Friday, June 19, 2009

The Silly Meme / Day 6: The Russians Are Coming (1966)

The filmmakers who made The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966-Norman Jewison, dir.)never let real life Cold War paranoia get in the way of their humorous take on this tense period of international relations, (has there ever been a time since the Age of Exploration when it hasn't been tense?). The story, based on a Nathaniel Benchley novel, features the reaction of an island community off the coast of New England after the accidental grounding of a Russian submarine under the command of Theodore Bikel. The submariners are not trying to start WWIII, but looking for a few boats or equipment to haul outta there--pronto, before anyone notices their hapless presence.

As you can see from the extremely amusing parody interview below done with Yuri Rozanov (Alan Arkin, in a masterful, comic role) for the trailer for this movie, the mock seriousness is all on a human scale, done with a gentle humor that was sorely needed at the time. As a little kid back then, I can tell you that this movie did change the way many Americans regarded the Russians, especially when played by the gorgeous (sorry boys, but he was) John Phillip Law and deft Alan Arkin. Just the way that Arkin says "very nice boy" as he scratches at the suspicious child's face behind the screen door of the parent's house, makes me grin. The viewer knows that we shouldn't like these interlopers, but they are so obviously poor con men and lost souls, it is difficult to work ourselves into a high dudgeon. Besides, the people on screen are doing that nicely for us.

Jody Whittaker, of television's Family Affair program with Brian Keith) provides the cute kid of the piece, though I really prefer the annoying junior patriot who plays the bored offspring of Eva Marie Saint and Carl Reiner, one Sheldon Golomb, (who later changed his name to Collins and is now a dentist! Bright lad!). In the movie, he is so appalled that his parents allow some foreign looking, non-English speaking strangers into their home, he winds up expressing every son's inevitable disgust with his sire when he cries out to his nervously cooperative father: "Don't tell them anything! He hasn't even tortured you yet!"

There are several reasons to smile here. Several of those reasons are named Paul Ford, from the "shoot first, think later" school of patriotism, Jonathan Winters, as a cop in a sleepy town who's been waiting for this all this life, even if it dawns on him rather late, that "We have... GOT... to get organized!" Other comic delights here are character actors Ben Blue, Doro Merande, Tessie O'Shea, and Parker Fennelly. These actors are particularly funny if you have spent much time in New England, as each of them catches a particularly insular accent and attitude that still amusing those of us who love the region and have lived there. Appreciating their craftsmanship and ability to milk yuks from human situations only requires eyesight and insight.

Carl Reiner and Brian Keith, as the more or less straight men in the cast, are also extremely funny. A noticable young man, Michael J. Pollard, who would have deserved attention for his roles in Bonnie and Clyde and other popular films of the '60s (and who is trying to keep the art of character acting alive and well to this day), also pops up in this movie in an uncredited bit.

This movie, along with Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) are among the films my family perennially turned to for Fourth of July fare. Perhaps you might get a kick out of it too, since it is broadcast periodically and is out on a very reasonably priced DVD.

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