Russian Folk Tale Double Feature – Sadko / Jack Frost

Aleksandr Ptushko’s Sadko (1953) derives from a popular old bylina (epic poem) believed to be based on the 12th century figure Sotko Sytinich, patron of the Novgorodian Church of Boris and Gleb. The Slavophile revival of the 19th century saw it serve as the basis for a number of retellings, the most relevant here being Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1898 opera, from which the movie’s musical score – and frequent outbursts of song – are taken.

The movie opens with Sadko (Sergei Stolyarov), a travelling gusli player, singing in full operatic mode as his boat pulls into the harbour of Novgorod. Struck by the contrast between the suffering poor and the self-congratulatory rich, he admonishes the wealthy merchants for wasting their lives wallowing in their accumulated fortunes rather than forging trading connections with the wider world which might improve the general circumstances of the citizenry. Unable to convince them to provide him with a ship, his melancholy singing by the shore earns the amorous attentions of the Princess of Lake Ilmen (Ninel Myshkova), the Ocean King’s favourite daughter. Seizing upon her promise that she will help him to catch a golden-finned fish, he convinces the merchants to wager their entire fortunes against his success at such a seemingly impossible task, with his head as the forfeit. After realising that his redistribution of wealth to the people hasn’t completely solved the problem of poverty, he sets out to sail the world in search of the Bird of Happiness (a motivation not present in the opera). Most prominent among his companions are Trifon (Mikhail Troyanovskiy), a clever old man who had been reduced to performing as a jester; Ivashka (Boris Surovtsev), Trifon’s naïve young grandson (also a musician); and Vyashta the Giant (Nadir Malishevsky), the obligatory strongman figure.

In the original opera, Sadko hears the songs of three visiting merchants before deciding that Venice sounds like the most promising destination. Ptushko and his writer Konstantin Isayev have taken the more cinematic option, opening the story up by skipping straight past the merchants to their respective countries. First up are the Vikings, a belligerent bunch who find happiness only in fighting. After a suitable interval for some stirring beach combat scenes, their next destination is India. Hearing rumour of a Bird of Happiness concealed deep within the Maharaja’s palace, Trifon orchestrates a plan combining diplomacy and cunning which allows them entrance to the hidden chamber. The bird turns out to be a Phoenix (Lidiya Vertinskaya), whose song creates a sleepy contentment in the listener – but Sadko’s memory of his languishing love Lyubava (Alla Larionova) allows him to break the spell and they escape. The filmmakers clearly thought that Venice was too pedestrian a destination, substituting it with some stock footage of Egypt before the homesick Sadko decides to return to Novgorod. Beset by stormy seas, Sadko sacrifices himself to meet his obligations to Neptune (Stepan Kayukov) and thus save his crew – but the Princess helps him to escape and they all live happily ever after. Although the moral of the story seems to be that happiness is to be found all around you rather than located in a mythical object, the way it’s phrased in the final scene attempts to make it more about national pride in Mother Russia – almost certainly a sop to the Russian censors.

Aleksandr Ptushko was one of the pioneers of Russian animation and carried that sensibility into his live action films, pulling from a range of techniques to create his fantastical worlds. Evgeniy Svidetelev’s lavish sets are a central part of the film’s visual appeal, especially the imaginatively conceived underwater palace featured at the climax. Lighting, costume and cinematography are all marshalled to great effect, and a lot of effort has gone into the dancing sequences. Particularly successful is the realisation of the Phoenix, a deceptively simple combination of a real woman’s head and a fake bird’s body which nevertheless looks much better than it has any right to (although there’s a singing fish puppet later on which is far less effective).

Ptushko’s films were often ransacked by low budget American filmmakers in the 1960s and this one is no exception. Roger Corman’s Filmgroup, showing a characteristic “respect” for the intelligence of American audiences, stripped it of its original context and sold it to local markets as The Magical Voyage of Sinbad (1962). In doing so they removed most of the songs and some additional material to bring it in under 80 minutes. The characters were renamed, the actors were redubbed and some narration was added to paper over the gaps. This bastardised version may attract some retrospective fascination due to the fact that the rewrites were assigned to a young Francis Ford Coppola, one year before his directorial debut on Dementia 13 (1963) (recently reissued on Blu Ray in a new Director’s Cut).

Aleksandr Rou’s Jack Frost [Morozko] (1964) is more overtly fantastical, but lacks some of the visual flair of its older cousin. Screenwriters Nikolai Erdman & Mikhail Volpin have fleshed out the story considerably beyond the original fairytale, which was collected by Alexander Afanasyev in the 19th century and is far better known to English-speakers than the story of Sadko. It’s based around the classic fairytale family unit of the beautiful and kindly daughter Nastenka (Natalya Sedykh); her loving but spineless father (Pavel Pavlenko); her wicked stepmother (Vera Altayskaya); and her belligerent spoiled stepsister Marfushka (Inna Churikova). Frustrated at Marfushka’s inability to attract a suitor, the wicked stepmother orders her husband to take Nastenka into the winter woods and abandon her to the elements. Happening upon her while he’s doing his wintry rounds, Morozko/Jack Frost (Alexander Khvylya) is charmed by her politeness and takes her into his home before sending her home bedecked with riches. Outraged by her good fortune, the stepmother sends her own daughter into the woods, but her rude and entitled behaviour causes her to be snubbed (although the movie, being far more lighthearted than the original fairytale, doesn’t have her freeze to death).

For the film version, Nastenka’s story has been buried within a larger narrative centring on Ivan (Eduard Izotov), a handsome peasant with great strength who is also a conceited asshole, treating his mother (Zinaida Vorkul) like dirt and constantly looking at his face in a hand mirror while lapping up the attentions of all the women in his village. An encounter with Starichok-Borovichok (Galina Borisova), the elderly Mushroom King, earns him a magic bow and arrow – but his refusal to bow in respect has consequences. After a convenient rocky inscription shows him how to find his destiny, he encounters – and falls in love with – Nastenka, who agrees that he’s handsome but takes issue with his ego. His misguided attempts to impress her by shooting a bear (despite her pleas not to do so) invoke the Mushroom King’s curse and he turns into a bear himself, which he blames on Nastenka. Although the Mushroom King advises Ivan to stop being so self-centred, Ivan doesn’t learn a thing and runs off trying to force good deeds on people so he can break the spell – which, since he looks like a bear, causes them to run away screaming. Eventually breaking the spell but still failing to learn his lesson, he incurs the wrath of Baba Yaga (Georgy Millyar), who puts a spell on Nastenka to get back at him. Ivan’s narrative has clearly been inserted to contrast with Nastenka’s – his self-centred blundering and failure to respect his elders screws everything up, while her kindness and patient forbearance eventually bring about good things. Although Ivan and Nastenka do get their “happily ever after” and Ivan has clearly mellowed somewhat by the end, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that Nastenka will have to exercise a great deal more patient forbearance in order to make him safe to operate in human society.

Like Ptushko, most of Aleksandr Rou’s career was devoted to making children’s fantasy films. Although Jack Frost lacks the sumptuous visuals of Sadko, there are some enjoyable fantastical creations on display – most notably Baba Yaga’s hut (courtesy of production designer Arseni Klopotovsky) and the trees which come to life (costumes designed by Yevgeni Galey). There’s a stronger touch of comedy in the overall production, although it’s not terribly sophisticated. Some of the effects, however, are rather crudely handled and lack the sense of precision Ptushko brought to his work. More jarringly, the dialogue track is severely out of synch with the performers – sometimes lagging several seconds behind the performers, other times starting long before their lips begin to move. Since the print I viewed was based on an official restoration hosted by MUBI, I can only assume this problem was present in the original film, cementing my impression of Rou’s lack of attention to detail.

Although Jack Frost has more to offer on a plot level and features an engaging performance from Natalya Sedykh, the aspects which were less well handled make me disinclined to seek out any more of Rou’s work. In contrast, while Sadko‘s plot and performances sometimes struggled to hold my attention, there’s a far greater degree of craft on display and the visuals are much stronger. I expect I’ll be delving further into Aleksandr Ptushko’s oeuvre when the opportunity arises.

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