Revolutionaries, Princes, and Cossacks, oh my!
Our story starts and ends with the Balalaika Cafe–a place full of music and gaiety. The movie is full of music, certainly shades of gaiety, but doesn’t quite capture the complexities and the intrigue of the political goings on.
Full disclosure up front: Ilona Massey bores me to tears. I don’t find her a particularly good vocalist and her acting leaves me cold. Her character should hold on to her cause. Instead she just lets it go, even when her brother dies at the hand of the Cossacks. Nelson Eddy, on the other hand, is one of my favorite singers and personalities on film. This also causes problems, because I really don’t like Nelson Eddy’s character at all. I feel his Prince Karagin has few to no redeeming values. The plot skims the surface of the political issues of the time–a delicate balance indeed, but it would have made the film a lot richer to have kept the plot of the stage version where there was a little more substance.
For those who can take Eddy in their stride or leave him astride his faithful Cossack pony, “Balalaika” will prove to be a pretty dull operetta.
– Wood Soames, Oakland Tribune, December 28, 1939
Indeed, as a Nelson Eddy fan, the Nelson Eddy songs are rousing and since it’s the most positive aspect of the film, I have to place my focus on the music. The film opens with “Ride Cossack ride” a marching song typical of most Nelson Eddy opening scenes (Naughty Marietta, Rose-Marie, Rosalie, and Girl of the Golden West just to start). This is followed directly by “At the Balalaika” and then an Ilona Massey solo. Lets just skip that.
Eddy delivers a powerful version of “The Song of the Volga Boatman” at the residence of Lydia Pavlovna (Ilona Massey). First on his own without music and then he is accompanied by the piano and then several instruments until the music swells with the voices of several men in the room along with Eddy’s voice. It ends with a soft violin and then Eddy finishes the note. It’s a beautiful piece of work. Eddy has rarely sounded better. The recording should be my ringtone.
Then we’re taken to the opera house where the duo takes us through pieces of “Carmen.” We skip over Ilona to Eddy’s rendition of “The Toreador Song,” which in all ways is perfect. The scene plays out beautifully until Ilona comes back into full frame.
We get a long break from the vocals. Secret identities are unveiled. All the manipulation from Eddy’s character comes to a climax. Lydia’s ties to the revolutionaries quickly come into play and she tries to warn the Prince of what is to come.
We then find Lydia at the opera. Thus, we shall skip that part. Emotions are heightened. Lydia suddenly has convictions, but she doesn’t display them simply because she believes them, she does so out of shame and for a little bit of show. And so we find our characters at war.
It’s Christmastime, the Prince is still pining for Lydia. To complete a touching scene, fraught with happy and sad old memories of the Balalaika, the Prince sings “Silent Night” along with the Germans they’re at war with in a moment of unity.
The war ends and the nobility has been successfully thrown out of power. Nelson Eddy sings a reprise of “At the Balalaika.” Then finally we have one more number that has always, always disturbed me. I shall say no more or I’ll spoil the ending, suffice it to say what is reflected and illuminated is not well reflected or illuminated.
A film with great music, but definitely not among my favorites (who’d of thunk it?).