Orlova, Liubov (1902–1975)

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Orlova, Liubov (1902–1975)

Russian actress and singer, the most popular Soviet film star of her time, who achieved a status equivalent to that of her contemporaries in Hollywood. Name variations: Liubov'; Lyubov or Lubov Orlova; Luba Orlova. Born Liubov Petrovna Orlova on February 11, 1902, in Zvenigorod (now part of Greater Moscow); died in Moscow on January 26, 1975; interred at Moscow's Novodevichye Cemetery; professionally trained in music and dance; married Grigorii or Gregori Alexandrov.


Order of Lenin (1939); two USSR State Prizes (1941, 1950); honored as a People's Artist of the USSR (1950).

Liubov Orlova, the beloved Russian actress of the Soviet era who reigned for more than four decades as a superstar of the world's first "worker's state," was born in 1902 in Zvenigorod (now part of Greater Moscow) into a family that was anything but proletarian. Her father's family, the Orlovs, was one of the oldest and most distinguished of the Russian Empire, distantly related to the counts Tolstoy. A photograph of Count Leo Tolstoy taken around 1908 at his estate Yasnaya Polyana shows Tolstoy with a pretty little girl on his knee, a girl who would be celebrated as the first star of the Soviet silver screen. Beautiful and talented, Orlova studied music at the Moscow Conservatory (1919–22), and perfected her dancing skills at the choreographic section of Moscow's Theatrical Technicum (1922–25). Starting in 1926, she delighted audiences at Moscow's V.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater with her singing. Over the next years, she would star in many of this theater's productions, including such audience favorites as the operettas La Périchole (Offenbach) and Les Cloches de Corneville (Planquette).

Starting in the early 1930s, Orlova began to appear in Soviet motion pictures. In her first film Petersburg Nights (1933), directed by Gregori Roshal, she made an immediate impact, with her high cheekbones and large, slanting eyes, despite being cast only in a supporting role. In Jazz Comedy (1933), Orlova took a Cinderella role, depicting a housewife who became a stage star. In 1934, she appeared in a film that would change the course of her life when the gifted director Gregori Alexandrov (1903–1983) chose her to star as Aniuta in his Veselye Rebiata (The Happy Guys), released in the United States as Moscow Laughs. Unlike most Soviet films of the period, which were drenched with Marxist propaganda, The Happy Guys was a quick-moving and lighthearted musical comedy that was immensely successful at the box office. Orlova, by then a seasoned singer-actress but still largely unknown, became an overnight national sensation.

By 1936, the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin had turned brutal, as purge trials uncovered "enemies of the people." A knock on the door in the middle of the night meant the dreaded secret police. Yet that same year, Stalin proclaimed that Socialism had been achieved, that the ideal Communist society was on the horizon. A slogan attributed to Stalin, "Life has become better, life has become happier," could be read in the press, heard on the radio, and seen on billboards. It was in this surrealistic atmosphere that Alexandrov began directing another musical comedy, Tsirk (The Circus). The story line was simple but unconventional: Marion Dixon, Orlova's role, was a circus artiste, who had been hounded out of America by a lynch mob because she had given birth to an illegitimate baby whose father was African-American. In flight from her racist tormentors, though still in the U.S., Dixon meets a man named Franz von Kneischitz on a train. This German entrepreneur, who soon becomes Marion's Svengali, is the villain of The Circus. He speaks Russian with a clipped German accent, has a moustache, and parts his hair (like Adolf Hitler) on the right side. Clearly an evil genius, he makes Dixon the star of a circus act called "The Flight to the Moon," in which she is fired from a cannon through a hoop that is turned into a crescent moon.

Soon, Dixon and von Kneischitz are performing in the Soviet Union. The plot is energized when Dixon meets the hero Ivan Martynov, a superb-looking blonde with the sterling character traits to be found among Stalin's New Soviet Man. After many vicissitudes which Soviet film audiences found highly entertaining, love blossoms between Martynov and Dixon. Alexandrov's direction was indebted to Hollywood techniques, and in the film's "Flight to the Moon" sequence, there are echoes of such American films as Gold Diggers as well as the elaborate dance routines of Busby Berkeley. The Circus became an immense hit, not only because of Alexandrov's imaginative directing and Orlova's talents, but also because it featured catchy music by the talented Soviet composer Isaak O. Dunaevskii. Dunaevskii composed an impressive number of hit tunes for the musical comedy films of Alexandrov and Ivan Pyrev, the two unchallenged masters of the genre. The Circus went on to become the greatest box-office success in the history of the Soviet cinema.

The final minutes of The Circus delighted millions of Soviet moviegoers. Von Kneischitz becomes desperate and seizes Marion's precious baby. Shouting "Halt!" in German, in a thick Russian accent he announces to the world her "secret," namely that "she was a Negro's mistress! She has a black child…. This is a racial crime. She has no place in civilized society!" In protest, the circus workers seize the child and begin to sing a lullaby in a variety of languages, first by a Russian woman, then by a Ukrainian man, then by a Tatar, a Georgian, a Jew, and finally by a black. This sequence is meant to sum up, in contrast to racist America and anti-Semitic Nazi Germany, the tolerant, multinational Soviet Union, where racism and national hatreds have been banished. As Marion and her perfect man Martynov begin to sing a popular tune extolling the Soviet Union, the scene changes, transplanting them to Red Square and the annual Soviet May Day parade. Marion marches proudly—an equal among equals in the socialist commonwealth—with her circus colleagues, all of them dressed in spotless white. A nudge and a glance toward the Lenin Mausoleum, and implicitly towards the figure of Stalin, whose iconic image has just been displayed. Dixon's eyes light up with the devotion of a True Believer when she sees Stalin off-screen on the podium.

With the immense success of The Circus, Orlova became a star. Frequently dubbed the "prima donna of Soviet cinema," she was a glamorous figure in a society that continued to glorify proletarian muscle and industrial productivity. Yet, Stalinism was creating a new class of bureaucrats whose privileges allowed them to at least fantasize about the material goods known to exist in the capitalist West. Although her roles were those of "women of the people," Orlova nevertheless reflected a certain amount of elegance and even hinted at sexuality. Film critic Sergei Nikolaevich has written (Ogonek, 1992) that Orlova's film image was one of "the ideal woman of the 1930s, the femina sovietica, a contemporary Valkyrie in a white sweater with a severe perm," a politically pure woman who nonetheless embodied the essences of both Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo .

That the Stalinist Soviet Union had nurtured such a talent was a clear indication that the Soviet system had scored another victory over the decadent West. Stalin remarked to her new husband, director Alexandrov, at a Kremlin reception: "Remember, comrade Aleksandrov! Orlova is our national property." Behind the aura of their professional success, there remained the system of terror created and maintained by Lenin and Stalin. This grim reality impacted even on artists who had created The Circus. Vladimir S. Nil'sen (1906–1942), its chief cinematographer, was arrested at the height of the Great Purge in September 1937 and shot in January 1942. The film's production manager, Zahak Darvetsky, was also arrested. At a time of escalated state terrorism, The Circus would be the first in a trilogy of musical comedy films immensely popular with audiences, along with Volga-Volga and Bright Path. Stalin and his henchmen, writes one critic, "raised the volume on propaganda by recruiting all mass media to the task of maintaining the mythical illusion that life had indeed become brighter and happier."

Despite the appearance of a cultural thaw in the mid-1930s, Stalin never loosened his grip over Soviet cinema and was often referred to as "the Kremlin censor." Reality and illusion blurred in Soviet films, which were philosophically grounded in a theory of "revolutionary Romanticism." Stalin was as much the victim as the perpetrator of these illusions, for his view of the Soviet countryside appears to have been gleaned not from objective data but from the Soviet films he saw.

In 1938, Orlova starred in another Alexandrov-directed musical comedy, Volga-Volga, which became Stalin's favorite film. In it, she is Strelka, a gifted village letter carrier whose simple and melodious songs propel her into the position of a highly popular state-sponsored singer. In 1939, Orlova's character in The Mistake of Kochin the Engineer not only enjoys moments of happiness but also finds death, as the victim of the dark forces still lurking in the Soviet Union. In the 1940 film Bright Path (also known as The Radiant Road but released in the United States in 1942 under the title Tanya), she plays another Cinderella role. In an industrial textile town near Moscow, she is Tanya Morozova, a peasant weaver responsible for 240 looms. Thanks to the quality of her productive labor, Tanya is invited to the Kremlin, where she is given the highest Soviet award, the Order of Lenin. She goes on to study engineering and is one day elected a Deputy to the nation's highest representative assembly, the Supreme Soviet.

After World War II, which brought on staggering Soviet losses (between 20 and 30 million were killed), Orlova appeared in an unusual 1947 film entitled Spring. In her virtuoso performance in a modernized "twins" plot, Orlova plays both the scientist Nikitina and the actress Shatrova, who in turn plays Nikitina. The action of this Alexandrov film, partly filmed in Prague, was built on numerous amusing substitutions. In typical Alexandrov style, the background was thoroughly unrepresentative of the harsh realities of postwar Soviet life, which earned Spring harsh words from some critics who noted in print, "Do Soviet scientists live in such sumptuous mansions and villas?"

Although she was now well into her 40s, Orlova remained very much a star and played the leading role of Janet Sherwood in the film Meeting on the Elbe (1949), a glorification of Stalin to honor the aging dictator's 70th birthday. During this period, Orlova's acting took on a new depth. Critical responses were also

positive when she appeared as Tatiana in Mussorgsky (1950), directed by Gregori Roshal. In 1952, she starred as Ludmilla Glinka, wife of the 19th-century Russian musical pioneer Mikhail Glinka, in the cinematic biography Glinka: Man of Music, a film that—despite Cold War tensions—was praised by The New York Times' critic as one "with a few faults and some virtues of solid gold." Orlova's last important role was in 1960, when she appeared as Varvara Komarova in Russian Memory, a performance that did not disappoint her many millions of fans.

Starting in 1955, Orlova became a permanent member of Moscow's Mossovet Theater, where she appeared in a broad range of roles, including Jessie in Konstantin Simonov's The Russian Question and Mrs. Patrick Campbell in Jerome Kilty's Dear Liar. By now, she had been handed all the major honors that the Soviet Union could bestow on a performing artist. These included the Order of Lenin (awarded to both her and her husband in February 1939), as well state Prizes of the USSR in 1941 and 1950. In 1950, she was proclaimed a People's Artist of the USSR. Orlova died in Moscow on January 26, 1975, and was buried in Moscow's Novodevichye Cemetery. Even now, a generation after her death, her gravesite still draws visitors.


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related media:

Liubov' Orlova (video of Soviet motion picture biography of Orlova), directed by Gregori Alexandrov, San Francisco, CA: Ark's Intervideo.

"Liubov Orlova, Tvorcheskii' Portret: Fragmenty Kinofil'mov (stsenyu iz spektaklei teatra im. Mossoveta)," Melodiia (LP recording issued in 1983).

Tsirk (The Circus, video of 1936 Mosfilm release), Sarasota, FL: Polart, distributed by Chicago, IL: Facets Multi-Media.

Veselye Rebiata (The Happy Guys, video of 1934 Moskovskogo Kinokombinata release), Sarasota, FL: Polart, distributed by Chicago, IL: Facets Multi-Media.

Volga-Volga (video of 1938 Mosfilm release), San Francisco, CA: Ark's Intervideo.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Orlova, Liubov (1902–1975)

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