Welcome to After the Silents, where I examine the careers of silent era talent in the talkies. This time, I am going to be heading a little further ahead in time than usual in order to talk about one of the cutest comedies ever to be nominated for best picture.
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By the 1960s, over three decades had passed since the start of the sound revolution but there were still silent veterans working in Hollywood, both in front of the camera and behind it. This time around, I am to be covering one of my favorite films from the decade. It also happens to feature the work of cinematographer Joseph Biroc, who got his start in the film labs of Fort Lee, New Jersey back in the 1910s.
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is a Cold War comedy from director Norman Jewison of Moonstruck and In the Heat of the Night fame. It concerns the misadventures of a Russian submarine crew trying to get their sub unstuck from a rock in the waters of New England.
I suppose this is as good a time as any to warn you that you may never be able to take Hunt for the Red October seriously again after seeing this.
The film starts with a bang. Sixties credit sequences were some of the best in the history of film and The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming has a simple but effective animation of the Russian and American flags fighting for prominence while the chorus duels with patriotic music from both nations.
We are immediately introduced to the crew of a Russian naval submarine. The curious captain (Theodore Bikel) wants to get as close as possible to the American coast, much to the horror of sensible Rozanov (Alan Arkin in his starring film role). Sure enough, the sub hits a rock and the Russians are now trapped just off Massachusetts, near a tiny island called Gloucester. As one of the only fluent (ish) English speakers among the crew, Rozanov has to go ashore with some of the sailors and try to obtain a boat that can tow the submarine away from the rock.
Meanwhile, Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) is a playwright who owes his producer the final act of a musical comedy. He’s on vacation on Gloucester Island along with his long-suffering wife, Elspeth (Eva Marie Saint) and kids. His bratty son, Pete (Sheldon Collins), spots a group of Russians lurking around the house.
Rozanov comes to the Whittaker’s door to inquire about a boat. He claims to be a Norwegian engaged in Nato exercises who is in need of a boat. The problem is that what he actually says is that he is a Nor-wee-gun engaged in Nyay-toe exercises who is in need of a bwut. Rozanov’s cover story is quickly blown and he is obliged to take the Whittaker family hostage.
Of course, the joke is that everyone involved is incredibly nice about the whole thing. “There is no necessity howsoever why everybody in such a nice American family should get shot to little pieces.” For their part, the Whittakers don’t see why anyone would be upset about a small mistake in navigation. Surely there will be no trouble if the Russians just come clean and ask for help in towing their submarine.
Subsequent events prove that this view is naïve. The Russians try to stealthily steal their boat but every attempt at discretion causes more chaos and soon the whole island has erupted in panic. The Third World War has started! Gloucester Island is the invasion point! The Russians are parachuting in!
The island is populated by a veritable who’s who of character actors and they ham it up in rare style. Brian Keith (The Parent Trap) plays the long-suffering police chief and the only person on the island who actually manages to keep his head and ask a few sensible questions. He is soon overwhelmed by the zany antics of his jumpy deputy, Jonathan Winters; a sword-wielding armchair general (Paul Ford); the mad, lavender-haired telephone operator (Tessie O’Shea); the Chicken Little postmistress (Doro Merande); and Luther (Ben Blue), the town drunk who means to warn the rest of the island with the film’s titular phrase—once he catches Beatrice the horse, that is.
Meanwhile, the Russian sub’s only other English speaker, Kolchin (John Philip Law), has fallen for the Whittaker’s babysitter (Andrea Dromm, who turned down a role in a little show called Star Trek to be in this film) and half the Russian sailors have gotten themselves lost in their quest for a boat. On top of all that, the high tide has freed the submarine and the captain is ready to get his men back even if he has to blow a few people up to do it.
These antics are interspersed with a male chorus singing Russian songs before switching over to ever more eclectic selections. (I warned you about Hunt for the Red October. Every time the chorus starts up in that film, I am tempted to hum It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.)
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is positively packed with quotable lines:
“Emergency! Everybody to get from street!”
“Well, he’s angry, yes. He says, “you stupid idiot,” he will blow up the town.”
“I wasn’t trying to, well, I was trying to kill you, I’ll admit that, but it wasn’t anything personal.”
“Don’t tell them anything! He hasn’t even tortured you yet!”
“Otherwise there is World War Three, and everybody is blaming you!”
“I congratulate you on extreme genius of this plan.” (spits)
The film also wisely steers clear of politics and it gives both the Russians and the Americans an equal ribbing. The Russians are paranoid and the Americans are given to bellicose and violent declarations of patriotism. The Russians are not obliged to sing the praises of the free market by the film’s end and the Americans do not start to embrace the philosophy of Karl Marx. Instead, the film is about two groups of people who find out that they have a lot more in common than they expected. After the guns get put away, that is.
Alan Arkin hits it out of the park as the sensible, sarcastic Rozanov. He is one of very few actors to be nominated for an Academy Award in his first lead role and the honor was well-deserved. The film was also nominated for best picture but both categories were dominated by A Man for All Seasons. Comedy never could catch a break at the Oscars. Jewison would have better success the following year. In the Heat of the Night and leading man Rod Steiger would both walk away with statuettes. (Don’t even try to argue about them winning over Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, etc. La la la, not listening!) Arkin would have to wait a few decades to claim a win for himself.
(The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming did snap up both Best Comedy and Best Actor at the Golden Globes. This is why I sometimes prefer the Globes to the Oscars. But then again, Pia Zadora. You know, she who will not be named. Hiss!)
The rest of the cast is also a delight, though the romance between Kolchin and Alison the babysitter is a bit of a twee klunker. However, this is a minor quibble in an otherwise uproarious movie.
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming succeeds because it is a comedy with a real heart beating underneath the jokes. The message of the film is ultimately an optimistic one but it doesn’t have the after-school special tone that many of its imitators took on. (I know! Let’s just be friends with the Russians!) It’s a hilarious comedy with some of the finest talent Hollywood had to offer. Come on, do you really need more prodding to see Alan Arkin AND Eva Marie Saint in a movie?
What do Blazing Saddles, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Towering Inferno, Airplane! and Under the Yum Yum Tree all have in common? Joseph Biroc’s cinematography.
Biroc was born in New York City in 1903 and you can probably say that he grew up alongside the movies. He saw his first one in 1910, at the height of the nickelodeon period. Just eight years later, he was hired as a laboratory assistant in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Fort Lee had been the movie capital in the early days of movies but production was steadily moving west. Paramount was one of the few major studios to keep a presence in the New York/New Jersey area and Biroc got his first cameraman job at their Long Island studio.
Finally, Biroc moved west and arrived in Hollywood just in time for sound to take over the industry. He signed on with RKO but never seemed to quite make the impact he needed to rise to the top of his profession. He would have to wait until after the Second World War to get a break. That break was It’s a Wonderful Life. Unfortunately, the film was not a success at the time and Biroc was once again relegated to the minor leagues.
Biroc didn’t give up and continued to work in B films. Another chance came his way when he befriended director Robert Aldrich. The two men meshed well professionally and more prestigious work came Biroc’s way.
What was his style? That’s the difficult bit. “Attempting to pin down a representative Joseph Biroc style would be like trying to confine a kaleidoscope to a single pattern.” His approach has been described as no-nonsense and he was known to emphasize story over style. In short, his style was to subtlety emphasize and support the tale being told without fireworks and gingerbread. That’s certainly the case in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming but there are also some very lovely shots. But, again, subtle.
More than anything, though, Biroc’s story in an inspirational one. It’s all about a kid from New York who fell in love with the movies and never gave up.