BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Black in the USSR
16th October 2014
During my recent trip to Moscow I had the chance to see the famous Soviet film Tsirk / Circus (1936) for the first time. The film is reputed to have been one of Stalin’s favourites. The director, Grigori Aleksandrov, billed the film as an ‘eccentric comedy … a real side-splitter’ and it does indeed have some comic moments, including a pastiche of Charlie Chaplin. The film propelled Lyubova Orlova even further into the limelight (and she is shot out of a canon in the film itself!), making her the first true ‘star’ of Soviet cinema.
The plot revolves around the hostility directed at American vaudeville dancer Marion Dixon (played by Orlova) because she has a black baby. In the opening scenes, set in America, she is seen being chased by a hostile crowd onto a train and then the camera turns to focus on a swaddled infant. In Moscow, she attracts the attention of the local circus director who is impressed by her circus and performance skills. Her German manager, however, has other ideas. On the brink of making a deal with the Soviet circus director, Dixon’s manager produces the black child as an attempt to shame and embarrass her in front of the circus audience. Contrary to his expectations, however, the child is lovingly passed around the audience as they all sing a lullaby.
The child was played by Jim Patterson, the three-year-old baby son of budding actor Lloyd Patterson, an African American immigrant to the Soviet Union, and Ukrainian theatre designer and artist Vera Aralova. Lloyd died in 1942 as a result of injuries suffered during the war-time bombing of Moscow. Jim went on to have a prestigious career with the Black Sea Fleet in the Soviet navy in the 1950s. He turned his hand to writing poetry in the 1960s and was admitted to the Union of Writers in 1967. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jim and his mother emigrated to the United States. Following the death of his mother in 2001 and now suffering some ill-health, Jim is reported to be leading a rather reclusive life in Washington. In a recent report to the Russian press, Jim noted that he had never intended to leave Russia for ever, but it looks unlikely that he will return.