Those of us who are Baby Boomers are possibly acquainted with Russian animation without knowing it. Those elaborate, sober, drowsy cartoons with stereotyped casts of sly wolves and foxes, vulnerable bunny rabbits, and the wisdom spouting, patriarchal bears presiding over the proceedings were visible in kids’ TV packages such as BOZO’S STORYBOOK, THE NUTTY SQUIRRELS and CAPT’N SAILORBIRD. By then the films had been stripped of their original soundtracks and offensively narrated, often robbing the cartoons of their original meaning. Sometimes, this was intentional.
Many of these cartoons had been produced during and after World War II by Soyuzmultfilm, the largest and most prestigious Soviet animation studio. Animation had by then been affected by the elected, official art style, “Socialist Realism”. Traces of abstraction were sacrificed for an idealized literalism. Fewer American influences were to distract the people from their duties as good Soviet citizens.
The 1920s saw Soviet animation begin in a flush of youthful enthusiasm. Lenin had declared, “Of all the arts, for us, the cinema is the most important.” Avant garde artists and their students rallied to the exciting new call. A media deluge flowed forth to spread the gospels of socialism; ‘Agitprop’ (‘Agitation Propaganda’) trains toured remote areas with the message. Animation was still untrod territory. Many of the art’s notables got their starts working on such landmark productions as 1924’s SOVIET TOYS (the first Soviet animated reel), CHINA IN FLAMES (also 1924, often cited as the first full-length cartoon, in fact a visual lecture running just over half an hour), and 1929’s INTERPLANETARY REVOLUTION, possibly the first credible science fiction animation. These films were made in an amateurish fashion by co-operatives; a number of teams created their segments independently, then edited them together into a confused whole. It wasn’t until Disney scored world wide success with his SILLY SYMPHONIES that countries got interested in industrializing the art form.Stalin opened Soyuzmultfilm in 1936 as Soyuzdetmultfilm. From the start, the studio’s mission was to produce animation comparable to the best of US product. It may seem incredible in today’s ‘global economy’, in which it doesn’t matter where the work is done, as long as it’s cheap, nations wanted to establish their identities. They wanted to be able to point with pride, and say, “Here’s OUR Disney.”
In its early years, the studio went through a period of searching, creating cartoons in various styles for general audiences. Some films were hardcore propaganda; others were without overt (but often with covert) political intent. A quantity of high comedies were introduced, transparently inspired not only by Disney, but the cartoons of the more slapstick US studios, most apparently Max Fleischer’s.
By 1939, the scope of influence had narrowed to the literalism of Disney’s features. With exceptions rarely seen stateside, animation was confined to entertainment for youngsters, rendered in what the filmmakers termed “Éclair style”; lavish, richly colored, heavily rotoscoped, and lethargically paced. Thanks to YouTube, a great many of these movies are available for viewing, and for free. It is a shame so many of them qualify for The Most Boring Films on Earth.
In this article, we will focus on the 1936-38 period. Ten years later, the artists probably thought smugly, “We’re past all that”, but I find films at this experimental stage most fascinating. The fun years.
THE RETURNED SUN (1936)
Made in the studio’s first year of production, this film concentrates on the folklore genre that became almost mandatory in a few years. At this early point, there is an exhilarating newness. It’s a real eye dazzler. The technique is early and inconsistent. The sumptuous use of ‘cycles’ (repeated movements), judiciously used here, was soon rejected, most likely being perceived as an unworthy trick. After 1939, even pan ‘cycles’ of characters running were eliminated, giving the animation a flaccid quality that became a trademark. What is not understood in those cartoons (as well as in Eastern animation made for modern day US programming) is that intelligently used ‘cycles’ serve as a rhythmic base as well as a footage eater. As a commenter on YouTube notes, it can make a sequence of animated spectacle even more appreciable.
Director Olga Khodatayeva (1894-1968) had worked in animation since 1924. Thanks to its boldly graphic approach and fearless scenes of difficult motion as well as a fine score, her cartoon covers new grounds one is tempted to say American studios had yet to explore.
HOW THE RHINOCEROS GOT HIS SKIN (1938)
Pilfering a sweetmeat costs a hippo six minutes of fairly vicious retribution in this Rudyard Kipling parody. Free from concerns about foreign copyrights, Russian creators felt free to adapt any Western story they chose, which explains their series of Winnie the Pooh films. This is done in an amusing comic strip style, expertly synchronized to a jazz-tinged score.
The director is Vladimir Grigorevich Suteev (1903-1993), regarded as the founder of the Soviet cartoon, and internationally loved as a children’s book creator. He worked on CHINA IN FLAMES, and was the creator of Russia’s first sound cartoon (1931).
Our last two films reflect the Soviet state’s deep confusion regarding its policy on popular music. Jazz was periodically demonized as an undesirable symbol of the decadent West, yet many of the proletariat welcomed it as a cathartic and liberating experience. Was art really serving the people? While the jazz debate wobbled with Stalin’s whims, there were windows of time in which jazz was safe to celebrate, and the two conflicting sides allowed to be heard, even from within the same studio.
THE PUBLIC’S FAVORITE (1937)
Itinerant musicians pollute the air with their foreign sounds, until it is made clear that the only music the people want to hear is their own (a plot used postwar as well). Though the story makes no bones about its cultural stance, it is filmed in a delicious, unpredictable rubberhose style by accomplished artists still toying with the methods of Western-style animation. The studio’s early penchant for tracking shots and other camera magic is much in evidence.
Director Alexander Ivanov (born 1899), “Patriarch of Soviet Animation”, was involved in the making of SOVIET TOYS in 1924, and stayed productive in animation and political cartooning until his death in 1959.
A NOISY VOYAGE (1938)
Jazz is personified by an ever-smiling frog (resembling Froggy the Gremlin) who brightens the days of overworked sailors, and is challenged by the wicked skipper striving to silence him.
Could it be significant that this is another piece by the director of the free and funny HOW THE RHINOCEROS GOT HIS SKIN, Vladimir Grigorevich Suteev? From the Popeye-like skipper to the jazz that startlingly saves the day, the film betrays a fondness for Western cultures that would soon be suppressed.