Saturday, July 9, 2011

THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN: A CONELRAD APPRECIATION

“Unquestionably the most absurd motion picture of the year is ‘The Girl in the Kremlin’ which opened yesterday at the RKO – Golden Gate.”

-- The San Francisco Chronicle, April 25, 1957

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STALIN’S FETISH REVEALED!

The Albert Zugsmith-produced / Russell Birdwell-directed THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN (1957) is a fascinating and bizarre entry in the hopelessly broad genre of Cold War film (and any category of motion picture study that can accommodate both FAIL-SAFE and KREMLIN must be considered, if nothing else, diverse). The film, originally titled STALIN IS ALIVE! and then THE PRIVATE SECRET DIARY OF JOSEPH STALIN and finally THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN, is a speculative grade Z thriller that is still considerably more accomplished (and plausible) than its nearest cinematic cousin, THEY’VE SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN (1963). Instead of HITLER’s disembodied and garrulous head, the gimmick manufactured for KREMLIN was for the Russian dictator to fake his own death and to mask his identity through reconstructive facial surgery. The film’s other show-stopper was Stalin’s alleged hair-shaving fetish: The film includes two “shocking” female baldness stunts – including six minutes of the actress Natalia Daryll having her luxurious locks shorn for the titular dictator’s barely contained pleasure.

Did Stalin really have such a follicle fixation? Director Russell Birdwell, a legendary and flamboyant Hollywood publicity man whose sporadic filmmaking career was slight (KREMLIN was the last of the five minor films he directed), stated to a reporter before KREMLIN’s release that head-shaving “was one of Stalin’s methods of punishing Kremlin girls who stepped out of line.” What was Birdwell’s source for this odd, apparently new piece of historical information? The “studio research department,” revealed the journalist in his article. CONELRAD could find no corroborating citations for this important dramatic and promotional aspect of the film, so we contacted the respected Stalin scholar Simon Sebag Montefiore and asked him whether there is any truth to the supposed kink of the Russian dictator. “It is total nonsense,” was his succinct reply.

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THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN was produced over ten days in February of 1957 with a final budget of $287,300 (Ms. Daryll received $285 for her acting role plus a bonus of $300 for having her head shaved) and was first released in San Francisco on April 24, 1957, in Los Angeles on May 1st and in New York on May 21st. In its initial run, KREMLIN shared the bill with the science fiction movie THE DEADLY MANTIS making for one of the most awkward Cold War double features ever (it is probably fair to say that most people showed up at theaters for the giant bug and not the wooden Stalin).

The movie opens with a group of young women being led into an ornate room by Russian soldiers. In perfect English, an attractive blonde woman tells one of the soldiers to take his hands off her “sister.” The blonde’s blouse is ripped and her face is slapped, but she remains unbowed. Soon Stalin walks in and inspects the assembled women. He is played by character actor Maurice Manson as a pipe-smoking perv. Stalin chooses the blonde’s unlikely sister (Natalia Daryll as Dasha) for the afternoon’s head-shaving entertainment: “Igor, this one,” he orders.

Ms. Daryll-as-Dasha is immediately placed in a chair while Stalin tries to make uneasy small talk (“Where are you from? What kind of work do you do? Where are your parents?) while the “stylists” prepare for their mission. After Dasha responds “Siberia” to the last of the dictator’s queries, he says the following to the two white-suited minions: “Proceed” and then to Dasha: “This will make your punishment complete.”

For approximately the next five minutes the barbers toil away at Dasha’s thick mane of dark hair while Stalin and his henchmen witness the event in hushed silence. Stalin’s excitation by the forced shearing is telegraphed to the audience by his intense pipe puffing. As Dasha’s pate becomes increasingly denuded, the editing cuts in the film become more rapid and close-ups of the witnesses become tighter. Finally, Dasha is completely bald and the barbers and witnesses have exited. Stalin cautiously approaches the seemingly broken woman. As he gingerly reaches his hand out to touch her head, Dasha recoils and looks up at the startled dictator in defiance. Thus concludes one of the strangest sequences ever committed to film by a major Hollywood studio. Three decades later Demi Moore would—for a significantly higher salary—shave her own head in the far less interesting G.I. JANE.

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TOTAL STALIN MAKEOVER

With the exploitation showpiece of the film out of the way, the actual plot gets underway with an almost Vaudevillian scene in which Stalin consults with his plastic surgeon. With a set-up and a line that would make veteran comedy writers green with envy, the doctor casually informs the dictator that “The mustache will have to come off.” But, on the plus side, the surgeon adds, “The cheeks will be higher, we will change the brow and the skin will be tighter, of course.” What’s not to like? After the successful surgery the doctor is shot for his trouble. His nurse Greta Grisenko (Zsa Zsa Gabor in one of two roles), however, is kept on because, as we will discover, she has a special relationship with Stalin.

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As a bandaged Stalin (looking like the Invisible Man) and his historically accurate KGB chief Laventi Beria (played by Zugsmith regular Aram Katcher) look out the window at mourners in Red Square, Beria informs his leader that “You died a few hours ago of a stroke.” Actually, it was an unfortunate Stalin double who gave his life for the cause.

THE TWO ZSA ZSAs

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The extreme weirdness of the opening of THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN gives way to a slightly more traditional spy story. It seems that Stalin’s nurse, Greta Grisenko, has a twin sister, Lili (also played by Zsa Zsa Gabor), who is in West Berlin looking for her. Dressed in a black ensemble, complete with beret, Lili (sounding to the modern viewer like Ariana Huffington) explains the convoluted situation to the reluctant, square-jawed hero Steve Anderson (played by five-term Tarzan, Lex Barker) in this round of expository dialogue:

LILI: Is my sister dead?

ANDERSON: No such luck. Get this straight, Ms. Grisenko, when I take a case, I expect the client to level with me. You told me your sister was American, but didn’t tell me she worked for the big boys in the Kremlin.

LILI: Look Mr. Anderson, I came all the way from the States to find my sister. I heard about your reputation from the O.S.S. and everything. That’s why I came to you. What did you find out?

ANDERSON: You won’t like it.

In the next scene Anderson and Lili are conducting further plot advancement in the hideout of one-armed espionage agent Mischa Rimilkin (played by Jeffrey Stone). There they conclude, through some tortured logic, that Lili’s twin sister (who was kidnapped by the Russians in their childhood home of Lithuania) is Stalin’s plastic surgery nurse. And this connection leads to Rimilkin’s dramatic declaration: “Somewhere beyond Russia, Stalin is alive.”

Rather than dive straight into the hunt for the dictator-in-hiding, the filmmakers treat the viewer to some more ludicrous dialogue that reinforces the Anderson character’s roguish quality. It is excursions like these that help the film achieve its barely feature-length running time of 81 minutes. In this scene Lili and Anderson bicker at a sidewalk café. He has just informed Lili that he is in Berlin on another job – helping a U.S. congresswoman investigate vice.

LILI: What about my sister?

ANDERSON: I told you, that’s down Mischa’s alley, not mine. He’s got ideals, I’m just out to make a buck.

LILI: Look, I have all the respect for Mischa’s ideals, but he’s trying to find Stalin and I’m trying to find my sister. That’s why I need you.

ANDERSON: A nice, innocent job like this could get me plugged in the gut. No thanks. Anyway, after Mamboing with my congresswoman all night, my feet hurt.

JACOB STALIN’S BLUES

Lili, Anderson and Mischa hatch a preposterous plan to draw the made-over Stalin out into the open with publicity about his faked death. At least one radio announcer is eager to spread (and ridicule) the word:

NEWS ANNOUNCER: …Something really incredible. An item out of our scrapbook about it: A young American investigator, Steve Anderson, claims to have stumbled upon information that Joseph Stalin, late dictator of the Soviet Union, is still alive. How’s that for a laugh?

Of course, Stalin and his minions happen to be listening to the broadcast in their lair and they immediately launch into action. An angry Stalin, his face obscured by the back of his chair, issues his orders to the henchman Igor Smetka: “Now we must move before they do. You will go there now. The American knows too much.”

Smetka, eager to curry favor with his displeased leader, demonstrates the weapon he intends to use against their new enemies – a rifle disguised as an umbrella – on some stock footage of a flock of birds. Stalin is apparently unimpressed, but then the chair makes it hard to tell for sure.

Meanwhile, Anderson and Lili pose as newlyweds (ironic because both Barker and Gabor had had three marriages by the time KREMLIN was shot) on a mission to Abensburg, Germany that Mischa implausibly accompanies them on. This set-up invariably leads to some sexually charged banter when Anderson and Lili are alone in their hotel suite:

LILI: If you look away, I’m going to prepare myself for bed.

ANDERSON: Promises, promises.

Lili is seen in silhouette behind a dressing screen as she changes into a nightgown. When she emerges from behind the screen, Anderson remarks appreciatively: “You are on your honeymoon, aren’t you?”

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It is on their trip to Abensburg that Anderson and Lili, through Mischa’s underground intelligence tips, meet with Jacob Stalin at an old inn. The younger Stalin character is historically accurate in that he did exist and he was captured by the Germans during World War II. However, most everything else about him was invented for the movie. Jacob Stalin is played with brooding recrimination by the character actor William Schallert (most famous for playing Patty Duke’s father on The Patty Duke Show and the bureaucrat Nilz Barris in the famous Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles”). Mr. Schallert, an Albert Zugsmith regular if ever there was one, explained the circumstance that led to his miscasting in KREMLIN to CONELRAD back in 2001 when we interviewed him for a special feature for the INVASION, USA DVD:

Zugsmith became convinced that I could do anything. He said he used to cast films – when he was getting ready to cast – he’d look and if there was a part he didn’t know how to cast he’d give it to me. So that was very flattering. I got some weird things that happened as a result of that.

Jacob Stalin provides one of the clues that lead our heroes to his estranged father’s hiding place: “If my father is alive look for him where the sun is warm. He’s an old man, bones cold.” Before they leave, however, Jacob offers the following overwrought caution that is framed awkwardly from a lit fireplace presumably to add a flourish to the foreboding:

We have a proverb in Georgia – ‘Georgians never die.’ But if my father is alive, he means to stay alive. If your story is true and my father learns of it, you know he will stop you, he will kill you. I am his son and I know that one more crime against God and man means nothing to him.

THE BRUTAL INQUISITION OF THE LASH

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Through a lot of machinations including torturing (to death) the would-be assassin Igor Smetka, Anderson and Mischa learn that Stalin and his entourage are hiding out in the mountains of Greece. The heroic duo (The trio lost a member when Zsa Zsa was kidnapped by Stalin’s gang earlier) is soon sipping drinks at a bistro in the land of ouzo. There they are conveniently told by the eccentric café owner, Count Molda, that a mysterious group had seized a local monastery years before. Moments after his revelation, the eye-patched Count chortles to himself as Anderson and Mischa speed off to the monastery.

Needless to say, the heroes are quickly captured by Stalin’s goons once they breach the lair. Anderson is immediately subjected to a merciless flogging by Smetka’s enthusiastic widow, Olga (ably assisted by CONELRAD favorite Phillipa Fallon as Nina). While Anderson is being whipped within an inch of his life, Lily – in an adjacent cell – is visited by her wayward sister, Greta. It is clear their reunion is doomed when the wild-eyed Greta states “I have no sister… I have no sister, I have no memory. I only have my mission…” A hilarious catfight between the two Zsa Zsas ensues (with Natalia Daryll acting as body double for the non-close-ups) until Lili rips Greta’s headscarf off to reveal her chrome dome (which appears to be a skin cap). After a lingering stare-down in which Greta appears to be quite proud of her bald pate, she closes the cell door and leaves her sister to rot.

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Before Olga and Nina can return to work their tortuous charms on Mischa, he uses his prosthetic limb as a club to overpower a guard. The heroes rescue the strung-up Lili just as she is about to be flogged by Olga.

“THIS IS A FAMILY MATTER”

The reunited trio escapes long enough to stumble upon and burn stacks of Stalin’s plundered cash. But after Mischa is gunned down and Anderson and Lili are brought before Count Molda who orders their death, Jacob Stalin emerges from the shadows with a gun. Molda exclaims: “Jacob?” and, indeed, Molda is revealed to be the cosmetically altered Stalin (Molda is also played by Maurce Manson). It is now obvious why the dictator had his plastic surgeon shot.

What would this movie be without a father-son reunion? When Anderson asks Jacob what he intends to do now that he has a revolver trained on his father, he responds with the preposterous line: “What I have to do, Mr. Anderson. This is a family matter.”

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Ignoring his father’s pleas, Jacob orders him into a car and they leave the monastery with Anderson and Lili following close behind. As Jacob maneuvers the speeding vehicle around the mountainous curves in the road, the Stalins have that family chat they were always meaning to have. The situation and dialogue is so breathtakingly absurd, CONELRAD presents it here verbatim:

JOSEPH STALIN (Pleading): We may have had our differences, but we’re still father and son.

JACOB STALIN (Disgusted): Father and son. It is over.

JOSEPH STALIN: What do you mean? What’s wrong with you?

JACOB STALIN: I know you father. Some people might think you’re just an old man, a harmless political exile like (INAUDIBLE). But I know you. You have killed and killed, your wife – my mother and if you’re not stopped, you’ll go on killing. You’re not a man, you’re a machine for killing. Well, the killing’s almost over.

JOSEPH STALIN: Jacob, you’re crazy!

JACOB STALIN: You could die unpunished, you know? Who is there to bring a charge against you? Who is there to speak for the millions that you have killed?

JOSEPH STALIN: Stop the car!

JACOB STALIN: Ten million murdered. Russians cry out for justice!

At this point as the car is swerving, Stalin finds a gun in his son’s coat pocket. He retrieves it undetected by Jacob.

JACOB (CONT’D): You will never kill anyone else!

Stalin shoots his son and they then both struggle for the gun as the car swerves wildly. The vehicle goes off an embankment and crashes down a hill bursting into flames (of course).

All that is left to round out this profoundly ridiculous film is final closure for the viewer (Jacob got his, why not us?). When a grizzled townsperson walks up to Anderson and Lili who are looking down upon the wreckage of the automobile and asks what has happened, Anderson says gravely, “The devil has just gone back to hell.” The confused townsperson accepts the explanation and shambles off. Anderson and Lili begin to walk away, too, but they pause to embrace in front of a sign that reads: “Whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

While the Stalins remained dead on-screen and off, Lex Barker went on to have a successful career in Europe – even earning a small role in the Fellini classic LA DOLCE VITA (1960). Zsa Zsa Gabor went on to fulfill her KREMLIN promise in THE QUEEN OF OUTERSPACE (1958) and other B-films, but mostly she has remained famous for her multiple marriages (she has been married nine times – beating Lex Barker by four spouses, but, to be fair, he died in 1973) and her 1989 arrest for slapping a police officer in Beverly Hills. Natalia Daryll, the young actress who had her head shaved for the film, brought CONELRAD up to date on her entire life and career in an exclusive interview.

The reviews for THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN were mostly cruel and dismissive when it opened across the country in April and May of 1957 (see examples under Review Excerpts below). Some reviewers recognized the fantastic strangeness of the movie, but the full oddity of the picture is perhaps best appreciated from a post-Cold War vantage point. The exploitative dementia of the promotional campaign for KREMLIN is almost as intriguing as the movie itself and CONELRAD has excerpted some of the highlights for your reading pleasure. It is a pity that Universal Studios has chosen to keep this bizarre gem locked away in their vaults. Perhaps someday a deluxe, special edition DVD will be released. In the meantime, we can only hope that a speculative bin Laden-is-still-alive movie gets the green light.

RESEARCH NOTES

CONELRAD researched the production history of THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN at the University of Southern California Cinematic Arts Library. USC archivist Ned Comstock was extremely helpful in organizing a research visit for CONELRAD’s Bill Geerhart to study the production file. All production information (budget, production timeline, salaries) cited in the above article is derived from the studio file maintained by the library.

Director Russell Birdwell promoted his film (then titled THE SECRET DIARY OF JOSEPH STALIN) for journalist Neil Rau while it was still in production. Rau’s puff piece (“Stalin’s Shady Life”) that contained Birdwell’s unchallenged assertion that Stalin used head-shaving as a punishment technique appeared in the March 3, 1957 edition of the Los Angeles Examiner.

The Joseph Stalin scholar Simon Sebag Montefiore offered CONELRAD his terse dismissal of the alleged punitive head-shaving practice favored by the dictator (“It is total nonsense”) in a June 6, 2008 e-mail to CONELRAD’s Bill Geerhart.

For more on the historical record of Jacob Stalin, see The Rise and Fall of Stalin by Robert Payne; Simon & Schuster, New York, 1965 (pages 99-100). Jacob Stalin’s capture by German forces during World War II was also reported contemporaneously in newspapers including the Moberly Monitor-Index on July 24, 1941: “Stalin’s Son Reported Captured” (front page).

William Schallert’s comments regarding his professional relationship with producer Albert Zugsmith come from an April 1, 2001 interview conducted by Bill Geerhart that was subsequently used in the Special Features on the INVASION, USA DVD released by Synapse Films in 2002.

Natalia Daryll revealed her role as Zsa Zsa Gabor’s body double in her June 12, 2008 interview with CONELRAD’s Bill Geerhart.

REVIEW EXCERPTS

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The following are extended review excerpts for THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN:

“Unquestionably the most absurd motion picture of the year is ‘The Girl in the Kremlin’ which opened yesterday at the RKO – Golden Gate.”

-- The San Francisco Chronicle, April 25, 1957 (pg. 23); Review by Paine Knickerbocker

“Along with the Stalin death gimmick, the Albert Zugsmith production tosses in several others for the fast sell. Not the least of these is the head-shaving gimmick trick which could make the femmes cringe as they watch attractive Natalia Daryll bare her noggin under Red razors. Some should be encouraged, however, because she remains attractive, even with bare pate, thanks to feminine face and a generous supply of curves.”

“The screenplay by Gene L. Coon and Robert Hill from a story by Harry Ruskin and DeWitt Bodeen is more often than not illogical, with the hokum laid on thick.”

-- Variety, April 24, 1957; Review by Brog.

“If Joe Stalin didn’t die, Girl in the Kremlin should”

“The Girl in the Kremlin is a picture that should turn you red – with embarrassment.”

On the second half of the bill, Stalin the monster gives way to a different kind of monster – a huge, prehistoric insect shaken free from its polar prison by an earthquake. This is ‘The Deadly Mantis.’

-- The Los Angeles Examiner, May 2, 1957; Review by S.A. Desick

“The Girl in the Kremlin is one of those ‘What if…’ stories and as such it provides entertainment and stimulation beyond what is so often offered. It is novel and it is fresh. Granted it is fantastic, but it is still interesting.”

“The site of Miss Gabor with a head as nude as a baby’selbow is among the picture’s more startling sights.”

“Maurice Manson is a remarkably good Stalin…”

-- Hollywood Reporter, April 19, 1957; Review by James Powers

“On the face of it The Girl in the Kremlin doesn’t amount to much. However, it is predicted that John Q. Public won’t miss the lack of logic or the presence of heavy hokum in this exhibit. But he will be interested, in a macabre sort of way, in the side issues. Two gimmicks that J.Q.P. will goggle over are the plastic surgery bit and Stalin’s feminine head-shaving fetish. Pretty Natalia Daryll is the victim of the latter, emerging in her horrific scene with a completely bald pate. It’s a tragic, somewhat repellent sequence, yet people laughed in at least one theater yesterday.”

-- Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1957; Review by John L. Scott

Unfortunately, it appears that Pravda never reviewed THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN…

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THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN (1957)
Universal-International Pictures, Co. Inc.
Directed by Russell Birdwell
Produced by Albert Zugsmith
Written by Gene L. Coon and Robert Hill
From a story by DeWitt Bodeen and Harry Ruskin
Starring: Lex Barker; Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jeffrey Stone, Maurice Manson, Aram Katcher with Natalia Daryll and Phillipa Fallon
Running Time: 81 min.
Widescreen Ratio: 1.85:1
Home Video Availability: Unreleased

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