“History is thorough and passes through many stages while bearing an ancient form to its grave.” So wrote Karl Marx in 1843, as he reflected on the collapse of Germany’s old regime whilst looking toward a revolutionary horizon. “The last phase of a world-historical form,” he adds, “is its comedy.” According to Marx, comedy has revolutionary value in that it allows us to part happily with the superannuated ways of the past. Laughter, in this context, signals progress toward communism, the social form Marx projected as a final successor to all historical phases. We can trace several moments when filmic comedy and scenes of laughter make good on Marx’s thesis, aiding the transition to communism.
Directed by Lev Kuleshov, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) was the first official comedy produced in the USSR. In it, John West travels to the socialist state to spread the idea of the YMCA. Upon arrival, his briefcase is stolen and he falls in with a group of counter-revolutionary thieves, including a run-down countess. The countess is played by Kuleshov’s muse, the gloriously weird-looking Aleksandra Khokhlov, who embodies the grotesque decadence of the old aristocracy. Her laughter is emblematic of this superannuated class, which the Bolsheviks had sought to extirpate, taking form as a toothy cackle.
The General Line (1929) is Sergei Eisenstein’s hymn to rural agriculture and, with its superabundance of smutty overtones, is about as close to an all-out comedy as he ever completed. This film is best known for the infamous “creamer scene,” in which a farming cooperative receives a mechanical separator. The scene ends when a geyser of cream surges forth and the villagers laugh joyously with the collective mirth of a machine-age money-shot. The comedic achievement of this scene is that it registers collectivization via the seminal production of a ludicrously phallic machine. The scene is crudely funny in its overblown sexuality and the peasant actors all seem to know as much; their laughter is confirmation.
Directed by Eisenstein’s former assistant, Grigori Aleksandrov—one of Stalin’s favorite filmmakers—Jolly Fellows (1934) is a musical comedy about a herdsman who is mistaken for an international concert star and who subsequently acquires fame as the leader of a jazz band. While there is room for an interpretation that this film uses the integrated musicianship of a jazz band to allegorize the functioning of a planned economy, the film itself barely encourages such a reading, and instead keeps matters very light and outwardly apolitical, injecting a romantic comedy with some genuinely funny moments of slapstick—for instance, satisfying a collective desire to witness a man play a piano using another man’s face. Boris Shumyatsky defended the film in these terms: “In this country, comedy, apart from its task of exposure, has another more important and responsible task: the creation of a cheerful and joyful spectacle.”
While Charlie Chaplin’s films had always been preoccupied with economic injustice, it was during the 1930s that social indictment found its affirmative form in communism. This is manifest nowhere more potently than in a scene from Modern Times (1936), Chaplin’s satire of industrial capitalism and its attended disenfranchisement, in which the Tramp finds himself accidentally leading a communist rally through the streets of industrial exurbia. When a red flag falls from back of a flatbed truck, the Tramp tries to signal the oblivious driver, waving the mast as he ambles toward the camera. Little does he realize that turning the corner behind him is an army of unemployed workers, all carrying signs and placards of their own, who together march onward with the Tramp as their leader.
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch—who honeymooned to Moscow in 1936—the truly wonderful Ninotchka (1939) is about a Soviet attaché played by Greta Garbo, sent to collect three errant and incompetent Bolsheviks from Paris. It includes one of the most celebrated laughs in all of film history, when her famously impassive “face of the century” erupts into brilliant and beautiful hilarity. She chooses to eat alone at a workers’ café, but is cornered there by the film’s male lead, a bottom-rung aristocrat turned swindling businessman. Soon his chair collapses, and he falls backward and lands flat on his rear. The shot cuts to nearby workers, all roaring with laughter, and then back to Garbo’s character, framed in medium close-up as she too laughs, uproariously and inelegantly, banging her fists on the table.
In 1947, Chaplin was investigated on suspicion of being a communist and was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The final film for which he received both starring and directing credits was A King in New York (1957), and with it Chaplin excoriates the anti-communist paranoia of McCarthyism. King Igor Shahdov, played by Chaplin, arrives in New York City having been ousted from his native home in the generically European nation of “Estrovia.” Despite Shadhov’s hopes of using atomic power to “revolutionize modern life and bring about a utopia undreamed of,” which makes the cause of his exile seem like a reactionary coup against a leftist politician, he is forced to sell himself on the market as an actor for garish television commercials. The narrative culmination of this film’s comedy, when Shahdov blasts the HUAC committee with a high-pressure fire hose, can be read as Chaplin’s considered and deeply satisfying response to his own treatment a decade earlier.
Featured image credit: Empty theatre photo by Julien Andrieux. Public domain via Unsplash.
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