turkish countryside, but still--it looks fine. I wouldn't have stood up in the theater and shouted 'Hey! That's fucking New Jersey!' It looked acceptably authentic to me.
The movie also contains some lovely Ulmer-trademark mise-en-scene. There's a dance sequence at the beginning that's shot in LS and from above, like at a very high 45 degree angle to the action, and the frame is composed with these vertical and diagonal wooden posts, alternated with horizontal ones, in the foreground.
And another nice singing scene between Karas and his wife, having a spat in LS, is foregrounded with this foliage sticking up vertically all over the place, dividing the couple on screen. Ulmer later cuts away to a CU of two ducks facing each other cutely.
It's adapted from a Ukranian operetta by 'ol Semen A. But operatic origins and the subject of strife aside, the movie has quite a bouncy, buoyant tone. Karas can be really funny, as when, after visiting the sultan, he comes home in the middle of the night and his wife starts to bitch at him. He just sighs and gets up out of bed, dressing to leave.
'Where are you going?' asks his wife.
'To the mosque,' he replies.
'Are you drunk?' she asks.
'No. Our religion forbids drinking.'
'Our religion?' she asks incredulously.
'I'm a muslim now,' he says. 'I'm going to the mosque to pray.'
That looks totally dead on the page. Perhaps you have to hear it in its context for it to be properly funny.
Karas is just a really silly character, yet the only one you're really allowed to get to know, this plump, hard-drinking Eastern European who really fits everything I always considered to be a stereotype of Russians. Kinda reminded me of Alex Tsap's dad, only a lot more good-natured and not as creepy.